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.