"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over

Cliff and I both contributed chapters to the new BP book, It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book. Tonight, I’ll be up at Columbia U with some of the authors, including Steven Goldman, Jay Jaffe, Kevin Baker and Allen Barra. The chat starts at 7:00 at Alfred Lerner Hall (lower level), 2922 Broadway. If you are around the neighborhood, swing by, it’d be great to see you. In the meantime, dig this chapter from the book, written expertly by Goldman. I think you will really enjoy it.

Book Excerpt

How to Break Up the Yankees


From the mid-1930s through the mid-1960s, baseball struggled with how to “break up the Yankees,” at one point even adopting a rule forbidding teams from trading with the previous year’s pennant winner—which was always the Yankees. The rule lasted but one winter, that of 1939 to 1940. New York didn’t win in 1940, Detroit did. The rule hadn’t been intended to harm the Tigers, so it was quickly rescinded.

The no-trade rule had little chance of hurting the Yankees anyway, because so much of their talent was homegrown. When Branch Rickey’s farm system began transforming the way major league talent was developed, Yankees general manager Ed Barrow, something of a reactionary, had been resistant to the new methods. In 1932, team owner Jacob Ruppert overruled him, buying the Newark Bears of the International League and hiring independent minor league operator George Weiss to build a complete farm system. An injection of New York revenues turned Rickey’s farm into a factory. Of the key players on the champion 1939 Yankees, none of the position players were acquired via trade, and just a handful of the pitchers were acquired this way.

The factory system fed the Yankees dynasty, which was only occasionally interrupted between 1936 and 1964. Not until 1965, with the advent of the amateur draft and with ownership’s cutbacks in player development on the eve of selling out to CBS (the Yankees had never been generous with bonuses anyway), did the factory shut down. The Yankees stopped producing young players, and shortly thereafter, the team stopped winning.

Over the more than 40 years since, the Yankees have resisted getting back in the habit of producing youngsters. During its brief ownership, CBS didn’t know how. George Steinbrenner, who bought the team from the Tiffany Network, didn’t care to. For all Steinbrenner’s financial largesse, the posture damaged the club almost from the first moment of the regime. The first test was offered by Otto Velez in 1974. The club failed it and, as a direct result, lost the division title to the Baltimore Orioles.

A key reason the team couldn’t surpass the Orioles was production both at first base and at designated hitter (DH). In fact, the designated hitter was a problem from the moment of its invention. Though the Yankees are credited with having the first DH, Ron Blomberg, a productive designated hitter eluded them for some time.

On April 26, Yankees general manager Gable Paul raided his former organization, the Indians, sending pitchers Fritz Peterson, Steve Kline, Fred Beene, and Tom Buskey to Cleveland in exchange for first baseman Chris Chambliss and pitchers Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw. In the long term, it worked out to be a very good trade for the Yankees, but in 1974, Chambliss personally dragged the Yankees away from their first postseason appearance since 1964.

Chambliss was never more than a decent hitter for the Yankees, an impatient lefty who never learned to pull the ball for power. Still, from 1975 through 1979, he was mildly productive, batting .287/.328/.428. In 1974, however, the then 23-year-old seemed to panic on reaching New York, hitting a dreadful .243/.282/.343 in 110 games.

Simultaneously, the Yankees possessed a rookie first baseman named Otto Velez, one of the most promising prospects developed by the team at any time during the Steinbrenner ownership. Signed as a 19-year-old amateur free agent in 1970, the young Puerto Rican, who had been tutored by Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda, batted .369/.469/.591 in rookie ball, then hit .310/.417/.510 (16 home runs in 384 at bats) in A ball (Table 9-3). Velez not only showed great hitting ability for a player just out of his teens, but also had a refined knowledge of the strike zone—unusual knowledge in one so young.

In April 1973, the Yankees gave the 22-year-old Velez the James Dawson Award, presented annually to the best rookie in camp. At the same time, they moved him from his initial position, third base, to the outfield, because the team had acquired Graig Nettles. Velez didn’t mind. “I like the outfield,” he said. “It gives me more time to concentrate on my hitting.” Unsurprisingly, Velez proved to be an indifferent outfielder. Though he had a decent arm, his range was never very good, and he was clumsy. His abilities in left field were exemplified by a 1979 play in which Oakland catcher Jim Essian, batting with the bases loaded, ripped a grounder down the third-base line into left field. Velez charged the ball, stepped on it, and fell into the wall. Essian rounded the bases for an inside-the-park grand slam. After his tumble, Velez had to miss several games with a twisted ankle. This was in the future, but the Yankees were already thinking of moving him to a third position. They just couldn’t decide where.

Velez’s 1973 season was stunning. After the young slugger hit 13 home runs, including three grand slams, in Triple-A Syracuse’s first 37 games, his manager, Bobby Cox, said, “He’s the best hitting prospect I’ve ever seen. He can run, throw, and hit with power, but I don’t think he’s a 40- to 50-homer guy. I’d say 20 to 30 is more like it.” Cox proved prescient after Velez cooled in the second half. Nonetheless, Velez was named the International League’s Rookie of the Year after batting .269/.445/.562 with 29 home runs and 130 walks. That fall he made his Yankees debut. Though he didn’t hit for average, batting .195/.325/.326, he did show his trademark patience and power. Manager Ralph Houk was encouraging: “The experience was good for him. I expect him to make it next year.”

Unfortunately for Velez, Houk resigned under pressure from Steinbrenner. Velez then became a pawn in the team’s hunt for a new skipper. When the Yankees attempted to sign the former Oakland A’s manager Dick Williams, who had resigned but was still under contract, A’s owner Charles Finley demanded compensation. The Yankees offered veteran second baseman Horace Clarke. But Finley demanded one of their “kids”: Velez, Scott McGregor, Terry Whitfield, John Shupe, Steve Coulson, or Kerry Dineen. Gabe Paul was appalled. “Those aren’t kids. Those are our crown jewels.” None of them ever contributed to the Yankees.

Velez took three strikes in the managerial shuffle. Strike one was the loss of Houk, who as a long-time organization man was familiar with his strengths and weaknesses and might have made room for him. Strike two was the team’s failure to sign Williams, an astute manager who would have been eager to exploit Velez’s talents. The third strike came with the naming of Bill Virdon as Houk’s replacement. In his 15-year managerial career, Virdon proved to be largely hostile to young players. His attitude, which jibed perfectly with Steinbrenner’s own impatience with inexperienced players, set a pattern for the organization that lasted years.

Velez’s minor league accomplishments should have earned him a prominent place in the Yankees’ plans, especially since the team was going into the 1974 season with no established first baseman or designated hitter. Instead, when Velez struggled during the exhibition season, Virdon used the opportunity to send him back to Syracuse. “I couldn’t give him a spot on the club the way he looked,” said Virdon. “He simply failed to make our club.” Virdon selected veterans Mike Hegan and Bill Sudakis as his first baseman and designated hitter, respectively.

Velez went back to the minors and began a campaign superior to his great 1973 season, batting .310/.480/.570. At the end of June, Chambliss, batting .185 as a Yankee, was benched and Velez was recalled. Virdon wasn’t keen on the move. “For now, I think he’ll play first base against left-handed pitchers. It depends on how he goes and how others go whether he’ll play every day. I think he can hit right-handers, too. He showed he can, but I want to give others a chance to play themselves out of the lineup before I go too far with Otto.”

Velez made just one hit in his first 12 at bats, but broke out with a home run off the great Detroit closer John Hiller on July 4. By then, some of the players had objected to his presence. On July 2, pitcher Pat Dobson criticized Virdon for playing Velez. “Win or lose, you have to play your best ball club. We haven’t been. That’s my opinion and I’m not afraid to voice it. Sudsy should be playing first base. Stick [Michael, 36-year-old second baseman; the Yankees had been trying out a 24-year-old named Fernando Gonzalez] ought to be playing second. Last night, he pinch-hit Otto Velez when he needed a home run—and Sudsy can hit homers—when Velez hasn’t even gotten the ball out of the infield.” On July 1, Velez had struck out against the difficult Hiller, the same pitcher he would hit a home run against three days later.

Velez played regularly for roughly two weeks and batted .279/.389/.488 in that time (the American League hit .258/.323/.371 that year). In the 11 games after he broke his hitless streak, he batted .343/.444/.600. Despite Velez’s breakthrough, it was decided to give Chambliss another try. Virdon rarely used his bench, and Velez appeared only sporadically thereafter, playing in 13 games scattered over the rest of the year.

That was the last serious audition that Velez was granted as a Yankees player. Virdon farmed him out again at the beginning of 1975. On June 8, 1975, the slugger fractured his left wrist in a home plate collision, which delayed his return to the Yankees until September, when he received a few cursory at bats. By that time, Billy Martin was the manager of the Yankees. Although he had an open mind toward Velez, Chambliss was now established, and Oscar Gamble and Carlos May had been added to the crowd of outfield and designated hitter candidates. Consequently, Martin had no plans for Velez beyond occasional use as a platoon outfielder. Velez stuck with the Yankees for all of 1976, but received just 117 plate appearances. Yankees designated hitters again performed poorly, but it didn’t matter. By this time, the Yankees had just three players who had been developed by the organization: Thurman Munson, Roy White, and Velez.

Velez’s Yankees experience was mercifully terminated by the 1976 expansion draft. The draft rules stipulated that the Yankees could initially protect 15 players. After each round, the team could pull back an additional three players. Velez was not among the initial 15. As the draft continued, the Yankees withdrew Fred Stanley, Fran Healy, Sandy Alomar, and Carlos May, but never withdrew Velez. The Toronto Blue Jays drafted him with their 27th pick, making him one of the last players selected.

Velez finally established himself in Toronto, though injuries and his defensive problems in the outfield would limit his playing time. “I’m not saying I will hit 30 home runs,” he said in 1977, “but I would like to have 500 at bats to see what I can do.” He seemed to get hurt whenever his manager was on the verge of giving him the time. Still, from 1977 through 1980, he batted .269/.375/.480 for the Jays, numbers more impressive then than now.
He had his small revenge against the Yankees as well. The newly established Jays played their first series at Yankee Stadium from April 18 to April 21, 1977. Velez pounded Yankees pitching, going 9 for 15, with two doubles, two homers, and two walks, and driving in eight runs. “I know I can swing the bat a little bit. I feel so great to show the owner,” he said. “He only likes the big names.”

In subsequent years, Steinbrenner’s hostility to young players became legendary. In 1978, he sent rookie pitcher Jim Beattie to Triple-A in the middle of a game Beattie had just started. “Did you see Beattie out there?” he told the media afterward. “He pitched like he was scared stiff.” In the midst of a difficult pitching appearance by 25-year-old righty Ken Clay, reporters were called to Steinbrenner’s office. “[Clay] doesn’t have any heart,” the owner told them. “Ken Clay has spit the bit.” In March 1981, 24-year-old pitcher Mike Griffin failed to beat the Mets in an exhibition game. “Mike Griffin has fooled us long enough,” Steinbrenner said. “We found out about him today. That does it for him. He won’t be pitching for us this year.” He was sent to Columbus the next day and soon thereafter was traded out of the organization. After making an error before Steinbrenner early in the 1984 season, rookie shortstop Bobby Meacham found himself demoted not to Triple-A, but to Double-A. “Meacham isn’t ready for New York,” Steinbrenner said.

In 1976, the Yankees had reached the World Series for the first time since 1964. After losing to the Cincinnati Reds that year, they returned again in 1977 and 1978 and won both times. The Yankees also reached the postseason in 1980 and 1981, but failed to capture another championship. By that time, the core of the 1976–1981 team was rapidly aging and would have to be replaced, but the delusion that somehow a player who had been developed in another organization was automatically superior to one developed within the Yankees system made rebuilding nearly impossible. Several promising young players were traded out of the organization, often for little return, among them Scott McGregor, Tippy Martinez, Jim Beattie, Tim Lollar, Willie McGee, Fred McGriff, Greg Gagne, Dennis Rasmussen, Steve Balboni, Tim Burke, Jose Rijo, Scott Bradley, Jim Deshaies, Doug Drabek, Bob Tewksbury, Jay Buhner, Al Leiter, and Hal Morris. While all organizations make a certain number of mistakes in player evaluation, the record of the Yankees organization during this period was egregious. Not only were the Yankees pathologically opposed to giving their own young players a chance, but the veterans the club was acquiring in the younger players’ stead, such as outfielder Omar Moreno or pitcher Tim Leary, weren’t any good.

The few prospects the Yankees were left with during this period failed to develop. The Yankees, unused to teaching youngsters, were no longer good at it. Moreover, the veterans-only strategy had neutered the farm system. In the pre-free-agency years of the Steinbrenner regime, the handling of the amateur draft was simply inept. After the advent of free agency, the league developed a compensation system in which a club losing a free agent would be awarded the first-round pick of the club that signed him. Since the Yankees signed a free agent virtually every winter, they went years without a first-round draft pick and sometimes were penalized in their second- and third-round picks as well. While baseball forbids the trading of picks, this was essentially what the Yankees were doing.

This proved to be a disastrous strategy. The first round is important because with intelligence and a little luck, a team should, at the very least, be able to come up with a serviceable major leaguer. Veteran players are more predictable than youngsters, but are also used up faster, having spent their baseball prime with their original team. In addition, certain players, such as pitchers and shortstops, proved difficult to acquire on the open market. These positions became suppurating wounds for a Yankees team that won many games in the regular season, but which, from 1982 through 1994, failed to reach the postseason (more accurately, through 1993; no one made the postseason in 1994).

In 38 annual drafts through 2003, the Yankees scored exactly four times in the first round, picking Ron Blomberg, Scott McGregor, Thurman Munson, and Derek Jeter. As Yankees picks failed, it meant that the team was forced to sign a greater number of free agents. The compensation system then kicked in, preventing the Yankees from signing better players. A vicious cycle was created, as described in the following paragraphs. Note that the “Hindsight is 20-20” section lists players available to the Yankees at various times in the draft. These picks are usually restricted to the first three rounds. In the early part of the draft, teams have more consensus about who the best talents are. In later rounds, it becomes more difficult to discern the keepers, so it’s unfair to fault the Yankees for, say, not realizing that Wade Boggs was a first-round talent when he lasted until the seventh round—no team had great expectations for the third baseman. Note also that most players drafted by the Yankees were subsequently used as trade fodder, many before getting a chance to make their mark with the Yankees.

Douglas Heinhold, RHP, pick 13 (high school)

Picked before the Yankees’ turn: David Clyde (1), Robin Yount (3), Dave Winfield (4), Gary Roenicke (8).

Picked after the Yankees’ turn: Lee Mazzilli (14).
Later: Heinhold tapped out in the minors. Later, the Yankees picked Mike Heath (2), Kerry Dineen (4), LaMarr Hoyt (5), Garth Iorg (8). The first three were used in deals netting Sergio Ferrer, Dave Righetti, and Bucky Dent, among others, while Iorg was lost to the Blue Jays in the 1976 expansion draft.

Hindsight is 20-20: Eddie Murray (Orioles 3), Fred Lynn (Red Sox 2), Floyd Bannister (A’s 3).

Overall: In the first year of the administration, the pattern was set: Acquire talent, then deal it before giving it a chance in New York. A lasting fascination with high school players was also damaging.

Dennis Sherrill, SS, pick 12 (high school)

Picked before the Yankees’ turn: Bill Almon (1), Lonnie Smith (3), Dale Murphy (5).

Picked after the Yankees’ turn: Garry Templeton (14), Lance Parrish (16), Willie Wilson (18), Rick Sutcliffe (21).

Later: Sherrill went 1-for-5 in five games with the Yankees. The Yankees took Dave Bergman (2), and Jerry Narron (6). The former was dealt for Cliff Johnson, the latter for Ruppert Jones.

Hindsight is 20-20: Rance Mulliniks (Angels 3), Pete Vuckovich (White Sox 3), Moose Haas (Brewers 2), Butch Wynegar (Twins 2).

Overall: Almost any other player the Yankees picked would have been important to the franchise, perhaps helping to save it from the malaise of the early

James McDonald, 1B, 19 (high school)

Picked before the Yankees’ turn: Rick Cerone (7).

Picked after the Yankees’ turn: Dale Berra (20).

Later: The Yankees took Jim Beattie (4), Willie Upshaw (5), Mike Fischlin (7). Beattie was railroaded out of town after spotty work with the 1978 and 1979 teams. He was part of the Ruppert Jones deal. Upshaw was lost to the Jays in the Rule 5 draft. Fischlin was part of the Cliff Johnson deal.

Hindsight is 20-20: Carney Lansford (Angels 3), Lee Smith (Cubs 2), Don Robinson (Pirates 3).

Overall: The Yankees got a good return in a poor year but didn’t capitalize.

Pat Tabler, OF, 16 (high school)

Picked before the Yankees’ turn: Floyd Bannister (1), Ken Landeraux (6), Steve Trout (8), Leon Durham (15).

Picked after the Yankees’ turn: Mike Scoscia (19), Bruce Hurst (22).

Later: Not much; Tabler was New York’s only real catch. He would be dealt to the Cubs for Bill Caudill and Jay Howell.

Hindsight is 20-20: Alan Trammell (Detroit 2), Rickey Henderson (A’s 4).

Overall: It’s hard to imagine the devout Mormon Hurst being comfortable in New York. Some things just aren’t meant to be.

Steve Taylor, RHP, pick 23 (college)

Picked before the Yankees’ turn: Harold Baines (1), Bill Gullickson (2), Paul Molitor (3), Terry Kennedy (6), Richard Dotson (7), Wally Backman (16), Bob Welch (20). Having finally won a pennant during the draft era, the Yankees were pushed down in the draft order just in time to miss out on a strong draft class.

Picked after the Yankees’ turn: Dave Henderson (26).

Later: Taylor never surfaced. The Yankees took Joe Lefebvre (3), Chris Welsh (21). Both players were traded to the Padres as part of a deal for Jerry Mumphrey.

Hindsight is 20-20: Kevin Bass (Brewers 2), Scott Sanderson (Expos 3), Tim Raines (Expos 5), Ozzie Smith (Padres 4).

Overall: At least the Yankees finally took a college pitcher. It wasn’t a true change of philosophy.

Rex Hudler, SS, pick 18 (high school)
Matt Winters, OF, pick 24 (high school)
Brian Ryder, RHP, pick 26 (high school)

Picked before the Yankees’ turn: Bob Horner (1), Lloyd Moseby (2), Hubie Brooks (3), Mike Morgan (4), Andy Hawkins (5), Kirk Gibson (12), Tom Brunansky (14), Nick Esasky (17).

Picked after the Yankees’ turn: No one of significance. Despite winning the World Series, the Yankees acquired two extra picks after losing Mike Torrez and Ron Blomberg to free agency. As such, the team had all the options at the end of the first round.

Later: The Yankees took Steve Balboni (2), Tim Lollar (4), Andy McGaffigan (6), Brian Dayett (16), Don Cooper (17). Balboni won several minor league home run titles, then was dealt to the Royals for Mike Armstrong. Tim Lollar was included in the Mumphrey deal. McGaffigan was traded to the Giants for Doyle Alexander. Dayett got a share of the Yankees’ left field job in 1984, showing power and impatience. He was dealt to the Cubs that winter as part of a deal for Ron Hassey.

Hindsight is 20-20: Steve Bedrosian (Braves 3), Larry Sheets (Orioles 2), Mel Hall (Cubs 2), Britt Burns (White Sox 3).

Overall: For many years, this seemed like the last draft. Too little came of it, and the seeds of the 1982–1992 period were sewn.

After 1978, the Yankees almost completely vanished from the first round, as shown in their first-round picks from 1979 to 1989:

1979: None, for signing Tommy John.

1980: None, for signing Rudy May.

1981: None, for signing Dave Winfield.

1982: None, for signing Dave Collins.

1983: None, for signing Steve Kemp. The Yankees also lost their second-round pick for signing Bob Shirley and their third-round pick for signing Don Baylor away from Anaheim. The Angels took Wally Joyner with the pick.

1984: Jeff Pries, pick 22 (college). When the Yankees finally had a first-round pick, they botched it, picking one of the few lemons in a deep draft class. They did find Al Leiter with their second pick.

1985: Rick Balabon, pick 28 (high school). This was a compensation pick for losing Tim Belcher because of a rather bizarre commissioner’s ruling the previous winter. New York’s actual first-round pick went to San Diego for signing Ed Whitson.

1986: None, for signing Al Holland.

1987: None, for signing Gary Ward.

1988: None, for signing Jack Clark.

1989: None, for signing Steve Sax.

In 1990, Steinbrenner was banned from baseball by then-commissioner Fay Vincent as a result of the owner’s dealings with gambler Howie Spira. That year, the team had collapsed to last place in the American League East with a 67-95 record. Although Vincent’s “lifetime” ban turned out to be temporary, general manager Gene Michael, hired in August 1990, restored some sanity to player procurement. The Yankees stopped giving away their first-round picks. In 1992, they drafted Derek Jeter. Incredibly, he was allowed to progress through the minor leagues at a normal rate, reaching the majors for a cup of coffee in 1995.

The next season, the 22-year-old rookie broke camp as the Yankees’ starting shortstop, this despite trepidation by new manager Joe Torre, who like his predecessor Virdon preferred veteran players to youngsters. Steinbrenner, having resumed the active role he held with the Yankees before his suspension, publicly supported Jeter. “I would not have gone with a Jeter in the past. I think I’ve changed,” he said. “I was too demanding. Too hasty.” Privately, though, he was insisting the Yankees find an alternative. Michael faced Steinbrenner down, winning Jeter a temporary stay, and the rest is history.

Despite Jeter’s success and the key role played by homegrown talents Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera in the four championships won by the Torre-era Yankees, player development did not become a mainstay of the Yankees’ approach to team building. The battle to wean Steinbrenner from expensive free agents and to pursue products of the farm system with equal vigor is still being waged by Michael’s successor, Brian Cashman. Since winning their most recent championship in 2000, the Yankees have reverted to buying off the shelf instead of building from within, spending big bucks on DOA free agents such as Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. As in the 1980s, the Yankees have won many games but have failed to win another title. They are somehow always just a little bit short, having neglected to buy this piece or that on the open market. Developing pitching has been a particular problem; in 2007, the 2004 first-round pick Phil Hughes became just the second Yankees number one pick to pitch for the team. (The other, Bill Burbach, who pitched 37 games—badly—from 1969 to 1971, was their first pick in the 1965 draft.)

In 1974, the long-standing question of how to break up the Yankees was finally answered, and the solution played out again and again over the more than 30 years that have followed. No outside team could break up the Yankees, but it was a simple matter, through neglect of the young, for the Yankees to do it themselves.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver