The New York Yankees had not been in the World Series for fifteen years when they won the American League pennant and reached the Fall Classic in 1996. The Atlanta Braves had become regulars, with the 1996 World Series being their fourth appearance in the last five tries. Though the respective histories of each organization was quite different before and would be different after, the intersecting year of 1996 saw the Braves in the role of dynasty and heavy favorite and the Yankees of aspiring underdog.
New York did not have the feel of a great team. They had finished ninth in the American League in ERA, sixth in runs scored and their 92-70 record was good, but not the stuff emerging dynasties are made of.
They did have a tremendous centerfielder in 27-year-old Bernie Williams, who had a stat line of .391 on-base percentage/.535 slugging percentage, and had driven in 102 runs while scoring 108.
Paul O’Neill churned out an OBP of .401. Tino Martinez hit 25 home runs and future Yankee manager Joe Girardi was behind home plate and posted an OBP of .346. Wade Boggs, the 38-year-old third baseman who had made his legend in Boston, finished with a .389 OBP.
The middle infield got a jolt when veteran second baseman Mariano Duncan put up a stat line of .352/.500. And no jolt would have a more far-reaching effect on the history of this organization and the history of baseball than the emergence of rookie shortstop Derek Jeter, who had a .370 OBP.
New York’s pitching staff was anchored by 21-game winner Andy Pettite, in the embryonic stage of his career, and John Wetteland at closer. They also had a young arm in the eighth inning role by the name of Mariano Rivera would work out pretty well for them.
In 1996, the Yankee pitching looked to be no match for Atlanta’s though. The Braves were stacked, with John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, all of whom had sub-3.00 ERAs, all of whom will one day be in the Hall of Fame and Smoltz had won 24 games in 1996. The lineup had five players who had hit from 23 to 34 home runs, in Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, and Marquis Grissom.
The World Series opened in New York, with homefield determined by rotation between the leagues. The Braves were looking for their second straight title and 19-year-old Andruw Jones was unintimidated by the venue and the stage. He hit a two-run homer in the second and a three-run blast in the third, both with two outs. The Braves routed Pettite, Smoltz was locked in and a 12-1 win seemed to portend what was ahead.
Maddux took over in Game 2 and tossed 8.1 shutout innings. Atlanta scored single runs in the first, third, fifth and sixth innings, with Fred McGriff hitting two RBI singles and delivering an RBI sac fly. The Braves had the next three games at home and needed only two of them to clinch a championship.
The last two times the Yankees had been in the World Series (1978 and 1981) had seen one team fall behind 0-2 and then storm back with four straight wins. While neither case had seen the home team lose the opening pair, there was still precedent for that–the 1985 Kansas City Royals and 1986 New York Mets had each pulled off such a comeback. The 1996 New York Yankees just needed to change some momentum.
In the top of the first in Game 3, Tim Raines drew a walk, Jeter bunted him over and Williams drove in the run. David Cone outdueled Glavine and New York led 2-1 after seven innings. Then Williams finished what he started, with a two-run homer that opened a game the Yankees would win 5-2. It set the stage for two consecutive nights in Atlanta that would become a big part of baseball lore.
Atlanta came out in Game 4 and looked ready to get back in business. McGriff led off the second inning with a home run, the Braves chased starting pitcher Kenny Rogers with four runs in the second and tacked on add-on runs in the third and fifth.
Jeter & Williams got the comeback started, with a single and walk to start to the sixth and it triggered a three-run inning. In the eighth, the Yanks got two men aboard against Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers. He faced role player Jim Leyritz. It was a moment where Leyritz joined names like Bucky Dent and the soon-to-be-added Aaron Boone in Yankee lore. Leyritz unleashed a three-run shot that tied the game. In the 10th, Wade Boggs worked a two-out walk with the bases loaded to break the tie and the Yankees won 8-6.
If Game 4 had all kinds of storylines and what-ifs, Game 5 was just a great pitching battle between Smoltz and Pettite. It was a defensive blunder that would be the story, when Atlanta outfielders got crossed up on a Charlie Hayes fly ball, allowing it to fall and Hayes to reach second. He scored the game’s only run. Wetteland closed his third consecutive game, coming in with Chipper Jones on third and one out and preserving the 1-0 win.
The worm had turned dramatically and the only way Atlanta was going to win its second straight World Series was if the unprecedented act of the road team winning every game in a seven-game series took place. The Braves had Maddux on the mound though, and Glavine for a potential Game 7, so anything was possible. But the Yankees got to Maddux in Game 6 with third-inning RBI hits from Girardi, Jeter and Williams. Jimmy Key pitched brilliantly and Wetteland closed out his fourth straight game and Series MVP honors in a 3-2 win.
New York was World Series champions again. It had been 15 years between appearances and 18 years between titles. It wasn’t going to be that long for the next pennant and title.