Archive for Days of Yore
Left-handed pitchers are the cats of Major League Baseball because it seems like they get nine lives. No one put those lives to the test more than Steve Howe.
The Dodgers drafted Steve Howe with the 16th overall pick in the 1979 draft, sending him and his golden left arm right to Double-A out of the University of Michigan. After 13 minor league starts to finish the year, Howe made the big league roster out of Spring Training the next season as a reliever. By the end of April, he was Tommy Lasorda’s closer. At 22 years old, Howe threw 84.2 relief innings across 59 appearances and pitched to a 2.66 ERA. He saved 17 games and beat out Bill Gullickson and Lonnie Smith for the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
The work stoppage limited Howe to just 41 appearances and 54 innings in 1981, though he still saved eight games and pitched to a 2.50 ERA. The Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series that year, with Howe throwing 3.2 scoreless innings to clinch the title in Game Six. His first All-Star Game selection followed in 1982, as he threw 99.1 innings across 66 appearances, saving 13 games and posting a 2.08 ERA. At 24 years old, Howe had three stellar big league seasons, a Rookie of the Year Award, an All-Star Game berth, and a World Series title to his credit. He was a certified star, but then everything started to fall apart.
During the 1982-1983 offseason, Howe underwent treatment for cocaine addiction. He returned in time to start the season, and was his usual dominant self. He allowed just two unearned runs in his first 14 appearances and 22.1 innings, but on May 29th he had to re-enter treatment for his cocaine problem. The club fined him $54k and then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn placed him on three years probation upon his release from treatment in late-June. Two weeks later, the club suspended him after he showed up late to a game, but drug tests came back clean. He was reinstated the next day.
Howe was again brilliant down the stretch, pitching to a 2.14 ERA in 32 games and 46.1 innings after returning to the club following his midseason treatment. Five days after throwing two perfect innings against the Astros on September 19th, the Dodgers suspended Howe indefinitely after he missed the team’s flight to Atlanta. He also refused to take a drug test.
“Howe was unable to give satisfactory reasons for his failure to call the Dodger office to explain the circumstances,” said then-Dodgers vice president Fred Claire. “Howe was asked to take a urinalysis test to detect the presence of prohibited substances, but he refused to take the test.”
The commissioner’s office started an investigation, and Howe’s lawyer advised him to sit out the rest of the season. His Narcotics Anonymous sponsor confirmed that he was under the direction of physician but not at a rehab clinic.
“One thing I can tell you, Steve is not on narcotics,” said Roy Bell, Howe’s attorney. “I can’t afford to have Steve stressed out any more by the fans, the media, the pressure. I don’t think he can take the emotional strain.”
On December 16th, 1983, Kuhn suspended four players for one year due to their use of illegal drugs. Howe was one of the four, but unlike the other three players (Willie Wilson, Willie Aikins, and Jerry Martin, all of the Royals), his case would not be reviewed on May 15th. He’d have to wait the full year. The players union was understandably upset, and they ended up filing grievances on behalf of all four players. Howe eventually settled his grievance and agreed to miss the full year.
“My doctor, my therapist and fellow members of my recovery program have urged me to take more time before subjecting myself to the high emotions and stress of a pennant race,” said Howe in a statement following the settlement.
After sitting out the 1984 season, Howe returned to the Dodgers in 1985 and showed the kind of rust you’d expect after a year-long layoff. He owned a 4.91 ERA though mid-June, then was placed on the restricted list after the team determined he was “incapable of handling his assignment” He failed to show up for a game against the Braves a week after arriving late for a game against the Astros. Drug tests came back negative, however. One week later, the club released him.
Left-handers will continue to get chances though, and a month later the Twins signed him. Howe threw 19 ineffective innings for Minnesota (6.16 ERA) down the stretch, then admitted to team officials in September that he’d relapsed. They released him the next day. Howe spent the 1986 season as an unaffiliated player in the minors, essentially auditioning himself during a 49-inning stint with the Single-A San Jose Bees. The Rangers signed him to a minor league contract in July of 1987, and he went on to throw 31.1 innings (4.31 ERA) for Texas after being called up in early-August.
The Rangers had given Howe a one-year, $1M deal for 1987, but the contract was terminated after he violated the terms of his treatment program and failed to show for a mandatory offseason workout in January. Alcohol, not cocaine, was the problem this time. A comeback attempt in Mexico went nowhere, and it wasn’t until March of 1990 that then-commissioner Fay Vincent allowed Howe to return to the minor leagues under the condition that he participate in a strict aftercare program. He was still banned from the Major Leagues until 1991, however.
Howe spent the 1990 season as an unaffiliated player with the Single-A Salinas Spurs, though he missed time with minor shoulder tear and a not so minor blood clot in his lung. He threw 17 innings for the Spurs, then another 31 in winter ball in Mexico. Howe had not pitched in the big leagues for three full seasons, but then-GM Gene Michael invited him and Len Barker to work out for the Yankees in February of 1991. Barker didn’t show much of anything, but Howe impressed enough that the team officially invited him to camp as a non-roster player.
“He’s getting a chance because he’s good,” said Michael. “There’s always a need for more left-handed pitching … He’s been clean for two years. I asked a lot of people a lot of questions about him, his makeup, the type of person he is. I feel there’s been a lot worse things done in baseball than bringing Steve Howe back. If it was my son or your son, you’d want to give him another chance.”
The Yankees were trying to replace the departed Dave Righetti, their long-time lefty closer who signed with the Giants as a free agent. Howe looked sharp in camp, but the team opted to send him to Triple-A Columbus to start the season. His contract allowed them to do so for up to six weeks. He allowed one unearned run in 18 innings for the Clippers, then was rewarded with a callup when the team decided to release the dreadful Andy Hawkins in early-May.
Howe did not allow a base hit in his first 4.1 innings for the Yankees, briefly usurping Steve Farr as closer. He threw 48.1 innings across 37 appearances that year, posting a 1.68 ERA. The old Steve Howe was back, but unfortunately that applied to more than just baseball. The two sides agreed to a new one-year, $600k deal with incentives after the season, but less than two months later he was in trouble again. Howe was arrested six days before Christmas at his home in Montana for cocaine possession, a felony charge. He was arraigned and released, and the Yankees stood by their troubled southpaw.
Federal prosecutors later amended the charge to attempted possession of a dangerous drug, a misdemeanor. The team invited him to a January promotion event at the Javits Center, which was followed by a not guilty plea in February. A few days later Howe struck a light pole with his car and fled the scene, resulting in a $125 fine. His trial was postponed from March 30th to May 5th, and a few days prior to the trial the two sides struck a plea deal. As part of the deal, he pleaded guilty to the attempted possession charge.
While all that was going on, Howe was pitching for the Yankees, and rather effectively as well. He allowed just six earned runs in his first 20 appearances (22 innings), saving six games in seven chances. He wouldn’t appear in another game all season. On June 8th, Vincent banned Howe from baseball for life as a result of the guilty plea. The union filed a grievance claiming the suspension was “without just cause within the meaning of the basic agreement and arbitration panels’ decisions in the area of disciplinary suspensions.”
The grievance went to arbitration in November, which resulted in Howe’s reinstatement. The Yankees brought him back for the 1993 season, and as part of the terms of his reinstatement, he was drug tested every other day. Howe missed time with an ankle injury that season, but otherwise stayed out of trouble. He threw 50.2 innings across 51 appearances, though his ERA was unsightly 4.97. He returned to the Bronx in 1994, missed some time with a groin injury, and pitched to a 1.80 ERA in 40 innings. He’d saved 15 games in 19 chances before the work stoppage. As a reward, the Yankees exercised their $2.3M club option and kept him for 1995.
Howe, now 37, was required to maintain “legitimate employment in a structured environment” per the terms of his probation stemming from the 1992 drug charge, so the Yankees put him to work in the ticket office during the strike in early-1995. He earned a $772 a week living allowance. Frustrated by the strike, Howe spoke about retiring or crossing the picket line and becoming a replacement player in March, but he did neither. The strike ended on April 2nd, and Howe reported to camp with all the other Yankees.
The recently acquired John Wetteland took over at closer while Howe struggled in middle relief following the work stoppage. He posted a 4.96 ERA in 56 games and 49 innings, and rumors surfaced in July that he was distributing amphetamines to teammates. Nothing ever came of it, though. Howe returned to the Yankees in 1996, but at 38 years old and with a drug-abused body, he was basically done. He allowed a dozen runs in his first 17 innings of the season, and on June 22nd, the Yankees released him.
Two days after being released, Howe was arrested at JFK Airport when security found a loaded .357 Magnum in his suitcase. His probation was over by then, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to gun possession and was sentenced to another three years’ probation and 150 hours of community service. The Giants had agreed to sign him, but backed out following the arrest.
Howe attempted a comeback in 1997 with the Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent Northern League, but after 13.2 innings, he gave up. His baseball career was over. The former World Series clinching closer retired with a 3.03 ERA and 97 saves in 606 innings spread across 17 years and 12 seasons. In 229 games for the Yankees, he pitched to a 3.57 ERA in 227 innings. Baseball-Reference lists Howe’s career earnings as $8.525M, a pittance compared to what he could have earned if it wasn’t for his addiction and seven suspensions.
A motorcycle accident put Howe in intensive care with collapsed lungs and a ruptured trachea in August of 1997, and he was later charged with drunk driving in connection to the accident. Charges were later dropped because prosecutors determined that his blood test was obtained improperly, however. He recovered and managed to stay out of the public eye for nearly a decade.
Howe, who was married with two kids, got into the energy drink business and owned a company in Arizona after baseball. He was driving from Arizona to his home in California on April 28th, 2006 when his pickup truck left the road and rolled several times in the median. Howe was ejected from the vehicle and killed. Toxicology reports showed that he had methamphetamine in his system at the time of the accident. He was 48. Having come back from seven drug-related suspensions and one motorcycle accident, Howe’s ninth life was his last.
The following is a guest post by my dear friend David Meadvin, with some assistance from me on the statistical/research front. Dave previously contributed to TYA as an occasional guest poster, and is probably the world’s biggest Pascual Perez fan. We’re talking about someone who, as a nine-year-old, literally filled three nine-card binder sheets up with nothing but the same exact 1990 Topps Pascual Perez card seen at the right (that’s twenty-seven (!) identical cards) for reasons that remain unclear to this day.
On a warm Dominican spring morning in 1957, Pascual Gross Perez came into this world – and Major League Baseball would never be the same.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not an advanced stats kind of guy. I’ve never been that interested about baseball on paper; I love the game because it’s unpredictable in a way that stats can never fully capture. When Larry and I were growing up dodging beer bottles at Yankee Stadium and trading Topps cards, I was never a huge fan of the big stars. Sure, I loved Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry (I know he was a Met, but good God what a swing) – but my heart was always with the oddballs. And there have been few odder balls in MLB history that Pascual “I-285” Perez.
One of the many strange things about Perez is that his Minor League performance was mediocre at best. Signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1976, Perez spent five years in Pittsburgh’s minor league system putting stats that hardly screamed “I’m ready for The Show.” In 1979, at AAA, he threw 103 innings of 5.50 ERA ball with an ugly 4.5 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9. He improved considerably the following season at AAA, throwing 160 innings of 4.05 ERA ball with a 5.9 K.9 and 2.7 BB/9, and he made his MLB debut on May 7, firing six innings of three-run ball, then getting sent right back down for his troubles. At the age of 24, Perez started the 1981 season at AAA for the third consecutive year. Today, it’s hard to imagine a pitcher with his minor league stat line ever seeing the bigs, but with a staff that was fronted by John Candelaria, a struggling Rick Rhoden, an ancient Luis Tiant and no one else anyone’s ever heard of, the Pirates were clearly desperate for pitching.
As a result, despite a 4.94 ERA and a worse walk rate (4.1 per nine) than strikeout rate (a paltry 3.2), Perez earned a Mid-May call-up. At the Major League-level, Perez actually pitched slightly better than his MiLB number might have indicated, but still, he was hardly a star. He tossed 86.1 innings of 3.96 ERA/3.57 FIP ball — numbers that few would frown upon from a middle-of-the-rotation starter these days, but back in 1981 were 10% and 1% worse than league average, respectively. Not to mention the fact that Perez still wasn’t striking anyone out, with a 4.8 K/9. Unimpressed, the Pirates demoted Perez back to AAA for the start of the 1982 season, which prompted the Dominican to consider leaving Major League Baseball and returning to the Caribbean League. Fortunately for all of us, the Atlanta Braves decided to take a chance on him and acquired him in a trade for Larry McWilliams, who had pitched to a putrid 6.21 ERA/1.91 WHIP the season before, but somehow managed to put up two solid years for the Pirates in 1983 and 1984.
The Braves may not have known exactly what they were getting in the rail-thin Perez, but it didn’t take long to find out. On August 19, 1982, Perez was scheduled to make his debut start in Atlanta. As game time approached, Perez was nowhere to be found. When Perez finally showed up – well after the game began – he explained that he drove around I-285 three times looking for the ballpark before finally running out of gas. Here’s how the story was reported in Sports Illustrated:
“When I get lost, I been in Atlanta for four days,” says Perez. “I rent a car and get my driving permit that morning, and I leave for the stadium very early, but I forget where to make a turn right.”
Thus handicapped, Perez made an afternoon-long ordeal out of what is normally a 15-minute ride. Circling helplessly, he finally pulled off the freeway at about 7:10 p.m., well north of Atlanta and running on fumes, and using gestures and his minimal English, persuaded a gas-station attendant to pump $10 worth of free gas for him. “I forgot my wallet, too,” says Perez.
The incident earned Perez the nickname “I-285,” which he proudly wore on the back of his warmup jacket. As Yankees fans are well aware, the Braves’ manager at the time, Joe Torre, is not known for treating rookies kindly – much less rookies who miss their first start. In fact, a famed poster commemorating the incident is described as including a mural of Torre, looking baffled, staring at his wristwatch. If anyone owns this poster or can unearth even a JPEG of it, please let us know [UPDATE: We finally secured a copy of this poster during the summer of 2012].
Surprisingly, Torre stuck with the enigmatic righthander. Incomprehensibly, Perez’s mishap lit a fire under the Braves. Heading into his Braves debut, the team was mired in a 2-19 slump. Yet, according to Sports Illustrated, the team “found the mishap so hilarious that they laughed their way into a 13-2 winning streak and then went on to win the National League West, thereby making Perez’s ride more familiar to Atlanta schoolchildren than Paul Revere’s.” The title run was also helped by Perez’ 79.1 innings of 82 ERA-/89 FIP ball for the Braves that season despite a K/9 of just 3.3(!).
Perez also began establishing a reputation around Major League Baseball that season for on-field antics that included shooting batters with an imaginary finger-gun, peering through his legs to see what kinds of leads baserunners were taking, regular beanings and threats, an occasional eephus pitch (which would come to be known as the “Pascual Pitch” in certain circles), and of course his gleaming curly locks. As one opposing manager proclaimed, “there’s not enough mustard in the State of Georgia for Mr. Perez.” Perez’s response? “Everybody mad at me because they think I try to hit somebody, but I don’t try to hit nobody. The coaches tell me, ‘Don’t be afraid sometimes to pitch inside,’ so I do it.”
Coming into the 1983 season, the Braves saw Perez as an emerging star, and he lived up to their expectations, posting the best season of his career. He threw 215.1 innings of 3.43 ERA (90 ERA-)/3.39 FIP (87 FIP-) ball, with a 6.0 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9, worth 4.1 fWAR. Sadly, Perez found himself jailed in the Dominican Republic in the offseason on drug charges. After his release, he returned to the Braves in May 1984 and proceeded to win 14 games the remainder of the season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that if not for his jail time, Perez would have been a 20 game winner in the ’84 season.
In 1985, everything fell apart. Perez served three stints on the disabled list with shoulder pain before earning a team suspension in July for disappearing somewhere between New York and Montreal. After finishing the year with a heinous 1-13 record, Perez, who just a year earlier was seen as an emerging ace and probably would have been unanimously elected mayor of Atlanta, was released by the Braves.
1986 is a complete mystery. There is no record of Perez throwing a single pitch in any organized baseball league, or even what he did with his time.
Fortunately, the Pascual Perez story was not over. Prior to the 1987 season, the Montreal Expos managed to track him down and signed him to a minor league contract. Visa problems kept him from entering the United States until May, but after several months of minor league ball, Perez made his return on August 22, 1987, throwing five innings of three-run ball against the Giants. He finished the year a perfect 7-0. This time, Perez appeared to have finally figured it out with Montreal, enjoying the finest three-year stretch of his career as he threw 456.2 innings of 2.80 ERA (80 ERA-)/3.05 FIP (85 FIP-) ball, upping his K/9 6.7 and walking almost no one, with a 2.1 BB/9. In 1988, he pitched a rain-shortened, five inning no-hitter.
After an uninspired 1989 season, the Yankees came calling. Coming off two straight fifth-place seasons and utterly desperate for starting pitching (their starters pitched to an MLB-worst 121 ERA- from 1988-1989), the Yankees decided to invest 3 years and $5.7 million in Perez.
The big-bucks investment didn’t exactly pay off. Prior to throwing a single pitch for the Yankees he arrived seven days late to spring training with what the Yankees described as yet more “visa problems,” prompting then-Expos manager Buck Rodgers to describe Perez as “a time bomb that the Yankees will have to monitor closely.” In his third start that season, Perez departed with an ailing arm that required rotator-cuff surgery that August. He also could have invested in a datebook or personal assistant, as Pascual showed up 10 days late to spring training in 1991, and five days late in 1992.
The thing is, when Perez actually took the mound he was effective, putting up a 2.87 ERA and 3.60 FIP in 1990 and 1991. But he only pitched a total of 87.2 innings spread out over two seasons. For whatever reason, he just couldn’t stay healthy (or present) for long stretches during his time in pinstripes. It all came crashing down in 1992 — the third and final year of Perez’s big contract – when he was suspended by MLB violating the league’s drug policy. This forced him to forfeit the remaining $1.9 million left on his contract.
Despite these myriad setbacks, the Yankees were actually interested in retaining Perez’s services. The New York Times reported that general manager Gene Michael placed about 60 calls to him over the offseason, but never heard back. Perez, who once referred to himself as “one of five twin brothers,” (one of those five, Melido, of course also pitched for the Yankees, and gave the Bombers quite a bit more than Pascual ever did, posting a 4.06 ERA/3.84 FIP over 631.1 innings from 1992-1995) had fallen deep into the Dominican Republic, far from the grasp of Major League Baseball.
Despite the Yankees’ best efforts, to this day, Pascual Perez has never been found. He may be gone, but his legacy lives on in the hearts of fans everywhere who consider him a hall-of-famer in baseball’s theater of the absurd.
(The workweek is Saturday-Sunday, so it still counts!)
I’ve never known any other shortstop than Derek Jeter.
River Ave Blues has spent the past week talking about 80’s and bits of pieces of the 90’s because they’re history now: the players are gone, and while their numbers remain forever to tell us what they think is important, and while the plays may be play-index’d and written in scoresheets, they’re long in the past.
One of the great things about baseball is that it’s ageless: it can bring together the young and old. Baseball is frequently passed down from our parents or grandparents, who may have gifted us with stories about Ruth, Henderson, Berra, Righetti, or any number of the people who we the fans were fortunate enough to have in pinstripes. Maybe they became attached by someone old, cranky and awful, like Mel Ott. Fans of all ages deck the stands at New Yankee Stadium, from the cranky old gentlemen whining for the old park to the babies too young to really understand what’s going on yet. For each generation, what Retro Week is is something a little different. Everyone has their own childhood heroes, and ten different Yankees fans of ten different ages would write ten different weeks of Retro Week.
I was born in 1988 and missed out on Mattingly, Berra, and the hapless Yankees of the 80’s. My generation and I were lucky enough to pick up at the right time, raised with a scrawny-legged shortstop named Derek Jeter and his comrades: a Panamanian ex-starter, a chinless, scowly catcher (who was first a backup), and a beak-nosed crafty lefty. And there were plenty of other Yankees in those dynasty teams that 8-year-old me will never forget too, of course: Tino, Bernie, Cone, Paul O’Neill (my first favorite player ever), and so on.
As I end up finding my place in the real world attending my stupid job and counting my birthdays (I turn 24 in two weeks), the players that I grew up screaming for in front of my tv with my grandma have slowly faded away. Earlier this week, Mike covered David Wells’ perfect game as yore and I came to the startling realization that it happened way over ten years ago. Meanwhile, every new year comes with a new group of fans and their own childhood players. There are plenty of readers, I’m sure, who have never known another third baseman other than A-Rod, and some who can’t remember a time when the rotation didn’t feature the pure domination of CC Sabathia. That’s not bad, it’s just the way that time is. The half-important types that these Yankees kids might pick up could be Cervelli, Pena and Nunez. My favorite was Chad Curtis, and I will always love Alfonso Soriano. Sooner than maybe we’d all like (or maybe not soon enough), the youngest generation of fans will only know Derek Jeter from videos, retro baseball cards, and their parents’ brilliant stories of him, much like I know Mattingly, and my grandparents knew Ruth. When he’s honored for the Hall of Fame and Mo knows what else (tentatively everything), they’ll give him polite applause because he is history, while I’m pretty sure I will bawl hysterically thinking of the hundred different ways he enshrined himself in the hearts of everyone (but, as always) especially the kids.
Eventually, fans will grow up loving Manny Banuelos, Austin Romine, JR Murphy, and Mason Williams, or players in that age-group. I will politely reply to any children I have (and maybe some boasting kids) that there’s no one like Jeter or Pettitte or Wells anymore, and that while the cathedral that is Yankee Stadium right now is pretty amazing in almost every conceivable way, it isn’t what they had back in the 90’s. They’ll scoff, of course, and point to whatever the next greatest deed that’s been done by their hero, even if the teams are awful. And after that, well – I’m sure plenty of Yankee heroes of the future are still a blink in their parents’ eyes like Jeter was in the 60’s and Robinson Cano was in the 70’s.
Some day, kids will love them and will eventually boast to their kids that their generation was great, but man they would kill to see heroes of yore, like Derek Jeter.
(Mo is, of course, immortal, and all our children’s children will still see him pitching.)
One thing that struck me while researching and writing posts for retro week was the odd quality of transactions in the 80s. There were players traded, and traded away, multiple times. There was even a player traded for himself. That’s not even to mention the frequency of trades in general. So to close out Friday, I wanted to take a look at some of the things that stood out to me as odd in the 80s.
Trades were apparently more common in the 80s than they are today. For example, in the calendar year 2008 the Yankees made five trades. They made seven in 2009, and then six in 2010. In 2011 they consummated only two trades. (Without looking, can you name ‘em?) After making just four trades in 1980, the Yankees went kinda nuts for the rest of the decade. Here’s the breakdown.
So yes, the Yankees were just a bit more active in the past. Can you imagine them making 14 trades this year? It’d be insanity.
Why Ron Hassey?
I’ll be frank: I only remember Ron Hassey because I had a few of his baseball cards. He was pretty crappy, so he’d be a guy you got in every third or fourth pack. For the most part these were cards of him on the White Sox, but there was one year I had his Yankees card. In any case, the Yanks and the Sox dealt him frequently — and oddly.
The Yankees originally acquired Hassey from the Cubs after the 1984 season. (Ephemera: The Cubs got him from the Indians, in exchange for Joe Carter and familiar name Mel Hall.) Hassey caught for the Yankees during the 85 season, but after the season they traded him to the White Sox. That was in December. The following February, before Hassey had even put on a Sox uniform, he was traded back to the Yankees.
As if that weren’t enough, the Yankees ended up trading him at the 1986 trade deadline — back to the White Sox.
Traded for himself
After Thurman Munson’s death in 1979, the Yankees employed a ragtag duo at catcher. Neither Brad Gulden nor Jerry Narron could hit a lick — hence the Yankees’ acquisition of Rick Cerone that off-season. Gulden played sparingly for the Yankees in 1980, and after the season they traded him, along with $150,000, to the Mariners in exchange for Larry Milbourne and a player to be named later. That happened in November.
Six months later, the Mariners finally sent the Yankees that PTBNL. His name? Brad Gulden.
That didn’t end the Gulden saga with New York. Just before the start of the 1982 season they traded him to Montreal. Six months later, they purchased his contract back from Montreal. He became a free agent after the 1983 season, and he stayed as far away from the Yankees as possible, spending the rest of his career in the National League.
In 1980 the California angels took left-handed pitcher Dennis Rasmussen with the 17th pick of the draft. He never made it to the majors with them, though. Just before the waiver trade deadline in 82, the Yankees traded Tommy John to the Angels. Three months later, the Angels sent Rasmussen to the Yankees as the PTBNL.
Rasmussen would make his debut the following season, but not for the Yankees. Again near the waiver trade deadline, the Yankees got John Montefusco from the Padres. Why they wanted a slightly above average 33-year-old pitcher I don’t know. Why they ended up trading a recent first-round pick for him I really don’t know. In September they sent Rasmussen to San Diego, where he threw 13.2 innings. Those would be the last innings he’d throw for the Padres until 1988.
Just as the Yankees were about to break camp in 1984, they traded Graig Nettles to the Padres. The return? Yep. That’d be Rasmussen. This time they held onto him, giving him 71 starts and six relief appearances from 84 through 86, wherein he produced a 4.13 ERA (97 ERA+). In 87 he fell off a bit, and so before the waiver trade deadline they dished him to the Reds for Bill Gullickson. He’d make his way back to San Diego less than a year later.
For those who don’t remember, and I barely do, Tim Burke was a quality relief pitcher throughout the 80s. The Pirates had drafted him in the 2nd round in 1980, but before he made his debut they traded him to the Yankees for Lee Mazzilli. 362 days later, the Yankees traded him, still before his debut, to the Expos for Pat Rooney. I’m not quite sure what they saw in Rooney. He was a punch and judy hitter in the minors, while Burke had been at least decent.
Burke ended up having a fine career for the Expos; his 1.19 ERA (356 ERA+) in 91 innings in 1987 remains a career highlight. In July of 1991 the Expos traded him to the Mets, and then a year later the Mets traded him to the Yankees. They ended up getting 27.2 pretty good innings out of him before letting him walk in free agency, though he never pitched another inning in the bigs after that. It’s kind of a sad return on a quality reliever.
There were some other odd dealings. For instance, the Yankees traded for Claudell Washington twice, getting both the best (120 OPS+) and worst (18 OPS+) seasons of his career. There was something of a fascination with Tommy John. They also had multiple stints with Neil Allen. Again, these types of transactions seem downright outlandish by today’s standards. I mean, have you ever heard of a player acting as the PTBNL in his own trade? How about a guy traded back and forth in the same off-season? Those crazy 80s.
As we near the end of Retro Week at RAB, I thought I’d take a look at one of the unsung heroes of the early-90s Yankee teams, a man who seemed to go entirely underappreciated despite putting up several very strong pinstriped campaigns: the immortal Danny Tartabull.
Tartabull, born to Cuban parents in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the third round of the 1980 amateur draft. He turned in two productive seasons in Rookie and A-ball, but struggled a bit after being promoted to the Reds’ AA affiliate. Following the 1982 season, he was selected by the Mariners as a free agent compensation pick, according to Baseball-Reference. Apparently teams could do that back in the day.
However, “struggled” is probably a bit unfair — he only really struggled by virtue of the fact that he managed a .774 OPS at AA after a .954 the year prior in Single-A. Additionally, it should be noted that Tartabull walked eighty-nine times in 126 games at AA and had an IsoD of .139, so even though his BA and SLG declined rather precipitously, his batting eye was outstanding and remained that way throughout his career.
He spent the 1983 season rediscovering his power stroke, and finally got a taste of the show in 1984, receiving 24 plate appearances for Seattle at age 21 at the end of the season. It all seemed to come together for Tartabull the following year, as he spent the 1985 season utterly annihilating AAA to the tune of a .300/.385/.615 line over 546 PAs, during which time he clubbed forty-three home runs and won the Pacific Coast League MVP. Tartabull was rewarded with a September call-up for a second-straight year and hit to a Jesus Montero-esque .413 wOBA over 69 PAs.
Tartabull stayed in the bigs for good, breaking camp with the Mariners in 1986 and posting a robust .361 wOBA during his first full season in the Majors. After the season the M’s shipped Tartabull (along with reliever Rick Luecken) to Kansas City for starter Scott Bankhead, outfielder Mike Kingery and reliever Steve Shields. Shields only lasted one season in Seattle and was out of baseball after 1989; Kingery posted an exactly league average year in 1987 but was a decidedly below-average hitter for the majority of the remainder of his career; while Bankhead turned in two strong seasons and two injury-shortened campaigns in Seattle before leaving as a free agent in 1991.
Unfortunately for Seattle, Tartabull absolutely killed it in Kansas City, turning in a .392 wOBA (145 wRC+) from 1987-1991, which was the fifth-highest wOBA in all of baseball during that five-year period. The Bull parlayed his outstanding production into a big-time contract with the Yankees, who signed the then-29-year-old to a five-year, $25.5 million deal which made him the fifth-highest-paid player in baseball at the time.
Interestingly, the Yankee 1991-1992 offseason apparently bore some striking similarities to this past winter’s. From YES’s own Jack Curry in a January 7, 1992, story in The New York Times:
After two months of offseason lethargy and front-office chaos, the New York Yankees emerged Monday with a $25.5 million free-agent outfielder and a suddenly voracious appetite for the trade market.
In a quick move that surprised fans and baseball people alike and reminded many people of George Steinbrenner`s previous spending sprees, the Yankees signed slugger Danny Tartabull to a $25.5 million contract just after midnight on Monday.
But by making a splash in the free-agent market and promising Monday that more roster changes were imminent, the Yankees indicated that their club philosophy had been altered and additional transactions are expected before spring training.
Now that Tartabull is signed, the Yankees have a surplus of outfielders, and Michael will almost certainly try to peddle Jesse Barfield for a pitcher or a third baseman.
Michael is reluctant to trade Roberto Kelly, who is very marketable. Mel Hall is a left-handed hitter, and that makes him valuable at Yankee Stadium, especially if the Yankees get a right-handed-hitting third baseman, such as Montreal`s Tim Wallach.
The Yankees ended up holding onto Barfield, who played one more season in pinstripes (putting up a heinous 21 OPS+ in 105 PAs) before retiring, and Curry wound up being a year early on Kelly, who of course was famously traded after the 1992 season for Paul O’Neill.
For his part, Tartabull lived up to his contract during his first two years in the Bronx, posting an outstanding .397 wOBA in 1992 — 4th-best in the American League that season — and a very good .376 in 1993. His production dipped some in the strike-shortened 1994 — a .358 wOBA in 470 PAs — but he really fell off in 1995, hitting to a paltry .321 wOBA through 59 games before the Yankees shipped him out to the A’s for Ruben Sierra.
All in all, Danny Tartabull was a pretty solid Yankee, posting a .370 wOBA (127 wRC+) during his three-and-a-half seasons in pinstripes. However, he was arguably only the third-best hitter on the team during that time frame, despite getting paid as if he were the best, and this — along with his precipitous decline from 1994-1995 — is presumably why he’s seemingly never been all that fondly reminisced by Yankee fans. Well, except for my brother, who is very likely the only person in the world with a customized “TARTABULL 45″ name-and-number tee. (Yankee fans familiar with the all-time SNES classic, 1994′s Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, also likely have warm memories of Tartabull, who was an absolute BEAST in that 16-bit classic).
Still, a closer look at his pinstriped career reveals a player who was pretty much the ideal Yankee — Danny Tartabull got on base with the best of them, posting a terrific 16% BB% (he finished his 14-year career with a 13.1% BB%; for reference Alex Rodriguez has an 11% career BB%, though he’s also played four more seasons) that helped fuel an excellent .372 OBP; and he hit for power, posting a .221 ISO and .473 SLG. So in essence, Tartabull was basically Nick Swisher, with even more walks and a touch less power.
Tartabull was traded to the White Sox for the 1996 season and had a reasonable bounceback year with a .353 wOBA, which he then parlayed into a one-year deal with the Phillies. Tartabull played in all of three games for the Phils in April of 1997 before fouling a ball off his toe which somehow caused him to miss the remainder of the season. Tartabull retired after the season, culminating a largely underrated career in which he swatted 266 bombs and posted a very respectable .377 wOBA and 132 wRC+.
Despite the apparent mutual dislike between Tartabull and the Bronx — he was quoted as saying “I feel like I’ve been released from jail” following being traded for Sierra — the statistician in me is happy to have had him on the Yankees, especially as the team began to emerge from the darkest period in franchise history.
As we while away the days until meaningful baseball returns to the Bronx, we’ve entered the Wayback Machine, and we’ve revisited, for many of us, the Yanks of our youth. It’s always entertaining to sit here with the perspective of five World Series championships and a slew of playoff berths under our collective fan belts while remembering the lost years of the 1980s and 1990s. After all, who doesn’t love a little stroll down Memory Lane with Hensley Muelens?
For me, this Retro Week look back has taken me on ride to my childhood. My first Yankee experiences were in the mid 1980s as the Yanks toiled behind the AL East leaders, as George Steinbrenner traded the same players over and over again, wouldn’t let youth develop and sacrificed the Yanks’ draft picks for mediocre free agents. Still, as a little boy, I loved going up to the Bronx for baseball games.
One of the biggest differences between the Yankees of today and the Yankees of yesteryear was, of course, the ballpark. The Yankees of the 1980s played in a stadium that was barely a decade removed from a renovation. While our parents knew the Stadium as it was for the Mick and Joe D, we knew it for Reggie, for Don Mattingly and, when they moved in the fences, for Jack Clark. Camden Yards and the retro stadium craze was but an idea on paper by the end of the decade, but for kids my age, it was a baseball playground and Cathedral rolled up into one.
The old stadium in late 1980s and early 1990s was marked by its focus on baseball. There were no other diversions for fans of all ages than the game on the field. The concourses, cramped by the mid-2000s, were always pretty empty and so too were the upper decks. Attendance on the weekends topped out in the high 20,000s or low 30,000s. Only Opening Day or a Red Sox visit, even then, pushed the attendance toward the 40 or 50 thousand range.
We went to the ballpark those days for the games just as we do today. But our expectations were low. The Yankees of 1990 were flat-out terrible, finishing in 7th place for the last time in franchise history. In fact, from 1989-1992, for a span of four seasons, the Yanks didn’t finish above .500 and couldn’t climb out of the bottom half of the AL East. So with rows upon rows of empty seats in the Tier Reserve stretching out into the Bronx night, teenagers would scramble for foul balls, and security guards would chase errant fans from shuttered sections.
Eventually, when A-Rod arrived and then when construction on the new stadium began, attendance climbed, and the Yanks sold out nearly every game. In high school, I could buy tickets on a whim; by the end of college, StubHub was the only way to go. The stadium changed as the Yanks fancied up the seats with extra padding and waiter service. But the shell of the structure was reaching 80, and the Steinbrenners wanted a modern facility.
Today, we come to expect winning from the Yankees, and I wouldn’t want to return to those days of bad baseball with no crowds. Today, we have a gleaming, modern facility with wide open concourses and a different view behind center field. Sometimes, I may miss being a little kid and being awed by the park and players below. There is an innocence to it that we cannot recapture. But that is what our memories are for. Today, the Yankees win, and the Wade Taylors, Jeff Johnsons, John Habyans and Greg Cadarets of our youth are better left there.
The Yankees might have been the winningest franchise in the 1980s, yet they finished the decade with nothing to show for it. They made the postseason in the decade’s first year, but got swept out of the ALCS by the Royals. Then, in the strike-interrupted 1981 season, they managed to make the World Series, though they probably didn’t deserve to even participate in the postseason. From there it was all downhill. Sure, they mixed in a few second place finishes in the middle of the decade, but that was as close as they got.
What hurts most about the Yankees’ poor performances during these years is that they were in many ways the results of a win-now mentality. George Steinbrenner stopped at nothing to field the best team possible in the moment, even if that meant sacrificing players who could help future teams. There was no balance. Predictably, the Yankees went from being a decent team in the early- and mid-80s to a putrid one by the end. It wasn’t until Steinbrenner was away from the everyday team operations that they were able to create a better balance and rebuild a culture of winning.
One of the team’s hallmarks in the 80s was trading young pitchers for veterans. The idea is nothing new; we see it all the time these days. We just don’t see the same team do it over and over and over again. Prospects are valued much differently these days, perhaps because of the Yankees’ mishaps in the 80s (and, to a lesser extent, mid-00s). As we come to the conclusion of retro week here at RAB, I wanted to run down some of the more egregious pitching trades in the 80s.
Note: I’m doing this based mostly on research, seeing as I was born in 1982. My first major Yankees memories came sometime around 1987, though I clearly wasn’t familiar with the team’s culture at the time — despite my father’s constant cursing of Steinbrenner and his meddling. (Those criticisms fell on deaf ears to a kid who just wanted to collect baseball cards and read the box scores.) I might miss what someone else considers a significant trade. But that’s what the comments section is for. So have at it.
March 30, 1982: Traded Andy McGaffigan for Doyle Alexander
We kick this off with a name I’m sure isn’t familiar to many readers. McGaffigan was no superstar, but he pitched 11 seasons in the bigs and turned in fairly good performances. He ended his career with a 3.38 ERA in 833.1 innings, which covered 363 games: 62 starts and 301 relief appearances. For the Yankees he pitched two games in relief in 1981 before they traded him for Alexander just before the 1982 season.
McGaffigan was thrice drafted: first by the Reds in 1974, then by the White Sox in 1976 (in what was called the January Draft-Regular Phase, whatever that was), and finally by the Yankees in 1978. McGaffigan conquered A-ball in 66 innings after signing, and then played in AA for both the 79 and 80 season — though they were different teams, because apparently the Yankees had two AA teams. He then spent most of 1981 in AAA, pitching well there before his eventual call-up.
Alexander, unsurprisingly, had already passed age 30 when he went to New York. Well, in this trade at least. In June of 1976 the Yankees acquired Alexander from the Orioles, only to let him walk as a free agent after the season. Following his stellar 1981 season, in which he pitched to a 2.89 ERA (119 ERA+) in 152 innings, he completely imploded for the Yanks in ’82, reaching a 6.08 ERA in just 66.2 innings. After a similar performance in his first 28.1 innings in 1983, the Yanks cut him. Of course, he went on to pitch much better after that, and ended up playing through 1987.
April 10, 1982: Traded Ron Davis for Roy Smalley
Another seemingly smaller trade, but still involving a young pitcher. Davis came up through the Yankees system, and from 1979 through 1981 he was money, compiling a 2.86 ERA (136 ERA+) in 140 games. He finished 72 games during that span as well. Maybe the Yanks knew something here, because immediately after they traded him to Minnesota, his career imploded. He had a couple decent years, but was mostly terrible and had a hard time finding a job after age 30. (The Yanks traded him at age 25.)
Smalley, on the other hand, hit very well for the Yankees, compiling a 111 OPS+ in 82 and then a 126 OPS+ in 520 PA in 1983. After he started slowly in 1984, the Yankees sent him to the White Sox for players to be named later. One of those players to be named later was a young pitcher by the name of Doug Drabek. We’ll get to him in due time.
December 5, 1984: Traded Tim Birtsas, Jay Howell, Stan Javier, Eric Plunk, and Jose Rijo to the A’s for Rickey Henderson
Mike covered the Henderson trade earlier today, so there’s no need for a full rehash. I just wanted to dwell on Rijo for just a moment. There was really no good reason for him to break camp with the team in 1984. He was just 19, and while he mopped the floor with AA competition in ’83, he had very little professional experience. Of his 302 professional innings to that point, just 40.1 had come above A-ball. But the Mets had a shiny new 19-year-old toy in Dwight Gooden, and so Steinbrenner needed his. Rijo was mediocre in both the Bronx and Columbus in ’84, but he picked up some steam in ’85. It was a shame to see him go, and an even bigger shame when he finally won a World Series with the 1990 Cincinnati Reds. That would coincide with the worst Yankees team of my lifetime.
Plunk counts as a young pitcher, too. While he didn’t come with Rijo’s hype, he did perform well for a few years. He was decently effective, if way too wild, pitching out of the Yanks’ pen and making spot starts from ’89 through’ 91, and then found success pitching out of Cleveland’s pen in the mid-90s.
September 15, 1985: Traded Jim Deshaies for Joe Niekro
Again, Deshaies wasn’t the biggest name. But he was only 25 and had just seven innings of big league experience under his belt when the Yanks traded him for the 40-year-old Niekro. As a 41-year-old in ’86, Niekro was pretty horrible, posting a 4.87 ERA (84 ERA+) in 125.2 innings. The Yanks got eight good starts out of him in ’87 before dishing him to Minnesota, where he collapsed. His career would end a year later.
Deshaies produced a 3.67 ERA (97 ERA+) in 1102 innings for the Astros before reaching free agency. Considering some of the pitchers who took the ball for the Yankees during those years, 1985 through 1991, they could have used his services.
November 26, 1986: Traded Doug Drabek for Rick Rhoden
Just two years earlier the Yankees had received Drabek in return for a fading hitter. He came in and trashed AA competition immediately, pitching to a 2.32 ERA in ’84 and then a 2.99 ERA in ’85. While AAA was less kind to him in ’86, he threw just 42 innings there. Most of his work came in the majors, a 4.10 ERA (100 ERA+) in 131.2 innings. That’s a quality performance there for a 23-year-old rookie. But Steinbrenner was not about to change his impatient ways. The Yankees won 90 games in ’86, but finished 5.5 behind the Red Sox. And so they traded Drabek for Proven Veteran™ Rick Rhoden. It wasn’t all bad at first, as Rhoden pitched well enough in ’87, compiling a 3.86 ERA (115 ERA+) in 181.2 innings. But at age 34 he was on the downswing. He lasted just two more seasons, a below average one for the Yankees before finishing his career in Houston.
Drabek, on the other hand, had a nearly identical ERA in 87 (lower ERA+, because of the difference in leagues), but went on to post much better numbers in the coming years. Before he reached free agency after the 92 season, Drabek threw 1362.2 innings, compiling a 3.02 ERA (118 ERA+). He’s yet another guy who would have helped incredibly during those dark years in the late-80s and early-90s.
July 13, 1987: Traded Bob Tewksbury for Steve Trout
At 26 years old Tewks wasn’t that young when this trade happened. But he was still young and serviceable: he had pitched to a 3.31 ERA (124 ERA+) in 130 innings in ’86. But a slow start was apparently his undoing. Again the Yankees went for the Proven Veteran™ in Trout. To say it backfired is an understatement. Trout wasn’t all that good to begin with, though he did have a pair of good years in ’84 and ’85. He lasted just 46.1 innings with the Yankees, pitching to a 6.60 ERA (68 ERA+). The Yanks did get a couple of real, live pitchers in exchange for him. You might recognize some of the names: Lee Guetterman, Clay Parker, and Wade Taylor.
After spending time on the DL and in the minors in the last few years of the 80s, Tewks figured out something. He dominated AAA in ’89, and then tossed some solid years for St. Louis in the early-90s. That, however, came after he hit free agency. Still, the numbers speak for themselves: 968 innings, 3.48 ERA (109 ERA+) from ’89 through ’94 with the Cards. That includes a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting in 1992; some guys named Maddux and Glavine finished ahead of him.
April 30, 1989: Traded Al Leiter for Jesse Barfield
There’s no need, really, to reiterate this past trade review.
February 29, 1992: Traded Alan Mills for basically nothing
In early 1992 the Yanks had an issue. They had just traded for a third baseman, but had no room for him on the 40-man roster. They delayed announcing the move until late February. You can read more about this in The Ballad of Charlie Hayes. The Yanks ended up trading Mills to the Orioles to create room for Hayes.
It’s not as though the Yanks lost some huge contributor in Mills. He hadn’t been very good for the Yanks, and while he had a few good seasons for the Orioles, he was by no means a standout — though his 2.61 ERA (153 ERA+) in 92, just after the trade, definitely stung. But Mills was twice a first-round draft pick. The Yankees acquired him for the cheap price of a fading and discontent Butch Wynegar. Yet at age 25 they could only get two players who never played a live inning at Yankee Stadium. For shame.
Again, there might be trades that I haven’t included. You might also disagree with some of these selections. But the Yankees definitely dealt far too many young pitchers in the 80s. Some of them came back to bite big time. Some of them went onto be solid contributors when the Yankees needed just that. Seeing this list makes me appreciate how the Yankees are currently treating their pitching prospects. They’re not going to trade them away in just any deal, and especially in just any deal for veterans. After their previous experiences doing that, I think they’ve learned their lessons.
The mid-80s Yankees were better teams than they’re generally given credit for, and boy were they star-laden. Don Mattingly was a batting champion and MVP, Dave Winfield was a perennial All-Star and top ten MVP-candidate, Willie Randolph was insanely underrated, Ron Guidry was still fronting the pitching staff, and Dave Righetti was slamming the door in the ninth. All great players in their own right, but none were as big a star as Rickey Henderson in the 1980s.
Henderson had taken the league by storm in 1980, his first full season in the bigs. He hit .303/.420/.399 with a hundred steals on the nose for the Athletics, then improved to .309/.408/.437 the next year, though the work stoppage limited him to 56 steals. From 1982-1984, Henderson hit .284/.404/.420 with 304 steals in 436 games, and by the end of his fifth full season, he had five stolen base titles to his credit. Billy Martin managed Rickey early in his career, and in 1985 he had returned to New York for his fourth of five stints as Yankees manager.
“Billy Martin had been a manager of mine before and he always felt that the type of player I was that I needed to be a Yankee,” said Henderson to The Sacramento Press last year. “The Yankees were the best club, the best organization in baseball, and one of the best players in his eyes was on the Oakland A’s. He told George Steinbrenner that there is a player he wanted him to go get, and George was like, why? Martin said this is the best player in baseball, and I want you to go get this player. So Billy really made the deal for me to get over to the Yankees. He always told me he was going to bring me over to the Yankees.”
The Yankees acquired Henderson — then just 25 years old — from Oakland in December of 1984, a year before he was scheduled to hit free agency. Tim Birtsas, Jay Howell, Stan Javier, Jose Rijo, and Eric Plunk went to the Athletics while Bert Bradley joined Rickey in New York. Henderson signed a five-year, $8.5M contract following the trade. The Yankees had won 178 games in the previous two years and just added the best leadoff man in the game. The impact was immediate.
With Henderson, Randolph, Mattingly, and Winfield batting 1-2-3-4, the Yankees played .500 baseball through their first 58 games of the 1985 season while their leadoff man hit .313/.398/.480 with 21 steals in 22 tries. Rickey got hot after that and so did the Yankees, who went 69-36 in their final 105 games while Henderson hit .315/.429/.533 with 59 steals in 68 tries. He finished the season with a .314/.419/.516 batting line and a league leading 80 steals and 146 runs scored, earning him a third place finish in the MVP voting. Mattingly led the world with 145 RBI that year, 30 more than any other season in his career. It’s not a accident given who getting on base all the time in front of him.
Despite the hot finish, the Yankees closed the 1985 season in second place, two games back of the 99-win Blue Jays. Henderson had a down season by his standards in 1986 — .263/.358/.469 with a league leading 87 steals and 130 runs scored — but the team still won 90 games. They again finished in second place, this time five-and-a-half back of the Red Sox. Hamstring injuries hampered Rickey in 1987, and he insisted he wasn’t going to play until he was 100%. The Boss didn’t like that.
”If he says he can’t play and the doctor and trainer say he can, then he has a right to get his own opinion, and I’m going to demand that he do that,” said Steinbrenner. ”If there’s a disagreement, then we’ll get a third doctor to arbitrate. And if that doctor says he can play, then I will consider a suspension.”
Henderson never was suspended, and he wound up hitting .291/.423/.497 with 41 steals in 95 games while the team finished in fourth in the division. His run of seven consecutive stolen base titles came to end. Rickey’s power output dropped off in 1988, though he still hit .305/.394/.399 with 93 steals, the most in the game and the most of his Yankees career. The team continued to go nowhere though, finishing fifth in the seven-team AL East. Entering the final year of his contract in 1989, Henderson reported to Spring Training a few days late.
”Yeah, it ticks me off one more day,” said new manager Dallas Green. ”I don’t know if he’s smart enough to know what he’s really doing. I don’t know whether it’s being spiteful, whether it’s a lack of understanding or whether he just doesn’t know what’s going on. I want to understand what his thinking is at this time … You’ve got to look at the kids out there watching. Maybe they don’t understand all this. Maybe they have Rickey Henderson as an idol or a role model. Is that the way you raise baseball players?”
It was the latest incident in Henderson’s Yankees career, which was built on greatness and what the team thought was selfishness or a lack of desire. He slumped to .247/.392/.349 with 25 steals through the team’s first 68 games, contributing to a 33-35 record that had them sitting in third place in the AL East. Rickey had worn out his welcome and the team was wary of giving him another big contract after the season, so they traded him. Back to the Athletics went Henderson on June 21st, with three players coming to New York: Luis Polonia, Greg Cadaret, and Plunk, who went from the Yankees to A’s in the original Henderson deal.
During his four-and-a-half years in pinstripes, Rickey hit .288/.395/.455 with 326 steals, and currently ranks tenth on the franchise’s all-time OBP list and second in steals. He was the first man to steal 300 bags in pinstripes, and held the club’s all-time stolen base record until Derek Jeter broke it last season. Jeter needed roughly 2,400 games to steal as many bases as Rickey did in 596. The Yankees never made the playoffs with Henderson, but it was hardly his fault. The pitching let them down, mostly.
The Athletics got five useful pieces in the trade sending Rickey to the Bronx, but none stood out while wearing their uniform. Rijo was the best of the bunch, pitching to a 4.74 ERA in 339.2 IP with Oakland from 1985-1987 before being traded to the Reds for Dave Parker. His career then took off in Cincinnati. Birtsas threw 143.1 innings with a 4.27 ERA while Howell pitched to a 3.68 ERA in 195.2 IP in their three-year stints with the A’s. The former went to Cincy with Rijo in the Parker trade. Javier was a part-time first baseman, hitting .255/.328/.346 in over 2,100 plate appearances across seven years with the Athletics. Plunk was an swingman for the most part, posting a 4.30 ERA in 322 innings before coming back to New York in the second Rickey deal.
I was a little too young to fully appreciate Henderson’s time with the Yankees, but he was clearly one of the best players of his generation and all-time. The trade was an easy win for the Yankees, who acquired Rickey’s prime years for what amounted to Jose Rijo and four spare parts. Yeah, they could have used a pitcher like Rijo later in the decade, but giving up a young pitcher like that (he was just 19 at the time) for an established superstar like Henderson is a trade you make every day of the week.
The Yankees have had a number of pitching contracts go bad for them over the years, but few went as poorly as Kenny Rogers. They signed the southpaw to a four-year, $20M contract after the 1995 season, pairing him with Jimmy Key, David Cone, and Andy Pettitte. It didn’t work out of course; Rogers pitched to a 5.11 ERA in 52 starts, nine relief appearances, and 324 innings in pinstripes before being traded to the Athletics for Scott Brosius after the 1997 season.
Rogers did get a ring out of his time in New York, though it was no thanks to him. He put 20 men on base in seven playoff innings across three starts in 1996, allowing eleven runs. Despite that, the Yankees won all three of his starts because the rest of the team picked him up. Just how did they do it? Let’s recap…
ALDS Game Four @ Rangers (box)
Although this was Rogers’ first career postseason start, he did make his playoff debut in relief during Game Two a few days earlier. The Yankees and Rangers were tied at four in the 12th inning when Texas put men on the corners with two outs against Graeme Lloyd and Jeff Nelson. Then-manager Joe Torre brought Rogers out of the bullpen to face the lefty swinging Will Clark, and he promptly walked him on four pitches. Brian Boehringer then came in to clean up the mess.
The Yankees were leading the best-of-five ALDS two games to one when Kenny got the ball in Game Four, back home where he started his career in Texas. He managed to pitch around a Pudge Rodriguez single and a Juan Gonzalez walk in the first, but Dean Palmer opened the second with a double to right-center. Mickey Tettleton singled him in, though he was erased at second when Mark McLemore beat out a double play ball. McLemore came around to score on Pudge’s single later in the inning. Rogers needed 40 pitches to put six men on base and allow two runs in the first two innings. Torre had seen enough, and that was the end of his day.
Boehringer replaced Rogers in the third and made things slightly more difficult. JuanGone led off with a homer, then McLemore singled in another run a few batters later. Down four-zip, the offense started to chip away. Four of the first five batters in the top of the fourth reached base, with Cecil Fielder and Mariano Duncan each singling in a run. Bobby Witt had been chased from the game, but Derek Jeter drove in the third run with a ground ball off Danny Patterson. Boehringer started the fourth, but allowed the first two batters to reach base. David Weathers replaced him, and got out of the jam with a strikeout and a double play.
Bernie Williams tied the game with a leadoff homer in the fifth, and the score stayed that way until the seventh. Weathers had retired eight of the nine men he faced, throwing a full three innings thanks to the double play. Fielder singled in the go ahead run off Roger Pavlik in the top of the seventh, then it was Sandman time. Mariano Rivera threw a perfect seventh and a scoreless eighth (he did walk Warren Newson, however) while Bernie padded the lead with a solo homer in the ninth. John Wetteland slammed the door for the save, giving the Yankees the series win. The bullpen, particularly Weathers, stepped up to keep the Rangers at bay so the offense could mount a comeback after Rogers’ short start.
While the Yankees teams of the 80s weren’t all bad — they did win more games than any other franchise that decade — they were flawed at many positions. One position they continually struggled to fill was catcher. It all started, unsurprisingly, with Thurman Munson’s death during the 1979 season. His replacements, Jerry Narron and Brad Gulden, couldn’t have performed much worse. From there the Yankees did better at the position, but it took nearly two decades to find a stable presence.
Knowing that their current options would not hack it for a full season, or even part of a season, the Yankees made a move after the ’79 season. They traded ALCS hero Chris Chambliss and two others to the Blue Jays for 26-year-old catcher Rick Cerone. In 1979 Cerone got his first taste of a starting gig, and while he was nothing special, he was light years better than Narron and Gulden. He stepped right in and caught 147 games for the Yanks in 1980, producing a career-best 107 OPS+ in 575 PA. Yet, as with most things Yankees in the 80s, the rest of the journey was downhill.
Injuries and ineffectiveness limited Cerone during the next four seasons, during which he started 278 games and hit .227/.271/.304 (63 OPS+) in 981 PA. That meant the Yankees would have to find other solutions during those years. While they wouldn’t find much in 1981 — their catchers produced a 79 OPS+, which was 12th out of the 14 AL teams — they did swing a trade early in the 1982 season that worked out fairly well. On May 12th they acquired Butch Wynegar from the Twins for three players whose names I do not recognize (Pete Filson, Larry Mulbourne, John Pacella). That’s probably because I was a month old at the time.
Wynegar exploded upon joining the Yankees, hitting .293/.413/.393 in 242 PA. In 1983 he played in 94 games and hit .296/.399/.429 in 357 PA. Injuries cost him some time in May and then again in early September, and those definitely hurt the Yanks. Cerone was still the backup, and he had a putrid season at age 29, a 52 OPS+ in 266 PA. Wynegar started for the Yanks in the next two seasons, and while they were good, especially for a catcher, they weren’t standout. By 1986 his production had faded, and after the season they traded him to the Angels for 20-year-old Alan Mills.
The Yanks didn’t let Wynegar’s fading production get them down in 86, though. The 90-win team also featured a spectacular half-season from the oft-traded Ron Hassey. The Yanks originally acquired him before the 1985 season, but then traded him to the White Sox in December, 1985. Strangely enough, the White Sox traded him back to the Yankees two months later, in February, 1986. After getting a superb half season out of him, the Yanks dished him at the 1986 trade deadline, back to the White Sox. They got in return Joel Skinner, a defensive specialist behind the plate. With the way he hit, he damn well better have been a defensive specialist.
This brings us back to 1987 and the Wynegar-less Yankees. After the 1984 season the Yankees had traded Cerone to the Braves, but in February, 1987, they re-signed him. He was coming off a halfway decent 1986 season for the Brewers, but he wouldn’t be quite so good for the Yankees in 87. He caught 113 games, which made it hurt even more. Still, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as Skinner’s OPS+ of 11 in 154 PA. To stanch the bleeding the Yankees swung a trade that June, sending 42-year-old Joe Niekro to the Twins for Mark Salas. That didn’t help much, as Salas produced a 58 OPS+. The Yanks would then send him to the White Sox after the season. The Yankees, apparently, had become the White Sox catching pipeline.
That was it for Cerone, at least that time around. The Yankees released him after spring training in 1988. Of course, he caught on the with the Red Sox and had two halfway decent seasons for them. At this point we reach my level of Yankees consciousness. I don’t remember the trade wherein the Yankees acquired Don Slaught for Brad Anrsberg, but I sure remember having Slaught’s baseball card that year. For the past few seasons Slaught had produced average numbers behind the plate while catching around 100 games per year. For a catcher that’s pretty solid production. He did pretty much the same for the Yankees in ’88 and ’89, adding offense where Skinner could not. That year we also saw the debut of Bob Geren.
Before the ’89 season the Yankees traded Skinner to the Indians in exchange for Mel Hall. With Slaught producing well behind the plate, the Yanks could afford to ditch their no-hit catcher and give a bigger shot to Geren. The latter responded in 1989, hitting .288/.329/.454 in 225 PA. The Slaught-Geren combo produced the fourth-best offensive numbers for catchers in the AL. Apparently satisfied with the 27-year-old Geren, the Yankees traded Slaught after the season. That might have been a mistake. Slaught went on to produce a string of four more solid seasons for Pittsburgh, while the Yanks were stuck with nothing much at catcher.
To back up Geren in 1990, the Yankees signed — you guessed it — Rick Cerone. This time around it actually worked out decently; he produced a 99 OPS+ in 146 PA as the backup. But he was 36 years old at the time and couldn’t handle more playing time. Meanwhile, Geren was hitting terribly. That prompted a mid-season trade with the Tigers, wherein the Yankees acquired Matt Nokes. While Nokes had shown great promise as a 23-year-old in 1987, producing a 133 OPS+ in 508 PA, he had become a merely average hitter by the time of the trade. But, again, from the catcher position that’s valuable. Nokes hit well enough for the Yanks in 1990, but the best was yet to come.
Nokes took over the starting gig from Geren, and in 1991 he 112 games behind the plate for the Yankees, a big deal at the time. His average and OBP were nothing to write home about, .268 and .308, but he did sock 24 homers, leading to a 113 OPS+. As a 9-year-old Little League catcher, I loved Nokes. It helped that he bashed a long homer to right field, as I was sitting down the first base line, during one of the games I attended with my dad in 1991. Nokes followed up his ’91 performance with an average one in ’92, producing an OPS+ of exactly 100. After another average, if injury plagued, season in ’93, he ended up socking seven homers in 85 PA for the 1994 team. That, however, would end his time in pinstripes.
Nokes was something of a sensation for young Yankees fans at the time. My only memories of Yankees catchers were Slaught, Geren, and a little Cerone, and none of them had any power. Nokes, on the other hand, simply mashed the ball. He hit more homers in 1991 than Geren hit in his entire career. Slaught hit 14 in his two years with the Yankees and topped 10 homer only twice in his career. Nokes? He led the Yankees in homers in 91 and finished just three behind team-leading Danny Tartabull in 92. All told he knocked 71 homers in 1510 PA for the Yanks from 1990 through 94.
In 1992 the Yankees had acquired another big bat catcher. Despite Nokes’ team-leading production, they signed Mike Stanley as a free agent. The two split time at catcher in ’92 — Stanley had never really handled the position full-time, and he responded by producing a 125 OPS+ in 207 PA. His role expanded in 1993, and he hit even better: a 150 OPS+ in 491 PA. That year the Yankees’ catchers were outhit only by Baltimore’s. That’s what happens when your starting catcher puts up a 1.001 OPS. Seriously.
Stanley served as the Yanks’ backstop during the strike-shortened 1994 season, again producing monster numbers. He was less awesome, but still solid, in 1995, his final season with the Yanks (that time around). After the season the Yankees let him go as a free agent, opting to go with a more defensive-minded, at least by reputation, catcher in 1996. Stanley signed on with the Red Sox, though he’d make his way back to New York in 1997. In what seems to be the last trade between the two clubs, the Yankees acquired Stanley from the Sox for Tony Armas. This is somewhat significant, because the Red Sox used Armas that off-season as part of a package to acquire Pedro Martinez.
It’s no surprise that the Yankees had a revolving door at the catcher position throughout the 80s and 90s. Catchers don’t typically last long, and when they do their teams tend to hang onto them. It’s not easy to acquire a good catcher, and even if you do it 1) costs a lot in a trade or free agency, and 2) might not work out, since catchers can break down at any time. Still, the Yanks particularly struggled when seeking stability at the position. They found a few bright spots along the way, but it wasn’t until Jorge Posada started breaking into the league in 1997 that they found their true replacement for Munson. All told, 20 years between star catchers isn’t that long a stretch.