For Yankee fans of a certain age, the name Matt Nokes brings back memories of false hopes and an era in which the Yanks had no plan. Acquired from the Tigers in early June 1990, Nokes was that rare left-handed hitting catcher, but unfortunately, for the Yanks he couldn’t do much hitting or catching. After the 1994 season, the Yankees were happy to let him go.
This week, as his Card Corner feature on Bronx Banter, Bruce Markusen reflected on the Matt Nokes era. The Yanks, as Markusen relates, brought in Matt Nokes with the allure of his 1987 32-home run All Star rookie campaign firmly in their minds. They needed some left-handed pop and also hoped to add to their catching depth in a potential run at Ron Darling. The Yanks were 18-30 when Nokes arrived that year and never got much better.
Luckily for the Yanks, they gave up only Lance McCullers and Clay Parker because Nokes amounted to little. “When it came to the defensive skills required of a catcher,” Markusen wrote, “Nokes came up short just about everywhere. He moved stiffly behind the plate, making him a liability on pitches in the dirt. He didn’t throw well, hampered by bad mechanics and lackluster arm strength. And just to complete the trifecta, he had little understanding of how to call a game.”
When he finally departed from the Bronx, Nokes had hit .249/.304/ .437 with 71 jacks. He bounced around the Majors for a few years and then played in the independent leagues for a bunch of seasons. He now serves as the Class A Potomac Nationals’ hitting coach.
Even at the time of Nokes’ acquisition, some — such as The Times’ Murray Chass — questioned the wisdom of the move. “The Yankees do not have a philosophy, or a plan, for that matter. In acquiring Claudell Washington, Matt Nokes and Mike Witt in the past six weeks,” he wrote in 1990, “they have operated on a patchwork philosophy, sort of like a public works crew repairing city streets after a weather-whipped winter.”
Yet, the younger fans always enjoyed Nokes. He had a ridiculously wide batting stance and seemed to love playing the game. When he hit the ball, it would travel far. These days the Yanks are a far cry away from the era of Matt Nokes. They’ve enjoyed stability and success from the catching position for the better parts of 15 seasons now. As Markusen says, Nokes, that rare left-handed hitter, just wasn’t what the Yanks of the early 1990s needed whether they knew it or not.