Wednesday, January 30, 2019

My Nightmare: The 1996 World Series

Image result for Jim Leyritz getty images
(Doug Pensinger / Getty Images Sport / Getty)

I was eleven.

I didn’t know any better

But 20 years later, the series still haunts me. The most vicious of nightmares.

Growing up, kids have nightmares all the time. Nightmares of the boogey man, monsters under the bed, or even a piece of hair in your grilled cheese.And I had all of those nightmares. But the one’s that kept me up at night were nightmares of a different variety.

When I was eleven, I had nightmares of guys like Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neil, Charlie Hayes…

and Jim Leyritz. 

When you grew up rooting for a non-Yankee team in up-state New York, particularly the capital district, you are as lonely as 

The Up-State Yankees 

From 1985 to 1994, the Yankees had a minor-league team in Colonie, New York known as the Albany-Colonie Yankees. My first live baseball games, were Albany-Colonie Yankees games, as it was for my family and friends. We would go to Heritage Park, and wait for our heroes to emerge from the dugout to sign autographs on our balls (oh…baseballs), and our tiny little wooden bats (seriously get your head out of the gutter). Now, we were kids, so any baseball player was a mythical figure to us. But when you go to a minor league stadium and receive an autograph, chances are the signature is going to be worth significantly less than the free giveaway. But the players that came through the AC Yankees during that ten year stretch, makes me reconsider going through my parents asbestos ridden attic. 

Notable AC Yankees

Brad Ausmus 
Doug Drabek 
Sterling Hitchcock 
Derek Jeter
Kevin Jordan 
Al Leiter
Jim Leyritz 
Andy Pettitte
Jorge Posada 
Bernie Williams
Mariano Rivera 
J.T. Snow 

Not a bad collection of talent. But in 1994 the AC Yankees left, as did the Major League Baseball season when players went on strike, thus ending another opportunity for the Braves to win a World Series.

I did not have to wait long though, because in 1995 baseball returned and Atlanta finally won their first World Series in Atlanta, beating the Indians 4 games to 2 in the series. 

And as great as it was to the Braves win the World Series, my little 10-year old boy thought process still begged for bigger things.

Nobody was better than the Braves. And in 1996, the Braves were going to repeat and become the greatest team of the 1990s.

Or so I thought…

The 1996 Season

In 1996, the Atlanta Braves were the best team in baseball, hands down. 

Atlanta had 96 wins during the regular season, and the second place team in the National League had a meager 91 (Padres). Atlanta was 4th in the National League in runs scored, and 2nd in the National League in ERA. And John Smoltz, the third Atlanta Braves pitcher in the 1990s, won his first Cy Young, ending teammates Greg Maddux’s 4 year consecutive run at the award. 

To put it short, there was nothing this team did not have. 

Or so I thought…

Atlanta was down 3-1 in the NLCS to the St. Louis Cardinals, before the Braves staged one of their greatest rallies in their postseason history. The Cardinals, who had scored 17 runs in the first four games of the series, could only score one run in the last 3. At that point in 1996, Atlanta had become only the 7th team in postseason history to overcome a 3-1 deficit and the first since the 1986 Red Sox to do so. At eleven years old…I did not understand that, that was not good company to be in. 

But Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine were sensational and it appeared that an angry beast had awoken in Atlanta. That beast, the Braves fearsome rotation, was going to win us another World Series…

All the Braves had to do was get by the significantly less talented, inexperienced, team from the American League, who had not been to a World Series in fifteen years. It just happened to be the Yankees. 

The 1996 Yankees 

There was zero reason to be scared about the 1996 Yankees. This was not your grandfather’s Yankees. They weren’t even your father’s Yankees, this was some rash-tag group of veterans and rookies, who had no business be in the World Series. I am still pursuing legal options to remove their title. And that’s not to cast aspersions on this team, but the Yankees, on paper, did not compare to other teams in the American League: 

Cleveland Indians 

Seattle Mariners

Baltimore Orioles 

The Yankees were not great in anything. But what they were, was very good, in almost everything. Something that took me a very long time to realize and admit to. The Yankees did have four hitters who it .300 that year, but that didn’t phase me:

Yankee .300 Hitters & My Reactions

Wade Boggs: .311
My reaction: “Yeah ok, you are a real good hitter, but our pitchers are much better.”
Bernie Williams: .305
My reaction: “So overrated. No where near as good as Ken Griffey Jr.” 

Paul O’Neil: .302
My reaction: “Whatever, he can hit. But he is such an asshole. Assholes don’t win World Series, thats why the Indians lost last year (Albert Belle).” 

Derek Jeter: .314
My Reaction: “Ok rookie, do it when matters. This is the postseason. Like Jeter is going to hit in the postseason.” 

The pitching wasn’t anything to boast about either. Yeah they had one 20-game winner, some guy who could hardly throw above 90, and there were way too many ‘ts’ in this guy’s name. I’ll take my chances with Andy Pettitte. Sure David Cone was good too, but the rest of the rotation wasn’t reliable (Kenny Rogers, Dwight Gooden, Jimmy Key) so that means the Yankees bullpen was going to have be better than awesome. Jeff Wetland was good, but he only comes in when the Yankees have a lead, but that wasn’t going to happen often. So all the Braves had to do was beat up on the likes of Jeff Nelson, Ramiro Mendoza, and some guy name Mariano Rivera…

…absolute nobodies. 

There was no way this group was going to beat the Braves. They weren’t in the same class as the Braves. And Paul O’Neil has no class! It all made sense!

Or so I thought…(you think its painful reading that again, try thinking it!)

Games 1 & 2: The Wager 

From the get go, I was right.

Atlanta was too much for the Yankees. 

In Game One, the Braves destroyed the Yankees, and their nonsensical pitching, led by Andy “I own all of the Ts” Pettitte. The Braves won 12-1. The Braves scored eight in the first 3 innings. led by rookie one of Andruw Jones’s two home runs (“Dude, he is so much better than that Jeter kid.”). 

In Game Two, the Braves dominated in a different way. Curtsey of Greg Maddux’s 8 brilliant innings, the Yankees bats were inept, and the Braves had more than enough offense to win 4-0. In two games, the Yankees could score just one run and dating back to the Cardinals series, Atlanta pitching had only given up four runs in five games. 

Everything was going to plan, and better yet it all made sense. The Braves had been like the Buffalo Bills of baseball, getting to the World Series in 1991 and 1993 and losing in both instances. They seemed to have exercised those demons when beating the Indians in the 95 series, and 1996 was destined to be the coronation of the next great dynasty in baseball. 

It just so happens, it was the team down 0-2 coronation.

Again, as an eleven year-old boy, on the cusp of witnessing greatness, humility was not a trait I had mastered. After all, I was in the middle of Yankee land, my Atlanta Braves were not beating up on just the Yankees, but it was my friend’s Yankees. Players like Bernie, Jeter, Rivera, and even the real sucky ones like Jim Leyritz, were players we all grew up watching in person, (albeit for a brief time) and they were getting ravaged by my team. By my Braves. I couldn’t help it, I had to proclaim my pride for my patrons of our national pastime to everyone and anyone I could talk to. And in up-state to New York, it was to all Yankees fans. Which made it so much better.

What could they say after all? We were the Braves, and the last anybody looked, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, nor Reggie Jackson was flying to Atlanta to do anything about it. 

Even though Jackson was a bench coach at the time, and he would be flying down…but that’s besides the point. 

I was especially an annoyance during school, because well, I didn’t go anywhere else. My friends, people I wanted to be my friends, were all in my path of verbal abuse. But there was one person in particular, I never should have messed with. And it wasn’t because my 4’10’’, 65 pound frame was worried about some, much bigger bullies. But because it was the principal, a man who appeared to be ripped right out of a Martin Scorsese film, and while I should have feared either being suspended or shot in the back of the head in a fishing boat, my glowing arrogance got the best of me. 

Throughout the hallways, I would constantly yell out “Sweep!” at anyone I saw in Yankee apparel. But I had learned that the principal, was also a Yankee fan. I had also learned in my early days in the Middle School, that the principal was not somebody to mess with. Truthfully, he was an incredibly nice guy, who I had the pleasure of working for. He actually became my first boss, as he gave me my first job in teaching. At that time, I didn’t know of the profound impact he would have on my life. And if anyone had told me at that time, I don’t believe I would have cared. There are something things that are more important…at that time, nothing was more important than the Braves and their apparent sweep of the Yankees. 

So every now and then, when the principal walked by, my chants of ‘sweep’ would be in his direction, then I would quickly duck around a corner. But I ran out of places to hide in the library, and when the principal walked into, I launched my verbal barrage, and stood my ground (like an idiot). This time, the principal called out my name, pointed his finger, and motioned me to come towards him like Laurence Fishburne in the Matrix. Reality soon registered inside of me, because he had that look on face. I had sealed my fate. In hindsight, yelling in a library was probably not the best approach I could of had, but that was irrelevant in my long walk towards the man. When I finally reached him, I was shocked what he had to say…

“You know the Yankees are going to come back and win the series, right?”

Are you kidding me!?!?!?! That’s what he had to say? Had his insane fandom, completely cloud the fact that the Yanks were down 2-0 and heading back to Atlanta. And had it gotten me out of trouble?

“Don’t yell in the library, and just remember what I said. Yankees in 6.” 

Just wow. I was never a tall child, but I must had grown 10 inches that day. Clearly, Yankees fans were reeling from their abysmal two game performance and their dismay led them to a state of denial. Its like only I knew what was going to happen. That pride was what ultimately would do me in.

Later that day, after the library incident, I was sitting in 9th period language arts, when all of sudden the principal appeared in my classroom. He instantly took over the classroom, and made me an offer, that I couldn’t refuse.

“The Yankees are going to come back and win this World Series. And they are going to do it in 6 games. I will make a wager with Kevin here, if the Braves win the World Series, I will bring pizza for this entire classroom. However, if the Yankees win, Kevin has to make chocolate chip cookies for the entire classroom. Deal?” 

One thing we have to remember is that this was a long time ago, long before Michelle Obama’s initiative to rid the country of childhood obesity. Today, the bet probably would have been centered around apples and kale. But this was the 90s, we embraced things like portliness, and to an extent diabetes. But this was a perfect situation, the Braves were going to win their second straight World Series, and I was going to get pizza. There was nothing more life could give me. 

But it was at that moment, that life took everything away. (Well, for an obsessed Braves fan that I was, life took everything away). 

Game 3- Graeme Lloyd’s Legend 

It went without saying, that game 3 of the 1996 World Series, was a must win for the Yankees. For game 3, they had their best starter in David Cone on the hill. Cone had not started the year with the Yankees, as he was added right before the trade deadline in 1995, from the Blue Jays. Toronto had got Cone from Kansas City in the offseason with the hopes of rejuvenating a franchise who won back to back World Series in 1992 and 1993. However at the deadline, the Blue Jays were well below .500 and wanted to rebuild the franchise by adding prospects. Unfortunately the package their received for Cone (Marty Janzen, Jason Jarvis, and Mike Gordon) did not work out in their favor. But Cone, worked out very well for the Yankees. He went 9-2 down the stretch and became the Yankees most reliable postseason performer. 

But the start of the 1996 season almost brought Cone career to end. At the end of April, Cone had a circulation issue that was impacting more than just his pitching. Doctors quickly diagnosed Cone with an aneurysm and Cone went into surgery at the beginning of May. At first doctors were not able to comment as to whether or not Cone would return to baseball in 1996 or if ever. Thankfully the surgery went well and Cone returned to action late in the season. And when he returned, he was dominate. Cone went 7-2 in the 1996 season with a 2.88 era. It was a large return after a terrifying start to the season, but in Game 3, David Cone was about to pitch the biggest game of his life. 

Starting for the Atlanta Braves was Tom Glavine. Glavine had become Atlanta’s most reliable starter in the postseason dating back to his 8 innings of shutout ball in the clinching, game 6, of the 1995 World Series. Prior to game 3, Glavine had started four games in the postseason and only gave up three earned runs in 20 innings pitched. But there is one thing that only Braves fans, and to an extent Mets fans as well, know about Glavine. He just has to get through the first two innings. 

And in the first inning, Glavine was not dominate. Raines draws a leadoff walk to start the game (never good), a sacrifice by Jeter (because he can’t hit when it counts…I called it!) than a Bernie Williams single had the Yankees up 1-0 from the get go. And while Glavine pitched well throughout the game, the game was over from that point. Cone quieted the Braves bats, and inning after innings the Yankees gained momentum. 

There was one glimmer of hope for the Braves and that came in the bottom of the 8th inning. The Yankees were up 5-1 (some errors made Glavine’s day worse than it already was), but the Braves staged a little rally. Marquis Grissom led things off with a triple, Mark Lemke brought him home with a single, than the heart of the Braves lineup was due up with no outs, down three, and a runner on. Oh by the way, this was all off the Yankees 8th inning “specialist” Mariano Rivera, who was another guy who was clearly faltering to the pressure of pitching in a big moment (you think I sound stupid? Try typing this crap as you relive it). Up was Chipper Jones, who was a prolific left-handed hitter, with serious power, and an above average right-handed batter. Manager Joe Torre went back into his bullpen and pulled out Graeme Lloyd, their lefty specialist. 

His speciality…killing the Braves left-handed batters. 

Lloyd was born in Geelong, Victoria, Australia and this Aussie would go on to ruin my life. And one guy in particular…Ryan Klesko. Now, if you have noticed the pattern of this article, and what I am trying to accomplish, you would presume that I would go into a little anecdote about each player. Perhaps talk about something unique in their past and how their destinies have somehow intertwined to bring these two together. I’m not going to do that. Because Graeme Lloyd was brought to this earth to do one thing…

Destroy, Ryan Klesko. 

So when the Australian Terminator took the hill, he had to face the heart of the Braves order; Jones, McGriff, and Klesko. If the Braves could amount some sort of rally and steal game 3 from the Yankees, the series would be over. In fact, the Yankees wouldn’t even have to show up to Fulton County Stadium for game 4 and everyone would have understood. But that was not the case, because Lloyd was sent from down under (going to use as many Australian puns as I can here) to strike out Chipper Jones, get Fred McGriff to fly out, then; strikeout Klesko, on three pitches. It would not be the last time. Klesko looked as enable to hit of Lloyd as John Kruk did versus Randy Johnson. 

While the term ‘bloodbath’ is not a commonly used term in baseball, Lloyd’s execution against the Braves power bats would be undeniable. In the 1996 World Series, Lloyd would appear in four games, pitch 2 and 2/3 innings, strikeout four, and not give up a single hit. Klesko and Lloyd would meet again in the series (with much higher stakes), and in future match-ups, and each time, you knew what was happening. For the Braves, it was nothing. 

The Braves lost game 3, 5-2, but they were still up in the series 2-1. I’m not particularly strong in math, but I liked our chances. 

But game 4 would provide not only the turning point in the series, but the turning point in the way I viewed and watched sports forever. 

Game 4: Santa Clause Is Dead

There are two sides to every story. 

Game 4 of the 1996 World Series, would end up becoming one of the most iconic World Series’s games of all-time. For Yankee fans, it was the moment their next dynasty was formed. It was the moment all hope was restored. It was the moment I became a narcissist of a sports fan. 

Anyone who understands children knows that Middle School is one of the toughest transition a young adolescent can make. Boy or girl, there are a lot of changes that go on. Now, the purpose here is to relive the 1996 World Series, so I am not going to relive Mr. Jones’s health class and discuss the changes that go on in each gender’s body (never quite understood why the girls never laughed like the boys did after that segment. I wonder what they watched. That stuff was funny). But the real change that takes place is the struggle in transition from childhood to adulthood. Kids will push their limits in an effort to gain a more, of an adult-like status. They will make poorly-constructed arguments to stay up late, or to make frivolous purchases. It’s all part of being a kid and trying to find adulthood. But sometimes, the children lose their innocence, against their will, because the real world, reels its ugly head. 

That was game 4 for me. Game 4, I ended my childhood. 

It started off as good as any game could have ever started. It was a Wednesday night, a school night, so I had to try and convince my parents to let me stay up as late as possible to watch. Thankfully my mom, was just as big as a Braves fan as me, so it did not take too much convincing. 

Interesting side not about my mother is that she was a Braves fan, because her mother, my grandmother loved two things about baseball. The New York Yankees and Hank Aaron. Mom would tell me stories that on hot summer days, grandma used to sit under a tree in the front yard with her radio to listen to Yankee games and if she could a Braves game when they made their trip to play the Dodgers or Giants, and when they moved, the Mets. My grandma also gave birth to two twin girls, my Aunt Cathy and my mother. Aunt Cathy became a Yankees fan, my mom a Braves fan. Likewise, her son, my cousin, who is the same age, became a Yankee fan, and took a brunt of my abuse. My cousin Joey and I competed in everything. Now if he is reading this, he is going to want it noted that he beat me in almost everything. Which is fine, I have no problem admitting to that. And at that time, with the Braves up in the series, I could care less. This series is what it was all about. All those times we spent in the backyard pretending to be these same players, him taking the hill as David Cone or in the batter’s box as Bernie Williams, and myself as Greg Maddux and Fred McGriff (but McGriff was a right-handed batter in the backyard, because I refused to try and hit lefty). He could win all the games in the back yard as he wanted…this series was for real. 

I did not need to stay up long, or so I thought, because in the 2nd inning the Braves offense finally exploded. In the 2nd inning, Fred McGriff homered off of Kenny Rogers to lead things off (which is proof that Graeme Lloyd is the ‘lefty killer’ because McGriff could hit off left-handed pitching. Just not Lloyd), then followed walks to Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones, and then the merry-go-round. RBI single by Jeff Blauser, a double by Grissom, and when the inning finally ended. The Braves were up 4-0. I was more than alright with going to bed at that point. Because there was no way with the Braves pitching, that the Braves were losing game 4, up 6-0. So I went to bed, not knowing what would happen.

This is why, its my biggest nightmare I have had to endure. Ironically, this nightmare happened when I was asleep but was not a result of subconsciousness, but in my actual consciousness, even though I wasn’t aware…because I was sleeping. That’s as confusing, as what would take place. 

Fast-forward to the 6th inning, and Atlanta starter, Denny Neagle is cruising. Neagle had been Atlanta’s biggest surprise of the season going 14-6 in his first year with the Braves. Typically Game 4, is for your best starter, because there is a chance you can bring him back in Game 7 if needed. But manager Bobby Cox elected to go with Denny Neagle over John Smoltz, because that was the rotation. If Neagle won, Smoltz would pitch the clincher in Game 5, if Neagle lost, its 2-2 and Smoltz would break the tie. It sounded like sound judgement, but…

After Neagle costed through 5 innings, with a 6-0 lead (sacrifice fly in the 3rd and a Andruw Jones RBI double in the 5th added more insurance) it started to unravel for the young lefty. Jeter singled on a bizarre, pop-fly to right field that Jermaine Dye mishandled. Bernie walked, and RBI singles by Cecil Fielder and Charlie Hayes, two veterans, way past their prime, who were only playing to hit off of the lefty both knocked in runs with RBI singles. And just like that…it was 6-3. Cox went to the bullpen to bring in Terrance Wade, but he walked Darryl Strawberry to load the bases with no outs. Cox went to the bullpen again to bring Mark Bielecki, and he struck out Mario Duncan, Paul O’Neil and Tino Martinez to end the rally and threat. If the Braves had gone on to win the World Series, this would of been the moment that lived in Braves lure forever. Mark Bielecki could have earned MVP honors with that moment in the 6th inning. It should have killed the Yankees spirit. It should have ended the series. 

But that’s not the way nightmares work. Nightmares give you a little moment of breath to then snatch it away from you, when you least expect it. Fast-forward to the 8th. 

Bielecki pitched beautifully in the 7th, but in the 8th inning he was pulled for Mark Wholers to get the 6-out save. In 1996, Mark Wholers was one of the pre-dominate closers in the game. Wholers had a 2.09 era with 25 saves in 1995, and he also recorded the final outs of the 1995 World Series. In 1996, Wholers had a career high 39 saves. But in the playoffs, he reached new levels. In the NLDS and NLCS, Wholers appeared in six games, struck out eight, and only surrendered one hit. But in the 8th inning, with a comfortable 3-run cushion, and the bottom of the Yankees order due, Wholers imploded. 

The inning started off bad with back to back singles from Charlie Hayes (swinging bunt he hardly touched on the first) and Darryl Strawberry. Mario Duncan was then up, with two on and no outs, and Wholers induced a picture-perfect double play ball. At shortstop was Rafael Belliard, who replaced Jeff Blauser in the 7th, for defensive purposes. Belliard was a well below average major league hitter, but he was as sure-handed as they come. In fact, the only reason he was on the team, was for his defense. Irony which was the bedrock of game 4, reared its ugly head as Belliard booted the grounder and could only get the one out at second. But the double play was still in order, 1 out, runners on 1st and 3rd and Jim Leyritz to the plate. 

Back in the 6th inning, Jim Leyritz came on to replace Joe Giradi at catcher. Giradi had hit awful in the postseason, and in the World Series he mustered only four hits. So Giradi was pulled because Leyritz was the “better” hitting catcher. But to say Leyritz was better than Giradi was like saying Keystone is better than Milwaukee’s Best. You can’t really tell, they are both pretty bad. Leyritz showed he was bad early on in the at-bat. Leyritz seemed overmatched, struggling to keep up with Wholers 98 mph fastball. But then, for unknown reasons, Wholers started throwing sliders. After the 2-1 pitch, play-by-play analyst, Tim McGarver commented on Wholers pitch selection:

“This situation right here…Bobby Cox is shaking his head…if you get beat, you want to get beat on your best pitch, not your third best.”

Then Wholers threw a 99 mph fastball that Leyritz couldn’t catch up to if they moved the mound back to second base. Wholers had him, dead to rights, all he had to do, is amp up the fastball one more time. Instead Wholers threw a slider that Leyritz fouled off. Perhaps just to keep him honest. Again all he has to do is throw the fastball. Instead, Wholers did this…

Now even though I did not see this live. You have to imagine what my reaction was, the next morning. I loved my mornings as I child. My mom would wake me up for school, in the most subtle of ways, typically by banging pots and pans while screaming to my aunt on the phone about something QVC related, or just banging the wall adjacent to my bedroom with a wooden spoon. I would then troll downstairs and watch Sportscenter through bloodshot eyes as I attempted to wake up and tackle the day. But instead of watching the news, and enjoying myself, I was succumbed to watch Leyritz round the bases pumping his fist in the air. Honestly, that’s the only memory of that game that I have. I couldn’t remember how the Braves broke out to a 6-0 lead, and I couldn’t even remember what happened after the Leyritz homer and how they ended up winning the game. All I remember is that the Braves were in big trouble, and schools was going to be a very unpleasant experience. 

Game 5 & 6: My fate is sealed. 

I have been dreading the writing of this article for some time now. I actually have pushed it off for as long as I could. But Madden came out on Tuesday, and I was not getting any work done. I respect fellow FiveFootNothingSports writer Matt G.’s opinion, but I bought Madden. Because I am still hanging onto my youth. At least, my favorite parts anyway. 

The 1996 World Series is obviously excluded. 

Because when I think back to that time, and games 5 & 6 in particular, I think it was the most miserable I had been, about something most people would consider, not that serious, my entire life. Not only did my team lose the biggest games, but I lost a humiliating bet. I would have to face my friends, people who did not like me, and my principal who I had been talking so much trash to for the better part of a week. 

But after the Leyritz walk-off, I had become numb with grief and astonishment. I couldn’t believe the Braves were going to some how, some way, lose to this Yankee team, at this juncture of my life. I had been told by so many adults that you should cherish your childhood because it is the best time of your life. Well, kiss my ass, this is what the Depression must have felt like. I was not prepared for the onslaught I thought I would receive at school. But I was also not ready to give up hope.

Game 5 and Game 6 took care of that for me. 

Game 5- The Hangover & Revelation
Game 5 was by far the most boring game of the series. Because the Yankees had a boring performance from Andy Pettitte and the Braves clearly could not shake off of the rust from Game 4. The Braves looked like a beat team, not the team that had comfortable went up 2-0 and were on the verge of a dynasty. The Braves looked…like the Braves would be known throughout the era. 

Game 5 proved to be worse than any hangover alcohol could ever muster. The Braves bats were dead in Game 5 as Andy Pettitte was as dominate as he was boring. Pettitte only struck out four batters, and walked three but the Braves could only muster five hits and no rallies. But Game 5 proved to a emblematic of the Braves postseason struggles, not only in 1996, but throughout the Bobby Cox era. 

The Braves were built on starting pitching, and when you look at the Braves 15+ postseason appearances in the 1990s-2000s and just the one World Series win, you presume that the Braves starting pitching failed Atlanta time and time again. But just like in Game 5 with Andy Pettitte quieted the Braves bats, what grew louder was a larger misconception about the Braves starters in the postseason. 

The Misconception of the Braves Starters 

“They weren’t big game pitchers.”

“Their numbers were terrible in the postseason.” 

The big three of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz were three of the most dynamic pitchers of the 1990s. All three ended up being elected in the Hall of Fame, and all three would somehow end up with this dubious distinction as bad postseason pitchers. But consider the following:

Career Postseason Numbers

Greg Maddux: 11-14, 3.27 ERA.

Interesting Fact: from 1995-1999 Maddux never gave up more than 4 earned runs in a single start.

Tom Glavine: 14-16, 3.30 ERA. 

Interesting Fact: In the Braves only World Series victory in the 1990s, Glavine pitched two games in the World Series, including the game clincher (8 innings, 0 earned runs). Glavine logged 14 innings in the 1995 World Series, gave up only 4 hits, struck out 11, and had an ERA of 1.29. 

John Smoltz: 15-4, 2.67 ERA. 

Interesting Fact: Smoltz was a starter in the postseason from 1991-2000, then when he converted to a closer, Smoltz pitched in relief from 2001-2005. During that span Smoltz had a 2.97 strikeout to walk ratio. 

If the conception that Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz couldn’t pitch when it counted, than the conception is wildly incorrect. While the winning percentage are low, the ERA more than validates that the three starters routinely showed up for the postseason, but the offense did not. Tom Glavine particularly has been the poster boy of this misconception (pitching for the Mets did not help) but Glavine is fourth all-time in postseason wins, and Andy Pettitte who is the all-time leader in postseason wins, and widely regarded as one of the game’s best ever postseason pitchers, has a career postseason ERA of 3.81. Unfortunately for Glavine and the rest of the Braves, the Yankees were just better hitters in October than Atlanta’s hitters. 

It would be Game 5 that would begin to cement the legacy of Andy Pettitte in the postseason, but people forget that John Smoltz, the Braves starter for Game 5, was sensational. Smoltz also pitched 8 1/3 innings, gave up four hits, and struck out 10 before coming out of the game. Now Smoltz did give up the game’s only run on a Cecil Fielder RBI double in the fourth. And there will be people who say “You gotta get the win. That’s all that counts.” Well those people are Yankee fans…

…and that’s why I hate them. 

Game 6- The End 

They say when victims go through something tragic, their brains are able to block out the events of the tragedy from their brains. 

I learned that from Mariska Hargestay from Law and Order: SVU. 

I think that’s what I have been doing since I was eleven years old because when I try to recollect what happened in Game 6 my brain goes to one place.

I went to bed crying, and questioning life. Plus I was pissed because I never made the chocolate chip cookies that I needed to have for the bet with my principal. 

I didn’t stay up to watch the whole game, but I had saw enough (because my mother told me). The Braves weren’t hitting, they were once again wasting a good start by Maddux, and I knew that my fate was going to be sealed on that cold night in the Bronx. Now I am not going to bother to give you all of the highlights of the game because we all know what happened. Instead I will tell you the moment I went to bed…

Bottom of the 6th inning, Braves down 3-1, with the heart of the order due up with Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, and Javy Lopez. 

Chipper Jones, the young, the future all-time great Atlanta Brave, lead things off for Atlanta. He had hit well in his second postseason hitting over .300, and in the World Series he hit .286. It wasn’t a legendary .286, but it was respectable. Chipper Jones would go on to have far better postseason performances, and notoriously far worse. When the Braves matched up against the Yankees in the 1999 World Series, Chipper Jones was the MVP of baseball that season, but he looked anything but in the 1999 World Series hitting only .231, as the Braves got swept. He was the best third baseman since Mike Schmidt, the best switch-hitter since Mickey Mantle, and he should be a first ballot Hall of Famer. It would be Chipper Jones would be the face of the Braves, more than any of the other pitchers like Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz or any other Brave for that matter. But unfortunately for Jones, part of his legacy is the fact that despite his efforts, he could not bring another title back to Atlanta. After his rookie season in 1995 Braves fans would have gambled their mortgages that Jones would be part of many World Series teams.

But before all of that, before Chipper Jones retired, before the years of disappointment in the posteason, and before the housing market crashed in 2008 (which I also tried blaming on Jones throughout the years) back in the 6th inning of Game 6, Jones led things of with a double. 

Fred McGriff was due up next, and if Chipper Jones was the Batman of disappointment from an offensive perspective throughout the years in the postseason, McGriff was the Robin. McGriff got off to a hot start in the 1996 World Series, but the left-handed pitching of the Yankees silenced ‘The Crime Dog & Tom Emanski endorser’ was just 2-12 over the last four games of the series. McGriff left the Braves after the 1999 season and would have some monster seasons in Tampa Bay (random), but the Braves owed a lot of their success and failures to their clean-up hitter. McGriff grounded out to second, as Chipper moved to third. 

Javy Lopez came up next for the Braves, and he was possibly one of the most perplexing players Atlanta had during that era.

Lopez was a career .287 hitter. He would have six years with 20+ homers, 4 seasons of 80 + RBIs, and from 1995-2000 he never hit below .287. He was also, the catcher. Lopez was consistently one of Atlanta’s best power bats in the 1990s and 2000s. He nearly won the MVP in 2003, as he hit .323 with 43 homers and 109 RBIs. But in an era that featured the two best hitting catchers of all-time, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez, there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to what Lopez did during his tenure. Even more perplexing was the fact that Lopez routinely hit in the bottom half of the Braves lineups. Despite the power numbers Cox kept Lopez in the 6th and 7th spot in the order. Which is nice to have in the bottom of your order, but didn’t really due justice to the caliber of a hitter Lopez was during that stretch.

Even more astonishing is that Lopez didn’t catch for Greg Maddux. Despite his presence in the lineup, Maddux opted to have backup catcher Eddie Perez, an athletic catcher from Venezuela, to catch for him. The problem with Perez, is that he couldn’t hit like Javy Lopez. He hardly could hit like Jennifer Lopez. But in Game 6, Cox, desperate for offense, opted to have Lopez’s bat in the lineup and hopefully Maddux could adjust. Maddux did give up 3 earned runs in the 3rd, but he settled to keep the Yankees bats silent for the remainder of his stint. But Atlanta needed runs, and that’s why Lopez was in the lineup…

He struck out swinging. 

Next was rookie sensation Andruw Jones, who got off to a bang in the series when he homered back in Game 1. But he was a rookie, and Jones struggled throughout the World Series. In this at-bat, however, he walked, and represented the tying run. 

After the Jones double, starter Jimmy Key was removed from the game. Dave Weathers a journeyman reliever, he struck out Lopez, but after the walk, decisions were made. The first was made by Bobby Cox. Due up was Jermaine Dye who was also a rookie outfielder for Atlanta. After the season, Dye would be dealt to Kansas City were he would become one of the game’s most underrated power hitters. He would go on to win his lone World Series rings with the Chicago White Sox in 2005, and would retire with over 300 homers and 1,000 RBIs in his career. Cox decided to bench him…for Ryan Klesko. 

Ryan Klesko pinch-hits for Jermaine Dye…So Torre brings in…

Graeme Lloyd.

Klesko popped out to end the inning. I went to bed in tears. 

The Braves would scratch another run across the board in the 9th to make things interested. But with Mark Lemke up in the bottom of the 9th and two outs, this happened…

It was official, the Braves lost the World Series. The Yankees had won it. And life was officially over. I laid in bed and wondered what went wrong.

What if the Braves started Maddux on short rest in Game four instead of Denny Neagle? What if Wholers decided to throw just fastball to Leyritz? What if Graeme Lloyd grew kangaroos instead of becoming a big league pitcher? But my biggest worry was not what did happen in the 1996 World Series, but what would happen to me the next day in school. I didn’t have the chocolate chip cookies, I didn’t even tell my mother about it. At eleven, I was nowhere near as good of a cook as I am today, now I can pull pork with the best of them. What were my friends going to say? What was the principal going to say? I needed a miracle to get me out of this.

My Miracle 

I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat, like actual sweat. I was feeling pretty lousy about the what lied ahead of me, but I also felt pretty lousy. Could this be? My head hurt, I was coughing. I was cold, I was hot, I was sick! Yes I was sick! My bacteria ridden miracle could possibly get me out of this. But I need my supervisor’s approval, without that I had nothing. I went right into my parents room, woke them up like it was Christmas morning, and uttered those hopeful words “Ma, I don’t feel well”. But I needed to pass her strict, medical training to get out of this…my forehead needed to be warm. It was, a thermometer would confirm a 102 fever.

102 fever, that’s not just out of school for one day, that’s a good 2 possibly 3 days out of school. It would by me sometime, and perhaps when I returned to school everyone would forget about the World Series, and possibly the bet. The 1996 World Series literally made me sick. It was the only positive I could take away from the experience. 

Three days later my flu was coming to an end. I was feeling better, the Patriots were one of the best teams in the NFL, and I was starting to get over the World Series. It was the last day I was staying home from school, I was hanging out, and then the phone rang. My mom picked up the phone, and walked into the garage. After a few minutes or so I could hear her laughing and then she said “I don’t care what bet he made, if he is healthy, I’m sending his ass to school”. It was the principal, calling to apologize to my mom. He thought I was staying home because I was embarrassed by the series. But I wasn’t embarrassed, it was better, I was sick! But the cat was out of the bag on this one. Mom walked back into the house, and wondered why I had never told her. We then took out the stuff for chocolate chips and made my principal his cookies. 

I was back in school the next day with the tin can under my arm. My principal met me in my english class room, passed out the cookies, and had a good laugh. It was no where near as bad as I thought, I figured he, and the rest of my friends realized I had probably suffered enough. Or perhaps they knew my suffering was not over…

In 1999, the Yankees and Braves would meet again in the World Series, and this time the Yankees swept the Braves. After that the Braves won the NL East crown until 2006, but never returned to the World Series. And I would make a decision…(a few times)

No Longer A Brave

They say college is the time you find yourself, and you experiment. I decided to experiment with a different favorite baseball team. I liked the Devil Rays for a little bit (if I was going to switch i wasn’t going to let anyone call me a front runner), but I ended up leaving after a few years (it was Tampa after all) and went back to the Braves (and the Rays went to the World Series). But that didn’t stick, this Braves team wasn’t my Braves team. Chipper was old, Maddux and Glavine were long gone, as was McGriff. It just wasn’t the team I grew up with, and it was the team I suffered with. But the suffering I think was just too much to overcome. 

And I know what you are probably thinking:

“You’re a terrible fan! How can you do that? You can’t switch your team!” 

And that’s hard to argue against. But it is something I have done, and I think rooting for the Mets now is my penance for doing so. But this article is not to argue the ethics behind my decision to leave the Braves, but rather my rationale. The Braves were my childhood team, and in 1996 my childhood, in many ways, came to to an end. It was something I could never forgive them for. You would think that writing this article would give me clarity on the issue. 20 years later, you think the adult in me would allow me to let go of what I felt when I was eleven. But you would be wrong. 

This was the hardest story I have ever had to tell. Twenty years later, those same feelings are still there. For the purpose of journalistic integrity I have had to delete “F**** Ryan Klesko” like five times. 

But everybody has gone through hard times. 

Ask a Mets fan about Yadier Molina.

Ask a Yankees fan about 2004.

Ask a Patriots fan about playing the Giants in the Super Bowl. 

No fan base is excused of pain inflicted on them by their favorite team. And this three part series is in no way an argument that I suffered more than anyone else has.

But one thing I have realized is that while I am not be the greatest fan of one particular team in baseball, I am a baseball fan. Because while the Yankees robbed me of childlike innocence, they would become my nemesis, as would Yankee fans. The Yankees, even before Larry Lucchino gave them their imperial name, were my ‘Evil Empire’. If the Yankees were the enemy, then by default, everyone else was the good guy. This forced me to know all of the teams, its players, and eventually the history of all of those teams. As much as I was a Braves fan, I was  more of a “Anti-Yankee” fan. 

And that’s the story. You may not like the way I handled it, or my perspective. But I didn’t like how it all came to end. 

And In the end, when I thought the Braves loss to the Yankees in the 1996 World Series was the end. But I was wrong. 

And while the Braves could not restore my faith it would be a team in the desert and the greatest comeback in sports history that would give me, atlas some reprieve of 1996.

But that’s a story for another time. With a much happier ending. 

No comments:

Post a Comment