By Jason Keidel
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For the last three months, we’ve honored the 1996 Yankees with endless interviews, anecdotes, and memories, a 90-day preamble to the real thing at Yankee Stadium this weekend.
But perhaps the most endearing part of that ball club doesn’t fit within the four walls of a page.
That championship season was as unexpected as it was endearing, as diverse as the city it represented, a gift basket of baseball misfits, retreads, and blooming stars.
The best part of the 1996 club was there was something for everyone, from the kid who needed a reason to root for the Yanks to those of us who suffered those solemn summers between 1979 and 1994, only to have our hearts broken by labor strife and then by Ken Griffey Jr. as he galloped around third base in the ’95 playoffs, sending the Bombers home early for the 17th straight season.
The ’96 team was 92-70, hardly the mark of a budding dynasty. The Yankees didn’t lead the league in runs, home runs, or batting average. But they led the sport in intangibles, in people with something to prove, from the roster to the owner who was banned a few years earlier, to the manager, a native New Yorker recently branded “Clueless Joe.”
While the neophyte “Core Four” was making its name, the team was largely run by imports, from the two castoffs who flanked Derek Jeter — Wade Boggs and Mariano Duncan. Yankee lifer Bernie Williams was bookended by Paul O’Neill in right and a platoon of Gerald Williams, Tim Raines, Ruben Sierra, and Darryl Strawberry.
Perhaps the first sign the season was enchanted came on May 9, when Doc Gooden — heretofore known as the greatest Mets pitcher not named Tom Seaver — tossed a no-hitter, something that had eluded the entire Mets franchise.
And perhaps the sign that a title was ordained was Jeffrey Maier’s scoop from over the right-field wall, snagging Jeter’s fly ball in the playoffs against the Orioles. Clearly fan interference. Clearly not called. Clearly in the stars.
Then there was the collective drubbing the Yanks took in the first two games of the World Series — at home — at the hands of the Atlanta Braves. Joe Torre sarcastically asserted to George Steinbrenner that his squad would blow the first two then win the next four. Which is precisely what happened.
While steroids were consuming the sport, the Bronx Bombers didn’t have one slugger hit 30 homers, swimming against the PED current with pitching and clutch hitting. And intangibles. They weren’t great at anything, but they were good at just about everything.
Maybe the lone regret for the Yankees fan was the fact that Don Mattingly couldn’t squeeze one more season out of his balky back to bag the ring he surely deserved.
But it’s hard to think of anyone who came closer to Donnie Baseball’s blue-collar ethic and head-down humility than Tino Martinez, who replaced a legend under white-hot scrutiny.
How fitting that perhaps the least heralded starter on the club, current manager Joe Girardi, hit the most famous triple in team history, sealing Game 6 and the world championship, off the most dominant pitcher in the sport, Greg Maddux.
Just as fitting was who caught the last out. Not the future face of the franchise (Jeter), the iconic Met (Strawberry) or their stalwart center fielder (Williams), but rather Charlie Hayes, who switched teams 10 times over his career.
The Yankees would soon mature into a juggernaut. Mariano Rivera would become the relief pitcher nonpareil. Jeter would become Jeter. Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada would become Bronx monoliths. But the ’96 Yankees didn’t have the most impressive team photo. They were just a quirky group that led the world in chemistry, in things that don’t appear in box scores.
When you ask most high-orbit athletes with multiple rings which was the sweetest, they almost always tell you the first. So it was with us who bled, sobbed, or sweated with the Yankees through the forlorn ’80s, who needed a reason to believe again.
The 1996 Yankees gave us that and more, with some stars, a bunch of castoffs, and a few misfits. All of them with something to prove.
Born before social media, there was ample room to still live within the mythology, to project qualities as wide as our imagination. Between the bottleneck of years and our growing sense of nostalgia, the ’96 Yankees have assumed epic contours.
Were they a great team? The answer to that depends on your definition.
If you mean some good, scrappy guys who played over their heads when it mattered most, then these Yankees were a juggernaut.
For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel