Bernie, Tino, and Girardi were among many memorable players from those Joe Torre teams. - Al Bello
Five AL pennants in six years, four World Series titles, and a plethora of wonderful moments to consider.
The past few weeks have been rather busy for me, and some of you might have noticed that I haven't been able to post as much lately (The "This Day in Yankees History" posts will be decreasing since there's simply not many anniversaries worth reporting in the off-season unless there was a big trade/signing. The series isn't dead, but there probably won't be daily posts.) This is because I have officially entered the real world with a full-time job that involved a move down to the Charm City. It's all great news, but since I'm moving to a brand new place, I must start from scratch in setting up my home. That means limited entertainment options and no consistent Internet for awhile (hopefully not too long).
Fortunately, the baseball nerd that I am prepared for this absence by packing many baseball DVDs with me to watch in the meantime. In the past few days, I've watched all of the World Series films from 1998-2001 and '96 since that was just such a great period in team history. The Yankees failed to win the pennant only once during this six-year period, and they won four World Series titles in five years, dominating baseball with a tremendous team. No defending champion since then has even successfully repeated. Winning in the postseason is not easy, and it's pretty ridiculous in hindsight that between 1996-2001, the Yankees won 14 of 16 playoff series with a record of 56-22. They had a 14-game winning streak in World Series play. What is this? I don't even.
Inevitably, great moments accompany these great feats. The following is my countdown of their finest moments. I cheated with a few, but you know what they say.
5. Tino slams the Padres--'98 World Series Game 1
San Diego was a surprising Fall Classic foe for the Yanks in '98. They jumped out to a 3-0 NLCS lead over the perennial powerhouse Braves and won it in six games. The Padres faced a tall task in Game 1 of the World Series with both the 114-win Yankees and ALCS MVP David Wells. Undeterred with their own ace, Kevin Brown, on the hill, the Padres rode two Greg Vaughn homers and an unexpected upper-deck blast from Padre veteran Tony Gwynn to a 5-2 advantage.
The '98 Yankees were a terrific come-from-behind team though, and they showed their resiliency against Brown and the Padre bullpen in the seventh inning. They put two men on for second baseman Chuck Knobaluch, still in many Yankee fans' doghouse for his ALCS Game 2 gaffe against the Indians. He atoned for it by tying the game up with a three-run bomb. The Yanks were not yet done in the inning though. They loaded the bases for the recently-struggling Tino Martinez. Reliever Mark Langston threw him a very close two-strike pitch that could have gone either way. Home plate umpire Richie Garcia called it a ball though, and Tino drove Langston's next pitch into the upper deck for a go-ahead grand slam. The Yankees took a four-run lead and later, the game. The series would never be so close again, as the Yankees swept away the Padres to finish arguably the greatest season in baseball history.
4. Chad Curtis puts the Braves on the brink--'99 World Series Game 3
A year after that amazing '98, the Yanks worked their way back to the World Series for the first time in consecutive seasons since '76-'78. There, they faced a Braves team very similar to the one they beat in '96 to end their championship drought. They needed a comeback from down 2-0 in that series, but this time, they were the one jumping ahead 2-0 after beating Greg Maddux and Kevin Millwood in Atlanta.
The series returned to the Bronx for Game 3, and the matchup was one of two playoff veterans--Andy Pettitte and Tom Glavine. A flu forced Glavine from starting Game 1, but he was still economical and efficient while the Braves sent Pettitte to the showers early. Atlanta took a 5-1 lead thanks to RBI from unlikely sources (Bret Boone and Jose Hernandez).
Though he was in fine form, it was a strange night for Glavine. Yankee third baseman Scott Brosius later recalled, "It seemed like every mistake he made wasn't hit for a base hit, it was hit for a home run." Even more bizarre was the Yankee who made the first dent in Atlanta's four-run lead--Chad Curtis. A righthanded reserve outfielder, Curtis got the start over lefty Ricky Ledee against the southpaw Glavine. Although not a well-known player by any means, he briefly received some headline when he publicly confronted star shortstop Derek Jeter for chatting amicably with his Mariner friend Alex Rodriguez in the middle of a bench-clearing fight between the two teams. They were not the type of headlines manager Joe Torre was interested in seeing, and it seemed unlikely that Curtis would return to the Yankees upon season's end. Nonetheless, he started Game 3 of the World Series, and despite only hitting five homers all year, he sent an opposite-field clout into the right field seats against Glavine in the fifth to make it 5-2.
Two innings later, Tino followed suit with a solo shot to cut the lead to two. Relievers Jason Grimsley and Jeff Nelson held down the fort while the Yankees scored, and the comeback against the two-time Cy Young Award-winner was complete when Knoblauch sent a fly ball to the right field seats with a runner on in the eighth. Right fielder Brian Jordan narrowly missed a tremendous catch to rob him of the homer, but it was gone. Eventual World Series MVP Mariano Rivera threw a pair of scoreless innings as the game moved to extras. Braves manager Bobby Cox tapped Mike Remlinger to pitch the 10th, and the first man he faced was Curtis. The unlikely hero ended the night with a long homer into the Braves bullpen over the retired numbers in left-center field. Curtis then created more headlines by stating that the team refused to speak with reporter Jim Gray after the way that Gray pestered Pete Rose about his ban from baseball during the All-Century Team celebration in Game 2. Media controversies aside, the Yankees now held a 3-0 lead in the series, and they finished their second consecutive sweep with a victory the next night.
3. Luis Sojo's thousand-hopper beats the Mets--'00 World Series Game 5
The Yankees won the Subway Series in 2000 in just five games, but it was easily their most competitive World Series since '96. The Mets played well in each matchup. However, they blew a late lead in Game 1, were unable to complete a six-run comeback in Game 2 despite five in the ninth, and after winning Game 3, they lost Game 4 by one run. Now, their season was on the line, but they had ace Al Leiter on the mound and they were playing at home in what would be the final World Series game at Shea Stadium. The Yankees countered with Pettitte, who to that point had not given up a run on the road in his two previous World Series starts on the road. That streak would continue after Game 5, but with an asterisk since he allowed two unearned runs to the Mets in the second thanks to errors by himself and Brosius. The Yankees scored two of their own on solo homers by Bernie Williams (hitless in the series to that point) and Jeter, the eventual World Series MVP.
The game stayed tied deep into the night, and while Pettitte gave way to reliever Mike Stanton, Leiter remained in the game. He seemed to be getting sharper as the game progressed, and Mets manager Bobby Valentine trusted him more than any of his relievers. It was still 2-2 in the top of the ninth as Leiter's pitch count went over 130. He struck out two batters to begin the frame, then was a strike away from striking out the side with Jorge Posada at the plate. Posada recovered and worked a walk before moving into scoring position on a single by Brosius. Torre pinch-hit reserve infielder Luis Sojo, hoping he would give the Yankees the lead. Sojo was a member of the Yankees let him go to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the off-season via free agency. Their bench's depth subsequently weakened, and they remedied this mistake by reacquiring Sojo in a midseason trade. Glad to be back on a team that actually seemed to give a damn after losses, Sojo became the primary starter at second when Knoblauch's defensive woes grew hazardous to the team's playoff hopes.
Now, Sojo was back on the bench in favor of Jose Vizcaino, who won Game 1 when he started against Leiter. Sojo took advantage of the pinch-hit opportunity and grounded Leiter's 142nd pitch up the middle past diving infielders Edgardo Alfonzo and Kurt Abbott. If anyone else other than Posada was on the second, there probably would not have been a play at the plate, but as he lumbered around the bases, center fielder Jay Payton fired it home. The throw hit Posada as he slid home, and the lucky carom allowed Brosius to score as well. THe Yankees now had a two-run lead, and three outs later, Rivera secured baseball's first three-peat in 26 years.
2. Magic in the Bronx on consecutive nights after 9/11--'01 World Series Games 4 & 5
The Yankees ultimately failed in their quest for a fourth consecutive World Series title in 2001, but what a ride it was. They played a small role in the country's recovery from the terrorist attacks on September 11th, helping people get their minds off the horrifying events, if not only for a few moments. It was a tough road to simply reach the World Series. They trailed in the best-of-five ALDS 2-0 and went on the road to Oakland needing to win three straight against a superb 100-win Athletics team. Thanks to the unbelievable "flip play" in Game 3, they stayed alive in a 1-0 victory, then won Game 4 to send the series back to the Bronx, where they won in Game 5. Going into the ALCS, it appeared that the Yankees would struggle against the Mariners, who set an American League record with 116 triumphs, besting the mark set by the '98 Yankees. The Yanks stunned baseball by dismissing them in a relatively stress-free five-game set. Now, they faced the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Fall Classic, a young team that had never seen a season that failed to end in a Yankee championship.
The D-backs were new, but they had plenty of title-hungry veterans playing in what might be their last shot at a title. Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Luis Gonzalez, and Matt Williams helped Arizona capture the first two games at home before going on the road to Yankee Stadium. The Yankees took Game 3 by a slim margin as President George Bush threw the first pitch (a strike from the mound despite a bulky bulletproof vest), and incomparable closer Rivera threw the last. They were back in the series, but Arizona turned to Schilling on three days' rest in Game 4. He mastered the Yankees again, holding them to a Shane Spencer solo homer in seven innings. Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez matched his effort, but the Yankee bullpen gave up a pair of runs to Arizona in the eighth. Now, the Yankees were in danger of falling behind in the series 3-1, a deficit they had only recovered from once in playoff history. Arizona closer Byung-Hyun Kim looked to be in command as he struck out the side in the eighth and put the Yankees an out away from defeat despite a single in the ninth from Paul O'Neill.
Tino Martinez, hitless in the series so far, came to the plate and though he had only seen Kim on video before, he belted the first pitch he saw over the wall in centerfield for a game-tying two-run homer. Such a dramatic homer had only occurred once before in the 97-year history of the Fall Classic, but the Yankees were alive. They won it with two outs in the tenth when the first batter in the history of November baseball, Jeter, hit a 3-2 pitch from Kim (curiously still in the game) into the short porch directly down the right field line for an amazing 4-3 win. An out away from falling to the brink of elimination, the World Series had now become a best-of-three.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Game 5 was eerily similar to Game 4. Arizona starter Miguel Batista surprisingly outdueled arguably the AL's best pitch in 2001, Mike Mussina. Solo homers from veteran Steve Finley and backup catcher Rod Barajas gave Arizona a two-run lead, which they again held into the ninth. Without any rest after his 2.2 inning nightmare in Game 4, Arizona manager Bob Brenly again called on Kim in Game 5. He issued a leadoff double to Posada, but again sent the Yankees down to their last out with Brosius at the plate. He had two at-bats against Kim in Game 4 and missed a walk-off homer by a few feet down the left field line in the 10th inning. This time, he straightened his swing out and hit another bad pitch from Kim over the wall in left field for another game-tying two-run homer. If the D-backs had just gotten the final out of Games 4 and 5, they would have been World Series champions, but as it was, the Yankees had amazingly tied it again. This game lasted longer, but a walk-off single by rookie Alfonso Soriano (who made a run-saving diving catch in extra innings) against reliever Albie Lopez ended it in the 12th inning. Despite only leading in six innings of the series, the Yankees now somehow had Arizona on the brink of elimination. No one could understand how they were still alive, but they were.
1. Jim Leyritz rocks the south--'96 World Series Game 4
It was a long time coming for the Yankees to return to the top of baseball, an 18-year drought that remains the longest in team history aside from their opening years. The team built by manager Buck Showalter and GM Gene Michael fully flourished in '96 under new manager Joe Torre and new GM Bob Watson. They won their first division title in 15 years and went 7-2 on the road back to the World Series, defeating the Texas Rangers 3-1 in the ALDS and the Baltimore Orioles 4-1 in the ALCS. A formdiable opponent stood in front of their championship hopes though--the defending champion Atlanta Braves. The Braves were appearing in the fourth World Series out of the previous five and won their first title in Atlanta the previous season over an extremely good Cleveland Indians club. Led by a trio of Cy Young Award winners in John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine, they were a tough draw.
The Braves flexed their muscle by pounding Pettitte in his first World Series start in Game 1, massacring the Yankees in a 12-1 whipping at Yankee Stadium. Maddux pitched a shutout in Game 2, sending the Yanks down 0-2. No team had ever come back from this deficit with the first two losses at home, and the Braves had only ever lost two World Series games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. David Cone outpitched Glavine in Game 3 though, and the Yankees avoided a sweep with a 5-2 win. Unfortunately, they quickly got in trouble in Game 4. Starter Kenny Rogers faltered for the third straight playoff start, and the Braves jumped out to a daunting 6-0 lead by the end of the fifth inning.
Thankfully, the Yankee bullpen strengthened after some early struggles and would hold Atlanta scoreless after the fifth. In the meantime, the Yankees cut the Braves' lead in half against starter Denny Neagle and the Atlanta bullpen. The deficit was still three runs as the eighth inning commenced against lockdown closer Mark Wohlers, a World Series hero for the Braves in '95. Third baseman Charlie Hayes reached on a lucky dribbler that stayed fair up the third base line, and Darryl Strawberry also got on via a liner to left field. Mariano Duncan grounded into a fielder's choice that could have been a double play had defensive specialist Rafael Belliard not fumbled it.
Backup catcher Jim Leyritz now stepped to the plate as the tying run. Leyritz was a good fastball hitter, had some pop in his bat, and had already experienced playoff heroics having hit a walk-off homer in Game 2 of the '95 ALDS against the Mariners. He fouled off some tough pitches from Wohlers, then squared up a hanging slider. Leyritz belted it over the left-field wall for a game-tying three-run homer. The Atlanta crowd was stunned, and two innings later, the Yankees took the lead on an extra-innings, bases-loaded walk to Wade Boggs. The World Series was tied, and two more memorable victories later, the Yankees had their first title since '78. Back in New York, the stadium shook.