Tom Sorensen

Sorensen Classic: ‘96 Braves one of best teams ever to lose World Series

Pitcher Greg Maddux was one of the stars on a great Atlanta Braves team that lost to the Yankees in the 1996 World Series.
Pitcher Greg Maddux was one of the stars on a great Atlanta Braves team that lost to the Yankees in the 1996 World Series. AP

Tom Sorensen wrote this column in 1996. Each week, we’ll chose one of Tom’s columns to run as a “Sorensen Classic.’

It's tough to compare one generation with another. But it's safe to say this. The 1996 Atlanta Braves, who lost to the New York Yankees 3-2 Saturday, are one of the best teams in the last 25 years, if not the best team, to fail to win the World Series.

That's not a compliment.

The Braves had the second lowest ERA in the N.L. this season and the second highest batting average. They had pitching and they had pop. They also had the New York Yankees.

They really did. The Braves won the first two games of the World Series with such ease that the Yankees had no idea if they could beat them once, let alone four times.

That's why the real World Series MVP is New York's David Cone. Cone started Game 3 and gave up one run in six innings. His stuff was often good, but there were innings, at-bats, in which he had nothing but guile and grit. It worked. The Yankees won 5-2.

The Braves, who before their two victories against the Yankees had blitzed the St. Louis Cardinals three straight times in the N.L. Championship Series, were beatable. Cone proved it

And then, game by game, inning by inning and pitch by pitch, the Braves came undone. They led 6-0 in Game 4 and lost 8-6 in 10 innings. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox made mistakes.

He had closer Mark Wohlers start the eighth inning for only the second time all season. The other time, Wohlers blew a save. This time, he gave up a three-run homer that tied the game.

In the 10th with runners on first and second, Cox ordered pitcher Steve Avery to walk Bernie Williams. Avery accidentally walked the next batter, Wade Boggs, to force in the winning run.

Cox admitted second-guessing is part of what makes baseball great. He also said neither of his decisions was "second-guessable." If Cox was not on edge the entire series, he was the last four games.

In Game 5, a 1-0 Yankee victory, Gold Glove centerfielder Marquis Grissom dropped a long fly ball after being briefly screened by rightfielder Jermaine Dye. This led to the only run.

Late in the game, as is his custom, Cox lifted rookies Andruw Jones and Dye for pinch-hitters. Atlanta hasn't had a postseason pinch-hit since Game 3 of the 1995 World Series.

Against Greg Maddux Saturday, the Yankees parlayed four third-inning hits into three runs. That was enough.

The Braves scored only two runs the last 23 innings of the series. They had opportunities Saturday night. New York starter Jimmy Key is crafty. All veteran left-handed pitchers are. But despite the craftiness, he couldn't get the ball over the plate.

Yet he walked only three batters. Why? Because the Braves insisted on swinging. In the fourth inning, Terry Pendleton came up with the bases loaded and one out. Dye, the previous batter, had drawn four consecutive balls.

So what did Pendleton, who has been playing professional baseball since 1982, do? He swung at the first pitch and later hit into a double play.

Look. The Yankees are resilient and their fans are tremendous. Yankee Stadium hummed and buzzed Saturday night, super-charged since the first pitch.

Yes, a shirtless fan ran across the field and many others threw things onto it. But you can't let the actions of a few thousand fans color your feelings about the rest.

The Braves lost their third World Series since 1991, and this hurt the most. This time they were the better team. Full of youth and rich enough to sign their free-agents, they might be even better next season.

They are still the team of the 1990s. But they have only one championship to show for it. They have the best baseball team in the world, but they don't have the hardware to prove it. Theirs is a dynasty unfulfilled.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen