Remembering The 1996 Yankees: Bench Depth Proved Invaluable
By Steve Silverman
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The 1996 Yankees don't rank with the great teams in baseball history when it comes to flat-out talent and all-around ability.
However, they were a team in the true sense of the word, as Joe Torre was able to get significant contributions from just about every player on his roster. There were a number of guys who came off the bench or got the occasional start and made the most of their opportunities.
GALLERY: 1996 Yankees Bench Players
If you look up and down the roster, there were not a lot of stars on the Yankees roster in '96. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera would certainly become superstars in the truest sense, but Jeter had just moved into the starting shortstop role and Rivera was unproven as the season began.
But as things unfolded and the Yankees proved they were able to hold on to leads and win games with late-inning lightning, a slew of underrated heroes emerged.
Not only did the Yankees get strong performances from their bench players during the regular season, the postseason and particularly the World Series saw Torre make a boatload of wonderful moves that seemed to flummox Atlanta manager Bobby Cox.
The Yankees were hoping to start the season with a middle infield combination of Tony Fernandez at shortstop and Pat Kelly at second base. However, both were injured in spring training and Torre gave Jeter his opportunity at short and Mariano Duncan the job at second.
Jeter's numbers were quite astonishing as he hit .314, with 10 home runs and 78 RBI. That kind of production as well as his consistent play in the field were an indication of the baseball royalty he would become. Duncan was almost magical with his .340 average as well as his eight blasts and 56 RBI.
But the Yankees wouldn't have been special if they had not received serious bench contributions from well-known veterans and players who wanted nothing more than to make a contribution. Darryl Strawberry, for example, had been an afterthought when the Yankees brought him back in 1996 at the urging of George Steinbrenner.
Strawberry's ability to hit long home runs was his calling card throughout his big league career, and he proved he had not lost that ability when he put on Yankee pinstripes. He pummeled 11 home runs in 63 games, and his presence on the bench was formidable. He announced his presence with a two-homer game against the Baltimore Orioles on July 13, and he was even more remarkable in a series against the Chicago White Sox in early August.
Strawberry hit three home runs in the first game at Yankee Stadium, and he powered out two more two days later against the Chicago pitching staff.
While Strawberry did not do a lot of damage during the remainder of the regular season, he came through once again in the ALCS against the Orioles with three home runs.
Strawberry offered power from the left side, while Cecil "Big Daddy" Fielder provided even more pop from the right side.
Fielder, who had become a legendary home run hitter during his run with the Tigers, was the perfect trade deadline acquisition. After coming to the Bronx from Detroit, he powered 13 home runs over the final two months of the season, including two in a memorable 4-3 victory over Toronto in early September.
Fielder's second blast came in the bottom of the eighth with the score tied. Torre then turned to Rivera -- not closer John Wetteland -- who got three consecutive outs in the ninth for the save.
Veteran Tim Raines suffered through an injury-riddled 1996 season, as he was out from late May through the middle of August with two separate injuries (finger and hamstring). However, when he came back he had nine multi-hit games.
Included in that were back-to-back three-hit efforts against the visiting Red Sox in late September. He hit two home runs in the first of those games as the Yankees pulled out a 12-11 victory in 10 innings.
When it came to making an impression in the postseason, few Yankees have ever come off the bench and played as pivotal a role as Jim Leyritz.
There was something wondrous about "The King" when he would step up to the plate, and much of it had to do with the swagger that went with his lordly nickname.
Leyritz was the cocky rooster who would stick his chin out and dare opposing pitchers to beat him. He took that attitude with him at all of his stops in the majors, despite being, in truth, merely an average player.
However, when he stepped to the plate in Game 4 of the World Series against the Braves with the Yankees trailing 6-3 in the eighth inning with two on and one out, he was the perfect man for the job. With Braves reliever Mark Wohlers firing bullets, few gave Leyritz a chance to come through.
But when he got a pitch in his hot zone, Leyritz sent a deep drive to left field that got over the outstretched glove of Andruw Jones and the fence.
The Yankees would go on to win the game in extra innings and tie the series, but they never would have gotten the opportunity if Leyritz had not come through with one of the most gratifying pinch home runs in team history.
That home run was almost certainly the pivotal moment of the 1996 Fall Classic, and, fittingly, it was a bench player that provided the impetus.
When the Yankees finally won the title in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium it was reserve infielder Charlie Hayes -- Charlie Hayes! -- who squeezed the final out off the bat of Mark Lemke. What followed was a wonderful celebration of the Yankees' first World Series championship in 18 years.
For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.
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