Some baseball fans have been predicting, and anticipating the Yankees’ fall for four or five years now. The critics have been louder than ever this spring considering the team’s mediocre start. The years 1965 and 1982 have been invoked as reminders of what could happen to the current team. Yesterday, veteran New York scribe, Vic Zeigel wrote a piece in the Daily News, making the 1965 comparison:
The Nothing Lasts Forever Club, the Bronx chapter, is about to meet for the first time since 1965. Warning: the last meeting came a year too late and was no help at all.
…The Yankees keep telling us it’s early, way early. That there’s plenty of time, plenty. (“Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins, just you wait.”) But what if these April problems aren’t solved? October doesn’t come with a guarantee. Early can get late, and time isn’t always on your side. Could it be that this team has the disease of 1965?
When George Steinbrenner hired a motivational coach last week, memories of the 1982 team came rushing back. That was the year Steinbrenner made the mistake of trying to build a team around speed. (The local press eventually dubbed the team “The Bronx Burners.”) After the Yankees lost the 1981 World Serious to the Dodgers, and the Boss apologized to the fans on behalf of his team, he allowed Reggie Jackson to walk away as a free agent. Steinbrenner ostensibly replaced Jackson’s power with Ken Griffey in right, and Oscar Gamble at DH. Davey Collins was signed as a free agent, and Jerry Mumphrey, Lou Piniella, and Bobby Murcer, all competed for playing time in the outfield (Dave Winfield, of course, was the left fielder).
Steinbrenner tried to hire Lou Brock as a speed-instructor, but negotiations fell apart when the Yankees wanted Brock to also serve as a scouting supervisor. Instead, George brought in former Olympic track star Harrison Dillard—Dillard won four gold medals in the 1948 and 1952 games. In the 1950s, Steinbrenner once raced against Dillard when they were both hurdlers. When he was contracted to serve as the Yankees’ running instructor, the 58-year old Dillard had been working as the director of purchasing for the Cleveland School System. In article written by Murray Chass on March 1, 1982, Dillard said:
George Steinbrenner asked me to come down and look at the guys and see if I could make any suggestions about their running styles…If you improve style, theoretically you improve speed. You can’t improve speed too much, but even one-hundredth of a second can be the difference between being safe and out.
…I think ball players realize that speed, while it’s not 100 percent essential that you have speed, helps a lot if you do have it.
The next day, according to “Damned Yankees,” Bill Madden and Moss Klein’s entertaining and thorough account of the Yankees from the Bronx Zoo days through the eighties, the Yankees showed up for workouts and found themselves running 45-yard sprints in the outfield instead of practicing.
Dillard’s assignment was to teach the Yankees to run. He was to scrutinize the running styles of all the players and then offer tips on how to improve each one’s technique.
“You can’t underestimate the importance of speed,” said Steinbrenner, who reminded his players that he had been a champion hurdler in his college days at Williams.
“They must have used ankle high hurdles in those days,” cracked Graig Nettles.
Needless to say, the Yankees’ speed experiment crashed and burned. Bob Lemon, who replaced Gene Michael the previous year, was fired after fourteen games, succeeded by–guess who?–Gene Michael (who in turn was fired again and replaced by Clyde King before the year was out). The Yankees finished the year in fifth place, while Jackson (.275/.375/.532), in his last great season, hit 39 dingers for the playoff bound California Angels.