Prime Time: The Deion Sanders Sideshow


Few athletes in recent history were as physically gifted as Deion Sanders. He was an All-State performer in baseball, football, and basketball in high school, and a two-time All-American football player at Florida State while also running track and playing baseball. Playing one sport at the collegiate level is hard. Sanders played three and was excellent at all of them.

Sanders hit .281 with 38 stolen bases in 76 games for the Seminoles from 1986-87 before the Yankees selected him in the 30th round of the 1988 MLB draft. His football potential was no secret, the Yankees knew keeping him away from the gridiron would be tough, but Sanders agreed to play baseball and the team agreed to let him continue playing football. His first pro contract paid him upwards of $10,000 per week in the minors and included an insurance policy in case he suffered an injury that ruined his football career.

“He’s a good major league prospect, and by that I mean automatically that he could be a starter,” said team executive Syd Thrift to the New York Times that summer. “His greatest asset is his speed, and his fielding is above average. He will learn to be a good hitter; he’s already improved so much in a short period of time. His weakness is only a lack of playing time. I’d hate to see anyone with that talent walk away from the game.”

After signing, Sanders played 28 minor league games in 1988, most in rookie ball but he did climb as high as Triple-A. At age 20, he hit .284/.323/.379 with 14 steals. Sanders returned to Florida State in the fall to play football before reporting to Spring Training with the Yankees. The team assigned him No. 71 in camp — minor leaguers always get high numbers — but Deion’s agent made a big stink, and eventually the team issued Sanders No. 44. ”You don’t have to tell me that,” he said to reporters when asked if he knew who had previously worn No. 44. “He was the man around here for a long time.”

The Yankees sent Sanders to Double-A Albany out of Spring Training in 1989 and, in late-April, the Atlanta Falcons selected him fifth overall in the NFL draft. Sanders hit .286/.380/.361 with 17 steals in 33 games with Albany — his manager: Buck Showalter — and leveraged his NFL career into a big league promotion. ”Football is number one with me,” he said to the Albany Times Union just before the draft. ”This would be a different conversation if we were sitting in Yankee Stadium right now. But to miss half the NFL season for this, that’s crazy.”

So the Yankees called Sanders up at the end of May. He went 7-for-33 (.212) in nine games with the team before being sent down to Triple-A Columbus, where he played 70 games before being called back in September. Sanders was stuck in a contract dispute with the Falcons — he was using the Yankees as leverage in contract talks — and continued to play baseball rather than report to training camp with Atlanta. ”Some interesting things have been going on,” said attorney Eugene Parker to reporters. ”I think it’s fair to say the Yankees have made a serious move on Deion and Deion is listening.”

Sanders played five games in September, including going 3-for-5 with a homer in a game against the Mariners, before reaching a contract agreement with the Falcons and reporting to training camp. The Yankees finished the year 74-87, well out of the postseason race, so it’s not like he abandoned the team in a pennant race. The Yankees outrighted Sanders off the 40-man roster in December just so he could continue playing in Triple-A during the 1990 season should their be a work stoppage. (There was, but it ended in early-April.)

The Yankees and Sanders had a bit of a contract dispute that offseason — once again, he was using his NFL as leverage — but he eventually signed and made the 1990 Opening Day roster as the fourth outfielder. He played very sparingly in April, getting seven plate appearances in eight games before being sent to Triple-A. The Yankees called Sanders back up in late-May, and, on May 22nd, he had a run-in with Carlton Fisk during a game against the White Sox because he didn’t run out an infield pop-up. Fisk cursed at him and told him to run the ball out and Sanders responded by saying “the days of slavery are over.”

Sanders remained with the Yankees through the end of July and was just awful — he hit .158/.236/.271 (42 OPS+) with eight steals in 57 games, mostly as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. He did, however, manage to hit an inside the park home run against the Royals when Bo Jackson, the other two-sport star, missed a diving catch in center field. That was pretty awesome:

Questions about whether Sanders would report to training camp with the Falcons in July persisted all summer. ”I can’t see myself swinging a bat here on Friday night, jumping on Delta, suiting up on Sunday, jumping back on Delta and getting here on Monday,” said Sanders to Michael Martinez in July when asked about playing both sports at the same time. ”I haven’t ruled that out. It would probably be if worse comes to worse.”

Sanders, once again, was using his NFL career as leverage against the Yankees, this time to get a contract extension. The Falcons threatened to reduce his pay and take back part of his signing bonus if he continued his baseball career, but that never happened. In late-July, the Yankees officially cut off contract talks with Sanders, partly because the Falcons were in position to take legal action against them. Sanders the baseball player simply wasn’t worth it, especially since he made it clear football was his top priority.

”Under no circumstances could we offer Deion that kind of salary for the 1991 season. Even so, we still would like Deion to continue with the Yankees and wish him well in whatever he chooses to do,” said George Steinbrenner to Malcolm Moran. Sanders reported to the Falcons and resumed his football career, and, in September, New York placed him on release waivers. The Yankees no longer wanted the distraction. ”It’s just better we part because of the atmosphere here,” said GM Gene Michael to Jack Curry.

All told, Sanders hit a weak .178/.247/.306 (55 OPS+) with five homers and nine stolen bases in 71 games with the Yankees from 1989-90. He was a major distraction off the field in addition to being unproductive on it. Sanders was arrested for assault while in Triple-A in 1989 because he got into a fight with two fans who heckled him, he had the incident with Fisk, he literally drew dollar signs in the dirt in the batter’s box before at-bats, and he was constantly using the Yankees as leverage against the Falcons and vice versa. Deion was so not worth the trouble.

Sanders continued the two-sport thing for a few years, suiting up with the Braves, Reds, and Giants after leaving the Yankees. His baseball career was more or less over by 1997 — he attempted a comeback in 2001 but that wasn’t happening — and to date he is still the only person in history to play in both a Super Bowl (1994 49ers and 1995 Cowboys) and a World Series (1992 Braves). Sanders was an incredible and unforgettable athlete, but he was an awful Yankee.

Willie Randolph and a different path to greatness


Last offseason the Yankees let go of the best hitting second baseman in franchise history. Among second basemen who batted at least 1,000 times in pinstripes, Robinson Cano is the franchise leader in doubles (375), home runs (204), batting average (.309), slugging percentage (.504), OPS (.860), and OPS+ (126). It’s not particularly close in most of those categories either.

A strong case can be made that Cano is not the best second baseman in Yankees history, however. According to both the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs versions of WAR, Cano is no better than the third best second baseman in franchise history. Robbie lags behind some others in on-base percentage and games played — he and the team mutually agreed to part ways, for sure, but tenure counts, no? — and, well, in rings too.

You needn’t take WAR at face value to argue Willie Randolph, not Cano or Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Tony Lazzeri, is the best second baseman in franchise history. Randolph is just behind Lazzeri on the all-time hits (1,784 to 1,731) and on-base percentage (.379 to .374) leaderboards at the position while ranking first in walks (1,005) and steals (251). The gap between Willie and second place is 175 walks and 100 steals, so it’s not close either.

The Yankees originally acquired Randolph in one of the least talked about best trades in franchise history. On December 11th, 1975, New York sent workhorse righty Doc Medich to the Pirates for righty Dock Ellis, lefty Ken Brett, and the Brooklyn-born Randolph. Medich was okay after the trade (95 ERA+ in 1,209.1 IP) but never did repeat the success he had in pinstripes (107 ERA+ in 787 IP). Ellis had a 114 ERA+ in 231.1 IP for the Yankees and Brett was flipped for outfielder Carlos May a few weeks later.

Randolph was obviously the real prize though. As a 21-year-old in 1976, he put up a .356 OBP with 37 steals and was an All-Star. He went to four All-Star Games in his first six years with the Yankees and was a catalyst atop the order for the Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Chris Chambliss led teams that were winning pennants and World Series titles in the late-1970s. In 1986, Randolph was named the team’s co-captain with Ron Guidry. He and the Yankees eventually parted ways after the 1988 season, when Willie put up a career worst 77 OPS+ at age 33.

Although he was never the biggest name or the biggest star on the team, Randolph was consistently one of the best players on the Yankees during his 13 seasons in pinstripes. He just went about it in a way that was underappreciated at the time. Randolph was a classic number one or two hitter who controlled the bat well but he never really bunted — averaged six sac bunts per year with the Yankees — and had zero power. He had a career .075 ISO and averaged only 20 doubles and four homers per season in New York.

What Randolph did do, however, were two things that didn’t really become highly sought after skills until this century: he drew a ton of walks and played some crazy good defense. Willie averaged 77 walks per year with New York and led the league with 119 free passes in 1980. Not only did he never once strike out more than he walked, he averaged 38 more walks than strikeouts per season while in pinstripes. The closest his strikeout total ever came to his walk total was in 1977, when he walked 64 times and struck out 53 times.

Because he excelled at drawing walks and putting the bat on the ball while having zero power, Randolph managed to post a higher OBP (.374) than SLG (.357) during his 13 seasons in New York. His career numbers are a .373 OBP and a .351 SLG. Only 108 players in history have batted at least 3,000 times and finished their careers with a higher OBP than SLG, and, of those 108, Willie ranks 21st in OBP and fifth in plate appearances (9,461). Of the 20 players with a higher OBP, only two (Dave Magadan and Brett Butler) started their careers after 1975.

Measuring defensive skill is a bit tougher than measuring offense, especially since we’re talking about the late-1970s and 1980s. Among second basemen, Randolph is seventh all-time in games at the position (2,152), ninth in putouts (4,859), tenth in assists (6,336), third in double plays turned (1,547), and sixth in defensive WAR (19.4). Following the 1977 season, Rangers scout Joe Branzell filed this scouting report on Randolph and praised his defense (via Diamond Minds):

Willie Randolph scouting report

On the 2-8 scouting scale (some use 20-80, some use 2-8, same thing), a 6 is above-average and 7 is well-above-average. Branzell gave Randolph a 7 for his range and 6s for his arm strength, arm accuracy, and fielding ability. Clearly, at least one scout considered Willie an above-average defender, which matches his reputation. Randolph never did win a Gold Glove, however, mostly because Gold Gloves are stupid and historically have been a popularity contest more than a “who’s actually the best fielder?” award.

Players like Randolph — powerless bat control specialists on the middle infield — were not uncommon back in the day, but very few were as great in that role as Willie. He drew a ton of walks, never struck out, never hit for power, and played a mean second base for 13 years in pinstripes and 18 years overall. Randolph was a great Yankee, arguably the best second baseman in franchise history, and he did it with a unique skill set that is more highly valued in today’s game than it was three decades ago.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

On this date in 1998, the Yankees named Brian Cashman their new general manager after Bob Watson stepped down. At age 30, Cashman was then the second youngest GM in history. ”I think I’m better prepared than other people for this job because my entire pro career has been with the New York Yankees. I started here right out of college. This is all I know,” said Cashman at his introductory press conference. Eighteen years, man. That’s a long time in that line of work.

This is your open thread for the night. The Knicks, Islanders, and Devils are all playing and there’s a bunch of college basketball on the schedule as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Passan: Yoan Moncada officially a free agent and able to sign

(Jesse Sanchez)
(Jesse Sanchez)

3:55pm: Kiley McDaniel says MLB will now accept a general license from the OFAC and a “sworn statement [from the player] that the prospect permanently resides outside of Cuba and has no intent to return to Cuba.” McDaniel also says this only applies to players who have already left Cuba, like Moncada, who now resides in Guatemala.

3:43pm: According to Jeff Passan, Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is now officially free to sign after MLB changes its rules regarding Office of Foreign Assets Control licensing. MLB had required a “specific license” from the OFAC before a player can sign but presumably now only requires a more basic “general license.” MLB used to accept general licenses but changed their policy a few years ago.

Now that Moncada is able to sign, the Yankees are free to pursue him and can offer him any amount. Had MLB not gotten its act together before June 15th, the team would not have been able to offer him more than $300,000 due to the penalties stemming from their international spending spree last summer. Most expect Moncada to receive a bonus in the $30M to $40M range, which would be taxed at 100% no matter who signs him.

By all accounts, the 19-year-old Moncada is a potential switch-hitting star with five tools. The expectation is that he will settle in as a second or third baseman when it’s all said and done, but I expect whoever signs him to at least keep him at shortstop for a little while to see if he improves. The Yankees are considered one of the “heavy favorites” to sign Moncada and have already had him in for a private workout at their complex in Tampa.

I’m guessing Moncada will have a deal in place before Spring Training. He wants to get paid and start his career, not sit around even longer than he already has. Now that MLB stopped dragging its feet, Moncada can begin negotiating with teams in earnest and get the process started. Since we’re talking about a $60M to $80M up front payment (bonus plus tax), the Yankees should have an advantage over smaller market teams. We’ll see.

The thanklessly reliable Ramiro Mendoza


By any measure, Mariano Rivera is the greatest pitcher to ever come out of Panama. Arguably the second best pitcher from the country was Rivera’s teammate from 1996 through 2002, right-hander Ramiro Mendoza. The Yankees signed Mendoza as an amateur free agent in November 1991 — nearly two years after signing Rivera — and he gradually climbed the minor league ladder while receiving little fanfare.

As a 21-year-old, Mendoza posted a 2.78 ERA in 71.1 innings in 1993, most with the team’s rookie ball affiliate in the Gulf Coast League. The Yankees jumped Mendoza to High-A Tampa the next season, where he had a 3.01 ERA in 134.1 innings. One year later, he had a 3.13 ERA in 103.2 innings split between Double-A Norwich and Triple-A Columbus. In just three pro seasons, Mendoza had climbed six levels of minor league ball and put himself on the MLB map.

The Yankees sent Mendoza back to Triple-A Columbus to start the 1996 season but called him up when a starter was needed in May. On May 25th, the then-24-year-old Mendoza made his MLB debut in Seattle, holding the Mariners to three runs in six innings. It all went downhill after that. Mendoza allowed four runs in 3.2 innings against the Angels four days later and 25 runs in 26.1 innings in the month of June overall.

Following a five-run, two-inning disaster against the Red Sox on July 15th, Mendoza was sent back to the minors. “It was tough for him to gain confidence this way. He’s got big league stuff. He will be a big leaguer. It’s just a matter of time,” said manager Joe Torre to reporters after the demotion. Mendoza had an 8.05 ERA in 38 innings at the time. He pitched well in Triple-A (2.51 ERA in 97 innings) before resurfacing as a September call-up.

The Yankees did not carry Mendoza on their postseason roster in 1996 but he did make the Opening Day roster in 1997. Well, sorta. Mendoza won the fifth starter’s job in Spring Training but scheduled off-days allowed the team to skip his first two starts, so he started the year in Triple-A to stay sharp before making his season debut on April 13th, in the team’s 11th game of the year. He allowed six runs in 4.2 innings against the Athletics.

Mendoza had a 7.08 ERA in his first four starts of the season before settling down and firing three straight strong starts in mid-May. More importantly, his teammates were impressed. ”I don’t think anybody’s questioning (if he’s an MLB caliber pitcher),” said Paul O’Neill to Malcolm Moran. ”He had a great Spring Training this year. He’s not a guy that’s going to blow people away or a guy that’s going to be on Rotisserie League teams. He’s going to throw strikes, and he’s not going to be scared. You can see that when he takes the mound.”

Although he opened the year as the fifth starter, Mendoza was simply keeping the spot warm all season for Doc Gooden, who was coming back from hernia surgery. Mendoza moved into the bullpen in June and took over as the team’s do everything guy, pitching in short relief, long relief, mop-up situations, high-leverage spots, you name it. He made relief appearances as short as two batters faced and as long as 21 batters faced. Mendoza did it all.

Ramiro finished his first full big league season with a 4.24 ERA (106 ERA+) in 133.2 innings across 15 starts and 24 relief appearances. He earned the win with 3.1 scoreless innings of one-hit ball in Game One of the 1997 ALDS against the Indians and took the loss in Game Four when he allowed a walk-off single to Omar Vizquel. The Yankees dropped the series in five games. It was a disappointing season for the team but a successful one for Mendoza, who established himself as a big leaguer.

Mendoza again worked as a swingman in 1998 — he started the season in the rotation but eventually lost his spot when David Cone got healthy and Orlando Hernandez debuted and dominated — and had his best season, pitching to a 3.25 ERA (137 ERA+) in 130.1 innings. He started 14 games and came out of the bullpen 27 times. In three postseason appearances, he allowed one run in 5.1 relief innings as the Yankees won their second World Series title in three years.

Although he was in role short on glamour, Mendoza had entrenched himself as a valuable piece of the pitching staff and carved out a spot in Torre’s Circle of Trustâ„¢. ”He’s versatile, he throws strikes, he’s durable and he’s never had any arm problems,” said VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman to Buster Olney in 1998. Other clubs began to notice him too — the Yankees declined to part with Mendoza in trade talks for Randy Johnson and Chuck Knoblauch.

From 1996-98, Mendoza had a 4.26 ERA (107 ERA+) in 317 innings despite striking out only 4.9 batters per nine innings, well short of the league average. If Rivera was a one-trick pony with his cutter, Mendoza was a one-trick pony with his sinker, which he used to get 1.87 ground ball outs for every one fly ball out from 1996-98. Here’s Olney on Mendoza’s sinker:

Mendoza generates sinkers by cocking his wrist, with his index finger and middle finger gripping the ball along the seams, and then snapping his wrist and fingers at the instant of delivery, like a buggy whip, and the ball spins with unusual alacrity.

Cone thinks Mendoza’s relatively long fingers create the additional torque; Newman theorizes that it could be the flexibility of Mendoza’s wrist — ”He has absolutely no stiffness” — or any number of factors.

Mendoza learned the sinker in the minors and initially wanted to scrap the pitch because it moved so much he was unable to control it. His pitching coaches and managers made him stick with the pitch and eventually he was able to locate it properly.

Because the Yankees had a stacked rotation in the late-1990s, Mendoza’s appearances as a starter became more and more limited. He started only six games in 1999 and nine games in 2000, then only two in 2001 and none in 2002. He had a 4.28 ERA (111 ERA+) in 189.1 innings from 1999-2000 and slightly improved his strikeout rate to 5.2 strikeouts per nine innings. From 2001-02, he had a 3.60 ERA (124 ERA+) in 192.1 innings and boosted his strikeout rate to 6.1 per nine.

The Yankees left Mendoza off their ALDS roster in 1999 but added him for the ALCS, in which he retired all seven batters he faced. That included recording the final five outs in the decisive Game Five, which the Yankees won 6-1 to take the series four games to one.

Mendoza was left off the 2000 postseason roster entirely due to a shoulder issue but was the team’s best non-Rivera reliever in the 2001 postseason, allowing one run in 12.1 innings across eight appearances. From 1997-2001, Mendoza had a 2.36 ERA in 26.2 playoff innings, all out of the bullpen. He was a workhorse during the regular season and a bullpen force in October.

At age 30, Mendoza qualified for free agency after the 2002 season, and he made it clear he wanted to return to the Yankees. “I want to die here,” he told Tyler Kepner on locker clean out day. MLB implemented the luxury tax system after the season, however, and the Yankees were being careful with their money during the 2002-03 offseason. They wanted to make sure they had enough payroll space to sign Jose Contreras and Hideki Matsui, specifically.

Mendoza wanted a multi-year contract. Instead, the Yankees declined to offer him arbitration, meaning they were not allowed to negotiate with him until May 1st of the 2003 season. So, rather than die in pinstripes, Mendoza took a two-year contract worth $6.5M from the Red Sox just before the New Year. He had been on the disabled list at least once each year from 2000-02, so Boston made sure to check him out physically before agreeing to the contract.

“We’re very happy to have him in our bullpen,” said Red Sox GM Theo Epstein to the Associated Press. “Before the process even started we gave him a thorough physical in Fort Myers. He had MRIs on his shoulder and his elbow and he checked out extremely well. We had no reservations whatsoever. It was important we made sure he was healthy before making this kind of commitment.”

Mendoza held up physically in year one of his new contract but was a disaster on the mound — he had a 6.75 ERA (69 ERA+) in 66.2 innings spanning five starts and 32 relief appearances. A knee injury sidelined him for a big chunk of time in the middle of the season, and, aside from Game 162 after the team had clinched, manager Terry Francona did not once use Mendoza when the score was separated by fewer than seven runs (!) after July. Understandably, he was left of the postseason roster.

Offseason shoulder surgery and subsequent inflammation kept Mendoza out until mid-July in 2004, and although he put up a strong 3.52 ERA (138 ERA+) that year, he only threw 30.2 innings, easily the fewest of his career. Mendoza appeared in two postseason games for the Red Sox, allowing one run in two innings against the Yankees in the ALCS. Boston let him walk after the season, after Mendoza gave them 97.1 innings with a 5.73 ERA (83 ERA+) during his two-year contract. He was he original Embedded Yankee.

The Yankees gave Mendoza a minor league contract during the 2004-05 offseason but he spent most of the season hurt, appearing in only 17 minor league innings. The team did call him up in September and he made his only big league appearance of the year — and the final appearance of his career — on September 1st, when he allowed two runs in one inning. His MLB career started in Seattle against the Mariners and it ended there as well.

Mendoza did not pitch at all from 2006-08 though he didn’t retire either. He was on Panama’s roster for the 2009 World Baseball Classic and allowed five runs (two earned) in four innings in his only appearance, a start. Mendoza signed a minor league contract with the Brewers after the tournament but failed the physical. He instead spent that summer in independent ball, putting up a 3.83 ERA in 87 innings across 15 starts and two relief appearances for the Newark Bears.

Three years later, Mendoza again pitched for Panama in the World Baseball Classic, throwing 8.2 scoreless innings in three relief appearances in the qualifying round during the 2012-13 offseason. Just three offseasons ago, at age 40 and nearly a decade removed from his last MLB appearance, Mendoza still had his sinker working in the 2013 WBC qualifiers:

Those late-1990s Yankees teams will always be remember for the stars. The stars and winning. Guys like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, and Rivera led the club to tremendous success and a whole lot of World Series titles. It was a great time.

Baseball is a team sport though, and someone has to do the thankless dirty work. Mendoza was a thankless dirty worker from 1996 through 2002. He started, he relieved, he soaked up innings, and he received no accolades for being reliable and trustworthy. By swingman standards, Mendoza was as good as it gets.

Dave Righetti and two important Yankees’ decisions


The Dave Righetti era in the Bronx started because of Goose Gossage. Left-hander Sparky Lyle had been the Yankees’ go-to ninth inning reliever from 1972-77, compiling 132 saves with a 2.23 ERA in 634 innings during that time. He pitched so well in 1977 — 2.17 ERA with 26 saves in 137 innings — that he was named the AL Cy Young award winner, beating out Jim Palmer (2.91 ERA in 319 innings) and Nolan Ryan (2.77 ERA in 299 innings), among others.

Lyle pitched well enough in 1977 to win the Cy Young but not well enough to stop the Yankees from replacing him. The team signed Goose Gossage to a six-year contract worth $2.75M that offseason and gave him the closer’s job. Gossage saved 27 games with a 2.01 ERA in 134.1 innings during his first year in New York while Lyle put up a 3.47 ERA in 111.2 innings as a middle reliever. Both were a big part of the team as they won their second straight World Series title.

At age 27, Gossage was seven years younger than Lyle and flat out better. He made Lyle expendable. So, on November 10th, 1978, the Yankees shipped Lyle to the Rangers in a massive ten-player trade. Lyle went to Texas with four prospects (catcher Mike Heath, shortstop Domingo Ramos, and lefties Larry McCall and Dave Rajsich) for light-hitting veteran outfielder Juan Beniquez and four prospects (outfielder Greg Jemison, righty Mike Griffin, and lefties Paul Mirabella and Righetti).

Although it was a ten-player swap, the principals were Lyle, Mirabella, and Righetti. Lyle was Lyle, a Cy Young award winning veteran reliever, and Mirabella and Righetti were two highly touted young players. Mirabella was the 21st overall pick in the 1976 January draft and Righetti was the tenth overall pick in the 1977 January draft. The Yankees flipped Mirabella to the Blue Jays in the Chris Chambliss/Rick Cerone trade the following offseason but they held on to Righetti.

Righetti was only 20 years old at the time of the trade and he spent most of the 1979 season in the minors, where he had a 2.31 ERA with 122 strikeouts in 109 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A. He made his MLB debut in September and had a 3.63 ERA in 17.1 innings across three starts. Righetti spent the entire 1980 season in Triple-A and was pretty awful — he had a 4.63 ERA with 139 strikeouts and 101 walks in 142 innings. The Yankees declined to call him up in September.

”I don’t mind still being a rookie, but I got tired of being a ‘flame-throwing prospect,”’ said Righetti to Dave Anderson early in the 1981 season. ”Especially when I went home to San Jose, California, last year after the record I had in Columbus last season. All my friends kept asking me, ‘What happened?’ Even people I didn’t know would come up on the street and ask me.”

Righetti had a strong Spring Training in 1981 but the team send him back to Triple-A anyway, where he put up a 1.00 ERA with 50 strikeouts and 26 walks in 45 innings across seven starts. ”At least they told me that if I pitched well (in Triple-A), I’d be back soon,” said Righetti to Anderson. ”I tried to make sure that I pitched well … Getting a taste of the big leagues two years ago made me want to get back here.”

Tommy John’s ailing back helped clear a rotation spot for Righetti, who, at age 22, got his first extended taste of the show. He allowed two runs in seven innings against the Indians in his first start, then held those same Indians to two runs (one earned) in eight innings next time out. Eight shutout innings against the Orioles followed that. In his first eleven starts of the 1981 season Righetti had a 1.59 ERA with 71 strikeouts and 28 walks in 79.1 innings. He finished the regular season with a 2.05 ERA and 89 strikeouts with 38 walks in 15 starts and 105.1 innings, which earned him the AL Rookie of the Year award with ease.

The Yankees won the AL pennant in 1981 thanks in large part to Righetti. He struck out ten in six scoreless innings in Game Two of the ALDS against the Brewers, then came out of the bullpen to throw three innings of one-run ball in the decisive Game Five. In his Game Three start against the Athletics in the ALCS, Righetti threw six more scoreless innings. His worst postseason start came in Game Three of the World Series, when Ron Cey clubbed a three-run homer in the first inning. Righetti allowed three runs in two innings before being replaced.

It was a disappointing end to the season — the Dodgers won the World Series four games to two with Righetti lined up to start Game Seven — but Righetti had established himself as a bonafide big league starter. He spent the 1982 season in New York’s rotation and had a 3.79 ERA with 163 strikeouts in 183 innings spread across 27 starts and six relief appearances. The problem? He led the league with 108 walks. He rebounded during he 1983 season to post a 3.44 ERA with 169 strikeouts in 217 innings while cutting his walk total down to 67. On July 4th of that season, he became the first Yankee to throw a no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

Through age 24, Righetti had a 3.29 ERA (117 ERA+) with a well-above-average 7.5 K/9 — the AL average was 4.7 K/9 from 1979-83, if you can believe that — in 522.2 career innings. He also had a Rookie of the Year award and World Series experience to his credit. Righetti wasn’t a star, per se, but he was a damn fine Major League starter and a promising piece of the Yankees rotation going forward. The kind of player every team would love to have. So, naturally, the Yankees took him out of the rotation and moved him to the bullpen full-time for the 1984 season.

Gossage took a five-year contract from the Padres after the 1983 season, leaving New York with a big hole in the bullpen. George Frazier was traded to the Indians that offseason as well, further decimating the reliever corps. ”We’ve talked about all the starters (taking over as closer) at one point or another,” said GM Murray Cook to Murray Chass after the Frazier trade. ”(Manager Yogi Berra) will talk to each one in Spring Training and make a decision. We’re not going to do anything between now and then.”

The Yankees got off to a dreadful start in 1984. The team went 8-17 in its first 25 games and 22-31 in their first 53 games. Righetti was doing his part in the bullpen but the rotation was unimpressive — the starting staff had a 4.03 ERA during those first 53 games, slightly better than the 4.19 ERA league average. ”No one has picked up the slack there. That made it even harder to take. I knew I could do the job as a starter. That made it tougher to make the move,” said Righetti to Chass in early-June.

Righetti was dominant in his first season as a reliever, saving 31 games with a 2.34 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 96.1 innings. The team went 87-75 and finished in third place in the AL East, their third straight postseason-less year after winning four pennants and two World Series titles from 1976-81. Both Berra and GM Clyde King wanted to keep Righetti in the bullpen, and, after a brief dance with free agent closer Bruce Sutter that offseason, the bullpen is where Righetti remained.

Ed Whitson was brought in to solidify the rotation and Righetti again dominated out of the bullpen in 1985, saving 29 games with a 2.78 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 107 innings. The Yankees went 97-64 but missed the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. Righetti was a first-time All-Star and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting the following season — he led MLB with 46 saves and had a 2.45 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 106.2 innings in 1986 — though the Yankees went 90-72 and again missed the postseason.

From 1984-90, Righetti was New York’s ninth inning stopper and one of the best relievers in all of baseball. He ranked second in saves (223, one behind Jeff Reardon), second in innings (614), and third in strikeouts (506) among full-time relievers from 1984-90, and among the 182 pitchers who threw at least 500 innings during those years, only four bested his 137 ERA+. Righetti was dominant. And the Yankees never once made the postseason from 1984-90.


Righetti became a free agent after the 1987 season and returned to the Yankees on a three-year contract worth $4.5M after reportedly spurning a lucrative offer from the Tokyo Giants. Righetti became a free agent again after the 1990 season and, at age 31, winning had become the priority. The Yankees went 67-95 in 1990 and had traded away several big name players in recent years, including Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield. Righetti’s return to New York was not a given.

“We’re negotiating to the extent we’re still speaking warmly with each other about the length of contract,” said Bill Goodstein, Righetti’s agent, to Michael Martinez in September 1990. “The Yankees have given me parameters of the kind of money they’re willing to pay, but I can tell you that I have absolutely rejected those parameters because they were unacceptably low.”

The Yankees and GM Gene Michael were sticking to a three-year contract offer but Goodstein was looking for five years — “If Bud Black can come up with four years, why shouldn’t Righetti command a five-year contract?” he said to Martinez — and had begun talking to other teams. The Yankees, meanwhile, added some bullpen insurance by signing Steve Farr to a three-year contract worth $6.3M. “I think our bullpen would be okay without Righetti,” said Michael to Jack Curry after the Farr signing.

One week after the Yankees signed Farr, Righetti decided to leave the only big league team he’d ever known — he was the Yankees’ all-time saves leader at the time — and took a four-year contract worth $10M from the Giants, who had just won the NL pennant. The Yankees’ offer reportedly topped out at three years and $9.3M. Righetti, who grew up in San Jose, told Chass he “would have loved to stay in the right circumstances.”

“We had a set policy and we weren’t going to break it,” said Yankees vice president George Bradley to Chass. “It was an organizational decision. We were all in agreement. I think more than three years is a big risk with a pitcher. Three years is a risk, too … Anytime you lose a player of that caliber, it’s a big loss.”

Farr, the new closer, was excellent in both 1991 (2.19 ERA with 23 saves in 70 innings) and 1992 (1.56 ERA and 30 innings in 52 innings) before slipping in 1993 (4.21 ERA and 25 saves in 47 innings), the final year of his contract. The Yankees let him walk as a free agent and used the late Steve Howe as their closer in 1994 before bringing in John Wetteland for 1995.

Righetti, meanwhile, was very good with the Giants in 1991, saving 24 games with a 3.39 ERA in 71.2 innings. He started to fall apart the following season though, pitching to a 5.06 ERA in 78.1 innings in 1992 and a 5.70 ERA in 47.1 innings in 1993. San Francisco released him following the 1993 season. Righetti had a 5.94 ERA in 69.2 innings with the Athletics, Blue Jays, and White Sox from 1994-95 to close out his playing career. He took over as the Giants pitching coach in 2000 and has been there ever since.

Holding firm on a three-year offer and losing Rags as a free agent was an unpopular decision but ultimately the right one for the Yankees, in hindsight. His golden left arm had just one good year left in it and the Yankees replaced him with the cheaper and more effective Farr. The decision to move Righetti into the bullpen in the first place is the one that deserved plenty of second guessing. His potential as a starter is one of the franchise’s great “what if” scenarios.

Monday Night Open Thread

As you probably noticed earlier today, this week is Retro Week here at RAB. Spring Training is still a few weeks away and there’s not a whole lot going on in Yankeeland, so this is the perfect time to turn back the clock and re-live some old stories. We did this a few years ago and people loved it, so what it heck, why not do it again? Hope you enjoy the week.

Here is tonight’s open thread. Both the (hockey) Rangers and Nets are playing, and there are two college basketball games on the schedule as well. Talk about those games, Retro Week, the snow, or anything else right here.