It was October 20, 1996. My mom had the popcorn ready and kept asking my best friend at the time and her family, who had come over our house to watch the game, if they were comfortable. She’d been futzing for hours – days, really, since there had literally been a week between when the Yankees won Game 5 of the ALCS, clinching the pennant, and when Game 1 of the World Series took place, after a rainout. She was that excited about the Yankees being back in the World Series after so long, even against the heavily favored defending champion Atlanta Braves. I can’t claim to remember it exactly, but I would guess that in the pregame show, the announcers discussed how it would be a pitchers’ duel between the two assumed Cy Young winners in both leagues: John Smoltz for the Braves and Andy Pettitte for the Yankees.
Of course, almost all the time, things don’t turn out exactly how you would expect in baseball. Almost like you can’t predict it. That night, John Smoltz wasn’t as sharp as he usually was. He walked more men than he struck out, in a year when he had a ridiculous 5.02 K/BB ratio. That said, his six inning, two-hit, one-run performance was certainly respectable; Andy Pettitte’s was not.
After a 1-2-3 first, he gave up a two-run home run to Andruw Jones in the second, and in the third, the wheels completely came off. By the time he left, with one out in the third, it was 5-0 Atlanta with two men on base. The reliever who came in for the Yankees allowed another home run to Jones, bringing home Pettitte’s inherited runners and making his final line 2.1 innings pitched with 7 earned runs. The final score of the game was 12-1, Atlanta. No way to describe it other than ugly.
The next day, the Yankees’ Jimmy Key wasn’t terrible, but he gave up some runs and Greg Maddux didn’t. Maddux made easy work of New York, shutting the Yankees out on just 82 pitches across eight innings, and the Braves won again. As ever, people had been hoping for a Fall Classic, but 1996’s version of the World Series had the appearance of an utter joke. Since the Braves had lost Game 4 of the NLCS to the Cardinals to put them in a 3-1 series hole, Atlanta had won five straight games to win first the pennant, and then Games 1 and 2 of the World Series, outscoring their opponents 48-2 over that span (!!!!!). Three of those wins had been by more than ten runs. They’d already outscored the Yankees 16-1. The series was heading back to Atlanta, a sweep for the Braves all but assured, and journalists were writing columns with titles like “The 1927 Yankees Might Lose to These Guys.”
The overblown talk stopped a bit when David Cone outdueled Tom Glavine in Game 3, and the Yankees held on for a 5-2 win. But that game seemed like a blip when Atlanta regained its dominance early on in Game 4, with a 4-0 lead by the end of the second inning, and a 6-0 lead by the end of the fifth. It seemed like another complete blowout, but the Yankees’ relievers were able to hold the Braves’ offense there, and they chipped away to make it 6-3 going into the eighth. Atlanta, obviously wanting the win badly and maybe a bit nervous that it had gotten that close, brought in their closer, Mark Wohlers. Two singles and a big ol’ hanging slider to Jim Leyritz sent into the stands, and the score was tied. In the top of the tenth, with the bases loaded and the score still tied, Wade Boggs walked to put the Yankees ahead; they’d add another run and hold that lead to tie the Series. Boggs had openly sobbed in Boston’s dugout when his Red Sox lost the 1986 World Series, but now he’d come through ten years later for the Yankees. Who the hell could have seen that coming?
So the Series, after starting out like a joke, was tied. Sure, Game 4 had been a heartbreaker for Atlanta, but as they say, momentum’s only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher, and the Braves had Smoltz going again. 1996’s eventual NL Cy Young winner (and he actually mostly deserved it) was, at that point, 9-1 in the postseason with a 2.35 ERA and sparkling peripherals. His one loss was in a 2-1 game to Philadelphia in 1993, when he’d gone 6.1 innings, struck out ten, and given up no earned runs. Pettitte didn’t have that track record. Even completely counting out his disaster in Game 1 of the World Series, his limited postseason experience in the 1995 ALDS and 1996 ALDS and ALCS was decidedly meh, with a 4.45 ERA and underwhelming peripherals, including more walks than strikeouts and seven home runs in 28.1 innings. He had more games where he’d given up more than one home run than games where he’d struck out more men than he’d walked, generally not a great recipe for success pitching-wise.
Most people, when they talk about the 1996 World Series, talk about Game 4 because comebacks rule and all, and that game was indeed awesome. What I like to talk about, though, is Game 5. Not just because the hero of that game was a player I am rather fond of, but because his triumph there is part of what makes baseball so unpredictable and ultimately hopeful, and therefore awesome.
We watch baseball for both the mundane and the near-impossible. On any given night, however unlikely, your team’s ace could throw an utter stinker. On any given night, however unlikely, your team’s spot starter could throw a near no-hitter. Andy Pettitte got lit the hell up in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series, but he came back for Game 5, and he pitched what’s probably still the game of his life. All he did was throw 8.1 innings of five-hit, no-run baseball against John Smoltz, who went 8 innings, gave up four hits and one unearned run, and struck out ten. Later on, Smoltz would call that game the greatest game he’d ever pitched – and Pettitte beat him, after he’d been so badly beaten himself just four days earlier.
So even despite the utter humiliation of the first two games, the “hooray we’re not going to get swept” mild euphoria of Game 3, the historic comeback of Game 4, and winning it all in Game 6 – thanks to Jimmy Key outdueling Greg Maddux, and Joe Girardi coming through with a huge triple, of all things – when I think of the 1996 World Series, I’ll always think first of that Game 5 and, more importantly, Andy’s redemption. Baseball can be very cruel, and it’s hard to watch games where your favorite players simply don’t come through when they need to. The gorgeous thing about baseball is that that across that long, long season, redemption is almost always possible, and in ways you maybe never thought could happen.