The Home Run That Started A Dynasty

Welcome to Retro Week. Baseball news is slow this time of the offseason, so we’re going to look back at the good ol’ days this week. Since this is the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Yankees, we’re going to focus on them. Hope you enjoy.

(Getty)
(Getty)

The date is October 22nd, 1996. The Yankees are down two games to none in the World Series. The Braves had just marched into Yankee Stadium and outscored the home team 16-1 in Games One and Two. They had 19-year-old Andruw Jones, 24-year-old Chipper Jones, and a rotation led by future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. The series was shifting to Atlanta for three games.

And yet, despite having all that stacked against them, the Yankees were about to begin a dynasty. A home run by Bernie Williams, six gutty innings from David Cone, and stellar bullpen work gave the Yankees a much-needed win in Game Three. But, in Game Four, the Yankees were down 4-0 after two innings, 5-0 after three innings, and 6-0 after five innings. It was bad. Real bad.

The Yankees rallied though. The first four batters of the sixth inning reached base to push across three runs and halve the deficit. An error by Jermaine Dye in right field helped spur the rally. With his team holding a 6-3 lead after seven innings, Braves manager Bobby Cox could smell the blood in the water. His Braves were six outs from a commanding three games to one lead in the World Series. Cox went to closer Mark Wohlers for the six-out save.

“I don’t think the (decision) was that difficult,” said Cox after the game. “He was so well-rested, he could go two easy and still be able to come back (in Game Five). I’d have been stupid if I wouldn’t have done that.”

One of the biggest and most important rallies in Yankees history — that’s not hyperbole, right? — started with what amounted to a swinging bunt. Charlie Hayes greeted Wohlers with a first pitch infield single to start the eighth inning. That ball hugged the third base line and stayed fair. Darryl Strawberry, who was playing right field because Paul O’Neill was nursing a hamstring issue, sliced a single to left field to put runners on first and second with no outs.

The Yankees were in business. They also caught a huge break. Mariano Duncan pulled a tailor made double play ball to shortstop Rafael Belliard, who bobbled the grounder and was only able to get the force out at second. Instead of having a runner at third with two outs, the Yankees had runners at corners with one out. The tying run was still at the plate, and up came Jim Leyritz.

These days almost every team has a few relievers who can throw 95-96 mph, maybe even 98-99. Back then it wasn’t nearly as common. Wohlers lived in the 95-99 mph range and he was one of the hardest throwers in baseball. He didn’t pitch to a 2.60 ERA (167 ERA+) with 190 strikeouts in 142 innings from 1995-96 by accident. Wohlers threw serious heat, and Leyritz had his heat timed.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz1

The first pitch was a 98 mph fastball that Leyritz just missed. He fouled it straight back, the universal sign the hitter had the pitch timed, but simply failed square it up. Leyritz knew the scouting report and was newly into the game — it was his first at-bat after entering the game in the sixth, after Tino Martinez pinch-hit for Joe Girardi — so his bat was quick as it was going to get.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz2

Leyritz had just missed the first pitch fastball and both Wohlers and catcher Eddie Perez knew it. Rather than try their luck again, they went to the slider, and Wohlers missed high. It would not be the first time he missed high with a breaking ball in the at-bat. The count was even at one ball and one strike. I remember wanting to puke and thinking this might be the Yankees’ last best chance to tie the game and get back into the series.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz3

Another high slider. Wohlers was arguably the best fastball pitcher in the league at the time, yet with a backup catcher who had an 86 OPS+ during regular season at the plate representing the tying run in the World Series, he threw back-to-back sliders to fall behind in the count 2-1. Perez was on board too. Wohlers did not shake him off. Arguably the best fastball pitcher in the game seemed afraid to throw his fastball.

“I think Wohlers is going to the breaking ball too much,” said FOX announcer Tim McCarver, who was the starting catcher for two World Series winning teams during his playing days. “This situation right here — this is a (game on the line) situation — if you get beat, you get beat on your best pitch. Not your third best pitch.”

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz4

Wohlers went back to his No. 1 pitch after falling behind in the count, and Leyritz again fouled it off. He swung like he was cheating fastball, which he was. Leyritz later admitted he was looking fastball the entire at-bat. Had Wohlers thrown either of those two sliders in the zone earlier in the at-bat, Leyritz likely would have taken it for a called strike. He was sitting dead red.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz5

Back to the slider in the two-strike count. This slider was much better than the first two though. It was down and on the outer half. A true strikeout pitch. Leyritz was way out in front but still able to pull it foul to stay alive. He was in protect mode with two strikes. He had to gear up for the high-90s gas but also respect the slider because Wohlers had thrown him two already.

“I called a fastball, but Wohlers said no,” Perez would later say to Joel Sherman, recalling the sixth pitch of the at-bat. “And I was good with that. I really wanted a slider, too, but a good slider. I wanted the slider down and away. Wohlers wanted to throw the slider because he thought he was going to throw a better slider.”

So, for the fourth time in a six-pitch at-bat, Wohlers threw Leyritz a slider. It was not a good slider like Perez wanted. It was not down and away. It up and out over the plate like the first two, except this one hung up long enough for Leyritz to recognize the spin and square it up. The result was a highlight I will never get tired of watching.

“I was looking heater all the way, and he hung a slider. I adjusted,” said Leyritz to reporters after the game. “I was very surprised. Maybe because I fouled two pitches straight back he thought I was right on his fastball. I definitely wasn’t looking slider. I was sitting on a fastball but the pitch hung.”

The three-run home run, which only barely cleared the left field wall at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, tied Game Four at 6-6. The Yankees battled all the way back thanks to some good luck — Dye’s error in the sixth, Belliard’s bobble on the potential double play — and thanks to Wohlers staying away from his best pitch in a crucial situation. The Yankees would go on to win Game Four in ten innings and knot the series up at two games apiece.

“It was a tough ballgame. The loss should be put on my shoulders. I blew it. I get paid a lot of money to shut them down and I didn’t do it,” Wohlers said to reporters later than night. “This doesn’t surprise me because we’re playing a quality team. It’s a frustrating loss, but I’ve had a few of them in my career. We’ll put this behind us as quickly as possible.”

More than a few times over the years I’ve found myself wondering how things would have turned out had Wohlers not hung that slider and Leyritz not tied the game. Would the Yankees have still won the World Series? Would they still have gone on to win four titles in five years? The Yankees were knocked out of the postseason in soul-crushing fashion in 1995. How would George Steinbrenner have reacted to losing the 1996 World Series too?

I have a hard time believing things would have turned out so well for the Yankees from 1996-2000 had Leyritz not hit that home run. That homer tied the game, helped tie the series, and help start a dynasty. It was, unquestionably, one of the biggest hits in franchise history given everything on the line. It completely changed the course of not one, but two franchises. The Braves were on the verge of a dynasty at that point. Then suddenly, with one swing, the Yankees were poised to dominate baseball.

Saturday Links: Leyritz, Tommy John Surgery, Tulowitzki

The Yankees and Royals continues their series with a dreaded Saturday night game (man I hate those) later today. Until then, here are some miscellaneous links to help you pass the time.

Jim Leyritz invited to Old Timers’ Day

For the very first time, Jim Leyritz has been invited to Old Timers’ Day, according to George King and Steve Serby. Apparently Leyritz ran into Jennifer Steinbrenner over the winter and that got the ball rolling. “I don’t want to think the Yankees define who I am, but I spent 11 years there, it was my family. To be back and part of that family, I can’t tell you what it means to me. I am so pleased it’s finally happening,” said Leyritz.

Leyritz hit one of the biggest home runs in franchise history in Game Four of the 1996 World Series, when he tied the game with a three-run shot off Mark Wohlers in the top of the eighth. That homer altered the course of two franchises. Of course, Leyritz has had ugly off-the-field issues since the end of his playing career, most notably facing DUI and manslaughter charges following an accident in 2010. He was acquitted and ended up serving one year probation, plus he settled a civil suit with the family of the woman who was killed for six figures.

Yankees lend their arms to Tommy John surgery research

Over the last year or so, the Yankees have been bit by the Tommy John surgery bug like just about every other team. Last April they lost Ivan Nova to the zipper, Masahiro Tanaka is trying to avoid surgery for his partial ligament tear, and a few days ago Chase Whitley suffered an elbow injury that may require Tommy John surgery. Top prospects Ty Hensley and Domingo German had their elbows rebuilt earlier this year as well.

In an effort to help find a way to reduce torn elbow ligaments, the Yankees and several other teams have participated in biomechanical research conducted by MLB and American Sports Medicine Institute, according to Mike Vorkunov. Here are the details:

Last March, in eight spring training camps around baseball, including the Phillies and Yankees, 80 pitchers — 40 with no history of ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction and 40 with one — were stamped with 23 reflective markers and threw 10 fastballs at full effort as 10 cameras tracked and analyzed their movement.

It was the first attempt by Major League Baseball, the players association and ASMI to learn if there was a bio-mechanical underpinning to pitchers that eventually had to have Tommy John surgery and those that had avoided it to that point.

The study found no link. The results were hardly dispositive and the research itself was just an initial step for the group.

Another study — this one spanning five years — started this spring and will monitor pitchers with five organizations fresh out of the draft. The Mets are participating in that but it’s unclear if the Yankees are as well. “That the elbow ligament, when it tears, is the end result of multiple processes. We’re not going to find one unifying theory. My guess is it’s multiple factors,” said Dr. Gary Green, MLB’s chief medical officer. The league is also looking into less invasive ways to repair a partial tear, like Tanaka’s. Check out the article, some interesting stuff in there.

Tul-oh no! (Victor Decolongon/Getty)
(Victor Decolongon/Getty)

Tulowitzki will not request a trade from Rockies

Well this is interesting. Troy Tulowitzki told Thomas Harding will not request a trade from the Rockies after meeting with his agent a few days ago. “Whatever happens on the Rockies’ end happens, but for me to sit here and try to force my way out of here, that’s not the case,” said Tulowitzki. “I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and the relationships I’ve built here to take that route.” (Tulowitzki left last night’s game with a quad injury, by the way.)

I’m not normally a conspiracy theorist, but I get the feeling there is much more going on here behind the scenes. Perhaps Tulowitzki asked the Rockies for a trade but agreed to not make it public, not only to avoid bad PR, but to also avoid killing the team’s leverage in trade talks. If other clubs know Tulowitzki demanded a trade out of Colorado, they’re going to make nothing but low-ball offers. The Rockies’ hands would be tied. The Yankees supposedly don’t have interest in trading for Tulowitzki, but, either way, my guess is this will not be the last time his name pops up in some sort of trade rumor.

Surprise! Infield shift usage is up in 2015

This should come as no surprise. According to Pat Graham, use of the infield shift is up considerably around baseball this year. It’s up nearly 33% (!) in fact. The Rockies and Diamondbacks, two teams with new GMs after not being known as very stat savvy in recent years, have increased their shift usage the most from 2014 to 2015. The Yankees used the shift as much as any team in baseball last year and the same is true this year. They seem to get burned by it constantly, but who really knows? Shift usage and success is very tough to evaluate based on the little freely available data we have.

The titanic, but nearly fruitless, 1989 Albany Yankees

ACYStadium

Just as the Yankees entered their darkest period since the mid-60s, they saw a glimmer of hope for the future.

For a few years they’d been a franchise in decline, but 1989 represented the turning point. They’d won just 74 games, finishing fifth in the AL East for the second straight season. Dave Righetti was on his way out. Don Mattingly’s back would start giving him issues the next season. Their best starter in 1989 was Clay Parker.

That is to say, while I wasn’t quite as attuned to the Yankees then as I am now (I was seven in 1989), it seemed easy to predict some lean years ahead.

Yet there was reason in 1989 to believe that the lean years wouldn’t last long, perhaps not longer than the 1990 season. While the major league squad lacked quality young players, the farm system appeared ready to deliver. The AA Albany-Colonie Yankees had just finished one of the most dominant seasons in minor league history.

ACY

The 1989 Albany-Colonie Yankees won 92 games, 18 more than the big league squad in 22 fewer games. Even crazier: at one point in July they were 70-20, 23.5 games ahead of the second place Harrisburg Senators. While they wouldn’t finish at such a torrid pace, they did win the league by 19 games.

Along the way they simply left other teams in the dust. They scored more than a third of a run per game more than the next-closest team, outscoring them by 58 runs in 140 games. On the other side of the ball they were similarly dominant, allowing a half run less per game than the next-closest team, a difference of 59 runs.

Adkins

The pitching side was perhaps more impressive. As Norm Alster notes in his July article for the New York Times, the Albany-Colonie staff didn’t exactly feature heat throwers. Their ace, 6-foot-6 lefty Steve Adkins might not have consistently hit 90 on the gun, but he struck out 10.1 per nine. That led Eastern League starters by a full strikeout per nine. Before that July article they’d promoted four pitchers to AAA Columbus, including Darrin Chapin and Kevin Mmahat, who is said to be a huge inspiration on Ben Kabak’s 2013 season. (Jokes aside, he did make it to the show in ’89, was rocked, and never appeared in the bigs again.)

Also impressive was 22-year-old Rodney Imes, who made 24 starts and produced a 2.73 ERA, his second straight phenomenal season. The 23-year-old Royal Clayton also built off his quality 1988 season to lead the Albany Yankees in innings pitched, producing a 2.98 ERA in 25 starts. (In his 175 innings he struck out just 74, which is pretty absurd.) To close out games the Albany Yankees turned to 25-year-old Tim Layana, who allowed 13 earned runs in 67.2 IP, allowing just two homers all season.

On offense Jim Leyritz led the way. He’d just made the conversion from third base to catcher and took well to his new position, leading the team in OPS while batting .315 with 10 homers. Leading the way with power was first baseman Rob Sepanek, who hit 25 homers after losing most of 1988 to injury.

Bernie

Both Leyritz and Sepanek were older, 25 and 26, and so probably ready to graduate from AA anyway. (Indeed, Leyritz mashed in AAA in 1990 before getting a promotion to the bigs and holding his own; he probably got stuck in AA because of his catching skills.) Most impressive was 20-year-old Bernie Williams, who hit .252/.381/.443 in 91 games before getting the call to Columbus. Hensley Meulens, still with his prospect shine at age 22, led the team with 21 doubles. Sideshow Deion Sanders and the lovable Andy Stankiewicz also produced on both sides of the ball.

One easy to overlook aspect of that team is its manager, Buck Showalter. He’d spent seven seasons toiling in the Yankees minor league system, starting at Class-A Fort Lauderdale in 1977 and topping out at AAA Columbus, bouncing between there and AA Nashville from 1981 through his last season, 1983. In 1985 he started managing at Low-A Oneonta, taking over High-A Fort Lauderdale in 1987 and finally AA Albany in 1989. He’d join the big league squad as their third base coach in 1990.

Even as the Yankees entered the 1990 season with a lean squad, the 1989 Albany team had to give them hope. Combined with a very good 1989 Columbus team that featured Hal Morris, Kevin Maas, and a number of kids promoted from AA (Williams, Meulens, Sanders, Oscar Azocar) it might have appeared as though the Yankees, at least on the offensive side of the ball, could weather a poor 1990 and recover in 1991.

That simply did not happen. While Williams’s debut was decent enough, Meulens flopped and Leyritz took a huge step back in ’91. Stankiewicz didn’t get the call until 1992. The pitching staff was a tatters. While 19 of 35 players on that AA Albany squad appeared in the majors, and 15 with the Yankees, only two were any good: Leyritz and Williams. The only pitcher to make an even minute impact was Scott Kamienicki, who fell into a swingman role before losing effectiveness by 1996. He earned a ring, but was nowhere near the celebration.

Showalter

“This is a prospect-laden club,” Showalter said of the Albany crew, but that just wasn’t true. On Baseball America’s list of 1989 Yankees prospects (found via The Baseball Cube), only Meulens, Sanders, and Williams were on the prospects list. Showalter wouldn’t have any of them for much longer, as they all made the trip to AAA sometime in late July or early August. The 1990 list reveals just two players, Williams and Meulens, who appeared on the 1989 team.* So even with huge performances, the guys on the ’89 Albany Yankees just weren’t considered impact prospects.

*Which is weird, because I’m pretty sure Sanders didn’t exhaust his rookie service time in 1989, but was off the list.

Adkins, the lefty with the big strikeout numbers, got promoted to AAA in 1990, where he was effective if a bit wild. The Yanks actually let him start five games in the bigs that year, but he stumbled hard, walking 29 in 24 innings. The stumble continued in AAA in 1991, and the Yanks traded him away for a guy who never reached the majors. Adkins didn’t pitch any more innings there either.

In December 1989 the Yankees dished Imes, along with Hal Morris, to the Reds for Tim Leary. The former Met 2nd overall pick was OK in 1990 before completely dropping off a cliff in 1991, while Morris had a few damn fine seasons in ’90 and ’91, when the Yanks probably could have used him.

Clayton started 1990 in AA again, but graduated to AAA, where he toiled from 1991 through 1994. I presume he was a minor league free agent at that point and departed for San Fran’s minor league system (there’s a Brian Sabean tie there) before fizzling out. Mmahat (mmm, a hat) never made it back to the bigs after his cup of coffee in ’89. He hurt his shoulder in 1990 and tried to pitch through it. The result, a torn rotator cuff, effectively ended his career. Chapin was dealt in the first Charlie Hayes deal. Azocar was generally terrible and best known for these two baseball cards.

It seems insane that a team so dominant could produce so few standout major leaguers. We’re not talking a very good farm team, either. Only when Williams, Meulens, and Sanders were promoted did the opposition stand even a chance. While they were on the squad, they were 50 — FIFTY — games over .500 in July. You’d be hard pressed to find a team that so thoroughly trounced opponents.

Jim Leyritz back with Yanks on personal services contract

Via Mark Feinsand, former catcher Jim Leyritz is back with the Yankees on a personal services contract. It’s unclear what he’ll be doing, but he and David Cone were greeting fans at the suite level prior to yesterday’s game. Leyritz has had his fair share of trouble with the law, but the Yankees are always giving guys second and third and fourth chances.

Leyritz acquitted in Manslaughter DUI case

Jim Leyritz has been acquitted of manslaughter, a Florida jury decided today. The jury, which had been deadlocked yesterday, convicted the former Yankee only of a misdemeanor DUI. He could face up to only six months in prison instead of 15 years had he faced a conviction for manslaughter.

Leyritz was arrested in December 2007 when he collided with another vehicle at a Fort Lauderdale intersection. The other driver was killed when her vehicle rolled over. The case agains Leyritz hinged, in part, upon the traffic light at the intersection. The prosecution tried to show that Leyritz ran a red light while drunk, but defense witnesses cast doubt on both the light and Leyritz’s BAC at the time of the crash. While he blew a 0.14 later that night, experts said Leyritz might not have been drunk at the time of the crash.

The Associated Press has more on the acquittal:

Two witnesses testified that Veitch had the green light at an intersection before Leyritz’s Ford Expedition hit her vehicle, causing a rollover crash that ejected her onto the pavement. But under cross-examination, those same witnesses were less definitive about whether Leyritz’s light was red or yellow.

Defense expert witnesses also said Veitch’s lights may have been off and that Leyritz did not appear to be speeding. They also raised questions about the reliability of Leyritz’s blood tests and suggested he may have suffered a slight concussion that caused his body to absorb alcohol more slowly.

Prosecutors insisted that Leyritz was too drunk to react to the traffic light or avoid the collision with Veitch’s Mitsubishi Montero. They said he consumed the equivalent of between 11 and 12 shots of liquor in the three hours before the crash, which happened around 3 a.m.

Leyritz had settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the Veitch family earlier this year. He agreed to pay them $350,000 as a settlement. Leyritz must have had some good lawyers to escape with just a misdemeanor DUI.

News roundup: Jim Leyritz, Mark Teixeira, Mo, sports media

A few news items of note on an afternoon before a long weekend:

  • Another sad story comes our way concerning Jim Leyritz. The former Yankee and former MLB.com personality has been arrested on charges of domestic abuse. Leyritz’s ex-wife Karrie called the police after Jim, according to the Sun-Sentinel report, “dragged her out of bed, struck her twice and pushed her on the floor.” The Miami Herald has a different take on the situation. Leyritz’s lawyer denies the assault, and police say the former Mrs. Leyritz changed her story a few hours after initially reporting it to the police. Leyritz goes on trial Sept. 14 for his 2007 DUI arrest following an accident that left another driver dead.
  • At 11:59 p.m. this evening All Star Game balloting ends, and as of earlier this week, Mark Teixeira found himself just 40,000 votes behind Kevin Youkilis for the AL’s first base slot. Head on over to MLB.com to vote. Yankee fans can vote for Teixeira 25 times per e-mail address, and while you’re at it, vote for Ian Kinsler too. He’s holding onto a very slim lead over Dustin Pedroia.
  • Joe Posnanski has profiled Mariano Rivera. Do you need to know anything more about it? Just read the article.
  • From around the Yankee Blogosphere: Rebecca looks at some top MLBers who had success at AA. The Jesus Montero buzz is building. Fack Youk revisits Dave Righetti’s Independence Day no hitter and wonders what could have been if the Yanks hadn’t moved Righetti to the pen. Sound familiar?
  • Finally, for the sports journalism junkies among us, Harvard’ Nieman Journalism Lab just wrapped up a four-part series on the shifting media power in sports. With more teams forming regional sports networks, more leagues creating their own TV networks complete with allegedly unbiased news coverage and more blogs gaining readers every day as newspapers see their circulation numbers decline, the world of sports journalism is undergoing something of a paradigm shift. In the series at NJL, Justin Rice focuses mostly on baseball to explore how sports coverage has responded to and embraced the Internet and where sports media is going.