ATLANTA — A quarter of a century ago to the day and 15 miles from the spot where the Dodgers and Braves played NLCS Game 6 on Saturday night, a lesson about dynasties was taught that remains as relevant today as it was then.
Namely, how difficult it is to construct one — and that is even while one was being constructed at the time, just unbeknownst to all the participants and viewers.
On Oct. 23, 1996, the Braves took a 6-0 lead in World Series Game 4 against the Yankees and all of the below was true midway through that contest:
— Atlanta was in the World Series for the fourth time in the past five Series (there was none contested in 1994) and was the defending champion.
— The Braves had constructed a five-game winning streak (closing the NLCS with three wins and taking a two-games-to-none lead in the World Series) in which they outscored the Cardinals and Yankees by a combined 48-2. They lost Game 3 to the Yankees, 5-2, but led Game 4 by six runs with 12 outs to go. If they hung on, the Braves would have John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine lined up on full rest to win one more game to repeat as champions.
— At that moment, the only significant Atlanta position player who was past his age-30 season was 32-year-old Fred McGriff. Andruw Jones was 19, Jermaine Dye was 22, Chipper Jones was 24 and Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez both were 25. Smoltz was 29, Glavine and Maddux were both 30, Steve Avery was 26 and closer Mark Wohlers was 26.
If you were in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that evening — and I was — as the sixth inning began and someone would have said, “By the way, the dynasty is in the other dugout,” you would have checked to see if anyone had escaped a local insane asylum. The Yankees hadn’t won a championship since 1978, had made the playoffs (newly expanded) in 1995 for the first time in 14 years and were hardly awash in as many stars with playoff pedigree as the Braves.
But, of course, the Yankees won that crazy night, Oct. 23, 1996, led most famously by Jim Leyritz’s tying, three-run homer off Wohlers. They won the last four games of that series. They won that World Series and won four times in five years. The dynasty was, impossibly, in the other dugout.
The Braves kept winning division titles and kept losing in the postseason. They have had two new stadiums since, but their 1995 title remains the only one the city of Atlanta has from the four major sports leagues. The Braves had all the measurables for a dynasty. As the sixth inning began a quarter of a century ago, they were making folks think about where they might land in the pantheon.
But didn’t we feel similarly after the Cubs won it all, finally, in 2016? Didn’t it feel as if that was just the beginning? Yet here in 2021 we watched playoffs with Anthony Rizzo on the Yankees, Kris Bryant on the Giants and Kyle Schwarber on the Red Sox. We probably all are going to need to get on a couch with a baseball therapist to determine what we think about the Astros and their tainted 2017 title, but they have made five straight trips to at least the ALCS and now are sitting as the AL champs again, waiting for the World Series to begin.
“More than anything to me, it is a couple of things,” Glavine said by phone about the ability to go back-to-back to improve dynastic perceptions. “You really have to have some luck on your side not only to win, but win two in a row. And you really have to stay healthy. Both of those things are hard to do as you see now with the Dodgers.”
The Dodgers of this era had yet to fully define themselves as Game 6 began. Were they going to chase dynasty or be Glavine’s Braves? They have been to the playoffs nine straight times, the first eight after winning the NL West, and last year they finally captured their first championship since 1988.
But it has felt as if the Dodgers have chased history on fumes this time around, having to win a sudden-death wild-card game, a reminder that the extra layers of playoffs also work against a dynasty. The two faces of this Dodgers era, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner, were out injured Saturday, and so were Joe Kelly and Max Muncy. Max Scherzer did not have the life in his arm to make a scheduled Game 6 start. Kiké Hernandez and Joc Pederson, two key supplemental pieces to the Dodgers’ recent run, were producing big moments for other teams in the postseason. Kershaw, Scherzer, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager and Chris Taylor are about to be free agents.
The Dodgers, who began this playoff run in 2013 with Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig as cornerstones, have done a terrific job reconfiguring to remain elite. So who knows how long this will go on? Those Braves won 14 straight division titles, but they are not remembered as a dynasty because they won just one title. No team has won two in a row since the Yankees’ 1998-2000 three-peat.
“The fact we have not seen it in recent history, back-to-back championships, tells you how hard it is,” Glavine said.
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