Archive for Days of Yore

With a victory over Washington yesterday afternoon the Yankees swept their third straight series, extending their winning streak to nine games. After an uninspiring start to the season, this is just the jolt that they needed. They now come home with the best winning percentage in the AL, and the second best win percentage in the majors. The best part: the streak is still going.

The current win streak harkens back just three years to 2009, when the Yankees also got off to a relatively poor start. After losing a pair of two-game series to Boston and Tampa Bay, the Yanks sat at 13-15. They got the ball rolling the next game, when Alex Rodriguez hit a three-run homer on his first swing of the season and CC Sabathia shut out the Orioles. They won that series, but then lost the first game against Toronto. After that, however, they started to turn around the season.

Against Toronto, Minnesota, and Baltimore they rattled off nine straight wins, improving to 24-17. After the losses to Boston and Tampa Bay they were 5.5 games back in the East. Two weeks later, after the nine-game streak, they were just 1.5 games back in the East and had moved a whopping four games ahead of Tampa Bay. There were fits and starts after that, but that win streak got them moving in the right direction. A seven-game streak in late June turned them around for good.

Yet that might not have been the most season-altering streak in recent memory. In 2005 the Yankees got off to their now infamous 11-19 start. They were nine games back in the East at that point, but things would turn around quickly. Tino Martinez fueled the ensuing 10-game winning streak, going 12 for 38 with a double and eight home runs on his way to 19 RBI. The Yankees went from nine back in the East to five back. Though it took two months for them to finally reach first place, it’s the win streak that got them moving.

The Yankees started this current streak in quite a different position. They were already 31-25 before it started, and were just a half game back in the AL East. That’s because they rattled off a five-game win streak in late May, after dropping to .500 against Kansas City. So while the streak is only at nine, it’s really 19 of 23. The best part about this stretch is that during it they’ve played just three teams below .500: Kansas City, Oakland, and Detroit. The entire nine-game streak has been against teams above .500.

In 2005 and 2009, the Yankees absolutely needed those streaks. In 2005 they were at a low point and needed an immediate turnaround. In 2009 the expectations were so high that the constant losses to Boston stung that much more. During those streaks they made up lost ground and got themselves back in the picture. This year is a bit different. They had started playing well before the streak, and this surge sent them to to the top. If the aftereffect is anything like those years, though, we can expect dominance from here on out.

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May
23

Catching up with A.J. Burnett

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(Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, the Yankees had a surplus of starting pitching. So much so that they traded one of the only 16 pitchers to make at least 32 starts in each of the last three seasons to the Pirates for a pair of fringe prospects and $13M in salary relief. New York’s rotation has been inconsistent and adequate at best while A.J. Burnett has toiled in relative obscurity in Pittsburgh. Contending is a pipe dream, but Burnett recently told both Brian Costa and Andy McCullough that he’s enjoying his new surroundings.

“It’s completely different,” he said. “I can go out there and do what I want, how I want, when I want to. If I want to turn around upside down, I can do it — as long as I throw a strike. It was always the pressure I put on myself to do so good. And now, I’m just out there, just doing it.”

Like every other ex-Yankee, Burnett takes advantage of the freedom to don some horrible facial hair. He traded a college fund for a uniform number and keeps fishing poles at his locker in PNC Park while his 2009 World Series ring is tucked away at home. He still talks to CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, David Robertson, and others regularly but also acknowledges that he prefers the levity of his new situation.

“I’d get 3-0 on the first batter, and you’d hear a bunch of people,” he added. “My first start, I walked the bases loaded here. I can’t even imagine what [Yankee Stadium] would have sounded like over there, and there was maybe like two words that came out of the crowd here. So it’s just different.”

Burnett owns an unsightly 4.78 ERA in six starts for the Pirates, but most of that stems from a 2.2-inning, 12-run disaster against the Cardinals a few weeks ago. He’s allowed no more than two runs or thrown fewer than six innings in any of his other five starts, including seven shutout innings against St. Louis in his first appearance of the year. As you know, he missed the first few weeks of the season after fouling a ball off his face in Spring Training and fracturing his orbital bone. His 3.46 FIP is by far his best since a 3.45 mark with the Blue Jays in 2008, the year before he came to New York.

Do the Yankees miss Burnett? Despite their sketchy rotation, I don’t believe so. Burnett helped the Yankees win a World Championship and if you do that, you’re cool with me. That doesn’t mean you get to keep your job forever though. He was good for innings but not much else these last two years and the move to the easier league seems to have served him well at this point of his career. It doesn’t sound like A.J. misses the Yankees but not in a mean-spirited way. Things here had run their course.

“I had my good times there, though” said Burnett. “I don’t regret it at all. I don’t. I regret not performing better.”

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The Yanks will sport throwback 1912 hats today to honor the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park.

While watching the Twins and Yankees play on Wednesday night, I took stock of the field and shook my head at the Twins’ uniforms. Minnesota sometimes sports these alternate road jerseys with grey pants, and the team looked as though they were more prepared for a Spring Training game than a regular season affair.

The Twins though aren’t the only team with solid color tops. All across baseball, either as part of a marketing effort or to vary up the styles, clubs have added alternate uniforms. The Angels were sporting solid red tops over the weekend; the Blue Jays wear something that’s, well, very blue; and the Red Sox too have solid red or blue tops for home or away games, respectively. Call me old fashioned — or a Yankee fan — but I much prefer the solid look.

The Yankees, meanwhile, have not broken with tradition. Except for one game during which MLB honored the Negro Leagues, the Bombers have steadfastly refused to discard their now-famous home pinstripes or road greys. The uniform may have looked a little different in the earlier decades of the 20th Century but for over 50 years, since the Yanks ditched the alternate road jersey in 1943, the club has adhered to tradition through thick, thin and whatever MLB marketing gimmick crossed its path.

That is, they’ve adhered to this tradition until today. When the Yankees and Red Sox take the field in a few hours at Fenway Park, they will be dressed in modern garb updated to resemble the 1912 team. It’s Throwback Day for the Yanks for the first time in franchise history. It’s finally okay to tinker with obdurate tradition as long as the club is honoring that tradition, and I like it.

For the game today, the Yanks will sport the cap atop this post. It’s an updated look on the 1912 original. This one, from New Era, is a bit different from the 1910-1911 Cooperstown Cap. The interlocking NY is the modern version and not the compressed version from the past. The colors though — a grey cap with a navy blue bill — are sleek.

The jersey, above, are similar yet different. Gone is the New York in block letters across the front, and the interlocking logo looks a bit more historic. The serifs on the letters are more pronounced and wider, and there will be no names or numbers on the back. It’s a look straight of the time when the AL ball club had yet to settle on an identity. They weren’t quite the Highlanders as many believe today, but they weren’t yet fully embraced as the Yankees yet. (The club will also be sporting appropriate stir-ups with the high-sock look.)

I enjoy this nod toward tradition. It’s not garish; it’s not ruining the Yankee brand or the Yankee legacy. It’s a glimpse of history in 2012. And at least the Yankees of 1912 had that identifiable logo and branding. The Red Sox throwback hat is, on the other hand, such a hilarious beauty that you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

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As Yankee fans in the early 21st Century, we have it good. Anyone who grew up in the 1980s barely remembers the team when they were bad, and fans who came of age during the last 17 seasons know only the good. In fact, most Yankee fans alive today know only the good. In the team’s history there are only three distinct periods of bad: the Don Mattingly years, the New York Highlander years and that time from the end of the Mick’s playing days until 1976.

That second era of bad Yankee years started in around 1965 when my dad was a teenager. After losing the 1964 World Series, the Yanks finished 6th, 10th, 9th, 5th and 5th again, and they lost Mickey Mantle, a generation-defining great. For those who came of age, then, during that late 1960s/early 1970s period, this Dan Barry piece in The Times should ring true. He came of age during one of those rare moments in Yankee history when the team bad. When he was 8, the Yanks finished in last place; when I was 7 the 1990 Yankees accomplished the same feat.

Today, we forgot those eras when another team ruled New York. In the early 20th Century, the Giants captured the town while the 1969 Mets and 1986 Mets were the feel-good stories those years. Today and for most of the past two decades, it’s always been about the Yanks. Maybe one day, they’ll be a so-called second division team, but it’s tough to say when. They just keeping winning, and those of us who remember the mid-1960s or early 1990s think of those seasons, rightly so, as blips on the long-running Yankee radar of greatness.

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(Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The Yankees said goodbye to A.J. Burnett over the weekend, eating a big chunk of the $33M left on his contract in order to send him to the Pirates. He seemed like a nice enough guy but was one of the most frustrating pitchers to watch that I’ve ever seen, and while we appreciate his contributions to the 2009 World Championship, none of us are going to lose sleep over his departure. It’s just the way it is.

A.J. did have some fine moments as a Yankee, though over the last two seasons the team had a knack for giving him zero run support whenever he did throw a gem. Of the 12 times he threw at least seven innings and gave up no more than two runs since the start of 2010, the Yankees lost four times. That’s just not supposed to happen with this offense and bullpen. Anyway, we’re going to look back at Burnett’s five greatest starts as a Yankee using a simple metric called Game Score. Wikipedia has the nuts and bolts, if you’re interested. Fifty is an average Game Score, and the highest ever recorded was Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game (105). Anything above 75 or so is pretty stellar.

Game Two of the 2009 World Series does not make this list; it was the eighth best start of Burnett’s three years in the Bronx with a Game Score of 72. That said, it was easily his biggest moment as a Yankee given the pressure and everything riding on that game. As you’ll notice, four of Burnett’s five best games came back in 2009, which isn’t surprising given how awful he’s been over the last two years.

5. July 27th, 2009 @ Rays (box) (video) (RAB recap)
Pitching Line: 7 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 114 pitches
Game Score: 74

The Yankees were in cruise control by this point of the season, already well on their way to clinching the AL East title in late-July. The lineup gave Burnett an early three-run cushion by starting the second inning with a single, a double, and a triple off Jamie Shields, allowing their right-hander to pitch around baserunners in the first (walk), second (walk), and third (single) innings. A.J. was perfect in the fourth and fifth before allowing a run to score on an Evan Longoria ground ball double play in the sixth.

The Phils – Coke and Hughes – were both unavailable that night, so the bullpen was pretty thin. Joe Girardi sent Burnett back out for seventh with his pitch count already over the century mark, but he got three outs on just ten pitches. He gave up only two ground ball singles (one towards third and the other between first and second), though he did allow one other baserunner when B.J. Upton reached base on a wild pitch following a strikeout. The offense blew things open late and the Yanks sailed to an easy win.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feb
13

The Tragic Tale of Steve Howe

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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.

(Jed Jacobsohn/Getty)

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.”

(Photo via MonsterMarketplace.com)

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.”

(Jonathan Daniel/Allsport)

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.

(Bob Sherman/AP)

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.

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Perez’s 1990 Topps card

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.

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Feb
12

The Evolution of “Retro”

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Hello and goodbye, childhood.


(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.)

Categories : Days of Yore, Musings
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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.

Transaction explosion

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.

1980: 4
1981: 10
1982: 8
1983: 9
1984: 10
1985: 6
1986: 8
1987: 10
1988: 7
1989: 14

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.

Dennis Rasmussen

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.

Tim Burke

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.

Categories : Days of Yore
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