The worst Yankees team of our lifetimes

The Tragic Tale of Steve Howe
Four Yanks on Kevin Goldstein's top 101 prospects list

The phrase “the dark ages” covers a little more than a decade of modern Yankees’ history, from 1982 through 1993. While there were some decent teams during that period, we tend to lump the postseason-less years into one big era. Yet there is a great difference between the 1985 team, which won 97 games and missed the playoffs, and the teams that came came later. It seems as though the Yankees steadily declined during that period, trimming a few wins off their total every year. The worst came at the end of the decade.

It’s unsurprising that the 1989 Yankees won only 74 games, 11 fewer than the ’88 team. Dave Winfield, an offensive force on the ’88 team, was out for the season. The only young pitcher to show any real promise, Al Leiter, has just been traded away. Rickey Henderson had been traded back to Oakland. The pitching staff in general was a shambles. Yet that wasn’t the worst of it. No, the Yankees had yet to bottom out. That would come one year later, in 1990.

Only two of the Yankees regulars produced above-average offensive numbers that year. Jesse Barfield, in his first full pinstriped season, was by far and wide the team’s best player that year. He hit .246/.359/.456, a 127 OPS+. The only player with better rate stats that season was Kevin Maas, who, after being called up mid-season, hit his first 10 home runs faster than anyone in MLB history (and I have the commemorative baseball card to prove it). But he came to the plate only 300 times. It was Barfield’s team, which is indicator No. 1 that they were going to be really bad.

This was the year that Don Mattingly’s back issues came to the fore. From 1984 through 1989 he’d played in at least 141 games every year. In ’90 he was limited to just 102 games, and he posted by far the worst numbers of his career. This was also the year that the Yankees gave Alvaro Espinosa 472 PA; he rewarded them with a 50 OPS+. Bob Geren wasn’t much better. After impressing the Yankees in ’89, he floundered in his first full season, producing a 63 OPS+. Remember, Geren’s limp noodle bat is one reason they went out and acquired Matt Nokes.

There was some youthful spirit on the 1990 team, but none of the players would work out particularly well — and none of the under-25 crowd worked out for the Yankees. That crew included Oscar Azocar, whose MLB career consisted of 460 PA; Roberto Kelly, who was the only starter other than Barfield to produce above-average numbers; the aforementioned Maas, who provided some longball excitement; Deion Sanders, whom they’d release that September; Hensley Meulens, who performed well enough in a cup of coffee but would never meet expectations; and Mike Blowers, whose career as a part-time player didn’t take off until the Yanks traded him to Seattle.

The pitching, on the other hand, was a collection of recycled veterans. All five starters who made double-digit starts that season were right around 30 years old. Only two pitchers aged 25 or younger made even one start for the Yankees that season: Dave Eiland and Steve Adkins. Neither was much to dream on. It would be another year before the Yankees’ farm system produced the hype of Wade Taylor and Jeff Johnson, and two before we were introduced to Sam Militello and Sterling Hitchcock. The staff in 1990 wasn’t so much bad as it was bland; they did manage to finish with a 95 ERA+.

All told, the Yankees managed to win just 67 games that year, finishing last not only in the AL East, but the AL overall. That netted them the No. 1 overall pick in the 1991 draft. We all know that story. But that’s not the most striking part about the 1990 Yankees.

I had originally titled this article “The worst team of my lifetime,” because that was my perspective of it. From the end of the ’80s, during my years as a budding baseball fan, through the present, they had never won fewer games. But that really doesn’t cover the whole issue. Before 1990, the last time any Yankees team won fewer than 67 games was in 1918, when they won 60 games. Of course, they lost only 63 games that season, so that’s not very good for perspective. The last Yankees team to produce a win percentage below .414 was the 1913 Yankees — yes the first year they were called the Yankees. That team, along with the 1912 and 1908 Highlanders and the 1902 Baltimore Orioles, join the 1990 Yankees as the worst in franchise history.

Still, the Yankees went a long way between historically bad seasons. If they can manage another 77 seasons between, we won’t see another .414 win-percentage team until 2067. I think we can handle that.

The Tragic Tale of Steve Howe
Four Yanks on Kevin Goldstein's top 101 prospects list
  • Adam

    I think there should be a link to this article available in every game thread in the upcoming season that the Yankees are losing and/or are not getting hits with RISP.

    • Kiko Jones

      Yes, let’s title it “The Sad Sack’s ‘It Could Be Worse’ Consolation Link”. Ugh. I mean, I hate when people go to the ledge unnecessarily, but a conformist attitude is just as bad. Of course, it could always be worse and we should be grateful to root for a team that’s invariably in the playoffs, but an under-performing team should not be coddled, either.

      Btw, liked the article, Joe.

      • Joe Pawlikowski

        Thanks. And I agree with your sentiment. The 2012 team comes with a completely different set of expectations than the 1990 team. I don’t think anyone thought they were winning with Tim Leary heading the rotation.

  • G

    Worst team of my lifetime was 2008.

    I feel blessed.

    • YankeesIslesGiantsNets101

      me too :)

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Read the above article you just commented on. That’s the same franchise you root for. I hope 2008 continues to be the nadir of your Yankee fandom.

      • Thomas Cassidy

        Maybe he wasn’t born in 1990 yet.

        • G

          Yeah, ’94. I can’t tell if he was trying to be a smartass and imply that I didn’t read the article or if he was just pointing out what I didn’t have to suffer through.

          • Thomas Cassidy

            Well, the 1994 Yankees weren’t in the playoffs either! The worst Yankee team in my lifetime was 2004. It isn’t because of the ALCS, either. It’s a miracle they even made the playoffs with that staff.

  • Fernando

    +1. Agreed, this has been a welcome chance to fill in the slow news stretch. It’s also been great to read articles/comments that have nothing to do with Jesus Montero. Yes, I know I just mentioned him, but it’s good to get a break.

    • Fernando

      Odd, I posted this under the Steve Howe article and it is showing up here.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    Yup. My beloved Stump Merrill All-Stars, a team so bad that I looked forward to Chuck Cary starts. A team full of names you forgot existed by the time the end of the decade rolled around (what DID happen to Jeff Johnson anyway?).

    Know what, though? We lived through it, it made 1996 that much sweeter, and it makes you appreciate every year the team falls a bit short that much more.

    For that reason, I love my 1990 and 1991 Yankees.

  • Ro

    Oof. 89 and 90. Steve Balboni and his .190 average. For whatever reason, I loved when he hit one into the seats..

    • Ro

      ..and I still have 381 Kevin Maas rookie cards. I didn’t think it was humanly possible, but somehow I managed to acquire every single one ever printed :)

  • vin

    When I was growing up, Alvaro Espinosa and Ricky Henderson were my two favorite players. Talk about different ends of the spectrum…

    • Jimmy

      You have to root for someone on your team even if its winning only 67 games. Alvaro Espinoza was one of the fun guys to root for on that team, even if he was awful.

    • CMP

      Espinoza was pretty smooth in the field.

      The only 4 players I can recall watching just to see them play the field were Graig Nettles, Espinoza, Ozzie Smith and Gary Pettis (after I became an Angels fan when the Yankees let Reggie Jackson leave)

  • CMP

    Meulens and Maas were supposed to be the new M&M boys with a rotation anchored by youngsters Johnson, Taylor and Scott Kamieniecki.

    Didn’t exactly work out as planned.

  • Just Nod If You Can Hear Me

    1990 for me, particularly after the Andy Hawkins no-hitter that the Yanks managed to lose 4-0, was the year that sticks out to me. Unwatchable, bereft of hope, laughable…that was the ultimate test of fan loyalty.

    Just utter the words “Stump Merrill” and I actually get an involuntary shiver.

  • Paul VuvuZuvella

    Read Title, skipped article…want to stick with positive thoughts ;)

  • kenthadley

    You guys missed out on all the fun of the 1966-1968 Yankees. They were worse. I think the 1968 team hit .214, and most games were 5 or 6 hitters. Probably the most bored I was with baseball since I started watching them in 57. Mantle was at the end of the line, and really the only reason to watch the team after May. In my mind, it was tougher to watch these teams than the ones mentioned above, regardless of the overall records.

    • ColoYank

      Thank you, Kent. Reading the post, I was shaking my head. I started rooting for the Yanks in ’66, and my fanship survived even that. It was awful. Mantle was at least still a competent hitter, patched-together as he was. Berra, Ford, Maris, Howard, Boyer, Tresh – all got old and over the hill all at once. Mel Stottlemyre lost 20 games, f’rrevensakes.

      You’re right about 1968, the Year of the Infield Popup. The Yanks did hit .214 that year, dead last in the league, but won more games than they lost.

      • kenthadley

        Waiting for Steve Whitaker, Roger Repoz, Bill Robinson, and Jake Gibbs to hit over .220 took an eternity. Dan Topping stuck CBS with a team for which he signed no talent to save money over the previous several years, and consequently there was nothing to fill in the aging stars. Of course, we got Charlie Smith for Roger Maris….. It wasn’t until George bought them in 73 before they became watchable again.

      • Professor Longnose

        What was your attitude in ’66? That the Yanks had been great and would be again, or that you were rooting for the underdog?

        I started rooting for the Yanks in ’73, when they were the second team in town.

        • kenthadley

          It was really disappointing seeing once great players, and heroes of mine as a kid, all become lousy at the end. Elston, Richardson, Mantle, Maris, Tresh, Ford, Bouton, Kubek, etc all went down at the same time. The team PR tried to sell some of the names above as the new stars, but in hindsight there really was no hope and no talent coming. Murcer, White and Munson eventually formed the new core, but they really weren’t ready until about 1970 and weren’t enought to carry the team. It was a hopeless feeling for many years…even when they had a better than .500 team you knew they didn’t have enough to be champs. It didn’t change until Catfish, Nettles, and Chamblis were added to the core in the mid 70’s. In fact if you look at ALL of the NY teams in the mid sixties, you’d see that there wasn’t much to root for. Probably the worst time for NY sports was 65 to 67.

          • Juke Early

            I feel you brother. Considering the sad short-lived NYY career of Kent Hadley, it must have been worse for you than me. But the years 1964-73 were the worst, watching Mickey Mantle succumb to all his injuries & excesses. And the Yankees grow feet of clay.

            It’s why I resent all the anti-Yankee hate from contemporary MLB fans, as if we didn’t have some hard times too. Lack of historical perspective can be forgiven, not ignorance. When I was a kid I went back & read about the beginnings of baseball. While I was playing it every chance I could, sandlot & organized. The heated Boston rivalry was certainly in place, but it wasn’t filled with the mindless morons it is now. The Bronx is Burning Era is what started all the nasty with those drunken fools & their monosyllabic lack of creativity. Boston couldn’t stand that the NYY had started to kick their asses again.

            Yankees don’t get all the great players or even the best available. In fact in the same way FA don’t drool at the thought of Pittsburgh or KC, the inverse happens when some player’s bias or fear has them avoid NYC.And, as always, the games are not played on paper i.e. the 2011 “Greatest Team Ever” Red Sox. That pre-season anointing they got turned into the Mark of Cain — no fans deserved it more.

  • moonimus

    Every cloud has a silver lining! Scott Sanderson throws opening day one hitters in consecutive seasons! My brother and I talk about the Yankee scrubs of the late 80s as if we were competing for cub scout badges. These last week of posts have brought them to the forefront again. Cecilio Guante! Dave LaPoint! Didn’t Hawkins take a no hitter into the 11th or 12th and still lose?

  • Professor Longnose

    My personal highlight of the dark years:

    In 1986, I started a new job and met a few baseball fans. We decided to go to a Yankee game. We picked a game in September and ordered tickets. By the time the game rolled around, the Yankees weren’t in contention, but the Mets were steamrolling through the NL East. On the day of the game, a Mets win would clinch the division.

    One of the guys I was going to the game with was a Baltimore Orioles fan who thought George Steinbrenner was a classless jerk. He was following the Mets on the scoreboard and kept telling me that the Yankees weren’t showing the score on the scoreboard often enough because they were embarrassed about the Mets. He mouthed off about it through the game–until the Mets game ended, and the Yankee Stadium scoreboard popped up with a full linescore of the game, a message congratulating the Mets on their division title, and an offer for free tickets for everyone in the Stadium for another Yankee game during the final weekend of the year, just for coming out to see the Yankees on the night the Mets clinched their division title.

    I’m still friends with that guy. He’s a really nice guy, actually, but I might not have been able to find that out if George Steinbrenner hadn’t shut him up completely on the subject of how classless the Yankees were.

  • dc1874

    One good thing about the old days when the Yanks were bad…you could sneak down to the best seats in the house and the ushers could care less!!!

  • Nick

    I had no idea Dave Eiland ever started for the Yankees

  • MattNC

    The Yankees were mostly known as the “Yankees” starting in 1907. The “Highlander” nickname was actually seldom used. The official name of the team was “The American League Base-Ball Club of New York” from 1903 through at least the late 1940s. So the team “became the Yankees” in 1907.

  • Joe Lupo

    This video sums up the Yankees attendance back then

  • Kevin G.

    Couldn’t agree more. That ’90 team was far and away the worst team of my lifetime.

    @ moonimus – Hawkins actually completed the no-hitter and lost, but it was only an 8 inning no-hitter b/c they were on the road in Chicago. Leyritz dropped a fly ball with the bases loaded in the 8th innning leading to 3 runs. Barfield also dropped a ball leading to a 4th run and they lost 4-0. It pretty much summed up the season. MLB actually changed the rules so that its impossible to lose a no-no now. You have to pitch at least 9 innings and complete the game in order to be credited with one.