The best games are not the blowouts, but those that thread the line between triumph and tragedy. And even those that end in tragedy are not ousted from the list, but sometimes go on to play a role in a bigger story. And so it was in the Bronx, in the fall of 1996.
I was living in Brooklyn that year with my sister, back home in New York again after a couple of years on the West Coast. Most recently I had been living on a nature reserve in coastal Oregon, two miles down a dirt road where often the only visitors were the tule elk that would stop by to graze in the meadow behind my house. When I left to move back to New York City while applying to grad school, the locals mourned for me and my impending lifestyle change. But as much as I enjoyed my small town nature experience, I missed my family. I missed diversity and culture. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, I missed baseball.
I drove back east in the summer of 1995 and had plans to rent an apartment with my sister that fall. But then everything changed when my mother unexpectedly passed away during treatment for breast cancer. (Both the recurrence of her cancer and the complications from her treatment had extremely low odds of occurring. Fuck odds.) Shell-shocked and lost, I paid rent on my half of the Brooklyn apartment while I lived with my dad on Long Island, providing companionship, and teaching him how to cook and do laundry and ultimately to be by himself for the first time in 38 years.
When I finally moved out the following spring it was both excruciating and liberating. It felt selfish to leave my dad alone to mourn in that big house meant for a family of six. But I was 24 years old and needed to be on my own, needed to start my own healing process. Having shed the role of caretaker and left my job at the local museum, I was suddenly without purpose—just unemployed, missing my mom, and aching for my dad. With all of New York City out there to roam, I found it hard to engage. And then there was baseball.
I grew up in a household of Yankees fanatics and had been devout to the faith all my life. But being a Yankees fan wasn’t always easy livin’ in the 80s and early 90s. Though it’s convenient to look at their overall success and dismiss my suffering, their long dry spell of 13 years without a post-season appearance started in 1982 when I was 11—just about old enough to really start caring—and lasted all through my formative years. It was the team's largest drought without a World Series appearance in its history. Nonetheless, I worshipped piously that whole time growing up in New York. I practiced all the rituals—the evenings huddled around the TV with my family, the pilgrimages to the Bronx, the attempts to convert the wayward Mets fans at school. But when I left for college in North Carolina, suddenly the only Yankee was me, the first northerner many of my local friends had ever met, and the only baseball I experienced was the occasional outing to see the Durham Bulls. Before the advent of satellite radio or MLB.TV or whatever your chosen fix, there really weren’t a lot of options for an expat like me. Add two years post-graduation living on nature reserves, and I basically had myself an extended absence from the congregation.
And then there I was, not just in New York, but in New York City, the motherland itself, a mere train ride from mecca. Despite my heavy heart—or perhaps because of it?—I heard the call and re-joined the fold. And the timing could not have been better for my rebirth. The championship-free Yankees of my youth had taken advantage of the dubious new Wild Card rule to dip their toe back into the playoff pool. Though they failed to advance beyond the division series, it was enough to awaken our long dormant post-season hope. That October we witnessed a struggling starter named Mariano Rivera debut as a promising reliever to secure the role of setup man. Joining him in the dugout as the ‘96 season began were rookie Derek Jeter, a replacement starter at shortstop due to a spring training injury, and new manager Joe Torre, whose Brooklyn roots instantly won our hearts, even though George Steinbrenner’s revolving door cautioned us not to get too attached. We tried with all of our might not to like Tino Martinez, who took over duties at first in the wake of stalwart Don Mattingly’s departure, though were ultimately unsuccessful. And then there was Paul O’Neill. This was O’Neill’s fourth season in the Yankee outfield but due to my time in exile, a new face to me. I distinctly remember watching his at-bats for the first time on the small TV in our fourth floor walk-up in Brooklyn and wondering where this guy had been all my life. I fell for his swing and put a name to the player behind it later. It seemed like every hit was a perfectly placed line drive and I wished he could bat in all nine spots of the lineup.
So we set off together that spring, me and the Yankees, each of us to a bit of a rocky start. The Yankees had a middling record in April as their new team began to coalesce. Meanwhile, I interviewed for jobs at the Central Park Conservancy, Bronx Zoo, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and anywhere else amidst the concrete that might need the talents of a budding biologist. But while the Yankees soon hit their groove and reached first place, I just got a lot of second and even third interviews, and never quite a job. Though being a loyal fan was nearly full-time work itself. In May and June, we snubbed ours noses at Mets fans as a newly rehabbed Doc Gooden pitched an unlikely no-hitter, held our breath while David Cone left the team to treat an aneurysm, and grieved when Joe Torre lost his brother Rocco between games of a double-header in Cleveland. And I entered the world of temping. My longest gig was in the garment district, at the business office of hanger factory. Without enough to do there, and a decided lack of interest in hangers, I filled the afternoons without day games reading Tolkien, working on my series “Bad Poetry Inspired by Bad Jobs,” and taking long lunches at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square.
In July, still in first place and looking to shore up their roster, the Yankees acquired Daryl Strawberry from the independent St. Paul Saints, and Cecil Fielder, the “Big Daddy,” from the Tigers. And I learned that my grad school applications had been more successful than my job applications. So when I landed a temping gig at the hotel where my sister worked—a place where I had friends, gained respect, and was making a contribution—I attempted to make it last as long as possible to bridge the time before I left. As summer turned to fall, the Yankees’ once hefty lead in the AL East shrank to just 2 ½ games above the Baltimore Orioles, making September baseball exciting and relevant. As for me, the hotel had kept me on indefinitely as I hustled work from different divisions and I decided to defer my start at the University of Maryland until January. With my future laid out and a steady paycheck in hand, it was the first time since my mom died almost a year earlier that I could just live. What role did the prospect of post-season play have in my decision to delay grad school by a semester? It’s hard to say, but it cannot be ruled out.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, it was all I thought about. The Yankees had held on to their lead to become Division Champions and my sister and I spent our workdays plotting ways to score post-season tickets, an endeavor that required significantly more effort and creativity with neither StubHub nor disposable income to facilitate the transaction. On game days, it was not unusual to find myself at the pay phone in the hallway following up on a possible ticket lead or riding the D train up to the Bronx at lunch to check the box office for tickets turned in from a rain-out. Ultimately our hard work was rewarded with an appearance at each series. We sat in right field for Game 2 of the ALDS, where the Yankees slowly chipped away at an early four-run deficit, winning dramatically on a botched sacrifice bunt play in the 12th inning that allowed Jeter to score from second. When the Yankees advanced to the ALCS to play division rival Baltimore Orioles, we sat along the first base line for Game 1, a back-and-forth contest of one-run innings that will forever be known for the “Jeffrey Maier Incident,” named for the fan who reached over the outfield fence to pull Jeter’s fly ball into the stands before a play could be attempted. That “home run” ultimately sent the game into extra innings, where Bernie Williams delivered a definitive eleventh inning walk off shot into the bleachers for the win. The Yankees won the series 4-1 over Baltimore, whose fans have never forgotten this transgression against them, a fact I know from spending the following 10 years in Maryland. I admit that I never quite tired of telling the locals that I was at that game, or, channeling my New York attitude, that I bore no shame.
And then there we were, at my first World Series ever. Our tickets were the spoils of a rainout, bought from hotel guests who could not stay in town for the change in schedule. The $200 per ticket price we paid would be a steal today, but at the time was a fortune for a temp paying rent on a Park Slope apartment and about to go back to school. And somehow that made it all the more significant. Heading into Game 2, the Yankees were already down one game to the Braves and looking to tie the series before heading south to enemy territory. After attending two extra-inning post-season wins, our hearts beat permanently faster in anticipation of what this game would bring.
But it wasn’t to be. We watched the Yankees put men on base in seven innings, but never bring one of them home, shut out 4-0 by Greg Maddux. Contrary to the usual enthusiasm of the Bronx fans, there was now a lull that set over the crowd, sensing that down 2-0 in the series and about to leave for three games on the road, our season was suddenly and inexplicably coming to a close. After the game, my sister and I were devastated, and figured we’d seen the last contest at Yankee Stadium for ‘96. I’ll never forget walking down to field level to see the diamond one more time before the season ended. Having been wrapped in up in all the events leading up to this point, it was hard to believe it could just end like this. We had lost so much already, didn’t we deserve this win, this little piece of happiness? We stood there in silence, not quite knowing what to do with ourselves next.
I remember that moment of dread I felt looking over the field better than any other moment of the series—the diving catches, the homeruns, the late inning heroics—perhaps because it heightened every emotion that followed. Clinging to hope, we watched Cone, Rivera, and Wetteland defeat the Braves in Game 3. We squirmed as the Braves were up by as much as six runs until the eighth inning of Game 4, when backup catcher Jim Leyritz pinch hit a three-run homer to tie the game, eliciting screams from our apartment that drew a knock on our door from our neighbors’ friend to see if everything was ok. He stayed until the Yankee’s eleventh inning victory, and a post-game celebration that lasted till morning. I’ve always wondered how many people in New York City got laid that night thanks to Jim Leyritz. More importantly, the series was now tied, and the Yankees went on take their third in a row on a dramatic game-ending catch from my boyfriend Paul O’Neill to preserve the narrowest of victories in a no-earned-runs pitchers’ duel. The sweep in Atlanta was an improbable comeback that sent the Yankees back home to the Bronx to play for the World Series victory on their home turf. As if the drama wasn’t already high enough, Joe Torre’s other brother Frank got a heart transplant on the travel day between games, and Yankee fans spent the off day awaiting the results. And then like us, he was ready the next day to watch Game 6, which proved to be the decisive game of the series. Having spent our savings on Game 2, my sister and I watched the Yankees claim the championship title at home in our Brooklyn apartment, from first pitch to Wade Boggs’ victory lap on horseback with the mounted NYPD until endless post-game interviews finally yielded to normal pre-dawn programming.
A few days later, I skipped work, along with the masses, to attend the ticker tape parade down the New York City’s Canyon of Heroes. Mayor Rudy Giuliani estimated the crowd in attendance that day at 3.5 million, but based on his current level of credibility, we’ll just call it a lot. But the season didn’t really end for me until a few weeks later at a more unlikely parade, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Dressed as a turkey, I was serving hot chocolate to guests on the hotel balcony overlooking the parade route when a float with Yankee players appeared. Excited and looking to get their attention, I and co-worker Suzie Besterman, the loudest woman at the hotel—and possibly on Earth—yelled out “Bernie!!!” at the top of our lungs. In response, Bernie Williams looked up, directly at us, and waved. And we, with all our hearts, waved back. To this day nobody believes this story, that Bernie Williams waved just to me, a lone turkey along among a sea of creatures on a packed parade route. But the sequence of events was unmistakable and I stand by it. And that was it, the proper closure not only for the season but for that period of my life. Goodbye Bernie, goodbye Yankees, goodbye New York. Goodbye Mom. A little over a month later, I set off from New York, moving down to Maryland to press play and continue my own story.
Though I visit New York often to see family and friends, when it comes to the Yankees, I’ve since felt more like a bystander than the participant I had been that year. I’ll always remember the ’96 season as more than just great baseball and the beginning of a dynasty, but as an amazing and all-consuming journey that snuck up to distract and delight at the exact right moment in time. And somehow the highlight will always be that low point, Game 2 of the World Series. Because sometimes when you keep fighting, you actually win.
Nancy Golden now lives in Northern Virginia with a daughter and a permanent biologist job. However, in 1996 she lived in Brooklyn next to Zisk editor Steve Reynolds and is glad that they are still friends all this time later despite making him carry her queen size mattress down four flights of stairs to the moving van on her last day in New York.