1996 Stroke of Fate
As New York rallied to win four straight games from Atlanta, its World Series title seemed preordained
by Tom Verducci
Issue date: November 4, 1996
What else could it be but destiny when New York manager Joe Torre's brother, Frank, has heart transplant surgery on Friday, the only off day for the World Series, performed by a wizard of a doctor named Oz. The heart donor was a man who lived in the Bronx. There's no place like home.
What else could it be but destiny when Torre orders three cases and two magnums of champagne before leaving home on Saturday for Game 6, the clincher. Or when pitcher Jimmy Key asks his girlfriend, Karin Kane, to marry him before he leaves for work that day to start Game 6 for the Yankees.
Improbable? Unbelievable? Joe Eszterhas has turned in more credible scripts. Mission: Impossible was less contrived. Destiny beat what was supposed to be a World Series dynasty. The Series ended with Torre and pitcher David Cone dripping in champagne, chatting almost in a disbelieving hush at one side of a Yankees clubhouse as crowded and smelly as a subway car at rush hour.
"Do you believe this year?" Torre said.
"It's almost like there was an angel up there orchestrating this, some intangible force," Cone said.
"It's strange. Weird," Torre said. "Like it was supposed to happen. Whenever something did happen, it didn't surprise us."
The Yankees hit .216and still won the World Series. They lost the first two games at home and won four straight, a feat never before accomplished. They won even though the Braves' starting pitchers had a 1.51 ERA. They won because Atlanta's four-time Gold Glove centerfielder, Marquis Grissom, dropped a fly ball. They won the longest Series game ever played. They won just the fourth one in which only an unearned run was scored.
They won because Torre laughed in the face of danger as well as in the face of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. On Oct. 21, when Steinbrenner burst into Torre's office before Game 2 and declared, "This is a must win!" Torre told the Boss, "Hey, we'll probably lose tonight, too, George. But Atlanta's my town. We'll sweep them there and win it back home."
Like seemingly every other idea Torre had, this one was right. New York closed out the Series with a 3-2 victory last Saturday night over four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, scoring all of its runs in the third inning when the master painter turned sloppy and left a few pitches too close to the center of the plate. Key outpitched Maddux only 15 months after undergoing surgery to repair a complete tear in the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. According to his surgeon, James Andrews of Alabama Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, that Key was even able to pitch was unprecedented.
The Yankees won with a roster on which 14 of 25 players were not in the organization at the end of last season, including seven added after June 11 of this year. Every time a leak sprang, it was plugged with the help of an unmatched budget that swelled past $60 million. These were the dammed Yankees. Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz all but cursed them, saying the difference between the two clubs was the extra $18 million New York spent on its bench players.
Yes, the Yankees were deeper and had a superior bullpen. But Torre outmanaged Atlanta skipper Bobby Cox, and the New York pitchers outshone one of the best starting staffs of all time. "The bottom line is that we beat them at their own game," said New York catcher Jim Leyritz late last Saturday night. "They made mistakes, and our pitchers didn't."
All of that Yankees good fortune seemed ordained when the phone rang at Torre's house in New Rochelle, N.Y., at 5:45 a.m. last Friday. He had walked in the door only 30 minutes earlier after flying home from Atlanta following Game 5, which New York had won 1-0. The caller was someone from Columbia Presbyterian in New York City telling him that Frank was being prepared for a transplant after waiting 11 weeks for a suitable donor. "When Frank got the heart," Joe said, "I felt like we were meant to win. I mean, Dr. Oz doing the surgery? Come on. It's been like an out-of-body experience."
Five months earlier Cone had been on the ninth floor of Columbia Presbyterian, three floors above where Frank would undergo surgery. Doctors had removed an aneurysm in Cone's right shoulder by taking a vein from his thigh and grafting it onto the one that was about to burst. He was expected to be out for the season. While Cone was in the hospital, Betty Ford alumnus Dwight Gooden threw a no-hitter for the Yankees, though Cone did not see it. "No cable there," he said. "It was like Dwight was replacing me and things were going to be O.K."
It was Cone who started Game 3 in Atlanta and who was asked to save the Yankees after they had lost the first two games by a combined score of 16-1, the biggest differential at that juncture in World Series history. "The mood on the plane ride there was embarrassment," Cone said. "We were thoroughly embarrassed. It was like, Let's save some face."
The Yankees were angry, too. They had seethed after Cox changed pitchers with two outs and a 12-1 lead in the ninth inning of Game 1, as if the game were being played in West Palm Beach, Fla., in March. Some New York players felt Atlanta was rubbing it in. Moreover, they learned through personnel working in the Yankee Stadium visiting clubhouse that the Braves boasted about that win, some of them saying, "They don't belong on the same field as us." Said Cone, "Victory was certain. It was a given for them. Yeah, we noticed it."
Torre felt that for New York to get back into the Series, it had to take an early lead in Game 3. Atlanta lefthander Tom Glavine, who won the Cy Young in 1991, accommodated Torre by walking leadoff hitter Tim Raines to start the game. Torre called for a bunt, which Derek Jeter executed, moving Raines to second. Bernie Williams then drove a two-strike pitch into centerfield for a single, scoring Raines. New York had a leadthe first against Atlanta pitching in 46 innings, dating to Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Yankees would not yield the advantage, not even in the sixth inning when Cone rewarded Torre's faith in deciding to leave him in by getting Fred McGriff and Javier Lopez on pop-ups with the bases loaded to escape with a 2-1 lead. Several of Cone's fastballs were clocked at 93 mph.
"That inning," Torre would say after New York went on to a 5-2 win, "was what the World Series is about. If we get out of that inning with a lead, I just have to run the bullpen guys out there and put my hands in my pockets."
The Braves learned that trying to beat the Yankees' bullpen in the late innings was like trying to beat an IRS audit. New York won 96% of the time this year (75-3) when it led after six frames. In the World Series, Atlanta batted 19 times after the sixth and scored two runs. The Braves hit .315 for the first six innings and .176 afterward.
The Yankees' bullpen helped win the marathon Game 4 as well. It shut out Atlanta after the fifth inning, enabling New York to come back from a 6-0 deficit and win 8-6 in 10 innings. An epic? Ben-Hur didn't take as long and had a smaller cast. After four hours, 19 minutes, Torre had deployed all of his players except his top three starting pitchers and had used 10 players in the ninth spot of the batting order. Only one team, Connie Mack's 1929 Philadelphia Athletics, came back from a bigger World Series deficit, scoring 10 runs in the seventh inning to defeat the Chicago Cubs 10-8 in Game 4.
"It was fun being back in the National League," said Torre, referring to the fact that the games in Atlanta were played under National League rules. "Anyone who says the DH is better is nuts." It was a game so complex that Torre, whose previous 14 seasons of managing were in the National League with the Cardinals, the Braves and the New York Mets, said an American League manager without National League experience could not have won it. Torre so outmanaged Cox that Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said, "If it wasn't the greatest game managed, it's in the top three."
Said Torre, "It was great. [Bench coach] Don Zimmer and I were yelling at each other during the game, 'What's next? Where's the pitcher hitting? How many players we got left?' I kept saying, 'Isn't this great?' And Zim would go, 'Shaddup.'"
With Atlanta leading 6-3, Cox brought in his closer, righthander Mark Wohlers, to start the eighth inning, something he had done only once this year. Wohlers throws so hard that when Leyritz came to the plate with one out and runners on first and third, he took a bat from Darryl Strawberry, the Northern League emigrant, rather than use one of his own. "I only had a couple left, and I didn't want to break one," Leyritz said later. Wohlers threw him a 100-mph fastball, and Leyritz fouled it straight back.
"You could see a look on Wohlers's face like, Oh, s---," Cone said. "He'd given him his best shot, and Jimmy was right on it."
Wohlers also threw a 98-mph fastball, and Leyritz had that one timed too, fouling it back. That's when Wohlers removed his best bullet, the fastball, from his magazine. "I've been on the shuttle to [Triple A] Richmond too many times to keep pounding my head against a wall," he said. So he threw a slider, his third-best pitch, and hung it. Leyritz blasted the ball out of the park, tying the game. "That," Torre said, "was the hit that made us believe we were going to win this thing."
The Yankees won when Wade BoggsTorre's last position player on the benchdrew a bases-loaded walk in the top of the 10th. Then Cox slipped up. He pulled a double switch, bringing Brad Clontz in to pitch and replacing McGriff at first base with lefthanded-hitting Ryan Klesko, whom Cox would have lead off the Atlanta half of the 10th. Said Stottlemyre, "We couldn't decide who to start in the bottom of the inning, [lefthander Graeme] Lloyd or [righthander John] Wetteland. We went back and forth three or four times. But when he had Klesko leading off, it was a no-brainer. He made the decision for us."
By making the switch, Cox, who wanted to avoid having to pinch-hit for Clontz, weakened himself defensively and had Klesko, who blasted only three of his 34 homers in the regular season against southpaws, batting leadoff against Lloyd. It was as if the baseball gods had screamed, "You can't do that!" The next ball put into play, a soft line drive off the bat of Hayes, was hit to Klesko. He dropped it, allowing an insurance run to score. Batting against Lloyd in the bottom of the inning, Klesko whiffed. Wetteland came in for the final two outs.
When asked where the game turned, a bitter Cox mentioned a leadoff foul pop fly in the sixth inning with Atlanta ahead 6-0. Rightfielder Jermaine Dye overran the ball, which fell behind him and rightfield umpire Tim Welke. "Dye couldn't get around the umpire to catch the goddam ball," Cox said, although Dye had told Welke while taking the field in the seventh, "It's not your fault. I should have caught it."
In Game 5, the last game ever at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Cox had no one to blame for the 1-0 loss except his players. Grissom dropped a fourth-inning fly ball hit by Hayes after nearly colliding with Dye. Hayes, a former member of the last-place Pirates, scored on a double by Cecil Fielder, a former member of the last-place Tigers. Torre started Hayes and Fielder, both righthanded batters, against righthander Smoltz, benching struggling lefthanded hitters Boggs and Tino Martinez. Torre also allowed his pitcher, Andy Pettitte, to bat in the ninth inning with two outs and runners at first and third, and he put the potential winning run on base intentionally in the bottom of the inning. Of course, all of the moves worked. The game ended with a gimpy Paul O'Neill running down a fly by Luis Polonia in the gap in rightfield.
"He's been doing it all year," Cone said of Torre's deft moves. "Joe plays to win. He doesn't go by managing lore or by the supposed book. He does whatever he thinks he has to."
The Yankees beat Smoltz, who had lost only once in 17 postseason starts, on a night when he became the first pitcher in the past 91 World Series games to whiff 10 batters. Pettitte, who allowed only five hits, outpitched him.
Atlanta joined the 1905 Athletics, the 1921 Yankees and the 1986 Mets as the only teams to lose a 1-0 World Series game on an unearned run. And when the Braves lost by one run again in Game 6, they assured themselves of being labeled as the
Dynasty That Never Was. Though team of the '90s is engraved on their 1995 world- championship rings, the Atlanta players have won as many world championships this decade as Marge Schott's Cincinnati Reds.
Perhaps history will condemn Grissom, Wohlers or even Cox to places alongside Lonnie Smith and Jeff Reardon, goats from the Braves' 1991 and '92 Series losses, in Atlanta infamy. As well as Cox's teams have played in the regular season this decade, they have these numbers to explain: In 63 postseason games they are 11-19 in one-run decisions and 4-9 in extra innings.
Wetteland, who saved each Yankees victory, won the MVP award, but no one had a better Series than Torre. He will have virtually the same club next season, with Key, a free agent, the only important player whose status is uncertain. Outfielder Ruben Rivera is New York's next phenom, following homegrown frontline players Jeter, Pettitte, Williams and Mariano Rivera in this decade. There will always be money to cover mistakes and upgrade the roster, and there is no reason to think the Yankees can't be back in the World Series next yearno reason unless they have exhausted their credit limit with destiny. "Joe Torre will never have another year like this one," Zimmer said. "There are not that many other things that could have worked out for him. Everything went his way."
You can never tell about destiny. On the same night in which the Yankees' third hitter drove in the third run in the third inning to beat a third Cy Young winner 3-2 to win New York's third world championship of the Steinbrenner era, a horse named Electric Yankee ran out of the third post position in the 11th race at Yonkers. It finished last.
Oh, well. Otherwise the Yanks had all the right horses, including those from the NYPD who spread some of New York's finest on the Yankee Stadium sod after the clinching victory. The cavalry kept the fans in the standsanother improbability come truewhile the Yankees celebrated their championship on the field. Then Torre yelled into the ear of Leyritz, the lone New York player left from a 95-loss season six years ago, "You're used to getting these guys together. Let's do it one more time." Soon the Yankees ran a victory lap, with the mounted police as escort, around the old ballpark.
"We were floating," Cone said later. "Guys jumping up and down, slipping around. It was an incredible feeling."
That's how the story concluded. Cone had his fastball, Key had his bride, Frank had his heart and Joe had his ring. Could it have ended any differently?
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