BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. – Had the final ball in play of Game 6 of the 1996 World Series been on the ground instead of in the air, the outcome may have been very different.
Down by one run in the top of the ninth inning and facing a 3-2 count with two outs, Mark Lemke, Atlanta Braves second baseman popped up, into foul territory, a pitch from New York Yankees relief pitcher John Wetteland. Yankees’ third baseman Charlie Hayes relentlessly tracked the ball into the Braves’ dugout. As he leaned forward to make the catch in his gloved left hand, he expected to catch himself on the ledge of the dugout roof with his bare right hand. He missed.
Hayes fell, face first, into the Braves dugout and had to be helped to his feet by the opposing players and staff members sitting in it.
Lemke, in the same fashion, popped up another Wetteland pitch to the foul territory behind third base. This time, the ball remained in the playable area of the field.
On the warning track of Yankee Stadium, in front of a sold-out home crowd, Hayes triumphantly caught the final out of the 1996 World Series and threw his hands over his head in celebration. That image, pictured to the right, is symbolic of the 1996 team.
When I asked Hayes if he had any doubts about catching the final out, he replied: “The only doubt I had was the pitch before that when I fell in the dugout, I broke my finger. Running back, I was thinking: ‘man, if they hit [the next one] to me on the ground, [I’m] worried about throwing it away!’ But pop-ups, I think I can handle those”.
If Lemke hit a ground ball to Hayes at third base, it would be likely that he would opt not to throw or would throw it away. After all, the broken finger was on his throwing hand, not his gloved hand. Following this logic, Lemke, representing the game-tying run for the Braves, would be standing on first or second base with Chipper Jones, the third hitter in their lineup, at the plate. Jones, in the 1996 post-season, batted .345 (tied for second highest on the team) and had an on base percentage of .433 (third highest on the team).
Jones is infamous among New York Mets fans for, throughout his career, providing clutch hits in important situations to help his team win. Could he have been as infamous among Yankee fans? Possibly. This, undoubtedly, might have been a different story had Lemke grounded, instead of popped up, the ball to Hayes.
When I asked Hayes what characteristic was unique about the 1996 Yankees, immediately, he replied: “Unity. There were a lot of good players on that team and we all made sacrifices to win…. That was one of my favorite teams to ever play on…. It was special.” Yankee fans wholeheartedly agree and are thankful for Lemke’s fly ball in game 6.
To download this interview, download on my iTunes official podcast or on Soundcloud.To download this interview, download on my iTunes official podcast or on Soundcloud.
Watch Hayes tell the story in my video above, shot at a MintPros and J.Irwin Productions Yankee Stadium Suite event.