What the Yankees were celebrating in that anniversary ceremony Saturday afternoon was more than a memory. It was a whole way of being, a direction, which changed in 1996 as suddenly and completely as the flight of a ball touched by a 12-year-old fan off the bat of a 22-year-old rookie shortstop.
It has been a different franchise since that postseason 20 years ago, the one that was hailed in a tastefully fun reunion at Yankee Stadium Saturday. Before that, the Yankees were an improving club that had a proud past but no titles in 18 years — the longest drought since they changed their name from the New York Highlanders in 1913. They were not box office or Madison Avenue royalty. They were just trying to make their way.
But then everything fell into place. Jeffrey Maier reached over the fence and deflected a drive that turned out to be a pivotal tying postseason home run by Derek Jeter. Paul O’Neill, limping slightly, caught a ball before it could find trouble. Jim Leyritz stunned the defending champion Braves with a tying three-run shot, erasing the last of a 6-0 deficit in Game 4 of the World Series. Joe Torre went from being a dunce to a genius. Wade Boggs rode off on a horse.
“To me, that was the team that was the foundation,” said Mariano Rivera, the setup man in a year that set up a run of success (four more championships) and fortune that has basically been going on ever since.
No, 1996 is not just a memory. In retrospect, it was a big start. It began the Hall of Fame careers of Jeter and Rivera (the latter will get his plaque in Monument Park Sunday). It put Torre on a trajectory to Cooperstown. It established Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada as big-leaguers. It didn’t hurt Girardi, who put the Yankees on top 1-0 in the clinching Game 6 of the World Series with that triple to center off Greg Maddux in the third.
“I think it changed my life in a lot of different ways,” he said Saturday morning. “I’m not sure if I would have not played for the Yankees and been a part of a championship team I ever would’ve been the manager here.”
Bernie Williams reflected on the fact that there always is dignity in being a Yankee, even when he broke in under Stump Merrill on the fifth-place 1991 squad. But he added, the marketing campaign looked like this: “Tradition. Excellence. Lou Gehrig. Babe Ruth. Mickey Mantle.”
“We were like, ‘We’re playing now. What’s the deal?’ The ’96 team sort of brought us back to that sort of atmosphere. These are the Yankees,” Williams said, having been part of a neat presentation in which each 1996 Yankee walked from the centerfield fence to his old position. “It was just not a team for that year but it was a team that would carry the whole legacy.”
As Jeter put it, the pre-1996 sentiment was, “Oh, I hope they win.” He added, “After we won, we were expected to win. We were fine with that, but before that, I don’t think that feeling existed.”
The season 20 years ago stirred feelings that were fresh in the air Saturday: David Cone coming back from an aneurysm and throwing seven no-hit innings in his first game back. Frank Torre, Joe’s brother, withstanding life-saving heart surgery. Darryl Strawberry getting signed. Cecil Fielder being acquired. Dwight Gooden throwing a no-hitter, preserved by Gerald Williams’ great catch against a kid from the Mariners, Alex Rodriguez (wonder what happened to him).
Twenty years have not dulled the fans’ appreciation. They gave piercing roars for Tino Martinez, who hadn’t been all that popular at the start of that season as he struggled to fill Don Mattingly’s shoes, and O’Neill. But they also warmly greeted Luis Sojo and John Wetteland, the closer, who appropriately was the last of the players introduced.
It was one huge tip of the cap to 1996, the year when yesterday was replaced by today — a mindset that has lasted, at least until the past month, when the club started peeking at tomorrow. It was not a faded yearbook photo. It was a lively salute to the club that made the Yankees the Yankees again.