• Sal Maiorana

The World Series could not have started any worse for Torre, Yankees

NEW YORK (Oct. 20, 1996) – As flashbulbs exploded all around Yankee Stadium when Andy Pettitte delivered the first pitch, Joe Torre was undoubtedly the happiest man in the world.

Every one of the first 32 years Torre had worn a major-league uniform ended the same way, but on this night, finally, in the 4,273rd major-league game of his career as a player and manager, it was his turn to experience the glory of the Fall Classic.

Never mind that torrential rain had pushed back Game 1 by 24 hours. Torre had waited this long to reach the pinnacle of the sport, he could wait one more night. But by the time the night was over, he was probably wishing the rain had never stopped.

“I take losses very tough,” Torre said after watching the Braves inflict a 12-1 pounding on the Yankees. “It’s very important to turn this around very quickly and get this taste out of our mouth.”

But Torre knew that was going to be tough.

Atlanta was the defending World Series champion. After losing to Minnesota in 1991 and Toronto in 1992, the Braves had broken through in 1995 by defeating Cleveland in six games, and based on what happened in the last three games of the National League Championship Series, they were clearly the favorite against New York.

The Braves trailed St. Louis three games to one before winning three straight by a cumulative score of 32-1. It was a frightening display of skillful baseball as the storied Atlanta pitching staff held the Cardinals to 17 hits in those three blowouts and all three of its ace starters, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, earned victories.

They picked right up where they left off in Game 1, silencing what had been for just a brief few moments an electric sellout crowd. They scored their 12 runs on 13 hits including a pair of homers and five RBI from 19-year-old center fielder Andruw Jones.

“They’ve come off a series where they were down 3-1 and scored the way they did against the Cardinals and, after a couple of days off, they kept it up against us,” Torre said. “The thing is we weren’t hitting our spots; we didn’t pitch our game. When you don’t pitch like you’re supposed to pitch the other team is going to score runs.”

Everyone knew the Braves could pitch, but if the Braves could keep hitting like that, the Yankees had no chance. “We were just overwhelmed tonight,” Torre said. “They were tremendous.”

And then Atlanta was tremendous the next night, too.

As the Yankees prepared to take the field for infield practice before Game 2, George Steinbrenner came blowing into Torre’s office and proclaimed that this was a “must-win game.”

Torre’s reply became legendary as he said, “George, you should be prepared for us to lose again tonight. But then we’re going to Atlanta. Atlanta’s my town. We’ll take three games there and come back and win it here Saturday.”

Steinbrenner was flabbergasted. He didn’t know how to respond to that, and it’s doubtful the Boss took Torre’s advice; he was surely irritated that the first part of Torre’s proclamation had come true. Maddux pitched eight fabulous innings of six-hit shutout ball and the Braves eased their way to a 4-0 victory and a commanding two-game lead.

Unlike the first game, the Yankees died a slow death in this one as Atlanta put up single tallies in the first, third, fifth and sixth innings with Fred McGriff driving in the first three runs.

“They’re getting frustrated,” Torre said of his players. “You don’t see pitching like that every day. Unfortunately, we’ve seen it both days. You see guys like that occasionally in the American League like Roger Clemens and Kevin Appier. The problem is they’re not all on the same team.”

On to Atlanta. His town, as he said. And man, as a prophet, Torre was looking pretty good by the time the Yankees came back to New York.

NEXT post on June 13: David Cone comes up with a gritty, season-saving performance.