Yankees need to channel spirit of '96 in ALCS
DETROIT -- If you're a depressed Yankees fan, convinced there's no hope in this American League Championship Series gone bad against the Tigers, a history lesson might be just the thing to lift your sagging spirits.
We take you back 16 years, to four games that set down the foundation of a dynasty.
Old Yankee Stadium was a dark and dreary place the night of Oct. 21, 1996. Atlanta's formidable Braves, the defending World Series champions, had humiliated the Yankees for the second night in a row, turning the Fall Classic into their private playground.
Game 1 had been a 12-1 Atlanta blowout featuring two home runs by teenage phenom Andruw Jones. Andy Pettitte got knocked around as John Smoltz cruised.
If you thought the crowd was cranky over the weekend at the new Stadium when the Yanks dropped the first two games of the ALCS (Game 3 is Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on TBS), you should have heard the faithful that night. Boos on the house, all night long.
Game 2 was less messy but no less distressing. Greg Maddux, the Braves' master craftsman, carved up the Yankees while Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff -- the former Yankees farmhand -- drove in three of the runs in a 4-0 decision.
There were 56,340 fans in the building, and the game's temple sounded like church as they filed out.
The Yankees' clubhouse was normally a fun house, with characters such as Darryl Strawberry, David Cone, Mariano Duncan and Jim Leyritz happy to entertain. Prince Fielder's dad, Cecil, was a presence. Wade Boggs, Tim Raines and Charlie Hayes brought the knowing perspective of veterans.
"We'll be all right -- these guys won't back down," Strawberry vowed that night. He'd gone through something similar 10 years earlier when the Red Sox came to Shea Stadium and took the first two Fall Classic games from his '86 Mets, only to watch it unravel in shock and dismay.
Manager Joe Torre had a fine blend of youth and vets in '96. There was the bright-eyed kid, Derek Jeter, so full of promise, along with graceful Bernie Williams, intensely competitive Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez. Cool Mariano Rivera was setting up for closer John Wetteland. The future was looking good.
For insights, the locker of perceptive catcher Joe Girardi could be a good place to visit.
This, however, was no night for conversation. The Yankees were in a foul mood as they packed for the trip to the "Tomahawk Chop" shop known as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The Braves expressed a cool confidence that they had things under control with lefties Tom Glavine and Denny Neagle lined up for Games 3 and 4. Smoltz and Maddux would be coming back -- if necessary.
The New York tabloids got busy forecasting a quick and merciful end to this mismatch of a World Series.
Moving to Hotlanta and a welcome change of scenery, the Yankees found what they needed. Cone, a pressure pitcher with few equals, outdueled Glavine in a 5-2 Game 3 victory.
Williams launched a two-run homer against reliever Greg McMichael during a three-run eighth. Wetteland nailed down the save after Cone limited the Braves to one run through six innings.
Then came the Leyritz game, taking its place with the most memorable in franchise history.
After the Braves jumped on Kenny Rogers for a 6-0 lead in Game 4, the Yankees came alive against Neagle with three in the sixth.
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox summoned his closer, hard-throwing Mark Wohlers, in the eighth.
Singles by Hayes and Strawberry set it up for Leyritz, the backup catcher with the unorthodox, stiff-legged stance. The count reached 2-2, Leyritz fouling back a pair of heaters, when Wohlers elected to throw a fateful slider. It hung in Leyritz's wheelhouse. He drilled it over the wall in left.
"I'm not thinking home run right there," Leyritz would say. "I'm thinking I've got an opportunity to drive in one run if I get a base hit."
Wohlers took it personally. "I lost it," he said. "I blew it."
Suddenly even at 6, the game went to the 10th. With two away, southpaw Steve Avery issued walks to Raines and Williams around a Jeter single. Boggs walked on a full count to force home the go-ahead run, and an error created another run, giving the Yanks an improbable 8-6 win.
Pettitte rebounded with a brilliant effort in Game 5, Smoltz absorbing a 1-0 loss on an unearned run. Marquis Grissom, a center fielder with few peers, mishandled a Hayes drive, and Fielder's one-out double brought him home.
Chipper Jones led off the bottom of the ninth with a double but was stranded by Wetteland, who retired Luis Polonia on a fly ball to O'Neill in deep right center.
The Yanks were going home with the lead.
With an electric atmosphere in the Bronx, the Yankees finished it off with a 3-2 Game 6 triumph behind Jimmy Key. A three-run third against Maddux got it done. O'Neill doubled leading off, Girardi banged a first-pitch triple to center, and Jeter and Williams -- foreshadowing their future greatness -- each singled home runs.
It ended with Hayes, the third baseman, squeezing Mark Lemke's foul popup with two runners aboard.
For Yankees fans, it looks no worse today than it did in 1996. History isn't so boring after all, right?
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.