Editor’s note:This is the final story in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution series on the 25th anniversary of the Braves' World Series-winning season of 1995. Each story in the project is listed at the end of this story. Today’s installment focuses on David Justice and his memories from Game 6 of the World Series - and the events on the day of the game.
It’s been 25 years since David Justice scalded a Jim Poole fastball to right field, driving in the only run in the 1-0 World Series clincher, turning jeers to cheers from some 50,000 fans at Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium.
Justice is 54 now, but to him, the moment is still crystal clear.
“Not only can I see the pitch, I can still feel the swing,” he said on a recent afternoon, while driving his 18-year-old son DJ home from a workout. DJ committed to play football at UCLA in 2021. “I knew it wasn’t going to be a 500-foot home run, but I knew I got him as soon as I hit it.”
Justice’s big night – along with Tom Glavine’s eight shutout innings and Mark Wohlers' save – brought the Braves two things few might have thought possible: a frenzied fan base and a World Series championship.
The Braves managed only one title during their run of 14 consecutive postseason berths. Playing in their third World Series in five years in 1995 seemed to have their fans desensitized, in both demeanor and decibel level. But on Oct. 28, the atmosphere at Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium was electric.
“Our fans were on fire that night,” Justice said. “Yep, you’re damn right. I lit a match underneath their (expletive).”
Not that he meant to, exactly. Braves fans were collateral damage in a rant that Justice had initially aimed at Indians pitcher Orel Hershiser.
The Braves were coming home with a 3-2 lead and could clinch the series by winning one of two games in Atlanta. But Hershiser had just outpitched Greg Maddux in Game 5 in front of a packed and loud Jacobs Field in Cleveland to claim some momentum.
On a rainy workout day between Games 5 and 6, a reporter approached Justice at his locker and relayed some comments the Indians ace had made afterward: “I think the pressure is on the Braves because they have something to lose,” Hershiser had said. “… and they’ve lost the last two World Series they’ve participated in. Atlanta fans are probably wondering what’s going on.”
Justice was livid.
“I don’t even like pitchers to begin with,” he said recently, recalling the exchange. “So I’m thinking, ‘OK so he’s just trying to put the pressure on us.’ … I said, tell ‘Orel Hershiser, (expletive). And if he wants some, come get some.’”
Justice didn’t mind sticking his neck out if it meant taking pressure off his teammates, especially rookies such as Chipper Jones and relievers Brad Clontz and Pedro Borbon.
Reporters then told him that Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel had said, “They know they can’t win a World Series. They already lost twice. When you have that on your mind, it’s tough to get out.”
“Who the heck is Omar Vizquel?” Justice said.
By the time Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer I.J. Rosenberg approached Justice’s locker, noticing from across the clubhouse how angry Justice seemed, he was in full tirade. Justice took on Hershiser, then Vizquel and then Braves fans.
In the heat of the moment, Justice wasn’t exactly sure how he made that transition. With years of perspective, though, he realizes it’s probably because Hershiser was right.
“There was pressure,” Justice said. "We cannot lose another World Series. We’ve already lost two. They’re already starting to call us the Buffalo Bills of baseball. ... We cannot go to Game 7. I’ve already been to too many Game 7s; they didn’t turn out OK. In ’91 Game 7 did not turn out good. We’ve got to win. ...
“That type of pressure I’m already feeling prompted me to make the comments I made, like ‘If we lose the World Series, they’ll probably burn our houses down.’ I don’t mean that seriously. I meant that figuratively. Our fans are not going to be OK with us losing another World Series.”
Rosenberg’s tape recorder was going, and Justice was just getting warmed up.
“What happens if we don’t win? When’s the parade then?” he said. “They’ll run us out of Atlanta."
And this: “If we get down 1-0 tonight, they will probably boo us out of the stadium. You have to do something great to get them out of their seats. Shoot, up in Cleveland, they were down three runs in the ninth inning, and they were still on their feet.”
When the diatribe was over, Rosenberg went into the tunnel outside the Braves clubhouse – not waiting for an elevator ride to the press box - and called his boss. He had to wait out multiple conversations between sports editors and the editor of the paper before he got the green light.
“(The sports editor) was very concerned about coming out with this type of story on the eve of possibly a world championship,” said Rosenberg, now president of sports media and marketing company, Score Atlanta. “But they went with it. ... I was proud of the paper. We stood our ground. I had taped the conversation. It was verbatim. We went with it. That was the talk.”
Justice had anticipated “Justice vs. Hershiser” headlines. What he woke up to was: “Justice takes a rip at Braves fans” across the top of the AJC sports front.
Justice had made plenty of headlines over the years whether it was over a contract dispute, controversial comments he made about racism in baseball, or his marriage to actress Halle Berry. This one immediately put a knot in his stomach.
“I got the weight of the world now on my shoulders,” Justice recalls feeling. “And now I got to go stand in the fire. This is Game 6. I got my home crowd booing me? In my home stadium?”
He couldn’t eat. He didn’t feel like talking to anybody.
“I’m an only child,” Justice said. “When you’re an only child, a lot of times it’s on you. I’ve got to maintain myself.”
Teammates noticed a quiet focus when Justice got to the ballpark.
“He was normally the guy that was all smiles and giggles and jokes and ripping on the young guys,” Chipper Jones said. “He was very stoic. You could tell he was hurt and concerned and didn’t want to be going through it.”
Justice didn’t get called into anybody’s office. He didn’t confront Rosenberg. And he didn’t hide from the national media waiting to follow up on the story. Surrounded by a scrum of reporters on the field before the game, Justice didn’t dispute his comments, only how they were framed. Then he set about preparing for the game and bracing for the boos.
He had gotten his first round of them running out of the dugout to warm up, then again during pregame introductions. Taking a knee in the on-deck circle before his first at-bat, Justice bowed his head.
“I’m like, ‘God, you have put me in a lot of tough situations and you have always brought me out of them,’” Justice said. “'Please bring me out of this one.'”
He walked to the plate to a chorus of boos, but he could make out a few cheers too.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to play for those people tonight,’” Justice said.
He put a smile on his face and strode to the plate.
“I know Dennis Martinez,” Justice said. “I know how he pitches. I faced him in the National League. He doesn’t have anything that I don’t know about, so it’s 100 percent focus, pitch by pitch. I’m going to give my total focus for every single pitch for four at-bats tonight. And that’s all I was thinking.”
The Indians didn’t get him out all night. Justice drew a walk in his first at-bat and doubled to left center in his second. In the bottom of the sixth inning, with Martinez out of the game, Justice reflected on the three consecutive curveballs he’d seen lefty reliever Poole throw Fred McGriff in the bottom of the fifth.
“Freddy swung at all three of them,” Justice said. "None of them would have been strikes had he not swung. So that told me Jim Poole doesn’t really throw his breaking ball for strikes. I said to myself, ‘He’s going to have to throw me two curveballs for strikes before I even think about (swinging at) it. I’m going to stay on the fastball every pitch.’ …
“First pitch was a fastball away. It was a called strike, and you could see my face, I didn’t like the call. He came back with another fastball on the second pitch away for a ball. So now, 1-1, I’m in a situation where he could possibly throw me a curve. But I’m willing to take the curveball for a strike because I still want to see what it looks like as a strike because then I’ve got a reference point with two strikes. So 1-1, I’m looking fastball. He throws me a fastball. That’s the pitch I hit for a home run.”
Justice hesitated as he left the batter’s box to watch it fly. He punched the air in celebration as he rounded first base. He greeted his teammates with a blistering series of high fives as he crossed home plate. And even after he got back to the dugout, he offered not so much as a hint of a smile.
“The emotions that I felt running around them bases …” Justice recalled. “The emotions that I felt when I hit home plate - you don’t even know. If you could have read my thoughts? I had a lot of energy toward those fans for how they had treated me that night, and ‘What are you going to say about me now? I’m delivering now.’”
Justice thought the home run would relax his teammates and the Braves offense would reel off more runs. As it was, they had to sweat out the last 12 outs until Marquis Grissom caught Carlos Baerga’s fly ball to secure the 1-0 victory.
“We finally did it,” said Justice, who had drawn a walk in his final plate appearance. “To bring a championship to the city, man, as a player, that’s one of the most beautiful things you could ever do.”
In between celebrating on the field and later with teammates at a club, Justice took a moment, driving by himself in the car.
“I remember thinking, ‘God, I will never doubt you again,’” Justice said. “Thank you so much.'”
That World Series game provided Justice his last big moment as a Brave. Shoulder surgery cut his 1996 season short, and in the spring of 1997, the Braves traded him to Cleveland, ironically. Justice played six more seasons with the Indians, Yankees and Athletics and returned to the World Series with the Yankees in 2001. But his time as a Brave is what Justice, now a Braves Hall of Famer, cherishes the most.
There are a few things, looking back now, he’d like to have handled differently.
“You know how people say, 'Man, if I had a chance to do that all over again, I’d do the same things?” Justice said. “No, nope, nope. There’s a whole lot of stuff I would change. I would not have responded the way I did back then because I’m smarter, I’m wiser. I understand things a lot more now as a mature adult. I would not have taken things so personally.”
He’s referring to his contract dispute, reactions to certain articles written about him, and his stance on autograph signing. Justice was prickly about giving his until he saw Hall of Famer Ernie Banks signing autographs freely one day. Justice asked Banks why he gave them out so graciously, knowing many would likely be sold.
“He looked at me and said, ‘David, everybody needs money,’” Justice said. “It changed my whole life.”
One thing Justice wouldn’t change, though, is the lead-up to Game 6, and obviously, the results.
“I have zero regrets, No. 1, because that’s how I felt, and I’m going to say how I feel,” Justice said. “And No. 2, after that night, I never doubted the presence of God in my life.”
Justice and his wife, Rebecca, live in San Diego, where they’ve raised three children. But whenever he comes to Atlanta, Justice likes to organize dinners out with old teammates and has with Jones, Marvin Freeman, Mark Lemke, Otis Nixon and others.
He buried the hatchet with AJC reporter I.J. Rosenberg years ago, when both appeared on a panel at Turner Field. The two now keep up on Facebook.
Justice was easily the most vocal of his former 1995 teammates while watching a replay of Game 6 together for a “Virtual Clubhouse” Zoom that aired on YouTube in May. At one point, Justice asked Steve Avery and Kent Mercker what it was like not being able to pitch in the clincher. That’s when catcher Eddie Perez chimed in.
“DJ, I was in the bullpen booing you,” Perez said.
“See?” Justice said. “It was me against the world and my teammates. Damn, that’s messed up.”