This past Saturday, the New York Yankees honored the team that started it all: the 1996 World Series championship squad. If you don't remember the Yankees pre-1996, dealing with the present mediocrity of the current lineup and pitching has been hard. If you're older, you more than likely appreciate what it took to rebuild what became a dynasty.
The latter group lived through some treacherous times as fans. False hope and false prophets littered 161st Street and River Ave. You lived through Steve Balboni, Bob Geren and Andy Hawkins. You had squads that were so bad you created heroes and fan favorites out of players who turned out to be not that great on the field or awful human beings off of it. You felt the false hope of Kevin Maas and Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens (how did a guy with stats like these become a hitting coach?).
If you came of age between the '80s and the mid '90s, you didn't see the big deal about the Yankees. They hadn't been in the World Series since 1981 where they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers, their owner (the late George Steinbrenner) was considered a joke and the stadium they played in was a ghost town because fans weren't willing to go to the South Bronx for a bad baseball team.
The franchise's steady, reliable star in Don Mattingly saw his production diminish due to a back injury that would cut a potential Hall of Fame career short. When the franchise started to improve in 1993, their AL East hopes were thwarted by the Toronto Blue Jays and when the Bombers started dominating the American League in 1994, the players' strike happened.
The Yankees returned to the postseason for the first time after a decade-plus in 1995, but went out in heartbreaking fashion. Buck Showalter got fired as manager and Joe Torre took over: news that didn't sit well with the local tabloids. But under Torre, the Yankees continued to build on the promise of the previous season. They were steady, they continued to win and they went into the All-Star break 19 games over .500. They faltered a bit down the stretch, but eventually won the division by four games over the Baltimore Orioles. Suddenly, the city started paying attention.
It also helped that this particular Yankees team was likable. Despite personal shortcomings, there was a large swath of New Yorkers rooting for Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden to not only find peace but find their older forms on the field. This particular Mets fan rooted as hard as he could whenever Strawberry came to the plate. David Cone was another former Met that crossover fans couldn't help but to root for. While the season ended in heartbreak, Cone will always be remembered for 1988 including his complete game in Game 6 of the NLCS that year. He'll also remain in Mets lore for his 19-strikeout game on the last day of the 1991 season at Veterans Stadium.
As for non-Mets, you had Cecil Fielder, Jimmy Key, Tim Raines, Paul O'Neill (at least until this year), Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez. These guys either brought championship pedigree from elsewhere or had displayed their potential in recent postseason's past. It was the first true collection of talents from afar that were assembled in the new age of free agency to pursue something greater in the Bronx. And they have endured as the best collective to pull this feat off.
Although I cheered for the team in Flushing, I grew up three subway stops away from Yankee Stadium. I saw the lights of 'The House That Ruth Built' from my bedroom window. However, in my younger days, I really didn't travel out on my own to Queens to see my favorite team. Yet when I turned 13 in 1996, I started doing a little work here and there to make some money. Having some extra cash meant going to games. Not wanting to leave The Bronx meant going to a lot of Yankee games.
The '96 season was certainly eventful long before the team reached the Fall Classic. I sat in the right field bleachers for Derek Jeter's first ever walk-off hit. I kept my eyes glued to every pitch of Gooden's no-hitter. I pulled for them every second of that postseason, even when Texas' Juan Gonzalez tried his best to be a one-man wrecking crew in the Division Series. I pulled for them even when Jeffrey Maier happened, partially because the reviled former Met Bobby Bonilla played for the Orioles.
Little did I and the rest of the baseball world know about what was coming for the next five years. Three more championships, the best season in major league history, adding Roger Clemens and Chuck Knoblauch and the return of Yankee-fan arrogance and obnoxiousness. The '96 club is the revival of all that has taken place since, including the A-Rod era, the passing of the Steinbrenner torch and the subsequently revival of the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry.
The 1996 Yankees were a part of my sports-watching life as much as any Mets team from my youth. I would go as far as saying that 1996 Yankees are in the top 5 of my favorite baseball teams from my childhood. I don't know if I would take that 1996 season back if I knew what was coming and that says a lot about the '96 Yankees. They were a legitimate feel-good story in sports. A formerly-great franchise returning to glory.
This past Saturday, the day after the end of the Alex Rodriguez era and on on the day where the team would celebrate the 20th anniversary of the team, the Yankees brought up rookies Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge. They hit back-to-back home runs in their first major league at bats. It's precisely the kind of thing that would've happened to the Yankees during their late '90s dynasty. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is all in with the rebuild and the future looks bright in The Bronx once again.
But it felt weirdly good for this Mets fan to revisit their past.
Writer. Reporter. New Yorker.