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Braves Flashback: David Justice goes from hated to hero in one swing (also Atlanta wins World Series)

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Braves won city’s lone pro sports 25 years ago today

World Series - Cleveland Indians v Atlanta Braves - Game Six
Braves right fielder David Justice hit a home run for the only run of Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, which clinched Atlanta’s first championship. (Getty Images)

Oct. 28, 1995, was quite an eventful 24 hours for David Justice.

The Braves right fielder began the day perhaps the most-hated man in Atlanta and ended it as among the biggest reasons the team had won the first (and still only) professional sports championship in the city’s history. It was Justice’s sixth-inning home run that provided the only run in a 1-0 victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, which took place 25 years ago today.

Tom Glavine’s eight innings of one-hit ball in Game 6 are probably the most-lasting aspect of that day and that World Series, but it was Justice who had the most-interesting character arc. In one swing of the bat, he went from ultimate villain to ultimate hero.

Justice later admitted that on that day, he’d been under “the most pressure I’ve ever felt in my life.” He told Sports Illustrated’s Tim Kurkjian that he spent some time alone before Game 6 to “clear my mind.”

“My head hurt, my stomach hurt, and all I could think about was going out on the field and getting booed by 50,000 fans,” Justice told SI. “I really don’t know how I got through today. The pressure was unbearable.”

Of course, it was almost entirely of his own making.

The first two games of the 1995 World Series (both of which the Braves won) were played before capacity crowds of 50,000-plus at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, which by that time was hosting the Fall Classic for the third time in five years. When the Series shifted to Cleveland for Games 3, 4 and 5, it was perhaps understandable that Indians fans — who had not experienced the World Series since 1954 — would be a little more raucous.

The Indians won two of the three games at Jacobs Field, including a 5-4 win in Game 5, which was played on Thursday, Oct. 26. It was the next day that Justice — who it must be noted was hitting .214 with no extra-base hits in the series — erupted with invective toward Braves fans.

Friday, Oct. 27, was an off day back in Atlanta, and Justice — the 1990 National League Rookie of the Year and a 40-home run hitter in 1993 — met with reporters for close to 15 minutes after rain wiped out a team workout. On the day of Game 6, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution carried a story with the headline “Justice takes a rip at Braves fans.”

“What happens if we don’t win?,” Justice asked Braves beat writer I.J. Rosenberg. “When’s the parade then? They’ll run us out of Atlanta.

“If we don’t win, they’ll probably burn our houses down. We’ve got to win. And if we win, it’s for the 25 guys in here, the coaches and Bobby [Cox]. It is for us. Like the song ‘[You and me] Against the World.’ It’s us against the world. I’m the only guy that will sit here and say it, but there are a lot of people that feel this way.

“If we get down 1-0 tonight, they will probably boo us out of the stadium. You have to do something great to get them out of their seats. Shoot, up in Cleveland, they were down three runs in the ninth inning and they were still on their feet.”

Cleveland Indians v Atlanta Braves
David Justice, shown here in Game 2 of the 1995 World Series, had one of the sweetest left-handed swings of his generation. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

A number of Braves teammates, including Glavine and Game 4 starting pitcher Steve Avery, tried to refute Justice’s words, but the damage had been done. Justice was Public Enemy No. 1 heading into Game 6 of the World Series.

NBC made Justice’s rant a major part of its Game 6 coverage, with reporter Jim Gray conducting an interview with Justice prior to the game and play-by-play man Bob Costas and analysts Joe Morgan and Bob Uecker making numerous references to it during the broadcast. Braves fans at Fulton County Stadium also made their voices heard, booing Justice during pre-game introductions, and when he came up to bat leading off the bottom of the second inning.

Other fans made their point through the written word. One fan held up a sign that read “Justice — Hope your bat is as big as your mouth.”

Justice drew a walk off Indians starter Dennis Martinez, but was erased in an inning-ending double play. Glavine held Cleveland hitless through the first four innings, and Justice came up again with two outs in the bottom of the fourth.

He ripped a double to the left-center field gap, drawing cheers for the first time all night. The Braves again failed to score, however, as Ryan Klesko was walked intentionally and Javy Lopez walked unintentionally to load the bases, and Rafael Belliard popped up to left-center.

Glavine allowed what would prove to be the Indians’ only hit leading off the sixth, a single by Tony Pena. Pitcher Jim Poole — who had replaced Martinez to retire Fred McGriff the previous inning — botched a sacrifice bunt for the first out, then Kenny Lofton reached on a fielder’s choice but was stranded on second when Omar Vizquel fouled out to end the inning.

That set up Justice’s moment of immortality.

The lefty-swinging Justice led off against lefty-throwing Poole in the bottom of the sixth, and took a 1-1 fastball up and in and slapped it over the wall in right-center field. The ball crashed off the back wall next to the United States Postal Service sign at Fulton County Stadium, and Justice pumped his fist as he rounded first.

The crowd of 51,875 erupted in cheers. Morgan put it succinctly on the NBC broadcast when he said “It’s OK to talk the talk if you can walk the walk.”

Here’s video of the home run:

That would be all the damage in the inning vs. Poole, and Justice tipped his hat to cheering when he took his place in right field for the top of the seventh. Glavine worked around a two-out walk to keep it a 1-0 game.

The Braves loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the inning off lefty Alan Embree, but Mike Devereaux — who’d replaced Klesko in left field the previous inning for defensive reasons — popped up to second. Glavine got the Indians 1-2-3 in the top of the eighth.

With the score still just 1-0, Cox sent Luis Polonia up to hit for Glavine in the bottom of the inning. Polonia struck out swinging vs. former Braves left-hander Paul Assenmacher, sending the game to the ninth.

Braves closer Mark Wohlers — who’d allowed one run in four innings in three previous World Series appearances — then took the hill. He got Lofton to foul out, then retired Paul Sorrento on a fly ball to center.

You all know what happened next. Swinging at the first pitch, Carlos Baerga lined the ball into left-center field, but into the glove of the Braves’ Marquis Grissom.

Skip Caray’s Braves radio call — with an excited Joe Simpson screaming in the background — remains iconic. (He also got in a little Justice-esque dig at Atlanta fans).

“Fifty-one thousand on their feet. Nobody’s left to beat the traffic tonight, I guarantee you. Mark gets the sign. The wind and the pitch, here it is. … Swung, fly ball deep left-center! Grissom on the run … Yes! Yes! Yes! … the Atlanta Braves have given you a championship! Listen to this crowd!”

Here’s video:

Glavine was named the World Series Most Valuable Player, having posted a 1.29 ERA with four hits allowed and 11 strikeouts in 14 innings across his two starts. (He allowed two runs in six innings of a 4-3 victory in Game 2).

Justice wasn’t even the Braves’ best hitter in the series; that was Klesko, who posted a 1.296 OPS with three homers in 16 at-bats. McGriff and Polonia had also out-hit Justice, who ended the series with a .250/.400/.450 line with five walks and a team-best five RBIs.

Though his home run had largely already done so, Justice made his peace with Braves fans following the game. He’d told reporters before Game 6 he was engaging in a bit of reverse psychology to try and fire up the hometown crowd, but backed off even those comments in the championship afterglow.

“The fans proved me wrong,” Justice told SI. “They were gems tonight.”

Sadly, the 1995 World Series would be the last October heroics for Justice in Atlanta. He missed all but 40 games of the 1996 season with a shoulder injury, watching from the dugout as the Braves lost the World Series in six games to the New York Yankees.

Just days before the 1997 season began, the Braves did the unthinkable. Desperate to cut payroll with Glavine and Greg Maddux coming up for contract extensions, Atlanta dealt Justice and Grissom to Cleveland for Embree and Lofton, a pending free agent. (The deal netted a contract savings of $7.7 million for the Braves, who signed Glavine to a 5-year, $34 million extension in May and Maddux to a 5-year, $57.5 million extension in August.)

BBO-WORLD SERIES-JUSTICE JUBO
David Justice played in two World Series after leaving the Atlanta Braves, including the 1997 Fall Classic with the Cleveland Indians. (Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty Images)

Lofton played well that season in Atlanta, batting .333 with 90 runs scored despite missing 40 games with a hamstring injury. But the flamboyant center fielder was an odd fit in the Braves’ buttoned-down clubhouse, and bolted back to Cleveland the following offseason.

Allowed to DH in the American League, Justice was re-born with the Indians. He posted career-highs in batting average (.329) and slugging percentage (.596) while hitting 33 homers and driving in 101 for a Cleveland team that made it back to the World Series (they lost in seven games to the Florida Marlins, the same team that knocked off the Braves in six in the National League Championship Series).

Justice continued to excel in Cleveland until 2000, when the Indians dealt him in late June to the World Series-bound New York Yankees. He hit .305/.391/.585 with 20 homers in 78 games with New York, then homered three more times in the postseason — including twice with eight RBIs in an ALCS win over the Seattle Mariners, earning MVP honors — and took home another World Series ring after the Yankees knocked off the Mets in five games.

Justice got back to the World Series with the Yankees in 2001, and played in the postseason with the Oakland Athletics in 2002, his final season. He retired the following February, having played in 1,610 games across 14 seasons, batting .279/.378/.500 with 305 home runs, 1,017 RBIs, an OPS+ 29 percent better than league average and 40.6 Wins Above Replacement.

The Braves, of course, have not won a World Series since Justice left town, and many trace the franchise’s subsequent two decades of October failures back to the day they traded Justice. (Former AJC columnist Terence Moore, in particular, wrote that sentiment many times, describing Justice as the “heart and soul” of the 1990s Braves.)

Justice dabbled in broadcasting with ESPN and YES Network for a few years in the early 2000s, and was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2007. He achieved a bit of post-career fame as a central character in both the book and film Moneyball, which chronicled the 2002 Oakland Athletics.

But 25 years ago, there were never a more-hated or more-popular Braves player — all in the same day.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; Newspapers.com; NYTimes.com; SI Vault; SABR Bio Project