NEW YORK — Is baseball back? That's the national sports question following a World Series that had more drama than a Cecil B. DeMille movie and as much strategy as a chess match.
Almost every time baseball fans turned around there was another edge-of-the-seat moment, including the sixth and final game on Saturday night when the New York Yankees defeated the Atlanta Braves 3-2. The Yankees hadn't won a World Series since 1978.
The final three games were so close that the Yankees' victories were in doubt until the final out. With the win, the gritty Bronx scramblers defeated Atlanta by 4 games to 2.
It was the first time in baseball history that a team has won four consecutive games in the fall classic after losing the first two games at home.
"The last couple of days really encapsulized what sports are all about and why people like them, because you had something that was totally unexpected," says Steve Hirdt, executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistician for the major leagues.
This year's series came at a time when baseball is still recovering from the strike of 1994 and the shortened 1995 season.
Attendance has not returned to the pre-strike levels. And the television audience on the Fox network was smaller than during past World Series.
The strikes and other baseball problems, including its current lack of a collective-bargaining agreement has turned off many potential viewers. "I don't know if the antidote to a strike is a great World Series, but I know it can't hurt," Hirdt says.
Branch Rickey Jr., president of the American Association, agrees. "What this series shows is that the game itself resists all the short-term damage. Great games are still great games - the chemistry, the drama, the tightening of the stomach."
That's exactly what happened in the final four games. In Game 3, the Yankees stayed alive by defeating Atlanta 5-2.
Then, in Game 5, the Yanks came back from a 6-0 deficit to win 8-6. "If we don't win that game, we're out of it," said Brian Boehringer, a Yankee relief pitcher.
In the final game, the last inning was typical of the drama that's possible in the sport. Yankee skipper Joe Torre had brought in his "closer," relief pitcher John Wetteland, who is known for his 95 m.p.h. fastballs.
As he started the ninth, Wetteland said he felt a lot of anxiety. He struck out Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones, but designated hitter Ryan Klesko singled into center field.
Wetteland says he wanted to try to avoid throwing fastballs to the next hitter, Terry Pendleton, a good fastball hitter. Instead, Pendleton singled sharply on a breaking ball.
"That didn't work out, so it seemed like with every pitch I was digging myself into a new hole," recalls Wetteland. Pinch-hitter Luis Polonia came to the plate. He had nearly won Game 5 with a long drive that was just barely caught for the last out. This time Wetteland struck him out.
But Atlanta fought back. Marquis Grissom singled in the second run. Mark Lemke, a dangerous hitter, was up with the tieing run on third.
Yankee manager Torre was beginning to think about what he was going to say to Wetteland if Lemke got to first base. "Instead, [Wetteland] said, this one's for Frank," recalls Torre, whose brother Frank is in the hospital. Lemke then popped out to end the game.
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox says the Braves wanted to play the Yankees from the beginning of the playoffs. "A New York world series is about as good as it gets," Cox says.
If the players and the major leagues can agree on it, the teams may meet again during the regular season during inter-league play. It's part of Major League Baseball's attempt to stimulate more interest among fans.