The Unsung Heroes of the 1996 Postseason

Lloyd. (Getty)
Lloyd. (Getty)

The 1996 World Series was the first Yankees championship of my lifetime, and my lasting memories of that October will be Jeffrey Maier, Jim Leyritz’s homer, Andy Pettitte out-dueling John Smoltz, Joe Girardi‘s triple, and Charlie Hayes squeezing his glove in foul territory. Those were the major “holy crap” moments.

The Yankees got contributions from up and down the roster that postseason, including some from unexpected sources. Every team needs a few unsung heroes to win a title and the 1996 Yankees were no different. Three players in particular came up big throughout the 1996 postseason. In this post, we’re going to remember those unsung heroes.

Wade Boggs

It’s odd to call a Hall of Famer an unsung hero, especially after Boggs hit .311/.389/.389 (98 OPS+) during the regular season, but the Chicken Man was not at his best in October. The 38-year-old struggled mightily in the ALDS and ALCS: he went 3-for-27 (.111) in the nine games, including a hard to believe 0-for-22 stretch at one point.

The struggles got so bad that Boggs didn’t even start Games Three, Four, and Five of the World Series. Joe Torre went with Charlie Hayes at third base. Boggs still came off the bench to make a significant contribution in Game Four, however. After Leyritz tied the game with his home run off Mark Wohlers, Game Four went to extra innings. The Yankees rallied for the win in the tenth.

That tenth inning rally started with two outs. Steve Avery, who was in the Braves bullpen for the postseason, quickly retired Leyritz and Graeme Lloyd on ground outs. (Lloyd batted for himself because John Wetteland was the only reliever left in the bullpen, and Torre was saving him for the save situation. Whatevs.) Tim Raines followed with a walk and Derek Jeter with a ground ball single to put runners at first and second.

With Bernie Williams at the plate and the go-ahead run at second base, Braves skipper Bobby Cox opted to intentionally walk Williams and push the go-ahead run to third. Andy Fox was the cleanup hitter at the time because he had pinch-run for Cecil Fielder earlier in the game. Cox wanted Avery to face Fox in that situation, not Bernie. Which I guess makes sense. Except Torre had an ace in the hole.

Cox is not stupid, he knew Boggs would pinch-hit, but he was more comfortable with Avery facing Boggs with the bases loaded than Avery facing Bernie with runners on first and second. Not sure I agree with giving a pitcher so little margin for error in a huge spot (Boggs’ OBP > Bernie’s AVG), but it doesn’t matter what I think. Boggs pinch-hit for Fox and worked a go-ahead bases loaded walk to give the Yankees the lead. He fell behind in the count one ball and two strikes before battling back for the walk.

“My belief is, you’d better have some big guts in this game. If you can’t do that as a manager, you won’t go very far. You can’t ever be afraid to do those things,” said Cox to reporters after the game when asked about the intentional walk to load the bases and put the go-ahead run at third. “I wasn’t afraid to walk Bernie Williams. And I wasn’t afraid with Avery. I know that Steve — blindfolded — could throw strikes. It just didn’t happen.”

The Yankees tacked on an insurance run when Ryan Klesko dropped a soft line drive, but by that point the damage had been done. The team had rallied with two outs and Boggs drove in the go-ahead run with a bases loaded pinch-walk. He had an awful postseason overall, but that one at-bat atoned for it all. Boggs came off the bench and came up huge with the game on the line.

Graeme Lloyd

Back in 1996, lefty specialists were not really a thing. A few teams had them but they were not widespread yet. The Yankees had picked up Lloyd from the Brewers in a fairly significant August waiver trade. They sent Bob Wickman and Gerald Williams, who were on the big league roster all season, to Milwaukee for Lloyd, Ricky Bones, and Pat Listach. Listach was sent back to the Brewers because of a pre-existing injury and the Yankees received shortstop prospect Gabby Martinez instead. Lloyd himself had elbow problems at the time of the trade.

Lloyd had been very good for the Brewers that year, pitching to a 2.82 ERA (185 ERA+) in 51 innings. He was not a lefty specialist, but he got hammered with the Yankees during the regular season (eleven runs and 17 base-runners in 5.2 innings), so he was relegated to mostly mop-up duty and left-on-left matchup work during the postseason. And Lloyd dominated. His October numbers: 5.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K in eight appearances.

Lloyd faced ten left-handed batters in the postseason and they went 1-for-9 with two strikeouts. Only two hit the ball out of the infield. By the World Series, Torre had developed such trust in Lloyd that he did the unthinkable: he pulled Mariano Rivera from the game in the middle of an inning to get a left-on-left matchup with Lloyd. And he did it twice. In Game Three, Torre pulled Rivera with a runner on first and one out in the eighth inning. The Yankees were up 5-2 and Lloyd got Fred McGriff to fly out and Ryan Klesko to strike out.

Then, in Game Four, Torre pulled Rivera with runners at first and second and one out in the bottom of the ninth. The score was tied 6-6 and the middle of the Atlanta lineup was due up. Mo had thrown 26 pitches in 1.1 innings up to that point and I remember thinking Torre was absolutely insane for pulling him for Lloyd. Then this happened:

“It’s been rough for Lloyd,” said Torre after the game. “All of a sudden he’s being booed, and nobody’s saying anything nice about Bob Watson. Just a lot of garbage. He made the trade, and all of a sudden, Graeme Lloyd is one of our most valuable people.”

“With Milwaukee I had one of my best years, then I was traded and everything hit the fan,” added Lloyd. “It was a tough time for me, and I’ve gotten through that. I’ve looked at these playoffs and the World Series like a clean slate.”

If the Yankees and Watson — then the GM — had gotten their way, Lloyd wouldn’t even have been in the organization for the postseason. The team learned about his elbow woes after the trade and appealed to MLB to rescind the deal. The league refused. The Yankees had traded their fourth outfielder (Williams) and a reliable middle reliever (Wickman) for what amounted to a lefty specialist with a damaged arm. And it worked beautifully.

David Weathers

Rotation depth was a bit of a concern for the Yankees in 1996, especially so after David Cone went down with his aneurysm. At the trade deadline the club made what amounted to a change of scenery swap with the Marlins: 26-year-old righty Mark Hutton was traded to Florida for 26-year-old righty David Weathers. Hutton had 5.04 ERA (100 ERA+) at the time of the trade. Weathers had a 4.54 ERA (90 ERA+). (Park factors, man.)

Weathers made four spot starts and seven relief appearances in pinstripes after the trade, somehow totaling only 17.1 innings. He had a 9.35 ERA (54 ERA+) in those 17.1 innings and walked more batters than he struck out (13 BB and 12 K). Weathers also made three starts with Triple-A Columbus. He actually pitched quite well as a short reliever in September (one run in seven innings) and made the postseason roster. In October, he seemed to specialize in cleaning up after Kenny Rogers.

Series Date Tm Opp Rslt Inngs IP H R ER BB SO BF Pit W.P.A.
ALDS g1 Oct 1 NYY TEX L,2-6 8-GF 2.0 0 0 0 0 2 6 21 0.017
ALDS g4 Oct 5 NYY @ TEX W,6-4 4-6 3.0 1 0 0 0 3 9 41 0.291
ALCS g2 Oct 10 NYY BAL L,3-5 9-GF 0.1 0 0 0 0 0 1 5 0.006
ALCS g4 Oct 12 NYY @ BAL W,8-4 4-6 2.2 3 0 0 0 0 11 45 0.133
WS g1 Oct 20 NYY ATL L,1-12 6-7 1.2 1 0 0 0 0 6 19 -0.001
WS g4 Oct 23 NYY @ ATL W,8-6 5-5 1.0 1 1 1 2 2 6 29 -0.013
WS g6 Oct 26 NYY ATL W,3-2 6-6 0.1 0 0 0 1 1 2 8 0.049
11.0 6 1 1 3 8 41 168 0.476

One run in eleven innings. Rogers started Game Four of the ALDS, ALCS, and World Series, and combined to allow eleven runs and 20 base-runners in seven innings. Weathers came out of the bullpen to replace him and allowed just one run in 6.2 innings. Amazingly, the Yankees won all three games, largely because Weathers came in and didn’t allow the other team to break the game open. His work in Game Four of the ALDS and ALCS was particularly awesome.

”(Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre) is the one who really pushed for us to get David Weathers,” said Torre to the New York Times. ”Mel liked his stuff from when Mel was Houston’s pitching coach the last two years. He felt Weathers could help us out in the bullpen. With my coaches, I trust what they say.”

To win the World Series you’re going to need some players to contribute unexpectedly, and both Lloyd and Weathers did just that. They weren’t even on the team on Opening Day. Boggs had a miserable postseason overall but came through in Game Four of the World Series with his pinch-walk. Without these three doing what they did in October, the Yankees aren’t world champs in 1996.

No Stars, No Scrubs: The 1996 Yankees Won With Depth

(New York Daily News)
(New York Daily News)

When we look back at the 1996 Yankees in another ten years, we might be looking at a team that had six Hall of Famers on the roster. Wade Boggs has already been inducted into Cooperstown, and both Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera will inevitably join him one day as well. Tim Raines and Andy Pettitte could get in too. Ditto Jorge Posada, who appeared in eight games throughout the 1998 season. (Mostly in September.)

The 1996 Yankees had, at the very least, three Hall of Famers and three others who deserve serious consideration for Cooperstown. And not one of them was in the prime of their career in 1996. Boggs and Raines were both 38 that season, and the other four guys were kids in their early-20s who had yet to play a full big league season and establish themselves at the MLB level.

The 1996 Yankees were not a team of stars. Their biggest name players at the time were David Cone, Jimmy Key, John Wetteland, Doc Gooden, Paul O’Neill, Kenny Rogers, Boggs, and Raines. Cecil Fielder and Darryl Strawberry joined the club at midseason. Bernie Williams was the only position player to reach 4.0 bWAR and he was at exactly 4.0 bWAR. Pettitte and Rivera were the only pitchers to eclipse 3.5 bWAR.

What the 1996 Yankees had was depth. There were good at everything. Offense, defense, pitching, base-running, they could do a little of everything. And that’s what you need to win the World Series. The magic formula is being good at everything, which is much easier said than done. The 1996 Yankees were good at everything.

The Offense

The Yankees had one below-average hitter in their lineup from Opening Day through Game 162: defense-first catcher Joe Girardi. At the very least, they were getting average production from every other position on the field by the end of the season.

Pos Name Age G PA H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS+
C Joe Girardi 31 124 471 124 22 3 2 45 13 4 30 55 .294 .346 .374 82
1B Tino Martinez* 28 155 671 174 28 0 25 117 2 1 68 85 .292 .364 .466 108
2B Mariano Duncan 33 109 417 136 34 3 8 56 4 3 9 77 .340 .352 .500 112
SS Derek Jeter 22 157 654 183 25 6 10 78 14 7 48 102 .314 .370 .430 101
3B Wade Boggs* 38 132 574 156 29 2 2 41 1 2 67 32 .311 .389 .389 98
LF Gerald Williams 29 99 258 63 15 4 5 30 7 8 15 39 .270 .319 .433 88
CF Bernie Williams# 27 143 641 168 26 7 29 102 17 4 82 72 .305 .391 .535 131
RF Paul O’Neill* 33 150 660 165 35 1 19 91 0 1 102 76 .302 .411 .474 123
DH Ruben Sierra# 30 96 407 93 17 1 11 52 1 3 40 58 .258 .327 .403 83

Ruben Sierra and Gerald Williams were replaced by Fielder (108 OPS+) and Strawberry (112 OPS+) at midseason. Raines (114 OPS+) often platooned with Williams anyway, though Williams picked up more total plate appearances in left field. Boggs did not hit for power but he hit for average and got on base. Even at age 38, the dude could hit.

With Fielder and Strawberry in tow, the Yankees went to the postseason with a quality hitter everywhere but behind the plate, and naturally both Girardi (triple in Game Six of the World Series) and Jim Leyritz (three-run homer in Game Four) had huge hits in October. Raines gave them a quality hitting tenth man, so to speak.

The 1996 Yankees had eight players with a 100 or better OPS+ (min. 200 plate appearances), the most in MLB. Boggs just missed making it nine. And yet, their team leader in OPS+ (Bernie) ranked only 31st out of 147 players who qualified for the batting title. Their second best hitter (O’Neill) ranked 47th.

The Yankees were not an offense reliant on one or two players. Superstars are good, but depth is important, and one through eight the 1996 club put together quality at-bats and produced. After adding Fielder and Strawberry, the Yankees scored the sixth most runs in baseball in the second half.

The Defense

There’s no great way to measure defense. Not even today. There are better ways today, but I wouldn’t consider any exact and only a handful are even close to reliable. For what it’s worth, the 1996 Yankees had nine players appear in 54+ games and post 0.0 defensive WAR or better, sixth most in MLB. That means they had nine average or better defenders (relative to their position) play at least one-third of the season. Their only really excruciatingly bad defender was Strawberry, from what I remember. Bernie and Jeter were adequate at that point of their careers. Maybe I’m completely off base here. Correct me if I’m wrong.

The Starters

The Yankees went into that 1996 season with two starters you could have considered sure things. They re-signed Cone and he was one. Rogers was the other — he signed a four-year contract after pitching to a 3.38 ERA (144 ERA+) in 208 innings with the 1995 Rangers. They were the guys Joe Torre was supposed to count on for innings.

The rest of the rotation was filled out by Pettitte, who made 26 starts in 1995, plus Gooden and Key. Doc did not pitch at all in 1995 due to a cocaine suspension and Key made only five starts due to injury. So the rotation was Cone, Rogers, the unproven Pettitte, and two bounceback candidates in Gooden and Key. I’m not sure how many people considered that a championship rotation heading into Spring Training.

Name Age W L ERA GS IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP BB9 SO9 SO/W
Andy Pettitte* 24 21 8 3.87 34 221.0 229 105 95 23 72 162 129 4.08 1.362 2.9 6.6 2.25
Kenny Rogers* 31 12 8 4.68 30 179.0 179 97 93 16 83 92 107 4.83 1.464 4.2 4.6 1.11
Dwight Gooden 31 11 7 5.01 29 170.2 169 101 95 19 88 126 100 4.85 1.506 4.6 6.6 1.43
Jimmy Key* 35 12 11 4.68 30 169.1 171 93 88 21 58 116 107 4.48 1.352 3.1 6.2 2.00
David Cone 33 7 2 2.88 11 72.0 50 25 23 3 34 71 175 3.24 1.167 4.3 8.9 2.09
Ramiro Mendoza 24 4 5 6.79 11 53.0 80 43 40 5 10 34 74 3.91 1.698 1.7 5.8 3.40

Cone, the team’s Opening Day starter was limited to eleven starts by the aneurysm in his armpit. One of those two sure things was gone. Mendoza picked up most of the slack with others like Scott Kamieniecki, Mark Hutton, Brian Boehringer, and David Weathers making spot starts along the way.

The top four starters — Pettitte, Rogers, Gooden, and Key — were all at least average in terms of runs allowed. (Remember when a 5.01 ERA equaled a 100 ERA+? I miss offense.) Cone was excellent in his brief time while Mendoza, who was just a rookie, was pretty crummy. The top four guys plus Cone gave the Yankees 812 innings that were above-average by an okay margin.

In fact, the Yankees got a 4.96 ERA from their starters in 1996, which sounds awful, but it was the sixth best in the league (!). Their 4.56 FIP was third. Adjusted for ballpark, that 4.96 ERA was almost exactly league average. There’s nothing sexy about average or a tick above, but when you have four regular starters like that, it equals wins.

The rotation did not look so overwhelming heading into the season and especially after Cone got hurt, but the top four starters consistently kept the Yankees in games in 1996. And, of course, once the postseason rolled around, Cone, Pettitte, and Key became the go-to guys. The pitching staff shrinks in October.

The Bullpen

Bullpen construction 20 years ago was way different than it is right now. Some teams were still sticking with six-man bullpens at the time, lefty specialists were still not a league-wide thing, and the idea of a designated setup man was still relatively new too. The 1996 Yankees basically had a two-man bullpen plus a bunch of other guys for emergencies.

Name Age ERA G SV IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
John Wetteland 29 2.83 62 43 63.2 54 23 20 9 21 69 178 3.83 1.178 1.3 3.0 9.8 3.29
Mariano Rivera 26 2.09 61 5 107.2 73 25 25 1 34 130 240 1.88 0.994 0.1 2.8 10.9 3.82
Bob Wickman 27 4.67 58 0 79.0 94 41 41 7 34 61 107 4.26 1.620 0.8 3.9 6.9 1.79
Jeff Nelson 29 4.36 73 2 74.1 75 38 36 6 36 91 115 3.31 1.493 0.7 4.4 11.0 2.53
Dale Polley* 30 7.89 32 0 21.2 23 20 19 5 11 14 64 6.82 1.569 2.1 4.6 5.8 1.27
Brian Boehringer 27 5.44 15 0 46.1 46 28 28 6 21 37 93 4.68 1.446 1.2 4.1 7.2 1.76
Jim Mecir 26 5.13 26 0 40.1 42 24 23 6 23 38 98 4.93 1.612 1.3 5.1 8.5 1.65
Mark Hutton 26 5.04 12 0 30.1 32 19 17 3 18 25 100 4.69 1.648 0.9 5.3 7.4 1.39
Dave Pavlas 33 2.35 16 1 23.0 23 7 6 0 7 18 216 2.65 1.304 0.0 2.7 7.0 2.57

Nine pitchers threw at least 20 relief innings for the Yankees in 1996, and only one (Polley) was left-handed. (Graeme Lloyd came over in August and threw only 5.2 regular season innings in pinstripes.)

Wetteland and Rivera were Torre’s go-to guys. If the Yankees were winning, Rivera entered the game when the starter exited, and he handed the ball off the Wetteland. If that meant Mo had to throw two or three innings, so be it. Relievers aren’t used like that much these days.

Wickman and Nelson were in the bullpen most of the season as well, and I remember calling them Torre’s “only when losing” relievers. When the Yankees were winning or tied in the late innings, it was Rivera and Wetteland. When they were trailing, it was Wickman and Nelson and everyone else. Come postseason team, Lloyd and Weathers in particular were fantastic middle men.

Thanks mostly to Rivera and Wetteland, New York’s bullpen had a 4.10 ERA and a 3.71 FIP in 1996. Both were the best marks in the AL. The bullpen — Rivera and Wetteland in particular — gave the Yankees the closest thing they’d get to star-caliber performance. They were simply pretty good at everything, and that’s the formula they rode to their first World Series title in 18 years.

The Return of Straw

(Getty)
(Getty)

I grew up in Brooklyn in a family of almost all Mets fans. I became a Yankees fan because of my grandfather. My grandparents used to watch me when I was a kid while my parents worked — they lived literally right next door, so it was pretty convenient — and I used to hang out and watch games with my grandfather, hence the Yankees fandom.

Even as a young Yankees fan, Darryl Strawberry was my favorite player growing up. My family took me to whole bunch of Mets games as a kid and Strawberry mashed a ton of dingers. I loved it. He was the man. Plus he had such a sweet swing:

Darryl Strawberry

*fans self*

Needless to say, I was thrilled when the Yankees picked Strawberry up in 1995. I didn’t really understand the severity of his off-the-field issues — he was suspended for cocaine use for the first half of the 1995 season — but I was glad my favorite player growing up was on my favorite team. It was awesome.

Strawberry became a free agent after that 1995 season and no team signed him. He instead had to head to an independent league and hope someone would grab him at midseason. With the St. Paul Saints in 1996, the then-34-year-old Strawberry hit .435/.538/1.000 with 18 home runs in 29 games. Yeah, he still had something left in the tank.

With Ruben Sierra not providing much thunder at DH and the Yankees lacking power in general, the team purchased Strawberry’s contract from the Saints on Independence Day in 1996. George Steinbrenner loved ex-stars and he was very willing to give players a second chance. The Boss was so willing to help that Strawberry’s signing bonus was paid directly to his ex-wife to cover his back child support.

“There have been a lot of questions about that, the bitterness of my ex-wife,” said Strawberry to Jason Diamos. “Everybody talks about the child support I owe her. They never give me credit for the $3.5 million dollars I’ve paid her … I came back because I can play. I’ve got money deferred. I would have been okay.”

After two quick tune-up games with Triple-A Columbus, Strawberry was back in the big leagues with the Yankees, joining them at midseason like he did a year earlier. (Except this time there was no cocaine suspension.) “Yes, I’m Darryl Strawberry. Yes, I’ve had a great deal of problems,” he said. “But I’ve also had a great deal of pride. I’m recovering. I’m moving my life forward … This might be my last opportunity. So be it. I’m not going to die if I don’t play baseball anymore.”

One of the reasons the Yankees were so great in the late-90s was the veteran players who produced in part-time roles. Guys like Strawberry and Tim Raines accepted they were no longer everyday players. They swallowed their pride, slid into reduced roles, and produced. “I’m not here to upset any chemistry,” said Strawberry. “I’m just here to do what’s asked of me.”

Straw’s return did not get off to a great start. He went 0-for-10 with a walk and two strikeouts in his first three games back while serving as the DH. Three straight two-hit games followed, including a two-homer game against the Orioles in his fourth game back. Two weeks later, Strawberry hit his third home run since coming back, this one a walk-off shot and the 300th dinger of his career.

“When I came back out (for the curtain call) I was thanking the fans for accepting me back with open arms,” said Strawberry to Selena Roberts after the game. “After all I’ve been through, that was really special. They’ve been really patient … Today is even more special because this is New York. This is where I started my career. It’s where I’ve had all of my success.”

Strawberry hit eleven home runs with the Yankees in 1996 and he seemed to hit them in bunches. He hit two against the Orioles on July 13th, he hit three against the White Sox on August 6th, then two days later he hit two more against the ChiSox. Strawberry also bunched some homers together in late-August.

The Yankees acquired Cecil Fielder at the trade deadline, which pushed Strawberry into left field, replacing Gerald Williams. The move seemed to agree with Strawberry. He hit .224/.350/.418 as the DH and .281/.363/.523 as the left fielder. Lots of players struggle with the move to DH — Strawberry was new to the position after playing his entire career in the NL and only 15 games at DH in 1995 — because they don’t know how to handle the downtime between at-bats.

After coming back at midseason, Strawberry hit .262/.359/.490 (112 OPS+) with those eleven home runs in 237 plate appearances and 63 games. He held his own against southpaws — 124 OPS+ against righties and 109 OPS+ against lefties — so he didn’t need to be platooned either. The Yankees needed an offensive jolt at midseason and they got it from Strawberry and Fielder.

Strawberry fouled a ball off his right big toe late in the regular season and dealt with the injury throughout the postseason. “I know they told me it wasn’t fractured, but it doesn’t feel right. Who’d have thought a toe injury could be that painful?” he said to Jack O’Connell. Strawberry served as the DH in Game One of the ALDS against the Rangers — Fielder did not play — pinch-hit in Game Two, then sat out the rest of the series because of the toe.

The injury still hobbled Strawberry in the ALCS. He pinch-hit and played four innings in right field in Game One against the Orioles, sat out Game Two against the lefty David Wells, then returned to the outfield in Game Three. Strawberry hit two home runs in Game Four — he gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead with a second inning solo shot and tacked on two insurance runs with an eighth inning blast.

Strawberry went deep again in the Game Five series-clinching win — he went back-to-back with Fielder — and went 5-for-12 (.417) with three homers and five runs driven in in the series. He also fouled another pitch off his right big toe in that Game Five win. “I’ve kind of got the feeling it may be broken,” he said to reporters after the game. Torre added, “If he can’t play, he won’t be on the roster.”

Strawberry did make the World Series roster and he did play in Game One, at least before being pulled in the seventh inning of the blowout loss. He sat in Game Two against Tom Glavine, then played the outfield in Games Three through Six. The toe was clearly bothering him though. Strawberry went 3-for-16 (.188) in the Fall Classic and mostly hobbled around the outfield.

Aside from Games Four and Five of the ALCS against the Orioles, Strawberry didn’t have much impact in the postseason, mostly because he was nursing an injury. He did give the club a big lift during the regular season though. He added power, added depth to the lineup — “Some guys have a presence at the plate. Darryl has that sitting in the dugout,” said Paul O’Neill to O’Connell — and made good on what could have possibly been his last chance in MLB.

“(Playing in St. Paul) allowed me to find out who I am, it allowed me to have no pride. I had forgotten baseball could be fun,” said Strawberry after rejoining the Yankees in July. “Without George Steinbrenner, I wouldn’t be here.”

Wednesday Night Open Thread

We are three-fifths of the way through Retro Week and I’m still hoping to post a Retro Week themed mailbag on Friday. We’ve gotten a few retro questions but I’m not sure how many I can actually answer. I may be biting off more than I can chew. Anyway, the email address is RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com. Fire away.

This is tonight’s open thread. The Nets are playing and there’s a whole bunch of college basketball on the schedule, and that’s about it. Talk about any other than politics or religion right here.

We Play Today, We Win Today, Das It: The Out of Nowhere Greatness of Mariano Duncan

(New York Daily News)
(New York Daily News)

To win a championship in any sport, a team is going to need some players to come out of nowhere and be surprise contributors. Very few teams are truly far above everyone else in terms of talent level and very rarely does everything go right. There are injuries and poor performances, especially in baseball. Those unsung heroes are a necessity to win a title, not a luxury.

In 1996, no player made a bigger out of nowhere contribution to the Yankees than Mariano Duncan. Signed to a two-year contract before the season, the team planned to use the then 33-year-old Duncan as a bench player. He spent the first eleven seasons of his career in the NL and had experience at every position other than pitcher and catcher. Duncan was a quality reserve player.

“I’m here for one reason. I signed with the Yankees to do what’s best for the ball club,” said Duncan to Charlie Nobles in Spring Training. The Yankees wanted to break in rookie shortstop Derek Jeter with veteran Tony Fernandez sliding over to second base, but Fernandez broke his elbow diving for a ball late in camp. Duncan suddenly went from backup player to starting second baseman.

“I hate to use the word desperate, but we really need to make a deal,” said Joe Torre following Fernandez’s injury. A deal never came. Jeter started at shortstop, Duncan started at second base, and young Andy Fox made the club as the backup infielder. And it worked perfectly. Jeter was great and Duncan opened the season with an eleven-game hitting streak. He hit .333 and drove in nine runs from the bottom of the lineup during the eleven games.

On July 4th, Duncan’s batting line was sitting at .295/.318/.420, which is better than anything the Yankees could have reasonably expected from their utility player turned started second baseman. This is a guy who hit .272/.297/.407 (90 OPS+) in over 2,000 plate appearances from 1991-95. Duncan went 3-for-4 with a triple and a home run on July 5th. His batting average never dipped below .305 the rest of the season.

From that July 5th game through the end of the season, a span of 80 team games, Duncan hit .382/.383/.575 with 21 doubles in 214 plate appearances. He rarely walked as the on-base percentage suggests, but he was living the good BABIP life (.428) and hit close to .400 for half-a-season. On top of that, Duncan was a Grade-A clubhouse dude.

“He’s been a good pickup for us,” said Torre to Nobles at the end of Spring Training. “Besides being a great utility player, he’s outstanding in the clubhouse with the younger players. When you have a guy like that around, he tells the young players what they need to know before you have to.”

As Duncan tells it, he and Jeter were working out on the field before a game in the middle of the season. Duncan asked Jeter whether he was ready to play that day, but it didn’t come out as intended because English is Duncan’s second language.

“We play today?” asked Duncan.

“We win today,” Jeter replied.

“Das it,” said Duncan.

The slogan for a championship team was born. Duncan had t-shirts made and the Yankees wore them around the clubhouse. Soon fans were bringing banners to the ballpark and hanging them from the facing of the upper deck. “We play today, we win today, das it.”

And the Yankees did a lot of winning that summer. At one point from late-April through late-July they went 51-30 during an 81-game stretch. Duncan was not necessarily a catalyst, but he was one of those surprise contributors. He closed out the season with a .340/.352/.500 (112 OPS+) batting line in 417 plate appearances. It was only the second time in his career that he finished a season as a league-average or better hitter.

In the ALDS against the Rangers, Duncan went 5-for-16 (.313) and drove in three runs in four games. His two-out single in the top of the ninth in Game Three capped off the team’s come from behind rally and gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the eventual win.

Duncan didn’t hit a whole lot in the ALCS or World Series — he went 4-for-34 (.118) in the ten games — but he helped the Yankees get there during the regular season and the ALDS. He wasn’t supposed to play much at all, remember. The plan was something like 250 at-bats at all sorts of different positions.

Instead, the Fernandez injury pushed Duncan into the everyday second base job, and he ran with it. He had an out of nowhere above-average offensive season, he played solid defense on the middle infield, he was a plus in the clubhouse, and he was responsible for the slogan that stuck with the team all season. They played, they won. Das it.

The Near No-No: David Cone’s Return from his Aneurysm

(Getty)
(Getty)

From 1982-94, the Yankees never once made the postseason. They finished higher than third in the division just twice during that time: second place finishes in 1985, 1986, and 1993, and a first place finish in 1994 before the work stoppage wiped out the postseason. The Yankees were 70-43 at the time of the strike and had a 6.5-game lead in the AL East.

So, when the Yankees were 41-41 and one game back of a postseason spot on the morning on July 28th, 1995, then-GM Gene Michael shipped three prospects to the division rival Blue Jays to rent 32-year-old David Cone for the stretch run. Cone won the 1994 AL Cy Young award and he pitched well down the stretch in 1995, though the Bombers were bounced from the ALDS in soul-crushing fashion by the Mariners.

The Yankees were able to re-sign Cone to a three-year contract after the season — he was reportedly deciding between the Yankees and Orioles before George Steinbrenner offered a no-trade clause — and he was the team’s Opening Day starter in 1996. He allowed two hits in seven shutout innings against the Indians to earn the win in Game One of the new season.

Cone’s first three starts of 1996 were brilliant: seven shutout innings against the Indians, seven innings of one-run ball against the Rangers, and seven innings of one-unearned run ball against the Rangers again. One earned run in his first 21 innings of the season. Pretty awesome. His fourth start didn’t go well (six runs in five innings against the Brewers) but Cone rebounded his fifth (two runs in five innings against the Royals) and sixth (one unearned run in nine innings against the White Sox) times out.

That sixth start on May 2nd would be Cone’s last start for four months. He had been experiencing discomfort and a tingling sensation in his fingers. His index finger turned white. Cone was soon diagnosed with an aneurysm in an artery under his right armpit. He was receiving treatment but surgery was always considered a possibility. When the treatment didn’t work as hoped, Cone underwent surgery in mid-May.

“Everybody wants to know, ‘When is he coming back?'” said team doctor Stuart Hershon to Malcolm Moran. “My concern primarily is his health and well-being. After that, we’ll worry about when he’s going to be a baseball player. That’s why I didn’t go into the issue of coming back. That’s important for me to convey. You worry about a patient’s well-being, then you worry about the occupation.”

The Yankees were not particularly deep with starting pitchers at the time, and now they were going to be without their ace for an unknown amount of time. Young Andy Pettitte stepped into the ace role, Jimmy Key was able to stay healthy after missing most of the 1995 season, and Doc Gooden was surprisingly solid, so the rotation was okay. Scott Kamieniecki, Ramiro Mendoza, Brian Boehringer, and Mark Hutton all made spot starts during Cone’s absence.

Cone had his surgery in May, rehabbed through June and July, and come August, he was in good enough shape physically to begin pitching again. Doctors gave him the okay to start throwing, and the Yankees, who were on top of the AL East and looking ahead to the postseason, were excited about getting their ace back. Cone made two rehab starts with Double-A Norwich before rejoining the big league team on September 2nd, a little less than four months following surgery.

The Yankees were in Oakland on Labor Day and they were in a funk at the time. They had lost six of their last eight games and eleven of their last 17 games. The AL East lead had dwindled from nine games to four games during that 17-game span. The A’s were not very good in 1996, but the Yankees needed to right the ship, and they needed Cone to show he could be effective following surgery. He did exactly that in his first outing off the DL.

David Cone Athletics 1

Not the best start! Cone walked the first batter in his first game back on four pitches. He did rebound to strike out the next batter, and Joe Girardi did Cone a solid by throwing out Jose Herrera trying to steal second. That probably would have driven me nuts if I were an A’s fan at the time. You’ve got a pitcher coming back from a four-month layoff and he just walked the first batter of the game on four pitches. Why risk it? It looked worse when Cone walked Jason Giambi, the No. 3 hitter, on five pitches. A Mark McGwire pop-up ended the inning.

David Cone Athletics 2

Much better second inning for Cone, who got three quick outs on eleven total pitches. He needed that after throwing 19 pitches in the first inning and putting himself in the stretch right away. The A’s weren’t any good, but Giambi and McGwire were hardly easy outs. Oakland scored runs 5.31 runs per game in 1996, not too far behind the eventual World Series champion Yankees (5.38).

David Cone Athletics 3

Another quick inning in the third. Cone needed only eight pitches to get two fly balls and a strikeout. I remember watching the game live and thinking it looked like he was starting to get settled down and find his rhythm. I’m sure he was amped up after missing so much time and also a little nervous given the severity of the injury.

“I struggled in the first. I didn’t have a feel for anything,” said Cone to Jack Curry after the game. “The first five pitches weren’t close. I was just thinking, ‘Don’t let them get anything.'”

David Cone Athletics 4

Giambi was 25 at the time and in his first full season, and he had yet to emerge as the offensive force he was in the late-1990s and early-2000s. He was still a very good hitter though, and in the fourth inning he worked another five-pitch watch to snap Cone’s string of eight straight retired. Giambi saw five pitches in the fourth inning. The other three batters saw seven pitches total.

David Cone Athletics 5

Eleven pitches. The Athletics had drawn three walks on the afternoon but they did not yet have a hit through five innings against Cone in his first start off the DL. He had only thrown 61 pitches as well, so he was efficient. The Yankees had him on a pitch count — Joe Torre said Cone was good for 100 pitches before the game but indicated he didn’t want to push it — and he was giving them length. It was everything the Yankees wanted to see from him.

David Cone Athletics 6

Three up, three down once again. Two fly balls and a strikeout. That seemed to be Cone’s formula for the afternoon. Fly balls and strikeouts. The Yankees finally broke through and scored a run in the top of the sixth — Cecil Fielder was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded — so Cone had a little bit of support. He was through six hitless innings.

David Cone Athletics 7

Another three up, three down frame, though this one came with some warning signs. Giambi hit a line drive to Derek Jeter at shortstop. Charlie Hayes made a diving stop and threw McGwire out at first base, robbing him of a base hit. Berroa crushed a ball to dead center that Bernie Williams caught right at the top of the wall. All three batters made loud contact.

Hayes hit a home run to help break the game open in the top of the seventh and give Cone some breathing room. His pitch count was at 85 after the seventh inning and he had retired eleven straight and 19 of the last 20 batters he faced. Torre could have easily sent him back out for the eighth with the no-hitter intact, but that’s not what happened. Cone’s afternoon was done after seven hitless innings in his first start off the DL.

”If I would have left him in to throw 105 or 106 pitches and his shoulder would have been achy tomorrow or down the road, I never would have been able to live with myself. I would have always regretted it,” said Torre to Curry, keeping the big picture in mind. Girardi added, “He’s one of the best pitchers in the league. That’s why everyone wants him in September for the pennant run.”

Did Cone want to go back out for the eighth inning? Of course. “I was ready to go back out. I was ready to throw caution to the wind. Joe did the right thing,” he said. The aneurysm was a scary, career-threatening thing. Cone couldn’t have possibly known he still had several years left in the tank and would later throw a perfect game.

Fielder hit a home run in the top of the eighth to give the Yankees a 5-0 lead. Torre went to ace reliever Mariano Rivera to close out the no-hitter, and after a clean eighth, Rivera allowed a ground ball single to the speedy Herrera with one out in the ninth. Jeter almost threw him out from deep in the hole but couldn’t get the out. Torre argued to no avail. The Yankees settled for the one-hitter and a 5-0 win.

The Yankees needed the win given their slide in the standings, and they needed Cone to show he could be effective following the aneurysm. He did that and then some. Cone continued to shake off the rust in September before helping the Yankees win the World Series in October. He came close to a no-hitter that afternoon in Oakland. More importantly, the Yankees had their ace back.

“I’ll never wonder if this could have been my last opportunity to throw (a no-hitter),” said Cone to Curry after the game. ”I wouldn’t think that way. I appreciate that they took me out of the game. It’s more important for us to get to the playoffs and the World Series.”

Guest Post: Why the Yankees should sign Ike Davis

The following is a guest post from Steven Simineri, whose work can be found at Double G Sports, among other places. He previously wrote a guest post about Chris Capuano‘s turbulent 2015 season.

Another lefty relief option. Wait, what? (Patrick Smith/Getty)
Another lefty relief option. Wait, what? (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Seemingly out of the blue on Monday afternoon, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that promising youngster Greg Bird is going to miss all of the 2016 season following shoulder surgery, which the 23-year-old will undergo today at The Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

Bird suffered a right shoulder labrum tear and the issue is a reoccurrence of an injury sustained in May, when Bird spent approximately a month on the disabled list with Double-A Trenton. He returned to the field after following a rest and rehab program, but Bird informed the team after the season that the shoulder was again bothering him. The news is a big blow for both the Yankees and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.

Bird made a big splash after being called up to the Yankees last year, slashing .261/.343/.529 with 11 homers and 31 RBIs over the course of 46 games. He was slated to start the season at Triple-A Scranton, but the young lefty was almost certainly going to see a good chunk of playing time in 2016 if — or more likely when — either Mark Teixeira or DH Alex Rodriguez hit the disabled list, which is a fairly safe bet at some point.

Even though Teixeira missed nearly all of the final quarter of the 2015 season, it’s fair to say that he rebounded in a big way last year to produce his best numbers in at least five years. Teixeira hit 31 home runs — his highest total in four years, but there are still concerns about him staying on the field.

Teixeira, 36 in April, is about to enter the final season of his eight-year, $180 million contract and he’s become porcelain fragile. He hasn’t played more than 123 games since 2011, however, general manager Brian Cashman informed reporters yesterday that the team would look for insurance at Triple-A rather than a major league first baseman such as Pedro Alvarez or Justin Morneau. In fact, the Yankees are allergic to giving out major league contracts this winter – they are the only team in the baseball to not spend a wooden nickel in free agency.

Cashman believes that the team is set for now at first with Teixeira and Dustin Ackley. Brian McCann could possibly spend some time at first if needed. But he and Ackley can’t play the position everyday. The Yankees can offer a minor league deal to the 34-year old Morneau, who has been battling a recurring concussion issue and only played in 49 games with the Rockies a season ago. But the 2006 MVP is far from a guarantee to stay healthy himself.

Alvarez, who grew up a few miles from Yankee Stadium in Washington Heights, is the best first baseman still available despite his subpar 2015 season. The lefty slugger probably wouldn’t end up settling for a minor league contract, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, as 28-year old outfielder Travis Snider just signed a minor league pact with the Royals. Alvarez also grew up a Yankee fan and who knows how many homers he could hit at Yankee Stadium.

Perhaps, though, the Yankees should give former Met top prospect Ike Davis a call. Some scouts still think there’s something left in 28-year-old’s tank and he’s gettable for a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. Davis, the son of former Yankee reliever Ron Davis, has played for three teams over the last two seasons with exactly zero WAR in 666 at-bats.

Davis earned $3.8 million in 2015 while batting just .229/.301/.350 with three home runs and 21 RBI over 239 plate appearances for the Oakland Athletics. He underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn hip labrum in August and A’s understandably didn’t think that level of production was worth keeping him around for a raise, non-tendering Davis in December.

In 2012, Davis was struck with Valley Fever early in the year but he went on to hit 32 homers. It’s been all downhill since. He’s played at the major league level every year since but the most home runs he hit after that were 11. Davis is just the kind of bounce-back candidate and undervalued commodity that the Yankees are looking for. Plus, there may not be a better place than the short porch at Yankee Stadium to revive the career of the 18th overall pick of the 2008 draft.

With Davis you’re mostly hoping he can tap into some of the skills he’s shown in the past. He has always been known to be a patient hitter with a double-digit walk rate, but he has trouble making contact and he typically has very low batting averages. There’s potential for big power and decent defense, but with no guarantees he’ll be good in any aspects.

Not that long ago, Yankee pinstripes turned beleaguered Met Chris Young – the outfielder — back into a major leaguer and maybe the uniform can work the same magic for Davis.