By Sweeny Murti
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“At least we didn’t get swept.”
Jim Leyritz remembers saying that out loud when the Yankees’ sixth-inning rally in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series still left them trailing 6-3, only nine outs away from going down three games to one to the Atlanta Braves.
The Yankees had missed their biggest chance, he thought. It seemed inevitable, to Leyritz and perhaps most others, that the Braves were on their way to winning a second straight championship.
Two innings later, Leyritz changed Yankees’ fortunes and pinstriped history with one swing, a game-tying, three-run home run off Braves closer Mark Wohlers. The Bombers would go on to win the game in extra innings, tying the series.
The momentum of that one swing helped catapult the Yankees to the series victory in six games. What led up to that moment and all that followed are now part of pinstripe lore, the key moment that snatched the trophy out of Atlanta and brought it to New York to begin a dynasty.
As the series began, it looked like the Braves were the ones building the dynasty. The defending champs were playing in the Fall Classic for the fourth time in five years (minus the strike-killed Series of 1994). And they won the first two games easily in New York, blasting the Yankees 12-1 and 4-0 behind future Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Greg Maddux.
The Yankees won Game 3, 5-2, behind David Cone and Bernie Williams. As they prepared for Game 4, Joe Torre used some bulletin board material to get his team thinking about winning just one of the next two and moving the series back to New York.
“He pulled out this article,” Leyritz remembered. “The Braves were saying they didn’t want to go back. They hated the fans; they couldn’t stand it. They were just so happy to be out of there and were going to win this thing at home and not have to go back to New York.”
The message to the Yankees was simple, Leyritz said.
“We don’t have to win both. We get back to New York we can win this thing.”
New York’s Game 4 starter, Kenny Rogers, didn’t get the message, however. He was knocked out in the third inning, and as Brian Boehringer and David Weathers tried to hold things together, the Yankees found themselves behind 6-0 after five innings.
In the sixth, the Yankees rallied. Three singles, a walk, and an error made it 6-3 and knocked out Atlanta starter Denny Neagle. With two men on and still nobody out, right-hander Mike Bielecki had the tying run at the plate but struck out three straight, including pinch-hitters Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez to end the inning. Torre had fired two big cannons off his bench, but hit nothing but air.
Yes, the rally was huge and cut the deficit in half, but the Yankees stranded two runners and were still down by three.
“At least we didn’t’ get swept,” muttered Leyritz, who entered the game because O’Neill had pinch-hit for starting catcher Joe Girardi.
Bielecki threw a scoreless seventh, and there were suddenly six outs to go. And then the Braves handed the ball to Wohlers. The All-Star closer was 39-for-44 in save chances during the regular season. The man who got the last out of the World Series 360 days earlier had been dominant in the postseason, throwing 7 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing only two hits while striking out 11.
“I can remember the top of the seventh, we see Wohlers starting to warm up, and in my mind Bobby (Cox) is going for the jugular right here,” Leyritz said.
Six outs and the Braves would be in the driver’s seat.
As it turned out, Wohlers did indeed get his six outs, but not before Leyritz changed Yankees history.
Charlie Hayes and Darryl Strawberry started the top of the eighth with singles. After Rafael Belliard’s bobble cost the Braves a double play, the Yankees had first and third with one out and Leyritz coming to bat for the first time against Wohlers. And Leyritz knew almost nothing about him.
“I said to (bench coach Don Zimmer), ‘Hey Zim, what’s this guy got?’ And he said, ‘Jimmy, this guy throws 100 miles an hour. Just get ready,’” Leyritz remembered.
Grabbing one of Strawberry’s bats (for fear of breaking one of his own last two remaining bats), Leyritz went looking for that fastball. He got a look at one right away, and knew he was in a difficult situation.
“The first pitch he threw was 98,” Leyritz said. “I fouled it straight back. And because I took a huge hack like I always did, it kinda looked like I was really on him. Well, I looked down at the bat and saw the ball mark right next to the label (a few inches down from the barrel). And I’m like, ‘I’ve gotta turn this thing up a little bit.’
“Then, of course, he throws the two sliders, which got me looking out away,” Leyritz continued. “Then another fastball, and I fouled that one off a little more towards the end of the bat, so I got around a little bit more on it.”
The count was 2 and 2, with that last fastball clocked at 99. On television, Tim McCarver was already scolding Wohlers for throwing too many sliders, worried about getting beat with his third best pitch, even though everyone knew Leyritz was a dead-fastball hitter. That was when Wohlers started the wheels turning in his head. While Leyritz had nothing more than Zimmer’s five-second scouting report, Wohlers attacked his eventual nemesis based on a little more of his own memory.
“I just remember watching the Yankees a lot (on TV),” Wohlers said. “I thought I remembered Jim Leyritz having good opposite-field power, hitting home runs over the right field porch at the old Yankee Stadium.”
According to Baseball-Reference.com data, of the 78 home runs Leyritz hit in his career with location known, only 29 were to the pull side. His 1995 ALDS walk-off home run against the Mariners at Yankee Stadium was to the opposite field as well.
Leyritz wasn’t thinking too much. Overthinking wasn’t his style.
“Thank God I really didn’t read all the (scouting) reports and all that stuff,” Leyritz said. “If I had known he had a split-fingered pitch, I might have been looking for that. But because I didn’t know he had that, I just thought he was only a fastball-slider guy, it was only those two pitches I was looking for.”
Wohlers threw his splitter mainly to lefty hitters, so Leyritz likely wouldn’t have seen one anyway. But the battle was on, and Fulton County Stadium was getting louder with each pitch. Leyritz fouled off a slider to keep the count even. At that moment Leyritz stepped back and saw Ted Turner and Jane Fonda doing The Tomahawk Chop along with many of the other 51,000 fans.
“It was as loud as it could be,” Leyritz said.
Here is what Leyritz said he was thinking: “I’m a catcher, (so) I know what’s coming next — he’s coming hard in and knock me off the plate. So I took a half a step back, not even a full inch, but back so if he threw that pitch (inside), then I can take it because it’s off the plate.
“It could have been a fastball or slider away, but I was looking away,” Leyritz added. “Sure enough he threw the slider and hung it, that’s why I was able to stay back and hit it out, because my thought process was already thinking away.”
Ready to deliver the slider that changed everything, here is what Wohlers said he was thinking: “I knew he had good opposite-field power and I felt like he was catching up, getting on my fastball a little bit.”
Remember, Leyritz had just fouled 98 and 99 mph fastballs straight back, a sign that he was just barely missing those pitches.
“When you give up a hit it’s either the wrong pitch, or wrong location,” Wohlers said. “There can be an argument about wrong pitch. Obviously it was horrible location. Even though I hung the pitch, he was out in front of it, hit it off his front foot a little bit, but he kept his hands back enough where he got enough good wood on it for it to go over the fence. I got him out in front just a little bit, but obviously the pitch stayed up a little bit and he had enough on it to send it over the wall.”
It was a three-run home run and Joe Buck’s call on FOX made it sound like he was a little bit stunned, just like all who saw it, including, certainly, the Braves.
“Back, at the track, at the wall, we are tied! 6-6 here in the eighth,” Buck said.
It didn’t take long — during his home run trot, actually — for Leyritz to consider the repercussions and how the Yankees needed to now finish the job.
“All I could think about rounding second base was that if we don’t win the game it’s just like the ‘95 home run — it’s a great home run but it doesn’t really mean anything,” Leyritz said.
While his 15th-inning blast one year earlier had given the Yankees a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five ALDS, the Mariners came back to win the last three games and the series. This time it would be different.
“I don’t know that you ever believe you’re going to win a World Series until you have that defining moment or you win a game,” O’Neill said.
All of a sudden the Yankees had a defining moment. And then another one when Game 4 went extra innings and Wade Boggs drew a bases-loaded walk to force in the go-ahead run. The Yankees would win in 10 innings, 8-6. The series’ momentum stayed firmly in the Yankees’ corner the rest of the way. Pettitte outdueled Smoltz for a 1-0 win in Game 5. Back in New York, Girardi tripled off Greg Maddux to fuel a three-run rally and carry the Yankees to the Game 6 victory and a celebration Yankee fans hadn’t seen since 1978.
The Yankees were world champions in 1996. In a season full of magic moments, Leyritz’s Game 4 blow rang loudest. It’s the one moment he said he has been asked about over and over for the last 20 years, and for that Leyritz is grateful.
“It’s interesting,” Leyritz said, “because never being a guy that played every day…to have a moment where people tell me they know where they were standing or what they were doing…to me it was pretty special because I didn’t have the opportunity to do that on an everyday basis. To have a moment like that was pretty big.”
For Wohlers, it was a much different moment, but not one that defines his career.
“I think about it every once in a while,” Wohlers admitted. “I don’t beat myself up over it. But I understand that I might have two world championship rings instead of one had I thrown a different pitch or made a better pitch.”
Better pitch, not a different one. Both hitter and pitcher agree that a better executed slider would have resulted in a strikeout.
“If he threw it down and away off the plate, not for a strike, but off the plate I think I probably would have swung at it,” Leyritz said.
“I truly believe that (a good slider gets him),” Wohlers said.
Leyritz is a regular at card shows and corporate events where he regales fans with tales of the home run that changed the destiny of the Yankees.
“If we don’t win in ‘96, and they lose like they do in ’97 (to Cleveland in the ALDS),” Leyritz hypothesized, “Joe (Torre) probably doesn’t have a job in ‘98. And then that dynasty never develops.”
Leyritz didn’t see the entire dynasty up close, as he was traded away five weeks after his Game 4 heroics. He would play for six teams over the next four years, including one more stop with the Yankees in 1999.
Meanwhile, the Braves’ dynasty continued with division titles (14 straight in all) into the next decade, but they made just one more World Series appearance — in 1999, when they were swept by the Yankees. Leyritz hit a home run in his only at-bat of that series, though it was far less dramatic.
Wohlers was gone by then, having suffered from a bout of wildness that cost him his closer’s job in Atlanta by 1998. He recovered enough to play for three other teams between 2000 and 2002, including the Yankees, of all teams, in 2001.
“I remember when I got traded I did a conference call with the New York media,” Wohlers recalled. “I told them ‘first day I’m there I’ll talk for as long as you want to talk and answer any question you guys have. But I waived my no-trade clause to help the Yankees try to win, and after that first day I wanted it left behind me.’ And they were great about it. I stood in front of my locker the first day I got to New York, answered a lot of questions, and then they never brought it up again after that. I was grateful they kept their part of the bargain and didn’t bring it up anymore.”
Even the guy who hit the home run didn’t bring it up in a chance meeting outside the visitors’ clubhouse in Miami that summer. The Yankees were playing the Marlins and Leyritz, who was living in the area in his first year out of baseball, stopped by to say hello to his former teammates.
“Literally as I was walking into the clubhouse with my kids he was walking out,” Leyritz recalled. “I said, ‘Hey Mark, how you doing?’”
Wohlers was heading to the field to shag during batting practice and caught a glimpse of who was holding the door.
“I remember that,” Wohlers laughed. “I think I might have said ‘Hi’ and that was it (before running down the tunnel and out to the field).”
“My son said, ‘Dad, who is that?’” Leyritz remembered. “I said ‘That was Mark Wohlers,’ and he was like ‘Oh my God, he actually said hi to you!'”
Wohlers still lives in the Atlanta area, and said he can look back on his infamous moment without getting too worked up over it.
“I don’t think that one pitch defined my career,” Wohlers said. “It’s a pitch that I’ll carry with me, whenever people think of me. There’s a lot of things in my career I’m really proud of, but that’s also not the only pitch I wish I would have had back. I’ve blown plenty of leads and thrown plenty of bad pitches. But I also know that I pitched in five World Series and made an All-Star team and won a world championship. So there’s a lot of things I’m proud of as well.”
And in Atlanta, he’s known as much — or more — for getting the last out in 1995.
“It’s the only championship that’s ever been won by a professional sports team here in Atlanta, so they’re really proud of that ‘95 Braves team,” Wohlers said.
Leyritz isn’t defined as much by that home run anymore, either. It is certainly the highlight of his career, but a 2007 DUI-related accident that claimed another driver’s life has sent his own life in a different direction. But when the talk is about his time in Yankee pinstripes, there is one swing that always comes back. And if you forget, Leyritz might not be afraid to remind you. Playing for the Angels in 1997, Leyritz was called back to the dugout for a pinch-hitter late in an April game against — oddly enough — the Yankees, when entering the game was closer Mariano Rivera.
Leyritz looked back at his manager Terry Collins with some confusion, unable to understand why he was coming out of the game just because a hard-throwing reliever was coming in. Leyritz walked back to the dugout. As he neared Collins, Leyritz threw his helmet to the ground in disgust and had just one thing to say to his manager.
“You ever hear of Mark Wohlers?”
For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.
Please follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN