Plan F: The Jimmy Key Story

Biz Hits: The Yanks stink; Madonna and soccer in the Bronx
When Prospects Bust: Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens
(AP)

Getting spurned by big name free agents isn’t a familiar feeling for Yankees fans, which is why the Cliff Lee decision last winter was so disappointing. We’d grown accustomed to the Yankees just getting whoever they wanted, and that was a shock to the system. Being told no by Lee was nothing compared to what happened two decades ago, however.

The 1992-1993 offseason was highlighted by a pair of in-their-prime superstar free agents: 28-year-old reigning NL MVP Barry Bonds and 26-year-old reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux. The Yankees wanted both, and started the winter by offering Bonds a five-year, $36M contract that would have made him the highest paid player in baseball. Then-GM Gene Michael made the offer the Monday before the winter meetings, but he gave Bonds and agent Dennis Gilbert just two days to accept. When they asked for a sixth guaranteed year, Michael broke off negotiations.

“We wanted him and now it’s off,” said Michael. “We’re going for pitching. Maybe it’s the right thing to do. We will not have Barry Bonds with a sixth year … We have to draw the line somewhere. I have no regrets saying we did not offer him a sixth year. We offered him a fantastic contract for five years. We really went out of our way to make a nice offer.”

The day after making the offer to Bonds, Michael met with Scott Boras about Maddux and presented a standing five-year, $34M contract offer. Maddux was their true number one target that offseason.

“If we are going to step out, we’re going to step out for this guy,” said Michael. “He’s the best pitcher available, and he knows our offer is serious … There is no scare in this kid.”

A few days later, Bonds got his guaranteed sixth year from the Giants and headed to San Francisco for $43.75M. Boras was seeking $7M annually for Maddux, saying “if you’re the Cy Young Award winner and the most durable pitcher in baseball, you deserve the premium salary.” The right-hander had thrown 260+ innings in each of the previous two seasons and 235+ innings in each of the previous five seasons.

Maddux visited the New York area with his wife in early-December, and Michael showed them around New Jersey. The Yankees had acquired Jim Abbott from the Angels for three young players — Russ Springer, J.T. Snow, and Jerry Nielsen — earlier in the week, a move that reportedly impressed Maddux and seemed to boost the Yankees chances of signing him. Ultimately, it did not. A few days later, Greg Maddux was a Brave, taking less money to go to Atlanta and remain in the National League.

“This one hurts,” said Michael. “He’s the best one out there. I never thought I could say this, but he’s a steal at [five years and $28M]. He’s a steal … It’s not over yet for us. We’ll do some things.”

The Yankees had multiple irons in the fire all winter, so Michael turned to Plans C, D, and E after being jilted by his top two free agent targets. He’d offered David Cone a three-year deal worth $17M earlier in the offseason, but the 29-year-old right-hander went home to the Royals for three years and $18M. Doug Drabek and Jose Guzman signed with the Astros and Cubs after being extended offered from the Yankees. Plans C through E were now off the table as well.

While Michael was busy dealing with Bonds, Maddux, Cone, et al., then-managing partner Joe Molloy was serving as the team’s chief negotiator with free agent lefty Jimmy Key. Key was 31 at the time and had a bit of an injury history, but like Cone he had been an All-Star and won a World Series with the Blue Jays the year before. His wife Cindy was his agent, and the two were on vacation when they accepted the Yankees’ four-year, $17M proposal a few days after Maddux headed to Atlanta.

“You can’t dwell on Bonds or Maddux or Cone,” said then-manager Buck Showalter. “I’m excited about getting a player of [Key’s] background and with his track record coming to New York … As important as that is, I’m excited that he wanted to come to play in New York.”

Since the signing was brokered by Molloy, questions about Michael’s job security arose. George Steinbrenner had been banned from the team’s day-to-day management two years earlier by commissioner Fay Vincent for the Dave Winfield fiasco, so Molloy was left to answer questions about who was running the team.

“[Michael is] an excellent general manager … As long as I’m the general partner, Gene should feel confident in his job as the general manager,” said Molloy. “That’s not to say if I get upset with Gene, I won’t fire him either.”

Key joined Abbott in the 1993 rotation, which also included holdovers Melido Perez and Scott Kamieniecki. He was the Yankees best pitcher in 1993 and 1994 (3.11 ERA in 404.2 IP), but he got hurt in 1995 and managed just five starts. Key returned in 1996 and wasn’t as effective as he had been in the past, but he did help the club to the World Series. He got the ball in the deciding Game Six of the Fall Classic, and outpitched Maddux to give the Yankees their first title in 18 years. Not bad for a guy that was Plan F.

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Biz Hits: The Yanks stink; Madonna and soccer in the Bronx
When Prospects Bust: Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens
  • Jimmy McNulty

    “What is he like 45?”

  • Plank

    19 years later and I still want to sign Bonds.

  • Darren

    The 1993 team is my favorite Yankees team. For the first time in forever we actually were competitive. Getting Jimmy Key was a huge move for us. He was our first ace since Guidry 6 or 7 years earlier.

    The Mel Hall 3 run HR on Memorial Day against Jeff Reardon; staying in the race til Septemeber. The Mike Stanely back from the dead game (after he seemingly fouled out to end the game, it turned out that the umps had called time – he got another chance, got a hit and the Yanks rallied to win. Best moment ever.)

    Hell, we even made a trade for Frank tanana in Sept to help with our “playoff run”. Fun, fun times.

    Jimmy Key has a much bigger place in Yankees history than people realize.

    • Plank

      I’m guessing Mel Hall wishes he was back in 1993 instead of whatever hell he’s in now.

    • http://www.pinstripealley.com Andrew GM

      The “Mel Hall” game was ’91, not ’93.

      • Darren

        Thank you for correcting me, I mis-remembered that one. I guess the Mel Hall HR was one of the only bright spots in ’91. Still loved the vibe in ’93 where we finally climbe dout of the darkness. Key was a huge part of that, along with Boggs and O’Neill, with Buck and Stick being the biggest factors.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      The emergence from 93-95 was a lot of fun.

    • WayneD

      You’re 100% right, Darren. Jimmy Key was, indeed, a key player on the Yankee teams on which he pitched when he was healthy.

      It’s truly a shame that he wasn’t healthy throughout his entire career, because he was an absolute master at setting up hitters, working the corners, and constantly changing the batter’s eye level.

      He probably didn’t throw any harder, on average, than 87-91 mph, yet he consistently made the best hitters in baseball look like inept fools. God, it was a pleasure to watch him pitch; he was an Einstein on the pitcher’s mound. He truly knew how to pitch and how to deceive hitters. I don’t think I ever missed one his starts as a Yankee.

      If Jimmy or any one that knows him sees this and other posts from thankful Yankee fans, please pass on to him how much we appreciate him and admire what he did for the Yankees.

    • Urban

      Loved Key. Was very happy when they signed him. Those were the early days of Gene Michael rebuilding the Yankees, both on the MLB and minor league levels. Those were also the days when getting players to come to the Yankees was very difficult. The team sucked and players were afraid of the George Steinbrenner culture. How much about to change a very few short years.

  • jsbrendog

    Jimmy Key was my favorite Yankee in 95 after Donnie. I went to a game that year with a giant oaktag sign with Key baseball cards glued to it with “Where’s the missing Key?” written on it. Oh, 11 year old me, so clever.

    • Thomas

      OAKTAG!!!!

      • jsbrendog

        ietcvm

    • http://Twitter.com/Jmarlowescully Scully

      Key and Mattingly were always my first and second favorite Yankees pre-1996…. Melido Perez was my last. Man, he sucked (and the stats back it up).

      • Boomer’s Boy

        Yeah but he did pick some off, through his legs…

        • Dale Mohorcic

          You might be confusing melido and pascual. Melido was pretty good in 91 and 92. Pascual was not good and picked off guys between his legs. And the Yankees best jheri curl ever.

          • Urban

            He was quite good the two prior years and only 27. Looks like he might have injured his arm. His fall off was quite rapid. I don’t remember him being a headcase. That was Pasqual.

            A rotation of Key, Abbott and Perez was not a bad lead three at all considering all were coming off fine seasons, and Scott Kamieniecki was more than serviceable as a back-end pitcher.

            A few other random observations. They should have given Bonds that sixth year! And, yes, Malloy was right. Michael was a fine GM and thankfully didn’t have to worry about his job.

  • j6takish

    Bonds WAR in that would be sixth year, 8.8 which just so happened to 1998. Oh what could have been

    • Rockdog

      Yea, but Bonds did it in the NL, not the AL East. AL East equivalent WAR is around 3.

      (/jk)

    • CJ

      Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, Bonds and Maddux may not have done much to help the Yanks during their contract. 94 strike season 96 WC 97 Mariano. 1998 125 win WC. how much better could they have done? And the team was in place to win 99, 2000.

      • Plank

        Assuming 1996 onward couldn’t have gone any better and there was no postseason in 1994, the only years they could have positively effected the outcome of the seasons were 1993 (combined 16.8 bWAR) and 1995 (16.1 bWAR)

        I’d say it’s pretty clear it was a mistake not to sign them (even though they tried.)

  • viridiana

    Signing Jimmy Key was an enormously important move. Apart from helping to launch the dynasty in 96, Key was also a major figure on the 1994 team that was in first place in early August when the season was ended by strike. Yankee hater Bud Selig further cemented his credentials that year by denying teams that led their divisions any formal recognition (the Expos were also famously screwed). Key anchored the staff on a team building towards dominance. And just by signing when he did, he erased any notions that Yanks had fallen so far they could no longer lure top free agent talent. Thanks very much for doing this piece on a truly great Yankee who is often overlooked.

  • mike

    i remember the biggest impression Key made was the ability to throw STRIKE ONE.

    i recall watching a game with my Dad at the time and being alomst in shock that a Yankee pitcher was throwing strike one and getting ahead of the batter – after Wade Taylor, Kami, Hawkins, Melido used to make everyone crazy by not challenging batters, burning thru pitch counts and making the fans crazy

    Between Key, Abbott and Farr, it was nice to have professional pitchers who, despite not having great stuff, were able to pitch relatively effectively after those few years of hunger

    • jsbrendog

      but what i really miss is pascual perez’s jheri curl…

      • Mister Delaware

        [turns around, bends over, gives you a big thumbs up through the legs]

  • Preston

    It’s a really, really good FA class when adding Jimmy Key and Wade Boggs was missing on your top guys.

    • mike

      true dat….but both came with huge question marks, and were not “no brainers” at the time.

      Boggs was signed only because the Yanks screwed the pooch and let Hayes go in the expansion draft, and actually made moves to try to get him back after realizing their misstake.

      I remember the Yanks almost being shut out that year from Key as well, the thinking being the yanks would have to overpay to get him to come to NY even though they were bidding against themselves when everyone else signed-. and the biggest surprise was not Maddux, but rather Cone, as his supposed love of NY and the $ would make it a no-brainer for him to be a Yankee. When KC put the big number out there, it was a surprise to everyone.

      Even in 1994 ( Key’s second year) while he was still pitching well, he was beginning to show signs of strain right before the strike hit, and i remember thinking the innings / effort totals of the past two years were beginning to catch up to him as promised.

      in retrospect, two terrific signings, but they were not part of a grand plan to get these specific quality veterans/stars to NY as history would like us to remember

  • Robinson Tilapia

    Watching Jimmy Key pitch gave us a hell of a lot of hope that this franchise was going to turn things around. Darren is right: His place is Yankee history is often forgotten.

    The more mentions of Wade Taylor, Clay Parker, Jeff Johnson, and Chuck Cary on this blog, the better.

  • UncleArgyle

    Jimmy Key is still one of my all time favorites. Talk about a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium. The 1994 strike was a total shame. Key had 18 victories when it hit, and he was virtually unhittable in his last few starts that year. He was looking at a 21-23 win season.

  • CJ

    I remember following that offseason in WFAN. Imagine if the Internet and RAB were around when the Yankees were shopping for Bonds and Maddux then missing out on both.

    • oscar

      yeah i remember following this stuff by actually reading newspapers! that was an exciting off-season

  • aaaa

    More like plan I instead. Key was 9th on there pitching list that off season.

  • https://twitter.com/Mattpat11 Matt DiBari

    My father always said Jimmy Key (and Wade Boggs) made it ;cool” to be a Yankee again after so many years of mediocrity.

  • http://jukeofurl.wordpress.com Juke Early

    Jimmy Key was a terrific pitcher. But I recall all too well the NYY attempts to sign the tandem of Maddux & Bonds. Amidst the heavy rumor Maddux’s Southern Belle wife would never live in NYC (proved true), Stick Michaels played hardball & dissed Bonds over one lousy year. That is the historical moment I always reference when morons say ” Yankees always get all the best players.” Yeah, right. Like Curt Schilling. And Cliff Lee.

    Luckily a few years later, A Yankee Dynasty -The Next Generation began. It would’ve started sooner with a huge bang if they got Barry Bonds & Greg Maddux.

    • Urban

      Really, but how much sooner? The Yankees were a very strong team in 1994. All the pieces weren’t in place yet for the ’96 team, but the ’94 team might very well have been heading toward a World Series with the Expos. On paper the Expos were better, just like the ’96 Braves were also supposedly better than the Yankees, but we know how that turned out. If not for the strike, we might view that dynasty beginning in ’94, not ’96, with Bernie and Paul leading the early way.

      • JAG

        Yes, but if the dynasty starts earlier, who’s to say the young skinny shortstop who’s not quite ready doesn’t get sacrificed in a trade to improve the 1995 team? Or the former 2nd baseman who is still learning to catch? Or the 24-year-old starter from Panama who doesn’t have a 3rd pitch (or even really a 2nd one)?

        Different might be better, but I have to say I like how things turned out.

        • oscar

          well said

        • aluis

          +11111111

        • Urban

          Most true. I would not change any player moves from the 90s, adding or subtracting, because the mix worked as well as could be. And, yes, a World Series in ’94 followed by an early exit in ’95 might have caused Steinbrenner to overreact, and Rivera and Jeter might have been traded.

  • Elmgrovegnome

    Jimmy Key was one of my all time favorite baseball players…Even before the Yankees signed him. I was estactic when they got him.

    He was always fun to watch and his skill/knowledge of the game was only rivaled by his humility and integrity.