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Weathers and unsung heroes

Mariano Duncan and the unsung heroes of ’96

When you think back to the 2009 and the Yankees’ 27th World Championship, the names Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, and Hideki Matsui immediately come to mind. When you remember the 1996 World Series championship, it’s easy to remember  Derek Jeter’s controversial home run in the ALCS, Mariano Rivera’s multiple inning performances. John Wetteland’s “walking the tightrope” saves were legendary, and you remember how you felt when Jim Leyritz hit his game-changing home run in Game 4 of the World Series. But, every championship has been won with the help of lesser known players. Players like Mariano DuncanDavid Weathers, and Graeme Lloyd. Without them, a 1996 World Series championship banner would not have been raised in Yankee Stadium. This is their story:

Duncan had a decent career underway, when the Yankees signed him as a free agent in December, 1995. The versatile Dominican had, for the most part, played second base or shortstop during his career, but he had also seen time in the outfield and third base. He had been with three organizations, including two stints with Cincinnati, in his 10-year career.

He came to the Yankees’ Spring Training in 1996, looking to catch on as a utility player. Little did he know he would appear in 109 regular season games. Duncan was an almost everyday player at second base, due to injuries to Pat Kelly and Tony Fernandez. He not only filled in, he took over.

Duncan hit a career-high .340, had the second-best RBI total of his career (56), and established career bests in slugging pct. (.500) and OPS (.852). Duncan’s 34 doubles were one behind team-leading Paul O’Neill. The 33-year old also had a decent season in the field; he committed 11 errors and posted a .975 fielding pct., just below the league average for second baseman (.980).

Duncan was also a good clubhouse influence. He created the phrase that would become the team slogan. “We Play Today…We Win Today…Das It” spread across three horizontal lines on the t-shirts Duncan doled out to his teammates. Fan Shop Ad - We Play TodayThe topper for Duncan, though, might have been when he was asked by manager Joe Torre to mentor Jeter, who was in his rookie season.

Duncan struggled at the plate in the 1996 ALCS and World Series, but he hit .313 in the ALDS and drove in three runs. Though he would be dealt to Toronto during the 1997 season, which turned out to be his last in the Major Leagues, Duncan left a lasting impression in New York. He also added a 1996 World Series ring to go with the one he won with the 1990 Reds.

Weathers had been a third-round draft pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1988. The Motlow State Community College (Lynchburg, TN) product was scooped up by the Florida Marlins in the 1992 expansion draft. He was a starting pitcher in 1994, but then became a swing-man, moving between the pen and the rotation. He was a Marlins’ version of the Yankees’ Ramiro Mendoza, if you will.

The Yankees liked what they saw in Weathers, and moved pitcher Mark Hutton to Florida to acquire the big right-hander. Up until then, Weathers was mainly known for his resemblance to Police Academy character Tackleberry (played by the late actor, David Graf). His first four regular season appearances with the Yankees, all starts, were far less than exceptional. Weathers was blasted for 17 earned runs in 10.1 innings pitched. It wasn’t until the Yankees moved him to the bullpen that things began to change.

Weathers allowed one earned run in seven September relief appearances (7 IP), and made the post-season roster. Up two games to one in the division series with Texas, Yankees’ starter Kenny Rogers and reliever Brian Boehringer put the team in a 4-0 hole in Game 4. The Yankees cut the lead to 4-3, but the first two Rangers reached base safely in the bottom of the 4th inning. Torre called on Weathers with the dangerous Juan Gonzalez at the plate. The soon-to-be-named 1996 AL MVP had already homered earlier in the game.

But, it was Weathers’ time to shine. He struck out Gonzalez swinging on a 3-2 pitch, and then got Will Clark to hit into an inning-ending double play. Weathers threw two more scoreless innings to get the ball to Mariano Rivera in the 7th inning. In the meantime, the Yankees had taken the lead on Bernie Williams‘ home run and a Cecil Fielder RBI single. Williams would add another home run and the Yankees clinched the best-of-five series with a 6-4 win. Weathers picked up his first career postseason victory. He earned another victory in the ALCS, and appeared in three of the six World Series contests.

The Yankees needed a left-handed specialist, so they sent Bob Wickman and Gerald Williams to the Milwaukee Brewers on August 23rd for Lloyd, Pat Listach, and a player to be named later. The deal looked like a disaster, as the season headed towards the playoffs. Listach had a bruised foot when the deal was made, but it turned out to be a broken foot. (Listach was later returned to the Brewers for infielder Gabby Martinez.)

Bones looked like he was throwing batting practice in his four appearances. He allowed 11 runs and 14 hits in seven innings pitched. But, it was the Australian-borne Lloyd that the Yankees were counting on to face left-handed hitters like Baltimore’s Rafael Palmeiro, and the Rangers’ Clark.

In his 13 relief appearances with the Yankees, Lloyd managed to compile a 17.47 ERA. He not only didn’t put out the fire, he made matters worse. He allowed 11 runs, 12 hits, and five walks in 5.2 innings pitched. When it came time to make up the 25-man post-season roster, Torre and GM Bob Watson had a tough decision to make. Despite his disastrous regular season “tryout”, Lloyd was added to the playoff roster.

Although the Yankees lost Game 1 of the ALDS to Texas, 6-2, it was as if someone flipped a switch on Lloyd. The lefty retired all three batters he faced, including a pair of left-handed hitters, with ground outs. Lloyd’s first critical test came in Game 4 of the ALCS. With the Yankees clinging to a 5-4 lead, and the tying run on base, Lloyd was brought in to face Brady Anderson. The Orioles’ center fielder had slugged 50 home runs during the regular season. Lloyd got Anderson on an infield pop up to end the inning. The Yankees went on to an 8-4 win and a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

The World Series started miserably for New York, with the Atlanta Braves winning the first two games in the Bronx. The Yankees held a 3-1 lead in the 8th inning of Game 3 when, the almost-untouchable Rivera gave up a triple and RBI single to cut the deficit to a single run. Rivera struck out Chipper Jones, but showing renewed confidence in his left-hander, Torre signaled for Lloyd to face slugger Fred McGriff. Lloyd had struck out the left-handed hitting “Crime Dog” in Game 2. In their second meeting, Lloyd got McGriff to fly out and then struck another lefty-hitter, Ryan Klesko, to end the threat. The Yankees won 5-2 to cut the Braves’ lead in the series in half.

The Yankees famously rallied from a 6-0 deficit in Game 4, and entered the 9th inning tied at six apiece. Rivera put himself in a jam again by surrendering a one-out single, followed by a walk. With McGriff at the plate, Torre again went to Lloyd and the Aussie again delivered, this time by in
ducing a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play. The Yankees went ahead in the 10th inning to give Lloyd his first postseason victory.

Andy Pettitte avenged his Game 1 loss with a brilliant eight innings of work in Game 5, and the Yankees headed home up three games to two. Lloyd would only be needed for one batter in Game 6. With the Yankees up 3-1 in the 6th inning, the Braves put two men aboard with two outs. Lloyd fell behind 2-0 in the count, but then retired Klesko on a harmless pop up to second baseman Luis Sojo. Lloyd made Torre look like a genius for his decision to include him on the postseason roster.

While the All-Stars and future Hall of Fame entrants get most of the attention, teams usually need the players with less achievements to step up. Bucky Dent and Brian Doyle did in 1978. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez did in 1998, and Sojo in 2000. And for 1996, Mariano Duncan, David Weathers, and Graeme Lloyd know they earned their ring.