Dec. 04, 2017
Greatest Teams Never to Win a World Series in the Past 30 Years-96 Braves
That's all it took to change a dynasty. And in the Atlanta Braves case, it couldn't be more truer. And maybe one swing changes a city's outlook on its professional sports teams.
From 1991-1995, the Braves were the National League's cream of the crop. They dominated the NL with stout pitching and for the most part good hitting. They had a great blend of veterans and up-and-coming stars. And they had a payroll that could get whoever they wanted. 4 straight division titles, 3 NL pennants, and finally that world championship that had eluded them early on. Life was good.
1996? No different. Just a tiny bit of a slow start thanks to an early west coast swing in Los Angeles and San Diego, but after that, they pretty much got it rolling. Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz remained dominant, especially Smoltz who went 14-1 by mid-June with a 2.26 ERA. The offense was clicking on all cylinders with the veterans in leadoff hitter and centerfielder Marquis Grissom (.308 average, 23 HR, 28 SB), Fred McGriff (.295, 28 HR, 107 RBI, .859), and Jeff Blauser (OBP of .356) while it was the young guns of Chipper Jones (.309 30 HR, 110 RBI), Ryan Klesko (.282, 34 HR, 93 RBI), and Javy Lopez (.282, 23 HR, 69 RBI). So the offense was one of the more potent offenses the Braves had in the run.
Even the adversities during the year for the Braves (and there were a few) were corrected as the embarrassment of riches came into play. Atlanta, despite all the moves made, had a top notch farm system and an owner in Ted Turner, who wasn't afraid to open up the wallets. World Series hero David Justice separated his shoulder early on in the year and was lost for the season. So Atlanta called up rookie Jermaine Dye (remember he was actually a Brave????). Dye hit .281 with 12 HR in only 96 games. It was more than adequate and actually garnered a few Rookie of the Year votes. Steve Avery had been struggling (ERA north of 4 and was getting shelled). To shore up the weakness, the Braves acquired Pirates ace Denny Neagle in August for their October run. But the ultimate example of their embarrassment of riches came in August as well with the Braves calling up 19-year old phenom Andruw Jones. Many projected him as the next Willie Mays. Despite the hype and hope, Jones struggled in the 1996 regular season, only hitting .217 but collecting 5 HR down the stretch.
So life was good in Atlanta and everything seemed poised for a repeat. The Braves had run amok of the NL East by the end of August, going 11 up on Montreal, with an 84-51 record. The pitching, hitting, and even the bullpen, were all clicking. Pedro Borbon had a good year, Terrell Wade was serviceable, as was Greg McMichael. And the closer, Mark Wohlers, was as reliable as they came (39 saves, 3.03 ERA, and a K/9 rate of 11.6) With the division well at hand, Atlanta made sure the injury bug did not hit any of the stars like it had with Justice so September had a feeling of more of a Spring Training, making sure they would be ready for October.
Atlanta actually finished 12-15 in September, but nobody really paid any attention to it as it was all about October baseball. And yes, the Braves preparation for October paid off in the NLDS, sweeping the Dodgers, who had ended up in a dogfight for the division with the Padres. It was Atlanta's aces that did in Los Angeles's United Nations rotation of Ramon Martinez, Ismael Valdez, and Hideo Nomo.
When the NLCS arrived, the Braves went up against the upstart Cardinals. Atlanta took the first game, but then lost the next three games (Maddux got shellacked in Game 2, and then the Cards took back-to-back one run games in St. Louis, including outdueling Glavine in Game 3). However, it took an offensive explosion by Atlanta in Games 5, 6, and 7 as the Braves outscored St. Louis 32-1 in the final 3 games.
At the same time the final 3 games were going on, the New York Yankees had clinched the AL title from Baltimore, resting up for the NL champions.
The World Series began like how the NLCS ended: the Braves bats slaughtering the Yankees pitching while New York had no answers for Smoltz or Maddux. Andruw Jones made his name known in the first game, hitting two bombs in the House that Ruth Built.
Life was going to be great for the Braves in 1996. Taking the first two at Yankee Stadium and then heading home for a final farewell at Fulton County Stadium.
WHAT WENT WRONG? After a 5-2 loss in Game 3, people in Atlanta (Braves or their fans) didn't seem to be fazed too much by it. After all, Atlanta was still up 2-1 and still had two more games at home to take it. Game 4 started off great for the Braves, clubbing New York's Kenny Rogers early for 5 runs and with Denny Neagle on the mound, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. The Braves led 6-0 after 5 and people were thinking "after Game 5 we will have a celebration down Peachtree Street as the dynasty will continue!" New York chopped away, scoring 3 in the 6th and then......the 8th inning when Atlanta put in their closer Mark Wohlers to shut the Yankees threat.....
The shot heard around Georgia. The shot that ultimately changed the Braves fortunes of their divisional run.
Yep, Jim Leyritz became the 2nd most hated Yankee in Atlanta behind US General William Tecumseh Sherman that night as he pretty much set fire to the Atlanta dynasty. As a young Joe Buck said "we are tied!" (Disclaimer: I actually thought Buck wasn't half-bad early on in his announcing career; maybe being around McCarver too much made him annoying). New York would win in extras.
And then the Braves couldn't generate any offense in Games 5 or 6, losing 1-0 and then 3-2. Possibly the shock of the comeback doomed Atlanta's psyche.
AFTERMATH: Ask any Braves fan and they probably say the entire destiny of the franchise changed with Leyritz's bomb. Of course, other Braves diehards and probably the Braves management themselves would disagree saying "well, we would win the division for the next 9 seasons so that debunks your theory." After the 96 World Series, the Braves would go on to only win on NLCS in 1999, and after 2001, the next 4 seasons were NLDS only. And honestly, the NL East was incredibly weak at this time. The Marlins upended Atlanta in 1997 as a Wild Card team and the Best Team that Money Could Buy but after 97 they were a farm team that played Major League Baseball. The Mets strung together good seasons from 97-01 and giving a heated rivalry with the Braves, but fell off after that. The Expos, farm team to the big market boys. The Phillies were inconsistent. But taking nothing away, the Braves did put up good teams, but it seemed like the offense sputtered in October every year, regardless if it was McGriff, Galarraga, Sheffield, the Jonses, etc.
Some blamed the beginning of the end of the real dominance on two other things: 1. The opening of Turner Field, where it was more of a pitcher's park as opposed to the launching pad of Fulton County Stadium (and McGriff was critical of the new place) and 2. The Braves traded away Marquis Grissom, David Justice to Cleveland for Kenny Lofton and then traded Jermaine Dye to Kansas City for Michael Tucker & Keith Lockhart. Fans were stunned on the first trade as Grissom was an Atlanta native and been a key figure in 1995 and 1996 while Justice was the face of Atlanta's turnaround in the early 90's. Lofton was hurt in his time in Atlanta and didn't show what he could do like he did in Cleveland and never fit in. Tucker and Lockhart were added for depth, Tucker could platoon with Jones in right-field while Lockhart was a master of pinch-hitting. But many thought Dye would be a star (and he was). And I do believe there were valid points to both arguments because it never felt truly the same after 1996. But to this day I strongly believe that the one swing did not happen, the fortunes of the Braves, Wohlers (who pretty much lost all confidence in his pitching and had one of the most mental blocks in baseball history), and the players who left Atlanta after would have changed tremendously.
And unfortunately, one other aftermath is the city of Atlanta is snakebit with their franchises as fans just feel like regardless of what happens, none of the teams will ever taste glory again (Braves, Falcons, Hawks, then-Thrashers, now-United).
OTHER GREAT TEAMS TO NEVER WIN A WORLD SERIES IN THE PAST 30 YEARS
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat