In the Homer History series, writers re-tell the stories of memorable home runs from their perspective. In this installment, Yahoo Sports’ Jay Busbee talks about the 1996 World Series homer that sank the Braves’ chance at a dynasty.
The Atlanta Braves of 1991-2005 will go down in history as a dynasty that wasn’t, alongside similar ‘90s relics like the would-be Super Bowl champion Buffalo Bills and the would-be President Al Gore. Sure, they rolled off 14 division titles, an accolade which carries all the weight of 14 straight perfect-attendance awards, but when it mattered the most, the Braves came up small, year after year after year.
You know all this. As an Atlanta fan, I lived all this. And somewhere there exists a brighter alternate universe where a fastball pitcher didn’t try to get cute with a slider, where a weak-hitting backup catcher meekly grounded out in a key moment, where the Braves won multiple world championships and displaced the Yankees as the true team of the ’90s.
Put another way: Jim Leyritz broke the Braves.
Let’s set the stage here. Before 1991, the Atlanta Braves were a franchise that specialized in the kind of miserable incompetence usually reserved for teams from Cleveland. “Wait ‘Til Next Year” was the mantra every year. But in 1991, lightning struck: a brilliant young pitching staff, a couple key veterans, a manager who led his team like a conductor guiding an orchestra – it all combined to create one of the most improbable World Series runs in history. The Braves lost to the Twins in seven, but won a city’s love – three-quarters of a million people turned out for a parade for a World Series loser, for heaven’s sake.
Roll it forward a year: the Braves lose to the Blue Jays in six, but the way Atlanta reached the World Series – with an improbable Game 7, bottom-of-the-ninth come-from-behind hit from Francisco Cabrera – kept the local goodwill going. The Philadelphia Phillies dispatched Atlanta in 1993, the strike wiped out the season (and a likely Montreal Expos championship) in 1994, but then, just as Atlanta fans’ patience was wearing thin, Atlanta won its World Series in 1995.
That put Atlanta and its fans in an unfamiliar position in 1996: the top of the mountain. So often accustomed to looking up at other teams, Atlanta stared around and saw nothing but blue sky and sunshine above.
The Braves rolled through the 1996 regular season and entered the World Series on a locomotive-downhill roll. They’d decimated the Cardinals to win the National League, and then claimed Yankee Stadium as their own in two absolutely dominating wins (total score: 16-1) to start the World Series. Remember: at this time, the Yankees were still like baby deer finding their feet; Derek Jeter was but a callow rookie.
Meanwhile, 19-year-old Andruw Jones had homered in his first two World Series at-bats, the Braves pitching looked unhittable, and the Braves were already drawing comparisons to the Big Red Machine and the ’27 Yankees, a fully operational battle station at last exercising its true power.
The Braves dropped the third game of the Series, but began Game 4 by slapping six runs on the Yankees through five. A six-run lead with Atlanta’s pitching staff? Come on, this game—this Series—was as good as over! Two-time-and-counting World Series Champion Atlanta Braves!
The knife you don’t see coming cuts the deepest.
The Yankees put three on the board in the sixth. No big, Atlanta still had Mark Wohlers, the most fearsome closer in baseball, lurking in the bullpen, a pit bull just waiting to be turned loose. Come the eighth inning, and Wohlers got the call: shut ‘em down.
Wohlers was the kind of pitcher who would make a mess, then clean it up so efficiently you’d forget he made it in the first place. With a fastball that could top 100 mph, he threw the kind of heat that warps space and time. On this night, he allowed two runners to reach … frustrating, sure, but not unusual. Up stepped a backup catcher named Jim Leyritz, dry kindling for Wohlers’ nuclear fastball.
Leyritz, squat and muscular, played grinding baseball, scrapping for every inch. He worked Wohlers to a 2-2 count, and then Wohlers threw the pitch that will forever define Atlanta sports: just when everything is going exactly right, it will all collapse beneath you.
He hung the slider. And Leyritz hammered it out of the park
In most cases, history becomes clear only in hindsight. On Oct. 23, 1996, I knew history had been knocked off its axis before Leyritz’s home run flew over the chain-link left-field fence at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. A six-run lead: erased. Hopes of a second World Series championship: obliterated. The grim specter of certain failure: realized.
It would take extra innings for Atlanta to lose that game, but for all intents and purposes, it was over the moment Leyritz swung the bat. (In a blind rage, I slammed my fists down on my cheap desk so hard the keyboard shelf snapped right off. Leyritz owes me $19.99 for that desk.)
Oh sure, Atlanta still had chances to win, not just in that game but in the series. In literally every instance where a World Series has been tied 2-2, one team has come out the victor. Amazing, but true. And the Braves continued to turn out playoff-quality teams: the 1998 squad may have been the best of all but fell to the Padres in the NLCS; the 1999 one made it to the World Series but got swept by the Yankees in four straight. But that was all a twitching after the end, what Wall Street calls a dead-cat bounce.
Despite all that, we can’t truly pin all the blame on Wohlers. After all, he wasn’t the one swinging a toothpick every time the postseason rolled around; that was the flaw of the Braves’ position players. He wasn’t the one making inexplicable pitching or lineup decisions, or stocking up on pitching at the expense of hitters. He suffered plenty for that homer, his game growing more inconsistent and his address changing year after year until he retired in 2002.
In the wake of that homer, Leyritz developed a bit of a rep for clutch postseason hitting, and holds the distinction of hitting the last home run of the 20th century, a shot in the clinching Game 4 of the 1999 World Series. He has since suffered through numerous legal troubles and is now out of baseball.
The Yankees rode that momentum to four World Series championships in five years, and six appearances in eight years. The Yankee dynasty that Leyritz homer kicked off has only just diminished. The Braves, meanwhile, haven’t won a World Series game since that night 20 years ago, haven’t won a playoff series since 2001. The Braves dynasty-to-be died that night in 1996, along with all the expectations of Atlanta fans that any good tidings would ever last.
Two franchises, two fan bases, sent in opposite directions. Leyritz’s homer took only seconds to go from bat to stands, but you can still hear its echoes even today.