It had been 18 years since the New York Yankees had won a championship, and 15 years since they won the American League pennant. That seemed like an eternity for the most decorated franchise in professional sports, and it had been made even worse by a hard falling off the cliff in the early part of the 1990s. But in the 1996 baseball season, a three-year resurgence was capped off by a return to the top.
New York’s rotation was anchored by Andy Pettite, and the lefty finished second in the Cy Young voting. Mariano Rivera was not yet the closer—the future Hall of Famer was in the setup role—but his 2.09 ERA landed him third in the final Cy Young voting. The Yankee offense was led by Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams, who each drove in over 100 runs.
The Yanks nudged out to a six-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles by the All-Star break. Even though the AL East included Blue Jay Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen, Toronto was not a serious contender. New York was always in firm position to at least make the playoffs, they always kept at least a little bit of breathing distance between themselves and the Birds, and in the latter part of September were able to clinch the AL East with room to spare.
Joe Torre’s team was still at least a little bit of an afterthought going into postseason play. The Cleveland Indians had won the AL pennant in 1995, and the Atlanta Braves were the defending champs. The Tribe and Braves both had big years and spent the regular season on what seemed like a collision course for a rematch.
Cleveland’s teams of this era are remembered for their bats. Albert Belle hit 48 homers. Jim Thome, playing third base in his younger years, went deep 38 times. And a rising star in the outfield named Manny Ramirez hit 33 bombs. All this was set up by speedy Kenny Lofton, who stole 75 bags.
But the Indian pitching staff was, at least compared to the competition, even better. Charles Nagy led the rotation and the staff led the American League in composite ERA. While the Chicago White Sox hung in the AL Central race through the first half, Cleveland broke it open in late summer and cruised into the playoffs with the best record in baseball.
Atlanta’s great teams were defined by pitching and this ’96 season was no different. John Smoltz won 24 games and captured the Cy Young Award. Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux had ERAs below 3. This trio of future Hall of Famers, along with a lineup led by third baseman Chipper Jones, rolled to the NL East title. Atlanta pulled away from Montreal shortly after the All-Star break.
In both leagues, the division races in the West were inextricably tied up with the battle for what was then a single wild-card berth.
The AL West had some terrific individual talent. The Texas Rangers were led by MVP outfielder Juan Gonzalez, who hit 47 homers and drove in 144 runs. Future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez was behind the plate. Third baseman Dean Palmer and outfielder Rusty Greer each drove in over 100 runs.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners had the MVP runner-up, a young shortstop by the name of Alex Rodriguez, along with an all-time great centerfielder in Ken Griffey Jr. They were joined in the lineup by Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner, and the Mariners scored more runs than anyone in the American League.
What Seattle didn’t do was pitch, thanks to staff ace Randy Johnson missing almost the entire season with a back injury. Texas had a balanced rotation, pulled out to 7 ½ game lead in early September and then held off a strong Mariner charge down the stretch.
Seattle jousted with Baltimore and Chicago for the AL wild-card spot. The Orioles got 50 home runs from outfielder Brady Anderson, along with huge season from Rafael Palmeiro at first base, and Roberto Alomar at second base. The White Sox had great corner infielders, with Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura combining to go deep 77 times. The wild-card race had all three contenders still alive on the final weekend, and Baltimore was the one who clinched on the season’s penultimate day.
The Western Division in the NL also produced that league’s MVP. San Diego third baseman Ken Caminiti batted .326, hit 40 homers and drove in 130 runs. Caminiti led the lineup and the Hall of Fame closer, Trevor Hoffman, anchored the bullpen. The Padres spurted to an early lead in the division and then settled into a race with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Mike Piazza was the MVP runner-up in L.A. and the catcher batted .336, with 36 homers and 105 RBIs to carry an otherwise poor offense. The National League’s best pitching staff kept the Dodgers in the hunt, with Hideo Nomo and Ismael Valdez combining to win 31 games at the top of the rotation.
The race between San Diego and Los Angeles was razor-tight the entire second half of the season, and both teams also had to deal with Montreal in the battle for the wild-card. The three-way game of musical chairs to see who would be left without a seat continued to the final weekend. On Friday, the Dodgers clinched at least a wild-card. On Saturday, the Padres wrapped up their spot. Their Sunday game, head-to-head for the division title, was effectively meaningless. For what it’s worth, San Diego won and entered the postseason as division champ, while Los Angeles was the wild-card.
Tony LaRussa’s St. Louis Cardinals took home the final spot in the postseason, pulling away from the Houston Astros in September to win the NL Central. The Cardinal staff, led Andy Benes who finished third in the Cy Young voting, was able to trump an Astro lineup led by Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.
The postseason began in the American League with the underdogs winning Game 1, as the Rangers beat the Yankees and the Orioles knocked off the Indians. New York immediately recovered and won three straight close games, including a 12-inning affair in Game 2, to clinch the series.
But Cleveland was not as fortunate. The Tribe lost again in Game 2. With their back to the wall, they took home a win in Game 3 and had the lead late in Game 4. But an extra-inning loss ended their season and sent Baltimore on to the ALCS.
Game 1 of the Braves-Dodgers series went extra innings. But Atlanta won, then took home a 3-2 decision in Game 2, and closed out a sweep. St. Louis did the same to San Diego, winning three games by a combined total of five runs. The NL West was gone, and the Braves and Cardinals were moving on to the NLCS.
The Division Series round might have been relatively uneventful, but the League Championship Series heated up. New York won a controversial Game 1, made possible by a late home run being pulled out of the glove of Oriole outfielder Tony Tarasco by a fan. Replay showed it was clearly fan interference, but there was no recourse to change the call and the play was ruled a home run. It was the difference in an 11-inning Yankee win. When the Orioles won Game 2, the controversial home run had effectively kept New York alive as they went to Baltimore for the middle games.
A long series seemed likely, but at this point, the Yankee simply took over. They won all three games at Camden Yards and brought home the pennant.
After Atlanta opened the NLCS with an expected victory, the series took an unexpected turn. St. Louis won three in a row, including one-run victories in Games 3 & 4. Facing elimination, the Braves gave this NLCS another plot twist. Atlanta not only won the final three games, they did so by a combined score of 32-1.
The Braves’ powerful closing statement in the NLCS carried right over into the World Series. Atlanta went into New York and won Games 1 & 2 by a combined 16-1. Their repeat title seemed all but assured. But it was time for one more plot twist. The Yanks won Game 3. They won a dramatic Game 4. Trailing 6-3 in the eighth, New York got a stunning game-tying home run from Jim Leyritz, then won in extra innings. In the pivotal Game 5, Smoltz and Pettite staged a classic pitcher’s duel. The Yanks won 1-0.
New York even surviving the three games in Atlanta had seemed unlikely enough. Now, they were not only coming home, they had two shots to clinch. And they wasted no time getting it done in Game 6. Closer John Wetteland got the last of his four World Series saves in a 3-2 victory. The Yankees were back on top of the baseball world. And a dynasty had begun, as this began a six-year stretch where they won five American League pennants and four World Series trophies.