Sitting here in 2010, we’re used to Yankee success. Everyone hates the Yankees because they’re so good, and we’ve enjoyed, since 1996, five World Series championships, another two World Series appearances and 13 playoff appearances in 14 years. Talk about spoiled.
The Bronx, though, was not always home to baseball riches. Twenty years ago, the Yankees were downright awful, and somehow, during many of our formative years, we still found a way to route for the team. The Yankees in 1990 were the last Yankee team to finish in seventh place in the AL East. The team went an AL-worst 67-95 and were 21 games out of first place when the season ended.
As with most last-place teams, the Yankees managed to fail in every aspect of the game. Overall, the team .241/.300/.366, worst in the AL in all three categories. They hit 147 home runs, good for fourth in the league, but plated just 603 runs all season. Their 1027 strike outs were good for second in the AL, and their 427 walks were the second fewest in the league. It’s painful just to think about Alvaro Espinosa’s .224/.258/.274 effort over 472 plate appearances or Steve Sax’s .260/.316/.325 line in 680 plate appearances.
Things weren’t much better on the mound. Tim Leary, the staff “ace,” lost 19 games and had a 1.77 K/BB ratio. The guys behind him — Andy Hawkins, David LaPoint, Chuck Cary, Mike Witt and a plethora of spot starters — are better left to the history books. Hawkins, in fact, walked more than he struck out in 157.2 innings that year. Bad. Bad. Bad.
I remember going to games that year as a young Yankee fan, and the Stadium simply had a different atmosphere to it. The fans who were there knew they wouldn’t get good baseball. Maybe we’d see Stump Merrill throw a fit and get ejected. Maybe the opposing teams would be good. Mid-week games against the bad teams — the Indians, the Mariners — drew just over 15,000 fans per game, and Dave Anderson doubted even that many showed up. For the last game of the season, an entirely meaningless affair against the Tigers, just 13,380 fans were in attendance.
It was tough that year to find any bright spots. Even old reliable Donnie Baseball begin his slide toward retirement. Back problems knocked him out midway through the season, and he hit just .256/.308/.335 with 5 home runs. For those of us who idolized Mattingly, his struggles were incomprehensible. Kevin Maas, though, wowed us all with his 21 home runs.
For the Yankees, that season, George Steinbrenner hung over everything. The Boss was suspended in July, and the team couldn’t really do much of anything as his status was up in the air. Still, the pieces began to fall into place for a later run. The Yanks drafted Andy Pettitte in the 22nd round of the draft and chose some middle infielder named Jorge Posada in the 24th round. Shane Spencer was a 28th round draft pick, and Ricky Ledee came on board in the 16th round. On February 17, the Yanks signed some skinny kid out of Panama named Mariano Rivera.
The 1990 season was truly a rock-bottom year. Hensley Muelens, Mel Hall, Steve Balboni, Jesse Barfield. Who were these guys? The fans barely knew; the fans barely came. It was a different era in the Bronx.