Brooklyn-Bred Joe Torre steers the Yankees to a world championship, overcoming personnel troubles and personal trauma.
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Though the Rangers and Orioles were no slouches, New York would have to vanquish the best team of the 1990s, the Atlanta Braves, if they wanted to win the World Series. Between right-handers Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, the Braves' starters owned the last five Cy Young awards; Tom Glavine and Denny Nagel rounded out the best pitching staff in baseball. With Mark Wohlers' 98-mile-per-hour fastball, the world champions had seemed to solve the bullpen woes that plagued them in 1991, 1992 and 1993. While there had been only two dynasties in baseball since the Second World War--the 1950s Yankees and the 1970s Athletics--the Braves were the nearest candidates in the 1990s, appearing in five consecutive postseasons.
They looked dynastic in games one and two. Behind Smoltz and Maddux the Braves won 12-1 and 4-0. The Yankees looked so inept and provided so little excitement that several frustrated fans took to running around the field. "I remember after we lost the first game to the Braves, and George [Steinbrenner] came into my office right here," Torre recalls. "He told me the second game is 'a must win.' And I was in a little bit of a goofy mood. I hadn't slept much in the last few days and said, 'Well, we're a little out of whack and we're liable to lose this game tonight. But don't worry about it. Atlanta's my town; we'll sweep 'em there and win it here next Saturday.' He looked at me like I was goofy, and I was goofy, and it happened--not that when I said it I thought it was going to happen."
"The Braves should finish this up in Atlanta," one correspondent for The Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote, "so they won't have to go back to New York, that festering boil of a city where everyone looks like an extra in the movie Taxi Driver." "The Braves are no longer playing against the Yankees," another wrote, "they're playing against history." He went on to compare the Braves to the 1927 Yankees.
"But in baseball you can't run out the clock," Torre observes. "You have to get 27 outs." Was the skipper nervous? "I was calm. I was happy to leave town. I just felt that when you start in New York you have to win one game because you're going to Atlanta. I think there was a lot of pressure on. All the distractions, after not playing for a week, to try to be on your game, plus the players trying to disperse all their tickets, families flying in, so many things. Just getting away from home, I felt better about it. Then having David Cone pitch made me feel pretty good." Torre made some bold but necessary moves. He replaced Boggs at third with Hayes, O'Neill in right with Strawberry and Martinez at first with Fielder.
Behind Cone, the Yankees took Game 3, 5-2. But in Game 4, the Braves pounded Rodgers and jumped out to a 6-0 lead. In the sixth, hits by Fielder and Hayes halved the lead to 6-3.
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox removed an overpowering [Mike] Bielecki in favor of Wohlers in the eighth, even though the reliever had only once before been called on to deliver two innings. In the most pivotal confrontation of the World Series, Wohlers got two strikes on Jim Leyritz and then his killer instinct seemed to desert him. Instead of going with the 98-mph heat that Leyritz was swinging late on, Wohlers, in the words of Fox broadcaster Tim McCarver, "did what Leyritz couldn't do himself." McCarver meant that Wohlers sped up Leyritz' bat by throwing sliders. "While he's up, my mind is going elsewhere," Torre says. "Because if he walks, it's going to be Boggs pinch-hitting. If he makes an out, now I have to make a decision whether it's going to be Boggs or [Mike] Aldrete. Because Aldrete likes to hit that fastball pretty good. So while he's up I'm not even paying attention, other than watching."
Wohlers hung a slider eye-high and Leyritz konked it, a three-run blast that tied the score. "I knew it was out when he hit it," Torre said. "I've managed and I've played in that ballpark. It's the launching pad. When the ball gets up in the air, it doesn't come down. It was a hell of a rush and yet it didn't surprise me. Once we had cut the lead in half, I figured we were close."
After Boggs worked a bases-loaded walk and [Ryan] Klesko lost a pop-up in the lights in the 10th, the Yankees had the game, 8-6. Only the 1929 Athletics had come back from a bigger deficit in a World Series contest.
Outrageous fortune showed her face on the Yankees again in Game 5 when the Yankees scored their lone run after a routine fly ball fell between Jermaine Dye and Marquis Grissom in right field. The run was enough for Andy Pettite, and the Yankees won, 1-0. Unbelievably, the Yankees had swept the Braves in Atlanta. They had won all eight of their postseason road games.
The day before the Yankees would play Game 6 at Yankee Stadium, Frank Torre was getting the heart transplant he needed. The donor was a 28-year-old man, a man from the Bronx as it turned out, who had died of a brain injury. As John Harper and Bob Klapisch note in their book Champions, Torre was highest on the list of eligible recipients whose blood type matched the donor's. By noon on Oct. 25 the doctors had pronounced the surgery a success. If all this good fortune were not enough, two priests from the University of Notre Dame would throw out the first balls before Game 6.
People throw around words like "destiny," signaling their belief that some power determines events in advance. While no proof of such a metaphysical force exists, it was apparent the Yankees had their own power, an imminent power built on good starting pitching, very good defense, timely hitting and a bullpen for the ages. And a few breaks. In Game 6, Key outpitched Maddux and the Yankees went into the ninth leading, 3-1. Torre handed Wetteland the ball.
For the umpteenth time, Wetteland made the faithful sweat. One caller on a New York sports radio program called him "John Sweatland" because he always gave fans sweaty palms waiting for the outcome. After three singles the Braves were within a run. Then a pesky singles hitter, Mark Lehmke, came up. Lehmke lifted two foul pops to the left side. The first fell just beyond Hayes' reach into the Braves' dugout. But the second was in play and Hayes squeezed it. A deep, deafening roar filled the stadium, spilling out onto River Avenue.
Torre was swarmed by his coaches. "I felt exhilaration, exhaustion--everything you want to think about, I felt. All my coaches just mobbed me. I was sitting there and they were all over me. It was a feeling I can't describe. You feel like you were let into the club." At Zimmer's suggestion, a victory lap around the stadium ensued, and Boggs even joined with NYPD Blue for a horseback turn around the field.
The Yankees had their 23rd world championship, as many as the next three teams combined. It would be hard to argue that this team was the best Yankees team ever. But none of the other champions had--dare we say--any more heart than this edition. In the series the Yanks had been outhit by the Braves (.254 to .216) and outpitched (.233 earned run average to .393).
So why did they win? Because this was an irrepressible comeback team. Because after the sixth inning the Yankees were essentially unhittable, they hung together, they never got rattled and, yes, they had some breaks. They had a $66.6 million payroll, but at no time did the team's stars disintegrate into separate egos. "I'm not impressed, other than their ability," says Torre. "You start in spring training and say there's one stat we're concerned with, and that's wins."
But in these days of free agency, as soon as a team wins, it is already beginning to dissolve. Leyritz, seeking more playing time, signed with California. A free agent, Wetteland was offered more money from Texas than from the Yankees. Then the Yankees didn't offer Jimmy Key a two-year deal for the right money, and he left for Baltimore.
"It hurts because of what Key did for us," Torre says. "He stood out. He took on the responsibility and--well, first of all, he won Game 6 in the World Series. But backtrack and he won an enormous Game 3 in Baltimore and an enormous Game 3 in Texas. Those two games stopped the bleeding. And Leyritz got a home run in Game 4 [of the World Series] that will go down as a Carlton Fisk home run for us."
After Key got away, New York had to sign 34-year-old lefty David Wells, an 11-14 pitcher with the Orioles last year, for $13.5 million, nearly twice as much as the he made in 1996. Since he signed, Wells broke his pitching hand in a fight and was sidelined briefly with gout in spring training.
In the end, the Yankees will have to count on free agents, like Wells and reliever Mike Stanton, to plug the gaps left by the departures. "In order to win that much, you have to have a quality organization," Stanton said on the day he was signed, shortly after meeting the press. "You have to have an organization that wants to put a team on the field that's going to win. The Yankees try to do that every year."
After the press conference, Torre signs some 50 posters for a charity that benefits the children of deceased New York firemen and policemen. He then leaves the clubhouse and heads toward his car. He turns on WQEW, the Sinatra station, and drives toward his New Rochelle, New York, home. After a year like he had, he finds time to savor things. Besides listening to Sinatra (he met the legend in 1985), Torre likes to indulge in red wine, especially Pétrus. One of his friends, Joe Ponte, owns a restaurant in St. Louis and lets him keep his wine collection there. Being such a good friend, Ponte promised Torre a bottle of Pétrus if the Yankees won the World Series.
Ponte owns another restaurant, in Manhattan, and when Torre is in town, he sometimes stops by for a smoke. "After games, I would call him or he'd call me," Torre says, "and if we won by a big score he'd say, 'It was a cigar game,' indicating it was a nice, comfortable easy win." Most of the time the Yankees play close games, not "cigar games." Never mind. Joe Torre just had a cigar year, a year when one thousand smokes wouldn't be enough for the miraculous occurrences in the Bronx.
Kenneth Shouler, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado from White Plains, New York, is the author of The Experts Pick Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years (All Sports Books, 1977).