• Sal Maiorana

Cone roughed up as Yankees drop playoff opener to Rangers

NEW YORK (Oct. 1, 1996) – During the regular season the Yankees had clearly been a team that played its best when the competition was at its keenest.

On their way to a 92-70 record which ended up being four games better than Baltimore, the Yankees beat the Orioles 10 times in 13 games for a winning percentage of .769, their best against any team.

As for the club that finished with the top record in the America League, the 99-62 Indians, New York defeated Cleveland in nine of 12 games for a win percentage of .750.

All of which bode well for the AL Championships Series because the Yankees’ opponent would be one of those clubs. That is, if New York could get past Texas, and based on what happened during the regular season, and then in Game 1 of the best-of-five divisional series, that was no sure thing.

The Rangers, who won the AL West for the first time in their 25-year history, captured the regular-season series 7-5 and outscored the Yankees 68-48 led by outfielder Juan Gonzalez who in the next month would be named AL most valuable player.

And in the top of the fourth inning in the opener at Yankee Stadium, it was Gonzalez who sent the Rangers on their way to a 6-2 victory when he hit a three-run homer off David Cone, part of a game-deciding five-run outburst.

The day before, Joe Torre had remarked that playing at home – where his team had gone 49-31 during the regular season – would provide an edge because, “of all the energy and all the history of what has gone on before here; the Babe Ruths, the Lou Gehrigs, the Joe DiMaggios, the Mickey Mantles. We have certainly played well here.”

Even Cone chimed in, saying, “We know what kind of excitement and intimidation fans at Yankee Stadium can bring to a game. We expect it will be a very difficult place for (them) to play.”

It wasn’t a hard storyline to dismiss, especially when the opponent was a playoff virgin. The Rangers franchise – which began as the Washington Senators in 1961 and moved to Texas in 1972 – had played 5,690 games without ever experiencing postseason baseball. Yet here was Johnny Oates’ long-ball hitting team, finally in the tournament, and beating the franchise with the deepest and most glorious postseason resume in the sport’s annals.

“We heard a lot about our history, about how Texas always collapsed, about how Texas had to be looking over its shoulder,” said Oates, whose team very nearly did that. They saw a nine-game lead on Sept. 11 dwindle to one by Sept. 20 before reversing course and holding off Seattle. “Our biggest obstacle this summer was our history.”

It certainly wasn’t Cone in this game.

“It’s a mystery to me what happened,” said Cone, who got knocked around for six runs on eight hits and two walks. “I really have no explanation. All I can tell you is that this is a huge disappointment to me.”

In the bottom of the first it looked like everyone expected it would look when Tim Raines led off with a single, went to third on a double by Wade Boggs off Texas starter John Burkett, and the crowd of 57,205 was in full throat. But when third baseman Dean Palmer made a dazzling play to retire Paul O’Neill, preventing two runs from scoring, the Rangers suddenly felt like they belonged.

Bernie Williams pushed one run across with a groundout, but that was all Burkett allowed. He would retire nine of the next 10 batters and was rewarded with Texas’ big fourth inning. Pudge Rodriquez led off with a walk, Rusty Greer singled, and Gonzalez curled his home run around the left-field foul pole. Will Clark then singled on Cone’s next pitch, and after a strikeout, Cone served up a breaking ball that didn’t break and Palmer homered to left for a 5-1 lead.

The Yankees got one run back in the fourth on a Mariano Duncan single, and then had the bases loaded with two outs in the sixth, but Burkett induced Derek Jeter to pop out to first and they never threatened again as Burkett finished off a 119-pitch complete game.

“We haven’t done anything easy all year, so it’s no big deal,” Torre said. “I have said it’s very important to win the first game, but managers will always find a reason why it’s not important if they don’t win. We didn’t have it locked up if we won the first game, and we sure haven’t lost it after losing the first game. We played 162 games to get where we are. We’re not going to roll over and play dead.”

NEXT Post on June 2: Yankees rally three times to close out Rangers.