COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The hills are alive with the sounds of Atlanta Braves fans Tomahawk chopping, Greg Maddux wisecracking, Tom Glavine analyzing and Bobby Cox and Joe Torre managing. Family, friends and memories, on this summer’s day, are the focus, instead of benches, bullpens and owners.
“I can’t envision these guys growing up yet,” Cox was saying Saturday afternoon of Maddux and Glavine. “I just can’t. I still envision them as players.”
Hall of Fame Induction weekend always is one part alumni gathering, one part homecoming and one part time capsule. Especially on this bursting-at-the-seams weekend, as the largest living election class since 1971—Tony La Russa and Frank Thomas are here, too—stands on deck for enshrinement.
And, especially with the Braves outflanking the New York Yankees around the Village and on the stage Sunday, just as they did so memorably in the first two games of a 1996 World Series that changed a decade, launched the latest incarnation of the Yankees Dynasty and still leaves the Braves shaking their heads all these years later.
“I think of all the ones we lost, that’s the one we all feel that we let get away from us,” Glavine said.
“Yeah. Maybe that one got away,” Maddux agreed.
The Braves had finally won it all in 1995, defeating the Cleveland Indians in a tidy six games and, in 1996, were six seasons into their astounding 14 consecutive division titles.
You wonder: What might have become of Torre and his Yankees had the Braves finished blowing them out in ’96?
You wonder: What would winning back-to-back World Series have done for a burgeoning Braves dynasty that history now has confined firmly within the boundaries of the National League?
“Well, they still were the dynasty,” Torre said Saturday. “What Bobby and [then-Braves general manager] John Schuerholz did there getting that team as respected as any team there was, they were always contenders.
“When you get to the postseason, it’s a crapshoot.”
Torre can say that now. He could not have said that back in 1996.
Because he didn’t know.
As the Braves steamrolled into old Yankee Stadium for Games 1 and 2, they were far more a part of the October landscape in those days than were the Yanks. The Braves had played in three of the previous four World Series, losing to the Minnesota Twins in ’91, the Toronto Blue Jays in ’92 and beating the Cleveland Indians in ’95 (remember, there was no World Series in 1994 because of the players’ strike).
The Yankees had stepped into the playoffs the year before for the first time since 1981, and Torre was about to participate in the first World Series of his career. In more than 2,000 regular-season games as a player, he had never even played in a postseason game.
“I bought a ticket, got a ticket, all that stuff,” Torre said of his only past brushes with World Series games before '96.
A three-team failure as a manager before—the New York Mets, Braves and St. Louis Cardinals—Torre had nearly reached the point where he thought he would have to change his style in managing the Yankees.
That was right up until the point when he was reading a Bill Parcells book on coaching and leadership one day on the Stairmaster before the 1996 season and came upon the line, “If you believe in something, stay with it.”
“I closed the book right there,” Torre, once a players'-manager, always a players'-manager, said.
And now he was leading the untested Yankees—sounds funny now, huh?—against the talented and experienced machine that was the Braves. His Braves. The franchise he played for from 1960-1968, then managed from 1982-1984.
“I always liked Ted,” Torre said of Ted Turner, who owned the Braves from 1976-1996. “Ted was a kick for me. I know he fired me, but that’s just part of what happens.
“I remember going over to him to say to say hello before Game 1, and Ted had the classic as only Ted did. He said, ‘Well, if we can’t win it, I hope you do.’ There’s only two teams left. It was pretty cool.”
The Braves clocked the Yankees 12-1 in Game 1 behind breakout rookie star Andruw Jones’ two homers.
They whitewashed the Yankees 4-0 in Game 2, as Maddux took the Bombers out of the Bronx by scattering seven hits.
“We weren’t up 2-0, we were steamrolling,” Los Angeles Dodgers president Stan Kasten, who was the Braves’ president in ’96, said over breakfast Saturday morning on the back veranda of the Otesaga Hotel. “We were down 3-1 in St. Louis [in the NLCS] and then we wake up and just close them out.”
Then came the combined 16-1 score in Games 1 and 2 against the Yankees.
It was only a matter of time until the Braves bagged their second consecutive World Series title. Right?
Following the Game 1 blowout, Torre received a visitor in his office: an unhappy owner, George Steinbrenner.
“I was just in a giddy mood,” Torre said.
So when The Boss informed Torre that Game 2 was a “must-win,” Torre chuckled and fired back. He had, ahem, heard this “must-win” business from Steinbrenner more than a few times that year.
“George, we may even lose again today,” Torre told Steinbrenner. “We’re facing Maddux. We’re flat. But don’t worry about it. We’re going to Atlanta and that’s my town. We’ll win three there and come back and win it for you Saturday.”
Torre, 74, chuckles at the memory. Maybe he was laughing at the brashness of youth; he was 55 then. Probably, he was smiling because nobody can get away with saying something silly like that and watch it come true.
“He thought I was a genius, I guess,” Torre shrugs. “I was just playing with him, trying to lighten the mood.”
What lightened the mood was David Cone starting for the Yankees in Game 3 as the series shifted to Atlanta.
“Probably the best decision I made in all my managing decisions,” Torre said. “Choosing him for Game 3, knowing he’s the only one who had ever pitched in that ballpark, knowing that meant a lot because you could really get psyched out in that ballpark as a pitcher.”
A rival pitcher on the mound in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium? The ears ached from all of that Tomahawk Chopping. The eyes burned from the sea of foam tomahawks. And the senses finally overloaded from the fly balls that tended to rocket through the air in the fly-ball friendly park.
Cone stiff-armed the Braves on one run over six innings, and then a kid named Mariano Rivera relieved him and worked the next 1.1 innings before Graeme Lloyd and John Wetteland took it home for a 5-2 win.
Up next in Game 4: Jim Leyritz.
“When you come back from Yankee Stadium up 2-0, you’re obviously in pretty good shape,” Glavine said. “There were a few things in that series, we had a couple of opportunities in Game 3 to score some runs with the bases loaded and we didn’t do it. Game 4 was the game we had a big lead, and we had a dropped pop fly down in right field somewhere that turned out to be a big inning.”
A 6-0 Braves lead going into the sixth inning started melting rapidly. Suddenly it was 6-3 with two on, one out and Leyritz facing reliever Mark Wohlers in the eighth.
“I remember that like it was yesterday,” Kasten said. “I was sitting in the clubhouse, in the lounge, with an extra player we had at that time. Do you remember Dean Hartgraves? We picked him up at the end of that season. I was sitting next to him when first pitch to Leyritz comes in, and he turns to me and says ‘That’s an unhittable pitch, I’m sorry.’
“And then the next pitch goes over the wall, and, oh my God, what’s happening?”
What was happening was, the rout was on. Only, instead of the Braves finishing it off after winning the first two games, the Yankees won Game 4, 8-6, and would not lose again.
Even today, on this celebratory weekend, Cox has precious little to say about the World Series from 18 years ago. His answers shrink to two or three words. He changes the subject, or pauses until it does.
Had the Braves beaten the Yankees in ’96, maybe we’d all be talking about the Braves Dynasty of the 1990s instead of that of the Yankees’.
“You never know,” Cox said. “You never know.”
“It was a series of events, unlike ’95, when those things go your way, you end up winning,” Glavine says. “They didn’t go our way and it turned out to be the difference in the series.”
And when they didn’t go Atlanta’s way, it moved quickly.
“We won two, and then got swept,” Maddux said. “And geez, by the time we knew it, it was Christmas again and time to get ready for spring training.
“It happened, you tried to learn from it and, you know, you get ready for spring training. That’s what I remember most about that. But obviously, we won two in Yankee Stadium and then got swept. We lost three at our place.
“It sucked, I’ll tell you that.”
Blueberry pancakes gone and Otsego Lake sparkling in the background, Kasten talks dynasties and memories. For five years after 1991, he thought of Lonnie Smith’s Game 7 baserunning blunder every day.
“In ’96, we were right there, obviously, and in ’91 we were right there,” Kasten said. “We do think one more of those would have given it a different feel.”
But you know, he says, there are an awful lot of others in this crazy baseball business who have repeatedly returned to the World Series and failed to win. And what about Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski?
“Mike Krzyzewski told me it wasn’t until his fifth Final Four that he won,” Kasten said. “No one remembers that, you know? Look it up. So yeah, it’s hard.”
Tough to say sometimes which is more difficult, the doing to get to a place or the living with the memories when they aren’t quite what you’d hoped. There have been many battles both won and lost since October 1996. Managers move on. Players grow up.
“You have a short span of time to enjoy success or failure, either one,” Cox said here on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon amid the lush green fields and meadows in a village in which time always seems to stand still. “Next year’s a new year.
“There’s only a few months in between the seasons anymore.”
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