Nov
05

A parable: From riches to Rags

By

Dave Righetti amidst his July 4, 1983 no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. (AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine)

Once upon a time, the Yankees pulled off a coup. In November of 1978, the Yankees traded Mike Heath, Sparky Lyle, Larry McCall, Dave Rajsich, Domingo Ramos and some cash to the Texas Rangers for Juan Beniquez, Mike Griffin, Paul Mirabella, Greg Jemison and former first round draft pick Dave Righetti. When the Yanks signed Goose Gossage, incumbent closer Sparky Lyle wanted out, and the Bombers, as Murray Chass wrote, “salivated over Righetti.”

“All of the reports on him are super,” team president Al Rosen said. “He might be the best pitching prospect in the minor leagues. [Scout] Jerry Walker thinks we have another Guidry, but I don’t think that’s possible.”

Righetti, then just 20, made his debut as a September call-up in 1979. He started three times that fall and went 0-1 but with a 3.63 ERA. He walked 10 in 17.1 innings — six in his Major League debut — and struck out 13. But in 1980, he hit a roadblock. Expected to make the team out of Spring Training, he struggled during the Grapefruit League and spent the year at AAA Columbus. Faced with what his pitching coach called “unreasonable expectations,” Righetti struggled to find consistency and would not return to the Majors until 1981 when he stuck around for good.

On May 23, Righetti came up to take a spot in the rotation vacated by a trade. The hard-throwing lefty dazzled. He had the command that had eluded him throughout 1980, and the Yanks stuck with him. In 105 innings spanning 15 starts, he went 8-4 with a 2.05 ERA, struck out 89 with a league-best 7.6 K/9 IP and walked 38. He beat Milwaukee twice in the ALDS and Oakland once in the ALCS before succumbing to the Dodgers in the World Series.

In 1982, his control eluded him a bit. He went 11-10 with a 3.79 ERA and struck out 163 in 183 innings, but he also walked 108. It was a down year, and one he would out-pitch in 1983. That year, he became the first Yankee to throw a no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game, and he did it on George Steinbrenner‘s birthday as well. He 14-8 with a 3.44 ERA in 217 innings, and the Yanks were well on their way to developing an ace.

Yet, after a 2.1-inning start against the Indians on September 18, 1983, Dave Righetti would not make another Major League start until 1992 when he was with the Giants, pitching 3000 miles away from the mercurial Yankees. The Yankees, you see, decide — or rather George Steinbrenner unilaterally decided — that, with the departure of Gossage, Dave Righetti would become the closer. And he would pitch only in the 9th inning, as the Boss made perfectly clear year after year.

“He is going to be the closer,” Steinbrenner said in a 1990 Sports Illustrated profile on Rags. “He will be brought in in the ninth inning. Period. I’m the only one who knows how to use him. I’ve told my manager and coaches, ‘If you reach for him too early, you’ll be reaching for the next train home.’”

Six years before that proclamation though, the drama played out in the pages of the newspaper. Righetti found out that he would be closing when his brother read a report in the paper, and the Yanks’ explanation for it was quixotic at best. As Steve Aschburner wrote:

How smart is [Steinbrenner]? According to him, Righetti is a natural to replace Gossage. He breaks out the numbers: In the first two innings, Righetti had a 1.90 earned-run average. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than 4-1. Opponents batted just .190 in those innings. By contrast, Righetti’s ERA after his first two innings jumped to 4.06, his strikeout-walk ratio dropped to 2-1 and opponents averaged .255. If Righetti could do so well in the first two innings, Steinbrenner reasoned, he could do it in the last two.

And so a closer was born. Instead of finding another reliever to take over the ninth inning spot, George went with the hard-throwing left-hander who had enjoyed success as a closer. It was a typical George Steinbrenner Mid-1980s move.

Over the next few years, the Yankees would toy with the idea of moving Righetti back into the rotation. The team could never quite find the starting pitcher they needed to overcome years of missing the playoffs, but the Boss always wanted to keep Righetti in that ever-important closer role. He never wanted to be a reliever. “David didn’t want to become a reliever. He was worried he would fail and be out of baseball. He could probably have been a 20-game winner for five or six years and made twice as much money,” Righetti confidant Bill Goodstein said to Sports Illustrated.

Yet, as 210 other players wore pinstripes throughout his tenure as a Yankee reliever, Righetti bore the brunt of Spring Training rumors. Will he or won’t he start? “People always ask me how I can keep so quiet,” Righetti said. “Well, sooner or later, you cause yourself more problems by talking.”

But by 1990, he was clearly fed up with it, and after the season, he jumped to the Giants as a free agent. A Yankee fan by birth, he left behind the pinstripes. “I wish Yankee fans appreciated me as a reliever. They’ve never accepted me because the team has never stuck behind me as a reliever. And because I’ve never complained, they think I don’t stand up for myself. They think I’m a patsy,” he said a few months before leaving.

Righetti’s Yanks finished second twice as he closed, but then they slipped down in the standings. By 1990, they were a seventh place team with their homegrown closer and erstwhile starter logging just 53 innings on a staff that put together a league-worst 4.21 ERA.

This year, Righetti triumphed. He won the World Series as the pitching coach of the Giants, and he captured the ring that had eluded him while a member of the Yankees. He did so with four homegrown starters pitching on a staff modeled after Guidry. They lead the NL in ERA and strike outs and allowed the second-most walks in the NL. The Yankees of the 1980s meanwhile always had to grapple with a harsh reality: Perhaps moving a hard-throwing left-handed starter to the bullpen to fill a role that didn’t need filling by such a promising young arm was not the best move for a franchise always searching for homegrown pitching.

Categories : Days of Yore

43 Comments»

  1. “Perhaps moving a hard-throwing left-handed starter to the bullpen to fill a role that didn’t need filling by such a promising young arm was not the best move for a franchise always searching for homegrown pitching.”

    You tryna tell us something, Ben?

    • Apollo22237 says:

      I think he is trying to tell us that with Kerry Wood leaving, we need to sign Righetti in order to fill the setup man role.

      Righetti to teh 8th!

    • All Star Carl says:

      Hard throwing? Joba hasn’t been throwing hard since he walked off the mound grabbing his shoulder in Texas.

      • MikeD says:

        That’s not true. He just doesn’t throw as hard. Worse, he also lost command. A shame.

        • kosmo says:

          Joba posted a 2.88 ERA in the second half of 2010.He averaged 9.7 SO per 9 innings over the course of the season.To me that´s OK good.

          He does from time to time lose command in the strike zone but he still is young enough to at some point find consistency.

      • Ed says:

        Joba’s fastball averaged 94.6 this year. You’ve got some high standards if you think that’s not throwing hard.

      • murakami says:

        He was topping out at 97,98,99 at times this year.

        The problem wasn’t his velo, it was the lack of bite/late life on his FB. But the “lost” velocity that has been mourned so long returned, if not at its maximum.

  2. Carlosologist says:

    Rags was a lefty right? Or am I going crazy?

    Excellent piece either way Ben. Makes you wonder if the Yanks ever learned from that mistake.

    • You’re right. I got my handedness mixed up while making my point.

      • Jonathan says:

        ya you did it like 3 times. But if you’re going to mix up his handedness, having a picture of him pitching at the start of the article will pretty much solve that problem. Very well written and being 24 I don’t know much of our history before the early 90s. We had some amazing players that don’t get the love they probably deserve. I’d love to hear more about the 80′s Yankees and why they didn’t win a title. I never knew all this about Righetti.

  3. MikeD says:

    As I mentioned in a post on this topic a couple weeks back, Righetti illustrated what went wrong with the Yankees in the 1980s. They never could figure out their starting pitching, and even when they had a pitching candidates, be they starters or relievers, they dispatched them rapidly for a bucket of balls. Righetti to the pen. Rijo, Drabek, Leiter, Tewksbury, Hoyt, Burke, Howell, etc. (I won’t even touch upon the position players they dealt away, too.)

    Fans liked Righetti as a starter, but Rags is right, for some reason they never embraced him as a reliever, even though he was solid. Maybe they were just annoyed they needed a starter, and for some reason we had a good one sitting in the pen.

  4. candyforstalin says:

    maybe in pettitte’s spot. maybe in a.j.’s, if he becomes unpalatable. just maybe.

  5. Accent Shallow says:

    The only way a lefty who can consistently get righties out should be in the pen is if he has durability issues.

    Ok, that’s not entirely true, but quality non-LOOGY LHP are rare, because they’re all starters!

  6. Riverdale Joe says:

    I’m confused…..the ALDS in 1981?

    • China Joe says:

      the 81 season was interrupted by a players strike, so they split up the season and played an extra round of playoffs

  7. China Joe says:

    God only knows what 80′s Steinbrenner would have done to Phil Hughes when he started struggling this season

    “He can’t get lefties out! Put him back in the pen! Call the Indians, maybe we can trade him for Jake Westbrook”

  8. kosmo says:

    anyone remember the 1981 WS game 3 in LA ?Righetti vs. Valenzuela.
    Righetti could have with a little luck won 18-20 games in 1983 . Making him a reliever in 1984 was absurd.
    Another stupid trade was Deshaies for Joe Niekro in 1985.

  9. BigBlueAL says:

    I will never forget as a little kid at Yankee Stadium when the game was over standing by the Yankees dugout waiting to see Righetti walk in from the bullpen.

    He walked toward the dugout with his head down and holding his jacket with one hand over his shoulder and his glove with the other hand. I yelled out “Good night Rags!!” and without looking up he just waived at me with his glove and walked into the dugout. I was so excited he acknowledged me (sort of) that I ran to my dad all excited telling him I said good night to Righetti and he responded by waiving his glove at me. lol

    Rags and Mattingly were my 2 favorite Yankees as a kid growing up (loved Winfield too). Gotta love those 80′s Yankees.

    • SodaPopinski says:

      Rags and Mattingly are the reason I’m a Yankee fan today. Those guys were awesome to watch. They kept me glued to WPIX night after night!

      I seem to remember a Newsday headline when Rags got a large contract… my memory is not great… it may have been the first reliever to get more than 1M, or the highest paid reliever? Something like that. So you know he was at least appreciated by management for his efforts.

      • ROBTEN says:

        If I remember correctly, I think he was at one point the highest paid reliever. I believe it came after his agent floated the possibility that he might sign a contract to pitch in Japan.

      • ROBTEN says:

        If I remember correctly, I believe that’s right. I think that contract was signed after agent floated an offer that he’d received about Righetti pitching in Japan.

    • Slu says:

      Rags and Mattingly were also my two favorites as a kid. I liked Sax as well.

  10. “That year, he became the first Yankee to throw a no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game, and he did it on George Steinbrenner‘s birthday as well.”

    Love how George’s birthday gets the mention over it occurring on the 4th of July, against the Red Sox, with the final out coming on a strikeout of Wade Boggs. Can’t script it much better than that.

  11. Nickel says:

    “Once upon a time, the Yankees pulled off a coup. In November of 1978, the Yankees traded Mike Heath, Sparky Lyle, Larry McCall, Dave Rajsich, Domingo Ramos and some cash to the Texas Rangers for Juan Beniquez, Mike Griffin, Paul Mirabella, Greg Jemison and former first round draft pick Dave Righetti.”

    Had to chuckle a bit at a mention of Paul Mirabella. He was the guest speaker at one of my Little League Trophy Nights or something when I was about 10 or 11. I think I have a picture of him and me buried somewhere.

  12. Another George (Weiss) pulled a similar move in 1955, throwing 20-game winner Bob Grim into the pen. Although Bob did have some success in the pen (19 saves in 1957 was a lot for those days), his career was pretty much toast by the time he was 30, after a few years of different teams playing “Is he a starter or..” with him.

    • nsalem says:

      Mr Weiss’ actions were of a more intelligent design. He replaced Grim by stealing Bob Turley and Don Larsen from the Orioles and had great prospects dotf such as Tom Sturdivant and Johnny Kucks. Grim was very good for two years contributing to a couple of pennants and a ring in 1956. After Sturdivant had 2 great years as a starter he was moved into the pen by 1957 or 1958 never again to repeat his first two years as a starter. Weiss and Stengel’s methods negatively effected many individual careers which they probably cared very little about as the temas they built won 14 pennants and 9 rings in 16 years.

  13. The sequel to this movie has been rather disappointing.

    /bitter

  14. ZZ says:

    “Perhaps moving a hard-throwing left-handed starter to the bullpen to fill a role that didn’t need filling by such a promising young arm was not the best move for a franchise always searching for homegrown pitching.”

    The problem in attempting to draw this comparison to Joba Chamberlain is that you are assuming that Joba was moved to the bullpen to fill a role.

    You remove that assumption and Dave Righetti’s situation is no longer a cautionary tale for the Yankees in regard to Joba Chamberlain.

    • The problem in attempting to draw this comparison to Joba Chamberlain is that you are assuming that Joba was moved to the bullpen to fill a role.

      Wasn’t he, though? It’s definitely not a black and white argument because in ’07 he was running up to an innings limit while destroying minor leaguers so giving him ML experience was worthwhile. However, we could also argue that the Yankees were using him in that situation to fill a role.

  15. I think we can make the argument that what was done to Righetti is worse than what was done to Chamberlain. While Joba certainly didn’t fail enough to be moved out of the rotation, Righetti was clearly a valuable and proven starter and moving him to the bullpen–even to fill a role–after that is just criminal.

  16. Yank the Frank says:

    I remember Rags as a reliever. It was horrible. No lead was safe, he would walk everybody. I’m getting a stomach ache thinking about the bad George days of the eighties.

    • Nickel says:

      For some reason, this game sticks out in my head.

      http://www.baseball-reference......6200.shtml

      • James says:

        Nice little 4 – 6 for Mattingly there…

      • Cult of Basebaal says:

        I remember that game distinctly, because after Righetti got a new ball after serving up the grand slam, he turned and threw the new ball over the CF fence.

        From the mound.

        Flat footed.

        What’s also great about that game is that it marks the turning point of the 86 season for Righetti.

        After that Toronto game he’d go:

        43games 30saves 1.34ERA .531OPS against

        En route to setting the MLB record for saves in a season with 46.

        He was different pitcher for the rest of that year …

    • MikeD says:

      I think your memory is a little weak! He was better built to be a starter, but he was a solid reliever, but certainly not in the Gossage or Rivera class. I get a stomach ache thinking they made him a closer instead of leaving him as a starter. Totally shortened his career. Oh, well.

  17. And now I’ve got that “Rags to Riches” song from the beginning of GoodFellas stuck in my head now. Damn you, Kabak.

  18. murakami says:

    Apt comparison, one I have been making since the Joba nonsense began, culminating absurdly in blowhard Eiland’s absolutist declaration that Chamberlain, 24 at the time, will “never” be a starter.

    I hope cases like Morrow and SF’s Bumgarner will convince Cashman – who is after all, in charge, and who may be slightly less vaudeville but has been doing a great impression of the man he was supposedly oppressed by, George Steinbrenner, who was blamed for forcing Randy Johnson on him – that a modicum of patience with a young, talented arm may pay eventually pay off, even if it’s too late for Chamberlain, who is out of options.

  19. Bill Chuck says:

    Really nicely written piece

  20. Crosetti32 says:

    Good piece…and with the passing of Clyde King, brings back memories of being a Yankee fan in the 80′s. Man, that was a tough decade; I think I’m still working off that angst from those days. Fire Yogi after 16 games? I’m still not over that one.

  21. dkla says:

    great piece

    and young rags looks like andrew mccarthy

  22. lordbyron says:

    Rags as a closer – what a waste!

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