Yankees Magazine: Flipping the script

From backup catcher to October hero, Jim Leyritz helped swing the momentum of the '96 Series with a Game 4 home run

October 30th, 2016
In Game 4 of the '96 World Series, Leyritz went from role player to New York hero. His game-tying home run in the eighth inning set the stage for a Yankees win, helping to change the momentum of the series. (New York Yankees)John Reid III/Getty Images

With five outs separating the Yankees from a 3-games-to-1 deficit in the 1996 World Series, backup catcher Jim Leyritz stepped to the plate at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The team was down by three with two runners on. Leyritz dug in and launched a 2-2 pitch from the Atlanta Braves' Mark Wohlers to left field to tie the game.

The Bombers went on to win, evening the series, and followed up the performance with two more victories -- including a Game 5 gem from Andy Pettitte that Leyritz caught -- clinching the first World Series title for the franchise since 1978.

Leyritz talked to Yankees Magazine associate editor Hilary Giorgi about that season and the special place it holds in his heart.

What was the transition like from when you came up in 1990 to 1996, when the Yankees went from a mediocre team to world champs?

It was an interesting build because when we were in the Minor Leagues, the biggest joke was you hoped you'd get traded so you could go to the Big Leagues with somebody else. When Mr. Steinbrenner got suspended and Gene Michael took over, he decided, "Let's give our youth a chance." He called me up in 1990. I remember Gene called me in the office and said, "Okay, you're here, and if you do well, you can open up some doors for these guys." I ended up getting off to a really good start. Kevin Maas came up and hit 21 home runs in his first year. Alan Mills came up with me. So there was an influx of younger players finally getting a chance. Then 1996 comes, Donnie Mattingly leaves, some of the other guys leave, and I wind up being the most tenured Yankee on the team. It was great to be the senior leader of that team despite not being an everyday player.

When Joe Torre came in to manage in 1996, what were your initial thoughts about the change?

Everything in the press was about how Joe hadn't won. They weren't sure he could do it. One of the things I give him a lot of credit for is how he came into New York saying this was his last chance: If I'm not successful here, I'm not going to get another opportunity. So instead of coming in and getting a coaching staff that he didn't have to worry about taking his job, he helped put together a coaching staff where every single one of those guys had the ability to be -- or had been -- a manager. That's what I really think made him successful; the respect that all the players had for the coaching staff was second to none.

How would you describe your role?

I kept things loose. I was on the bench a lot, so I did the hotfoots and played the jokes. But when I did get an opportunity, I took advantage of it, and I think guys really respected that. I was finally getting more of that opportunity, especially being Andy Pettitte's personal catcher.

What was your relationship with Andy like, and how did that bond grow out of the success you two had the previous year?

In '95, when he was struggling with Mike Stanley, I remember him going to [Manager Buck Showalter] and asking, "Can I just throw to Jimmy once or twice?" And the first two times we threw, it was like, "Okay, there's something here." And Buck saw it, and to his credit, he stuck with it. Joe, coming over in '96, decided he would go with it to start after seeing how it worked.

Andy and I were polar opposites. There was no reason that it should have worked, but it did. I think Andy appreciated my approach in saying, "Listen, I've got confidence in all your pitches. Just stay with me; work with me." To his credit, he was confident enough to do that.

At what point in the season did you realize that this was a special team?

When David Cone came back from his aneurysm in Oakland and almost pitched a no-hitter. Everybody was kind of like, "If we get him back, we've got a great chance. If we just get half of him, we've got a good chance." And he comes out and does what he did; it gave us such a lift.

Take me through the postseason. What were you feeling about the teams you had to face?

Texas gave us a good run. Baltimore was interesting. We had played pretty good against them. And then, of course, we go against Atlanta, and we lose the first two games like we did and you're looking at Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. Your chances are slim to none.

There was an article that came out in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which the Braves said they were so happy they won the first two games because they could close it out at home. Joe brought it out and showed us, and he said, "Guys, we don't have to go out and sweep this thing. All we have to do is get back to New York. These guys don't want to go back there. If we get back to New York, we can win this thing.'"

What was the comeback like, especially your Game 4 homer?

Game 3 was great. Coney pitched a great game, Bernie Williams hit the home run, and we win. But then in Game 4, Kenny Rogers gives up five runs in two innings. From the bench, Joe says, "Guys, let's just chip away." So we chip away with three runs, and then we have two guys on base with our two best up in Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez, and they both strike out. I can't remember who I looked at, but I said, "Well, at least we didn't get swept." We knew that Mark Wohlers was down there getting ready, and he was their Mariano Rivera.

The eighth inning starts, and we're down three. Charlie Hayes gets the swinging bunt, Darryl Strawberry gets the base hit, and then Mariano Duncan looks like he hits into a routine double play, but it doesn't happen. Then I come up, and the funny thing is, before Darryl goes up to bat, we were in the dugout together. I only had two of my good bats left, and I still have to play tomorrow. So I looked at Darryl and I said, "Hey, Straw, do you have a bat I could borrow?" He had a brand-new set of 12 bats there, and he said, "Go ahead and use it." Little did we know that would become the famous home-run bat.

When I was running the bases, all I could think was we have to win. I was standing right next to the steps when Wade Boggs drew his walk in the 10th inning. We were just pounding the stairs. When we walked into the locker room, before the media came in and it was just us, you could tell that everything had changed. We knew we were going to win.

What was your game plan in that at-bat against Wohlers?

I was on the step waiting to go to the on-deck circle and I looked at Don Zimmer, and asked, "Zim, what's this guy got?" He said, "Jimmy, this guy throws 100 mph. Just get ready." I didn't even know what Mark Wohlers threw. I guessed fastball/slider because that's what Mariano had. I didn't know he had a split-fingered pitch and that it was his second-best pitch. Had I known that, I don't know if I would have hit the slider out. He threw me a first-pitch fastball and then two sliders. Now I had a look at what he had, so I was a little bit better prepared. But again, I didn't know he had a split. I always say sometimes it's better to be ignorant than smart. But he ended up throwing a hanging slider, I hit the home run, and it was a pretty special moment.

For Game 5, you weren't even sure Joe was going to have you catch Andy because of how Game 1 went, right?

Well, he felt like Andy wouldn't shake me, and he felt like I wasn't calling the right way in Game 1. What I tried to explain to him was that it felt like Andy was behind everybody that game. Andruw Jones had a career game. I said, "It wasn't because of the way we approached it; it was just bad pitching." I said, "We'll get better next time." And I think Joe thought if he challenged me that I would rise to the occasion, and I usually did.

Andy pitched the game of his life, a 1-0 win, and now you're on the plane back to New York with a Series lead. Do you remember how that felt?

We went back there with a lot of confidence, but we knew they had Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz still there waiting. These are three Hall of Famers now. And the way Maddux pitched in Game 2 -- he threw 82 pitches in almost a complete game -- it was ridiculous how he toyed with our hitters. We really had to be ready.

What was the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium like during that game?

I've never heard it louder, especially after Joe Girardi's triple. The funny thing was, Strawberry and I were watching the last inning from the clubhouse because I was getting ready to maybe pinch-hit, so he and I were hitting off the tee. So we're there and the first pop-up goes up. Straw and I run down the tunnel, and all of a sudden, you see this Atlanta Braves jersey come up and get in the way of Charlie Hayes. We're screaming because we think it's interference. I said to Straw, "We've got to go back." We were superstitious. So we ran back to the locker room, stood where we were standing before, and two seconds later, the same pop-up happens. We run back down, Charlie catches it, and we all run out and celebrate.

If you had to choose one lasting memory from that World Series, what would it be?

The parade. The parade was like no other. It was a time for the city that showed just how much they appreciated the underdog. For the first time, New York was the underdog and actually won. And you can't top it off any better than Joe Torre's brother getting a heart. A life was saved, and then we go on to win. Joe couldn't have had a better storybook ending. And for the city, Mayor Giuliani will be the first one to tell you, it changed the city. There's times that you change a sports franchise, or you change the fans, but I think that team actually changed the whole city. That's why when you look back even now, after all the championships they've had, that might not have been the greatest team ever, but the stories from the '96 team outweigh everything.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.