Wednesday, June 24, 2009

1996 World Series: My Look Back

As I mentioned in my Dave Winfield post a couple weeks back, I began following the Yankees closely in 1988. In many ways, it was a watershed season for the Yankees. It was the last of Billy Martin's five tours of duty as Yankee manager and the last time Lou Piniella appeared in a Yankee uniform. It was the swan song for co-captains and longtime Yankees Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph - the last two connections to the glory years of the late 70s and early 80s, and essentially the last hurrah for Winfield as well. It was also Rickey Henderson's final full season in pinstripes.

Don Mattingly had another very good year, but it wasn't quite as good as the lofty standards he had set from 1984-87, and he failed to finish in the top ten in MVP voting for the first time since his rookie year. He would be productive again in 1989, but only show flashes of his former brilliance thereafter.

In the broadcast booth, Bill White was calling his 18th and final season of Yankee baseball with Phil Rizzuto on WPIX, leaving after the season to become President of the National League. On the cable side, it was the Yankees' final season on SportsChannel before moving to MSG Network the following year and ushering in a new era for baseball TV contracts.

On June 13, 1988, the Yankees were 39-21, playing .650 ball and leading the AL East by 3 games. They went 46-55 the rest of the way, finishing at 85-76, only 3.5 games out of first but fifth in the seven team division. For the next several years, that would be the highwater mark of my Yankee fandom, at a time when to me Yankee baseball was most important thing on the face of the planet.

1989 started a string of four consecutive losing seasons for the Yanks, lowlighted by an American League worst 67-95 (.414) season in 1990, the Yankees fifth worst winning percentage in their history and the worst since 1913. The only MLB team worse that year was the Braves at 65-97.

As I touched in the Game 6 recap, things began to change in 1993. General Manager Gene Michael and manager Buck Showalter had changed the culture of the team, bringing in character veterans like Key, O'Neill, Boggs, Mike Stanley, and Mike Gallego and fostering the development of young talent like Bernie Williams, Jim Leyritz, Sterling Hitchcock, and Bob Wickman.

The 1993 team spent a record 21 days tied for first place without ever being able to get ahead of the mighty Blue Jays. In the last season of the two division format, the Yankees finished with the third best record in the league, but were left to watch the postseason on TV.

In 1994 the Yankees were 70-43 with the best record in the AL and second best in baseball when the strike hit and Bud Selig and the recently retired Donald Fehr elected to leave the biggest black mark on the game's history since the Black Sox Scandal.

In 1995 the Yankees won the innaugural Wild Card and jumped out to a commanding 2-0 lead over Seattle in the best of five ALDS. They then lost three straight in Seattle, Games 4 and 5 in heartbreaking fashion.

That offseason the team changed drastically: Showalter and Michael were gone. Mattingly left the game, holding off on official retirement for a year. Stanley was traded to the Rockies. They were replaced by Joe Torre, Bob Watson, Tino Martinez, and Joe Girardi. The roster was peppered with young unproven players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this new guard.

But as the 1996 season unfolded, it became apparent that there was something special about the team. By the time the World Series rolled around I had just turned 16. While my suffering certainly wasn't as bad as what fans of other teams have had to endure, I was elated to see my favorite team in the World Series for the first time in my conscious memory. After a rain delay pushed Game 1 back a day, the first two games amounted to a beatdown and stomach punch. Suddenly the luster of just being there had worn off. But the Series was about to change, for the Yankees and for me.

On the morning of Game 3, Tuesday October 22nd, I boarded a plane for Washington, D.C. A teacher had nominated me to attend a leadership conference and my parents were insistent that I go. I was less than enthused about it to begin with, but now, as it interfered with my watching of the Yankees in the World Series, I was postively pissed about it.

Seeing as the conference entailed taking two hundred some horny teenagers and boarding them together for five nights, the organizers figured it best to have every moment of every day planned from roughly 7 AM to 10 PM, so as not to allow any time for extracurriculars. It didn't leave much time for watching baseball either. My memories of Games 3 through 5 are sketchy at best. I was able to catch a bit of the late innings. I remember the Boggs walk. I remember the dramatic catches by Tim Raines and Paul O'Neill to end Games 4 and 5, O'Neill screaming and slapping his hand against the fence in right-center, as his torn hamstring just barely held up. But I missed all of Game 3. I missed the Leyritz home run. My team was charging like a freight train and after waiting nine years for it, I couldn't even enjoy it.

Game 6 fell on Saturday night, my final night in D.C. I phoned my parents numerous times that day, making sure the VCR would be running. Meanwhile, the conference bussed us all off to some hotel in D.C. for a farewell dance. I kept sneaking out. I saw the Girardi triple while hanging out in the hotel bar. The chaperones came and pulled me out of there, but I snuck off again. I found the hotel's weight room. The door was locked, but miraculously the TV was on and it was showing the game. I stood there, peering through the window. I saw Grissom get thrown out at second and Cox get tossed. Shortly thereafter, the power to the weight room went out. As I wandered the hotel searching for another TV, I began considering taking to the streets of D.C., trying to find a bar or someplace where I could watch the game.

It wasn't to be. The pesky chaperones hunted me down again, and this time I was a marked man. Like a prisoner on suicide watch, I was brought back to the dance and placed under constant surveillance. There were no radios there, no TVs, and cell phones had yet to proliferate the earth. I was stranded.

Later in the evening, as Billy Idol's version of "Mony, Mony" played, the DJ dropped the volume and got on the mic. "I have some bad news," he announced, "The Yankees have just won the World Series". I erupted. I don't remember the specifics, but I know that I and a few less dedicated Yankee fans I had befriended over the week spent some time high fiving and yelling and such. To this day I can't hear that song without thinking of that moment. But it was odd, and in some ways sad. It was killing me not to watch; I should have home witnessing it with my father.

I watched the tape as soon as I got home, but it was anticlimactic. In a well-intentioned effort to better me, my parents and former teacher had robbed me of something far more valuable: seeing the Yankees win their first World Series in my lifetime. I was fortunate that just two years later, as I shipped off to college, the Yankees started a run of three consecutive championships, so that helped ease the pain. But they say you never forget your first, unless of course you never remembered it in the first place. To this day the Yankees have never won the World Series with me in my home state of CT. So if any of you would like to take up a collection to set me up with a nice place in Manhattan, let me know.


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