The baseball representing the final out of the World Series hovered above foul territory on the third-base side of Yankee Stadium on the evening of Oct. 26, 1996. Charlie Hayes eyed the spinning projectile, waving his arms and pounding a fist into the pocket of his glove, an instant before securing a routine popup that was anything but.
Hayes and his teammates roared toward the center of the diamond as The Bronx became a party zone, the Yankees having dispatched the Braves in a six-game Fall Classic that sparked a dynasty. For the first time since 1978, they celebrated as champions. It’s a touchstone memory among fans of a particular generation, but for years, Hayes cringed upon seeing the snapshot.
“Everybody remembers me for that,” Hayes said in a recent telephone interview. “I finally learned to accept that, which I really had a problem with there for a while. I caught a ball in foul territory where I went in the game in the seventh inning, and it’s the biggest thing that everybody knows me about in my career.
“That really bothered me, because I played 14 years in the Major Leagues. That takes a skilled player, a lucky player, and a lot of hard work. I finally learned to accept that as you get older, but I used to hate to see that photo.”
Now 56, Hayes operates the Big League Baseball Academy in Tomball, Texas, with his son, Tyree, a former Minor League pitcher. This past summer, he proudly watched his youngest son, Ke’Bryan, take on National League competition as the Pirates’ promising young third baseman.
That tour was familiar ground for Hayes, who appeared in 1,547 big league games over a career that included stops with the Giants, Phillies, Yankees, Rockies, Pirates, Astros and Brewers, stroking 1,379 hits and finishing with a .262 average, 144 homers and 740 RBIs. Yet in many minds, his service boils down to catching a Mark Lemke popup, the conclusion of a season that Hayes began on a Pittsburgh club headed nowhere special.
Yankees general manager Bob Watson acquired Hayes from Pittsburgh on Aug. 30, bolstering a veteran-laden bench. It was a second go-round in pinstripes for Hayes, who had played 142 games for the 1992 Yanks before being plucked by the Rockies in the Expansion Draft. Hayes said that he quickly realized there was unique chemistry in the clubhouse.
“What I saw was a bunch of guys that all had the same common goal,” Hayes said. “They were all friends; it was a team. We pulled for each other. When I got traded over there, I was like, ‘Why am I going here? They’ve got Wade Boggs.’ But one of the things I learned being there was not to be selfish. I learned to enjoy every day.”
Boggs wasn’t thrilled about being nudged into a platoon, and Hayes initially wondered about his playing time, with manager Joe Torre explaining that he’d see at-bats against left-handed pitchers. Hayes shelved any potential gripes when he looked down the bench and saw the likes of Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry and Cecil Fielder patiently waiting for opportunities to crack the lineup.
“We were a group of guys that once we got to the field, we all had the same common goal,” Hayes said. “That was to do whatever we could and accept whatever was put forth in front of us. Mr. Torre was putting what he thought was the best team to win that day on the field. It was great. We had a good mixture of veteran guys … Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter. It was an honor being on the team with Boggs; he was a Hall of Famer, and I knew that.”
In Game 6, Boggs went hitless in three at-bats against Braves starter Greg Maddux. Torre made a couple of changes with the Yankees guarding a two-run lead in the seventh inning, bringing in Mariano Rivera while installing Hayes to replace Boggs at third base. Rivera walked Terry Pendleton, then retired the next six men he faced, sending the game to the ninth.
Closer John Wetteland entered, a crowd of 56,375 poised to erupt in jubilation. Atlanta fought to the end, stroking three singles off the right-hander to cut New York’s lead to 3-2. Lemke stepped in, aiming to drive home Rafael Belliard from second base with the potential tying run.
Lemke ran the count full, and the sixth pitch of the at-bat drifted foul, sending Hayes tumbling into the visiting dugout. Hayes dislocated a finger but told no one, jogging back to his position. Lemke lofted the seventh pitch in a similar area, but this time it remained in play, soon to become October lore.
“It was the greatest day of my life, and I didn’t even realize it,” Hayes said. “The first thing that came to my mind was, I went to a high school [Forrest County Agricultural HS in Hattiesburg, Miss.] that had a graduating class of 121 people. That shouldn’t happen. But now, that’s a part of Yankees history -- that [catch] is going to go on forever. And that’s great.”