• Sal Maiorana

Champions again after a heart-pounding end to the World Series

NEW YORK (Oct. 26, 1996) – On the day that glory would make its long-lost return to Yankee Stadium, Joe Torre arrived at the ballpark in the Bronx eight hours before Game 6 was scheduled to start.

He was running on pure adrenaline after what had happened in Atlanta, but also what had happened the day before at Manhattan’s Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.

The details of the 28-year-old man’s death were never made public. All anyone knew is that before he died from a brain disease, the anonymous Bronx resident had signed an organ donor card, and in the early morning hours of Oct. 25, 1996 when his heart was harvested, it was found to be a suitable match for the body of Frank Torre.

For more than two months Joe’s older brother had been laying in a bed waiting for a miracle. His own heart was failing, and if he didn’t receive a new one very soon, he was going to die.

Here came that miracle.

Hours earlier, Frank had gone to sleep with a smile on his face following the Yankees’ pulsating 1-0 victory in Game 5, and he was looking forward to speaking to his brother in the morning.

The conversation would have to wait.

Joe had been in bed at his New Rochelle home barely a half-hour when the phone rang with news that Frank was being prepped for the procedure. Given the complexity of the surgery and the fact that Frank was 64 years old, Joe was terrified at first, but then he realized this is what Frank and the Torre family had been waiting for. This was Frank’s only chance.

Joe never did get back to sleep that morning. He and his wife Ali and Joe’s sisters, Rae and Sister Marguerite, waited anxiously, praying that Frank would pull through. For those six hours, the World Series didn’t seem all that important.

Just before noon a doctor friend of Joe’s called. The operation was successful, and the surgeon who performed the procedure, Dr. Mehmet Oz – seriously, a doctor named Oz gave Frank his new heart – said all indications were that Frank’s body was accepting the new organ.

Who the hell was writing this script?

When Frank’s surgeon, Dr. Eric Rose, was jokingly asked if it would be safe for Frank to watch Game 6 the next night given his condition, the doctor said, “We think he’s much better off with this heart than the old heart, and he was watching the games with the old heart.”

Winning the clincher was not going to be easy, no matter how well Frank’s new heart was working. Greg Maddux was pitching for the Braves and through two fruitless 1-2-3 innings at the start, the Yankees were to that point scoreless in 10 innings in the Series against the future Hall of Famer.

There were no signs that the Yankees were ever going to scratch out a run against him. Until they did in the bottom of the third. Three runs, in fact, which is all they would ultimately need.

Paul O’Neill lined a double into the right-field corner to lead it off and Mariano Duncan pushed him over to third with a groundout to second. Into the batters’ box stepped Joe Girardi, and when he looked down at third for the sign, he recalled, “I thought Joe was going to give me a sign for a safety squeeze.”

Nope, Girardi was on his own, and what he did was swing at the first pitch Maddux offered, a letter-high fastball which he sent on a line to straightaway center field and over Marquise Grissom’s head.

Some have said they have never heard the old place any louder as Girardi chugged around the bases and slid into third with an RBI triple.

“He let me hit, and it worked out,” said Girardi. “When I got to third base I almost started crying. I think it was from a lot of things. I had a dream about two months ago that I would drive in the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series. I think this was God’s plan all the way.”

It wasn’t Game 7, but it was close enough.

Derek Jeter followed with an RBI single through the left side, and after he stole second and Wade Boggs flied out, Bernie Williams came through with an RBI single to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead.

Atlanta got one back in the fourth as Jimmy Key walked Jermaine Dye with the bases loaded to force in a run, but he induced Terry Pendleton to ground into a rally-killing, inning-ending double play.

Key breezed through the fifth and then he, David Weathers and Graeme Lloyd negotiated through a scoreless sixth, and now it was time for Torre’s 6-2-1 formula to take hold. The Yankees had the lead after six, and as Weathers said, “That was our goal during the post-season – get the game to Mariano.”

In what essentially became his last appearance as a set-up man, Rivera pitched two innings of no-hit relief, and then John Wetteland trotted in from the bullpen in the ninth with a chance to win the World Series.

He whiffed Andruw Jones, but Ryan Klesko beat out an infield single up the middle and Pendleton lashed a 1-2 pitch into right for a single sending Klesko to third and nerve endings were pulsating in the stadium.

Luis Polonia had battled Wetteland to the death in Game 5, but this time Wetteland blew him away for the second out. Now the fans rose and the noise was deafening, but Grissom tempered the mood with a first-pitch single to right that scored Klesko, cutting the lead to 3-2.

Now Joe had to wonder how Frank’s new heart was holding up because his own was beating out of his chest.

Light-hitting Mark Lemke stepped in, a pesky hitter who was dangerous in this spot because all the Braves needed was a pesky little single to tie the game. Lemke worked the count full, fouled off a pitch, and then he swung one last time at Wetteland’s seventh offering and lifted a foul pop behind third base.

It looked like it would reach the seats but Hayes, who had replaced Wade Boggs at third base in the seventh inning, drifted over near the railing and when the ball barely stayed in play Hayes caught it for the final out.

The Yankees, for the first time since 1978, were world champions.

“This has been a dreamland for me,” Torre said. “The last 48 hours have just been incredible. It’s strange. Weird. Like it was supposed to happen. Whenever something did happen, it didn’t surprise us.”

Perhaps the most enduring scene was Boggs, riding shotgun on a police horse, waving to the crowd. He’d been one out away from winning the 1986 World Series as a member of the Boston Red Sox. Then Bill Buckner booted Mookie Wilson’s ground ball and the Red Sox curse lived on. Like Torre, Boggs had waited his whole life for this.

“You always think back and sort of wonder how the Mets were feeling when they were celebrating. I just wanted to be a part of that,” said Boggs, who not only lost the ‘86 Series but also lost his mother in an automobile accident during that season. “I can finally put 1986 behind me, forever. As I sat up there on that horse, I looked up into the sky and I swear to God I looked right into my mother’s eyes.”

In the clubhouse, George Steinbrenner cried as he watched player after player spray champagne.

‘‘It’s been a long time and it’s great for New York,’’ Steinbrenner said before adding of Torre, his manager, the manager all of New York laughed at when the Boss had hired him 11 months earlier, “It’s like a Frank Merriwell story that us old guys used to read. What a story.”

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