From 1991 through 1996, the Braves won six of every 10 regular-season games. They won the National League West title three times, the NL East twice. They won their division after trailing by 9-1/2 games in ‘91, by seven in ‘92 and by 10 in ‘93. They won the ‘92 NLCS on their final swing of Game 7. They’d just won the ‘96 NLCS after trailing 3-1 and outscoring St. Louis 32-1 over three elimination games.
After three games and five innings of the 1996 World Series, the Braves had outscored their opponent 24-6. The Yankees won Game 3 after Joe Torre chose to bunt with the night’s second batter – Derek Jeter, who mustered 3,465 big-league hits – because, the manager said, “I just wanted to get a lead.”
One night later, the Braves chased starter Kenny Rogers in the third. They led 6-0 after five. Denny Neagle ceded half that advantage in the sixth, but Mike Bielecki restored order, working two hitless innings. The eighth began with Bobby Cox summoning Mark Wohlers, who hadn’t yielded a run that postseason and was on a streak of six playoff saves. By deploying his closer so early, Cox was going for the kill.
Hold the lead and the Braves would be one game from a second consecutive World Series title. Wohlers, working with only a one-run lead, closed the first with a 1-2-3 ninth against Cleveland in the same Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium 360 days earlier.
This was the Braves’ fourth World Series of the ‘90s. It took them three tries to win the first, but now they seemed invincible. Over the past two Octobers, they were 20-7. When Marquis Grissom gloved Carlos Baerga’s drive to clinch the 1995 Series, NBC’s Bob Costas offered a proclamation: “The team of the ‘90s has its title.”
A second title would have placed the Braves in Valhalla. They’d have been the best team of the free-agency era. With their pitching and youth, they might have become one of greatest assemblages in the sport’s annals. All they had to do was hold the Game 4 lead and – with John Smoltz, the National League Cy Young winner-to-be, set for Game 5, which would be the old ballpark’s last waltz – put the overmatched Yankees out of their misery.
Charlie Hayes barely grazed Wohlers’ first pitch, topping the ball down the third-base line. It was headed foul – until it wasn’t. Hayes had the grace to laugh at his fluke hit. Thus it began.
After missing a high fastball, Darryl Strawberry poked a lower fastball the opposite way for a single. Wohlers induced Mariano Duncan into a grounder that should have been a double play, but Rafael Belliard – inserted for defensive purposes – muffed the pickup and could register only a force out. Thus did a backup catcher who’d entered Game 4 after Paul O’Neill pinch-hit for Joe Girardi come to bat with two aboard.
Wohlers threw a 98-mph fastball. Jim Leyritz fouled it back. “Right on it,” Fox’s Joe Buck said, because that’s what balls fouled straight to the screen tend to indicate – that the hitter had it timed. Wohlers tried a slider, then another. Both missed high. Then another fastball, this at 99. Fouled back again.
Months later, Wohlers would tell this correspondent that Greg Maddux told him, “I know why you threw what you did – it looked like he was on your fastball – but he wasn’t.” (As we know, Maddux saw everything.)
Believing he couldn’t get a fastball past Leyritz, Wohlers again threw a slider – his third-best pitch, after his heater and split-finger. Leyritz fouled it off. Then yet another slider, the fourth of the at-bat. On this delivery did the world of baseball change.
The slider stayed above the hitter’s belt, which sliders shouldn’t do. Leyritz lofted it to left field. It didn’t clear the fence by much, but Game 4 was tied. The Yankees would win in 10 innings. The Braves wouldn’t lead again in this World Series. They wouldn’t win another World Series game until Oct. 26, 2021.
The Team of the ‘90s was derailed by a catcher who managed 90 career home runs. (To be fair, he had eight more in postseason.) The Yankees won the ‘96 World Series and three of the four thereafter. Chipper Jones, who watched the fateful home run fly over his head, would say, with the cold light of hindsight, “It’s like my dad told me, ‘Jim Leyritz stole “Team of the ‘90s” from you.’”