World Series Memories: Jim Leyritz of the ’96 Yankees on starting a dynasty

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World Series Memories: Jim Leyritz of the ’96 Yankees on starting a dynasty

by Photo: Doug Pensinger / Getty Images Sport / Getty

With Wednesday night’s 7-1 loss, the New York Mets find themselves in an 0-2 deficit in the World Series. They now face the unenviable task of climbing out of that hole, but proof that a team from New York can do it exists up the road in the Bronx – just a quick trip on the 7 train to the No. 4 to East 161st Street and River Avenue.

That’s the site of Yankee Stadium, where the New York Yankees’ seven Commissioner’s Trophies reside – including the one from the 1996 World Series, when they overcame an 0-2 series deficit to defeat the Atlanta Braves.

Facing adversity

Joe Torre was brought in to replace Buck Showalter as manager of the Yankees in 1996 following the team’s playoff collapse against the Seattle Mariners in 1995. Torre guided New York to a 92-70 record that year – four games better than the Baltimore Orioles for top spot in the A.L. East.

The Yankees beat the Texas Rangers in four games in the divisional round, then ousted the Orioles in five games in the ALCS. But they didn’t get off to such a hot start in the World Series, dropping the first two games to the Braves at Yankee Stadium.

That’s when Torre threw down the gauntlet.

“We were down 2-0 right away, ugly,” Jim Leyritz recently told theScore. “We get on the plane, and there was an article that was written in the paper, and (one of the Braves) made a comment. It was ‘We just want to get home. Get this over with, and not have to come back to (Yankee Stadium).’

“So Torre, on the plane, stood up and said ‘You guys see this right here? Let’s get this series back to New York. We get it back to New York – whatever the games are – if we get back to New York, we win this thing.'”

The Yankees won Game 3 comfortably. Leadoff hitter Tim Raines walked and scored in the top of the first inning and the Yankees never gave that lead away.

But Game 4 was a different story. Atlanta was ahead 6-0 through five and in position to take a stranglehold on the series.

Coming up clutch

The Yankees got three back in the top of the sixth to cut the deficit to 6-3. With two men on in the eighth, the table was set for Leyritz, who faced the Braves’ flame-throwing closer Mark Wohlers.

“It was one of those things that, sometimes, ignorance is bliss, because I really didn’t know what Wohlers had, as far as his pitches go,” Leyritz said. “And when I asked (bench coach Don Zimmer) I said ‘What’s this guy got?’ He said, ‘100 miles an hour. Just get ready.'”

Leyritz was down to his last strike when he spoiled a slider away to stay alive.

“As a catcher, I knew, if I’m the catcher, the next pitch I’m throwing is, obviously, a fastball in, because he just got me looking outside,” Leyritz said.

“I moved about a half-inch off the plate after he threw me that slider, because I knew that there was no way that if he threw a fastball in that I could possibly hit it. I’m thinking that maybe he saw that he had that much more of the plate open on the outside corner and he tried to throw another slider out there again to get me to chase, and that’s why he threw it, and that’s why he hung it.”

Leyritz knocked that hanging slider out to left for a three-run home run to draw the game even in one of baseball’s most memorable postseason comebacks.

“All I could think about was ‘Man, that’s a great home run, but if we don’t win this game, and we don’t win the World Series, it’s just gonna be a footnote,” Leyritz said.

The Yankees would win that game, and never trailed again in the series, winning four straight games to bring the Commissioner’s Trophy back to the Bronx for the first time since 1978.

The start of a dynasty

It was the first of four World Series titles the Yankees would win in a five-year span, and Leyritz – whose recent charitable work includes The Greatest Save, a prevention focused personal safety program for kids and teens – believes the win in ’96 was key to the team’s success in the years that followed.

“Had we lost the Series in ’96 like we did, and they lost like they did in ’97, there’s no way that Joe Torre would have been there to begin ’98, and half those guys would have been gone too. Because there’s no way George (Steinbrenner) would have taken a finish like that two years in a row, because they already had that with Buck Showalter. That’s where Buck Showalter got fired.

“It’s not so much what it did right away. It’s what time it bought, after losing like they did in ’97, for George to say ‘OK, you get one more chance.’ I think that’s where it became even bigger than anything else.”