NEW YORK -- The ball of humanity formed at the mound last night, John Wetteland falling into the arms of catcher Joe Girardi and everybody else falling on them, all of them champions, the New York Yankees, who beat the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, in Game 6 of the World Series.
"That's the way it should be," Wetteland, the Series MVP with four saves, said later. "A ball of humanity that strived together and achieved all year."
They achieved in spite of major injuries, to ace David Cone and outfielder Tim Raines, in spite of the distracting bluster of owner George Steinbrenner. They won the AL East, in spite of a late-season losing streak that had the Big Apple in a panic. The Yankees won in the playoffs, coming back from deficits to beat Texas and the Orioles. They saved their greatest comeback of all for the World Series, winning four straight against one of the best pitching rotations in history after losing the first two games at home.
Against Greg Maddux, the best pitcher of his generation, they clinched their first World Series title since 1978 and 23rd overall. Eighteen years ago, the Yankees won with stars like Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage. This team was different, its sum much greater than all of its small parts.
Manager Joe Torre said: "What I enjoyed most about this team -- the first thing that people say about players, unfortunately, is money, and the second is about the numbers they put up. The only numbers these people were interested in were Ws in the win column, and that is a refreshing change."
They beat the Braves and Maddux in the same manner they won the previous three games, capitalizing on every single mistake, no matter how minute. Maddux had pitched a virtual perfect eight innings in Game 2, allowing no walks and giving the Yankees almost nothing meaty to hit. He threw 13 straight strikes at one point, and threw only 20 balls the entire game.
He began last night in the same vein, throwing strike after strike, retiring the first six batters. But Paul O'Neill pulled a curling liner into the right-field corner to start the bottom of the third, and jogged into second base, a double. Maddux got ahead of Mariano Duncan no balls and two strikes, but Duncan still managed to push a grounder to second base, and O'Neill moved to third.
The Braves' infield came in, trying to cut off the first run, a dramatic reflection of how precious runs have been to Atlanta; at that moment, the Braves had gone 17 straight innings without scoring. Center fielder Marquis Grissom was positioned relatively close to the infield, where he usually plays -- especially against light hitters like Joe Girardi, the next batter.
But Maddux did something he almost never does, throwing a fastball over the middle of the plate. Girardi bashed it, the ball soaring toward deep center. Grissom got a great jump on the ball, as he always does, racing toward the wall with his back to the plate. "I always believe I'm going to catch the ball," Grissom said later.
He looked up, located the ball, and reached out. But he missed the ball, and it bounced away. The Yankees in the dugout were up, on their feet, Darryl Strawberry imploring Girardi -- Go, go, go!
The Yankees catcher slid into third, O'Neill crossed the plate with New York's first run, and did a pirouette.
"When I crossed that plate," O'Neill said, "it was so loud, my ears were ringing. And I thought, 'Wow, this is an unbelievable feeling.' You don't get that sensation anywhere else. I could feel the stadium shaking. It was unreal."
The Braves' infield came in again, and Derek Jeter singled, driving home Girardi. Jeter stole second, and with two outs, Bernie Williams singled to center, and Jeter raced home. Yankee Stadium was a collective emotional wreck. When the inning ended, Maddux stalked off the mound, head down, having already thrown 17 balls, only three fewer than he accumulated in all of Game 2. The Yankees would never really threaten again.
"He has part of one bad inning," Braves manager Bobby Cox said later, "and he lost."
Maddux: "I could've very easily gotten better results, the way I pitched. I hope I pitch like this 30 times next year."
Yankees left-hander Jimmy Key almost gave the lead right back, walking Jermaine Dye with the bases loaded. But, on a 3-1 pitch, Terry Pendleton grounded into a double play -- to Pendleton "the turning point in the game. I screwed up."
The Yankees' late-inning tandem of Mariano Rivera and Wetteland had been almost unhittable, and the Braves had to know, as the fifth inning began, that they were fast running out of outs; Rivera probably would take over in the seventh as he had all year.
Grissom singled with one out, and when Key's first pitch to Mark Lemke went in the dirt and away from Girardi, Grissom raced to second. Girardi scrambled for the ball and threw to second. Grissom slid into the bag, and Jeter swiped at Grissom's backside with his glove.
With the naked eye, from some 200 feet away, it appeared Grissom was safe, and replay confirmed this. Second base umpire Terry Tata called him out, and Grissom, third base coach Jimy Williams and Cox all pursued the umpire with total indignation.
Grissom nearly bumped into Tata, and after Williams and Cox pried away the center fielder from the argument, Cox continued screaming at Tata, livid. Finally, Cox started walking back to the dugout, and who should he see out of the corner of his eye than umpire Tim Welke.
It was Welke who was umpiring right field in Game 4, which the Braves led 6-0 in the sixth inning, well on their way to a three games-to-one lead in the Series. Jeter led off that inning with a high pop down the right-field line, and right fielder Dye appeared to have an easy play on the ball. But Dye had to go around Welke, pushing him aside, and the ball fell foul. Jeter eventually singled, starting a three-run rally and the chain of events that would end with the Braves losing, 8-6, in 10 innings. Cox sharply criticized Welke after Game 4, before and after Game 5, and before last night's game.
Cox looked over at Welke as he walked off the field last night, and said something that resulted in his immediate ejection. Cox immediately went nose-to-nose with Welke, gesturing toward right field, the scene of Welke's alleged offense.
Cox will be sitting at home this winter, or in 30 years, and he will, in all likelihood, believe Welke cost him a second World Series title.
"I just thought it was time to say something," Cox said later. "We had held all our remarks until tonight."
The Braves threatened one last time, three singles in the ninth against Wetteland. "I was anxious," Wetteland said. But Lemke popped out, the pile of humanity formed, Torre hugged his coaches and thought of his brother Frank in the hospital, and Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" created a musical background.
At Torre's suggestion, they took a victory lap, players honoring the fans, and New York. Third baseman Wade Boggs jumped on the back of one of the many police horses and rode around Yankee Stadium and waved. The only thing lacking from the Frank Capra scene was a sunset.
Pub Date: 10/27/96