Today marks 17 years since the Yankees took down the Atlanta Braves in game six to clinch their first World Series title since 1978. Just like this year, the 26th landed on a Saturday. Our beloved Yankees were coming home with what seemed all but impossible just a few days before – a 3-2 lead in the World Series and the opportunity to win it all. A 12 year old at the time, I’m not sure how much I slept between games 5 and 6, but it wasn't much. The anticipation since our young ace Andy Pettitte had outdueled all-world John Smoltz 1-0 in game 5 was building and I couldn't wait for the first pitch.
With their season on the line, the defending champs sent sure first ballot Hall of Famer Greg Maddux to the mound. “Mad Dog” was coming off another fine campaign and had tossed 8 shutout innings against the Bombers just a few days earlier. The Yankees countered with Jimmy Key and it was fitting that Key would get this start. He played an underrated, yet pivotal role in the Yankees turn to relevance again. In the winter of ’92, the Yankees had made a hard push to obtain Maddux. When Maddux turned them down to sign with Atlanta, the Yankees moved onto various pitchers including David Cone, only to be turned down by each of them. Eventually they’d land a solid, yet less sexy pitcher – Jimmy Key. Key turned in two outstanding campaigns in ’93 and ’94 and helped the Yankees to their first winning seasons since 1988. He missed nearly all of the 1995 season with a shoulder injury, but returned to the mound in ’96. Tonight he’d toe the rubber in pinstripes for the final time.
All of the action from the Yankees bats would come in the bottom of the third. Paul O’Neill started things with a leadoff double down the right field line. Maddux had his good stuff and the Yanks just wanted a run. Mariano Duncan moved O’Neill to third with a bunt. Joe Girardi followed with a booming triple to the center field wall that sent the old ballpark into a frenzy. An iconic moment and one that any Yankee fan would have a hard time forgetting. Jeter drove in Girardi with a single to center and then stole second. After Wade Boggs flew out to right, Bernie Williams lined a ball to center that would score Jeter and push the score to 3-0. Oh my. All of the sudden, the Yankees had a lead and were just six innings from a World Series title.
Key would walk a run in in the top of the 4th to make it a 3-1 ballgame. That would be all as far as runs would go until the bottom of the 9th. Key would leave the game in the 6th as Torre would turn the game over to his fantastic bullpen. David Weathers, Graeme Lloyd, and the recently departed Mariano Rivera would toss a scoreless 6th, 7th, and 8th before Torre went to his closer for the 9th – John Wetteland. In classic Wetteland fashion, John made things interesting. He allowed a trio of hits and even a run before Mark Lemke came to the plate with the tying run standing on second base. The count ran full before Lemke popped a ball up foul near the Braves dugout – just out of play. I began to bicker about the batboy interfering with Charlie Hayes’ opportunity to catch the foul. Before my mini-rant ended, Lemke had popped another one up to the same area. Would this one go out of play too? I can still remember that moment when Hayes stopped moving laterally toward the stands past third base. This one wasn’t going out of play - we’re the World Champions I thought to myself. Hayes reached up and squeezed it and Joe Buck’s next words were – “the Yankees are champions of baseball!” What followed was a blur of all things great about being a baseball fan and particularly a Yankee fan that night – the pile on the mound with Wetteland giving the “we’re number one” finger, Pauly O rolling across that pile, Wade Boggs riding a horse around the park, and the World Series trophy itself – it was glorious.
As we all know, the Yankees weren’t done winning World Series titles. They’d go on to win three more of them over the next four years, but this one was different. These weren’t the mighty juggernaut Yankees that we’d soon come to know. What’s often forgotten is that these Yankees were the underdogs. A good, but somewhat scrappy, team that took on the mighty Atlanta Braves – the defending World Champions with a pitching staff that boasted three aces (some might argue four) – and beat them. As vividly as I remember postseason games throughout the Yankees reign and can even tell you where I was and who I was with, I couldn't tell you the exact date of Jeter’s flip, Tino’s grand slam, or the ’98 team’s 125th win, but I don’t need to look up the date of game six of the 1996 World Series – Saturday October 26th, 1996.