For Yankees, 1996 was the birth of a dynasty

January 27th, 2022

The championship rings grew more ornate as the Yankees became "the team of the decade," but for those lucky enough to score more than one of those diamond-encrusted treasures, 1996 stands apart as one of the most remarkable seasons in franchise history.

It was the birth of a dynasty, the franchise's 23rd World Series championship -- sealed in a Game 6 victory over the Braves, when third baseman Charlie Hayes snared a popup in foul territory at the original Yankee Stadium. Decades later, memories of '96 continue to flow for members of that roster.

"It was the first. You never forget your first," said Derek Jeter, who was the Bombers' rookie shortstop that year. "That was the beginning. The Yankees hadn't won in a long time. You remember the excitement in the stadium; you remember the excitement in the city. 'The Boss' said if we won, he'd keep us together, and we continued to win."

Of course, "The Boss" was principal owner George M. Steinbrenner, who still ruled that era with an authoritative fist. Aiming to end an 18-year title drought, Steinbrenner dismissed Buck Showalter in October 1995 and entrusted the lineup card to Joe Torre, who hadn't yet compiled anything resembling what would blossom into a Hall of Fame resume.

Torre was a baseball lifer who had never played or managed in a World Series, owning a managerial record that stood 109 games under .500 in previous stops with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals. Despite his Brooklyn, N.Y., roots, Torre's hiring in November 1995 prompted the New York Daily News to proclaim in large type that "Clueless Joe" had no idea what he was getting into.

"To me, this was a bonus job, and I had an opportunity to be a part of something special," Torre said. "My first meeting with the whole team in Spring Training, I said, 'I don't want to win one championship -- I want to win three in a row.'”

Coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Mariners in the 1995 AL Division Series, the '96 Yanks found their identity in a blend of proven veterans and promising rookies. Content to spin yarns to shield players from New York’s media crush, Torre’s cool touch proved to be precisely what the team needed.

As the Yankees broke the seal on a new training facility in Tampa, Fla., Bernie Williams remembers Torre telling his players: "'You've got two rules with me. You play hard, and you be on time. If you do that, I'll go through a wall for you.' He did, and he gave us that confidence to know that if we did those things, we were going to be fine."

Dwight Gooden’s May 14 no-hitter highlighted the turnaround from an early-season slide and infielder Mariano Duncan sparked a rallying cry that soon appeared on clubhouse T-shirts: "We play today, we win today, dat’s it." They followed that advice plenty, finishing 92-70 before powering past the Orioles and Rangers in the postseason (with some help from 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier).

"I think people could see where things were going with this group," Andy Pettitte said. "The organization always did a great job of bringing a good mix of players in. Even if they were a superstar on another team, I feel like Joe Torre did a wonderful job of making everyone jell together.”

Deft front-office moves bolstered the squad, bringing in battle-hardened contributors like Darryl Strawberry, Graeme Lloyd, Luis Sojo and Hayes, who said he has not gone a single day without being reminded of the foul pop he snared off the bat of Atlanta's Mark Lemke on Oct. 25, 1996.

“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.”

Perhaps the most crucial moves were ones not made. Panicked by Jeter's questionable fielding in the spring, Steinbrenner suggested trading Rivera for infielder Felix Fermin. The dynasty nearly short-circuited before it began; Rivera would have been in Seattle and Jeter in Triple-A. After a spirited debate, super scout Gene Michael wore down Steinbrenner, who grumbled: “You’d better be right.” Rivera set up for World Series MVP John Wetteland and Jeter was the AL Rookie of the Year.

"That was a gutsy call from The Boss," Rivera said. "Bernie was already in the big leagues; he was a few years ahead of us. And to have four youngsters on the team, that was a gutsy call. We were anxious and we wanted to do something because we knew that we belonged in the big leagues."

While Steinbrenner had lusted to quench his title thirst since 1978, it was the first sip of winning bubbly for many staffers, including Brian Cashman, who joined the organization as an intern in 1986. He was serving as Bob Watson's assistant general manager on the night that Lemke fouled out.

"I remember basically the entire city turned upside down in euphoria," Cashman said. "After the game, we went down to a Yankee party at some bar in the Upper East Side, if I recall. People were on top of cars. It was just a complete block party of entire Manhattan."

Yet if the Yankees thought a championship gave them license to rest, Steinbrenner corrected that. Cashman recalls seeing The Boss on the morning of the parade, a vein bulging from his neck as he roared at a Yankees employee and several players.

"I remember him screaming, 'Get your wives off the float!'" Cashman said. "He had the wives stationed under the double-decker buses and the players would be on the floats, not with wives. He was ballistic. I said to myself, 'He's a world champion, but he's a perfectionist. If he can't be happy now, I don't know if we'll ever make him happy.'"

The wives eventually won out, and it was a good thing they did -- there would be more parades. The ride was only beginning.

"'96 set it all up for us, because we expected to be there," catcher Jorge Posada said. "You get to Spring Training and the first words out of Joe Torre's mouth were, 'We're going to the World Series.' Ever since he took over, that was the No. 1 goal -- work hard to get to the World Series."