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Grand Yankee

Brooklyn-Bred Joe Torre steers the Yankees to a world championship, overcoming personnel troubles and personal trauma.
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 7)

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.

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