By Steve Silverman
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The 1996 World Series did not start out well for Joe Torre and the New York Yankees.
The Atlanta Braves were the defending champions, and they were brimming with confidence as they strode into Yankee Stadium for the first two games.
The Braves entered the series riding a wave after taking out the Los Angeles Dodgers in three straight games before rallying from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL pennant. They had a three-headed monster of a pitching rotation that featured Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. All three would end up in the Hall of Fame.
Torre and the Yankees were coming off a pair of one-sided series victories over the Texas Rangers (four games) and the Baltimore Orioles (five) to earn their spot in the Fall Classic. However, Torre didn’t feel especially comfortable about his team going into those first two games. The Yankees had been off since Oct. 13, and Torre could tell his team would not be sharp for Game 1, which took place seven days later.
Torre’s fears played out as the Braves laid a humiliating 12-1 beatdown on the Yankees that left the fans and owner George Steinbrenner in a panic state.
Steinbrenner paid a visit to Torre in the manager’s office and explained that Game 2 was a “must” for the Yankees. Torre certainly understood how volatile the Boss could be, but he was not about to tell him something that would merely calm his nerves.
Instead, Torre let Steinbrenner know that he was aware of how important Game 2 was, but that the Yankees just might lose it.
“I didn’t like the way we were playing and I knew the long layoff had not been good for us,” Torre explained recently during an exclusive interview with WFAN.com. “Besides, Maddux was pitching Game 2 for the Braves and it was clear we would have to be at our best to beat him.”
Torre then calmed his owner the only way he knew how.
“I told George that we might lose Game 2, but there was nothing to worry about. We would go down to Atlanta and take care of business because Atlanta was my town,” Torre said. “He looked at me like I was crazy, but he didn’t say anything else. So I was able to go about the business of preparing for the game.”
As Torre predicted, Maddux was masterful in Atlanta’s 4-0 win. The Yankees looked completely lost.
Steinbrenner and the fans certainly viewed the World Series as a matter of life and death. The Yankees hadn’t been in one since 1981 — a six-game loss to the Dodgers — and they hadn’t won it all since 1978.
But it wasn’t life or death to Torre, who knew what the true battles in life were all about. Torre’s younger brother, Rocco, had died earlier in 1996, and his older brother, Frank, was awaiting a heart transplant. That was what truly mattered.
Additionally, Torre had been in baseball his whole life and had never been to the World Series as a player or manager. So, in his mind, he had already accomplished something great merely by getting to the last series of the season.
Of course, no Yankee fan, and certainly not Steinbrenner, would have been satisfied with getting to the World Series and losing. Torre was going to do everything he could to win the championship, and he did feel confident about going to Atlanta.
However, the Yankees were not going to be successful there merely because it was Joe’s town (he managed the Braves from 1982-84, and had spent the first nine seasons of his playing career with the franchise). He had to make several key moves to put them in a position to win.
The first was starting David Cone in Game 3. Cone had been a long-time National Leaguer and he was quite familiar with pitching in Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, known throughout the baseball world as “The Launching Pad,” because home runs flew out of the park so frequently.
While any pitcher could give up the long ball there, Cone was not going to be psyched out by the dimensions. Torre reasoned that if Cone could pitch a decent-enough game and stay confident, the Yankees would not panic and would have a good chance to win.
Cone answered the call and then some, allowing one run and four hits over six innings as the Yankees picked up a 5-2 victory, blunting the Braves’ momentum.
It seemed that Atlanta would recapture its edge in Game 4, as its jumped out to a 6-0 lead through five innings. Yankees starter Kenny Rogers simply didn’t have it, and it appeared there was little the Bombers could do to avoid falling in a 3-1 hole. However, clutch RBI hits from Cecil Fielder and Charlie Hayes in the sixth helped cut the deficit in half. Suddenly, the Yankees had some life.
Then with two runners on and one out in the eighth, backup catcher Jim Leyritz battled Braves closer Mark Wohlers to a 2-2 count before he sped up his bat and launched a misplaced slider offering over the left-field fence. The Yankees had tied the game and taken all the air out of Fulton-County Stadium.
The Yankees scored two more runs in the top of the 10th on their way to an incredible 8-6 victory that will forever remain one of the biggest wins in a franchise history filled with nothing but big wins.
The Yankees had tied the series, but Torre was not the least bit convinced that his team was on its way to a world championship. He felt he had to make more lineup changes if the Yankees were going to head back to the Bronx with a chance to close things out.
“Before Game 5, I called Tino Martinez, Wade Boggs and Paul O’Neill into my office,” Torre explained. “I let them know that they were not playing in Game 5, and while I could tell that none of them were happy about it — especially Tino — they all took it professionally.
“As soon as they left my office, Don Zimmer had a word with me,” Torre continued. “He pointed out how Paul had been playing injured — basically on one leg — and he didn’t deserve to be benched. Zim convinced me to change my lineup. I called Paul back into my office and told him that as manager, it was my prerogative to change my mind, and that he was playing.”
That decision would have huge ramifications.
The Yankees received brilliant pitching from Andy Pettitte, who returned to form after getting whacked by the Braves in Game 1. The Yankees had a 1-0 lead late as a result of Fielder’s RBI double in the fourth inning off Smoltz.
Pettitte opened the ninth by allowing a double to Chipper Jones, and the Braves’ third baseman moved to third on Fred McGriff’s ground out. Torre then took Pettitte out and replaced him with John Wetteland.
The Yankees’ closer got Javy Lopez to ground weakly to third, and Jones could not advance. Wetteland then intentionally walked hard-hitting Ryan Klesko, bringing ex-Yankee Luis Polonia to the plate. After fouling off several pitches, he took an aggressive swing and launched a deep drive to right-center. If the ball had gotten down, the Braves would have regained the series lead.
But O’Neill had other ideas. He took off at the crack of the bat and ran down the drive for the final out.
“It was a great play by Paul, and he did it on one leg. Unbelievable,” Torre said.
Atlanta had certainly proven to be Torre’s town.
The manager and his team came back to New York amid a sea of good fortune. Frank Torre had received his heart transplant hours after the Game 5 win, and Joe was on Cloud Nine.
He was also nervous for the first time in the Series.
“My brother had gotten the transplant and we had a chance to win,” Torre explained. “It all hit me and I was almost jumping out of my skin. Thankfully, the game played out our way and there weren’t tough decisions to make.”
The Braves would get runs in the fourth and ninth innings to make it 3-2, but when Hayes caught Mark Lemke’s foul pop-up with two outs, the Yankees had their World Series win and so did their long-deserving manager.
“I was looking at the foul pop-up and I knew Hayes had a difficult chance as he got close to the stands,” Torre recalled. “But then I saw Derek jump with his arms extended and that was it. The next thing I knew, all my coaches had surrounded me and it was a great night.
“Oh, what a celebration it was. I never took off my uniform. We celebrated deep into the night at the Stadium and then a couple of friends drove me home in my uniform and we continued to enjoy it. What a great night.”
Torre, of course, would go on to lead the Yankees to three World Series wins in a row from 1998 to 2000, and they nearly won a fourth straight before they were beaten in the ninth inning of the seventh game by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001.
“You know, football’s the sport that is usually associated with inspirational speeches and talks that coaches give to their players,” Torre said. “When I started managing the Yankees in 1996, I told our players that I wanted to win three in a row.
“I told them that if you win one World Series, some people will call it a fluke. I wanted more than one. I wanted to leave no doubt.”
But it was the first world championship that left the most indelible impression on Torre.
“It was 20 years ago,” Torre said somewhat wistfully. “But it feels like yesterday. What a great time and what great memories.”
Yankees fans know just what Torre is talking about, as they will never forget the October series that started yet another dynasty.
For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.
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