Coming off a magical, and dominating 1995 championship run, the Atlanta Braves easily ran through the regular season the next year, finishing the 1996 campaign 96-66 – a full six games better than the year before. The team of the 90’s was destined for back-to-back titles, but it wasn’t to be.
The so-called “Team of the 90’s” had been to three of the last five World Series’, and won four-straight division titles. At the end of the ’95 season, most just assumed that with the frustration caused by World Series losses in 1991 and 1992 over, Atlanta was built to win more Commissioner’s Trophies before the decade came to a close.
By the end of the 1999 World Series, the “Team of the 90’s” designation had been stolen by a usual suspect in the baseball world; The New York Yankees. It was a title that was snatched away from the Atlanta Braves and their fans quite abruptly.
In 1996, the Braves picked right back up where they had left off a season before, cutting through the N.L. East like a hot knife through butter, winning 96 games.
Looking back, it isn’t at all a stretch to say that this Atlanta team was even better than the ’95 club. With a Cy Young season from John Smoltz, five hitters with 23 or more homers (two with over 30), and the late-season addition of phenom center fielder Andruw Jones, the Braves were a clear favorite in October.
Atlanta swept the Dodgers 3-0 in the NLDS, then took out the Cardinals in an NLCS that ended in a 15-0 blowout in game seven. Meanwhile the 92-win Yankees had a relatively easy time with Texas, and then Baltimore, setting up an interesting World Series matchup. Oddly enough, the Orioles had relieved Atlanta’s fears of a rematch with Cleveland, taking down the Indians in the ALDS three games to one.
When the Braves won the first two games on the road at Yankee Stadium, most assumed it was all but over going back to Atlanta. It all started as a continuance of the fairy tail from the previous season with a 12-1 dominating game one win for Atlanta that included a solid performance from John Smoltz, and a 4-0 game two shutout win with a masterful outing from Greg Maddux.
Meanwhile, on the offensive side of things, Andruw Jones had become the youngest player ever to homer in the post season, and just the second player in history to hit home runs in his first two World Series plate appearances.
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The Braves seemed destined for a rare World Series repeat. Who in the world would have believed that a game three victory would be the first of eight-straight wins by the Yankees over the Braves in the post season?
In game three, the Yankees put up three runs in the top of the eighth inning in what had been a close game started by Tom Glavine, and that was the beginning of the end for Atlanta.
The Braves lost three straight at home, including a 10-inning game four after the Braves blew a 6-0 lead (the Jim Leyritz game), and an instant-classic game five that became a pitcher’s duel between Andy Pettitte and John Smoltz, with the Yankees winning 1-0 as the Braves left the tying run on third base in the ninth.
Game six was another one-run game, with a nice outing from Maddux, besides a three-run third inning by New York. And that was it. The Braves would go on to get swept by the Yankees in 1999, and haven’t played a World Series game since.
The frustration that the title run in ’95 seemed to put to bed, fell right back on the Braves and their fans during that 1996 series. The 14-straight division titles, and hall of fame runs from Cox, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz – and likely the Jones boys – never really seemed to completely satisfy with only one world championship.
Though it will always be a point of frustration for Braves fans, what an amazing World Series that ’96 matchup was. Bobby Cox versus Joe Torre; pitchers like Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, Pettitte, and Rivera on the mound, and Derek Jeter and Wade Boggs facing off against Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff.
It’s hard to even remember that game five was the final baseball game ever played at Fulton County Stadium.
Braves alumni and fans now look back on the 90’s at and wonder what might have been, but isn’t that how sports always works? For every ounce of satisfaction there always seems to be a cup of frustration to go with it. In my opinion, there will always be two teams of the 90’s.