"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Card Corner: Ken Phelps


I was one of the morons who thought the Ken Phelps deal was a good idea.

That’s because I loved Ken Phelps. Having read Bill James’ annual Baseball Abstracts religiously in the late 1980s, I had become a devotee of “Digger” and his game. As a left-handed hitter with power who drew buckets of walks, Phelps looked like a perfect addition to the Yankees, vintage 1988. He could DH against right-handers, allowing the Yankees to alternate days off for aging right-handed hitters like Jack Clark (32) and Dave Winfield (36).

To make the trade even more appetizing, I had my doubts about outfield prospect Jay Buhner, the primary ingredient the Yankees sent to the Mariners for Phelps. “Bone” had several holes in his exaggerated uppercut swing, struck out at an alarming rate, and appeared ill-suited for Death Valley at Yankee Stadium, a frustrating venue for young, right-handed power hitters. So on all fronts, trading Buhner for Phelps made me a happy Yankee fan. But something less than a great evaluator of talent.

Well, the plan didn’t turn out so well. Yankee manager Lou Piniella couldn’t figure out how to get Phelps into the lineup more regularly, limiting him to 45 games and 127 plate appearances over the second half. (Maybe Billy Martin or the late Dick Howser would have been a bit more creative.) Phelps hit pretty well in those games, pounding out ten home runs to the tune of a .551 slugging percentage, better than any Yankee regular. Still, it was too little, too late for a Yankee team that finished third in the American League East.

The following year, Phelps’ performance flatlined; he suddenly became an old 34, struggling to catch up to above-average fastballs. He also struggled with the dimensions of the old Stadium. With his power gravitating toward left-center and right-center field, Phelps didn’t have the kind of pull swing to take advantage of the Stadium’s short porch. By the end of August, the Yankees traded Phelps to the A’s for a minor league prospect named Scott Holcomb, who would never play a single game in pinstripes (or any other team for that matter).

In the meantime, Buhner developed into a near-star in Seattle, becoming a productive power hitter with a cannon arm that played well in the old Kingdome. He would remain an effective right fielder through the 2000 season, before injuries finally caught up with him in 2001, forcing his retirement. If the Yankees had kept Buhner, they never would have felt the urge to trade for a past-his-prime Jesse Barfield, who came at the high cost of a young left-hander named Al Leiter

I feel bad that Yankee fans never really saw the real Ken Phelps. As a Mariner from 1984 to 1988, Phelps slugged at least .521 or better each year, with the exception of an injury-riddled 1985 season. He didn’t strike out as often as most power hitters, and for one three-year stretch, drew more walks than K’s—the sure sign of a smart hitter. As an added bonus, he was an old-schooler who wore the uniform the right way, with his socks up high, the way that ballplayers used to do in the fifties and sixties. Throw in the Popeye forearms and the lampblack under the eyes, and you had the look of an old-time ballplayer.

Although Phelps did little of prolonged consequence with the Yankees, he is far from forgotten. Every once in awhile, I’ll receive a little reminder while watching a rerun of Seinfeld, the character of Frank Costanza will yell at George Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David), questioning how he could have made the Phelps-for-Buhner exchange. Frantically and in rapid-fire delivery, the Boss will respond, “Well, Buhner was a good prospect, no question about it. But my baseball people loved Ken Phelps’ bat. They kept saying Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps!”

I guess I was thinking along the same lines as those “baseball people.”


1 Raf   ~  Dec 31, 2009 11:25 am

Given the Yankees MO at the time, if Buhner wasn't traded for Phelps, he would've been traded for someone else.

Given Henderson and Winfield were in the corners, he wasn't going to get much playing time there. Buhner also didn't become a FT player until 1991, I doubt guys like Green, Dent, & Merrill would've been tolerant of his strikeouts.

Who knows, if the Yankees had kept Buhner, maybe they don't sign Tartabull or trade for Paul O'Neill.

As for Leiter for Barfield, it should be noted that Leiter didn't do much of anything for the Jays until the 1993 season. Leiter got himself sorted out, then signed a contract with the Marlins.

2 Steve Flack   ~  Dec 31, 2009 11:57 am

Ken Phelps will always live in my heart because of one baseball game in 1988. I wrote a blog post about it years ago, I hope you don't mind me posting it here.

Why I hate my uncle.
I can't sleep.

I worked till 4 this morning, came home, had a Hot Pocket, and tried to crash.

Didn't work.

So I tried to fall asleep during Sportscenter.

Didn't work.

So I'm up.

So I thought I would tell you all about the the major discovery I made tonight while I was at work.

After an hour or so of searching the web, I found the box score for the first Yankee game I ever attended.

Let me set the scene,

It was August 24, 1988. I was a wee lad of 7, sharing the laughter and love with my family. Stinky had just entered the scene a month or so before, and I wasn't too thrilled. Not because my parents had a girl, but because she wasn't a Nintendo.

My Dad had raised me to be a Yankee fan since birth, but the first game I had ever went to was at that sad excuse of a stadium in Queens (I hold no ill will towards the Mets, unless they are playing the Yanks of course, but that poor excuse of a Stadium is abysmal. Who's the genius who decided to place a baseball stadium next to an airport?) Anyway, a guy my Dad works with had season tickets back then, and would always give my dad some. I don't remember the game at all, all I remember is crying non-stop from the 7th inning on.

The next summer, my Dad decided it was time to take me to a Yankee game. It wasn't a good time to be a Yankee fan. Good old Steinbrenner had decided it was time to attempt to run the Yankees into the ground. But I didn't care. They had Don Mattingly. He could do no wrong.

So my Dad and I, along with his brother, and my two cousins, went to my first Yankee game. It was an late season game against the Oakland Athletics, who, in less than two months, would win the American League Championship, but lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers, in what would be a World Series for the ages. The Athletics had a great team, with a young Mark McGuire, along with future convict Jose Conseco, leading the team to Major League success.

Yankees manager Lou Pinella was sending veteran pitcher John Candaleria up against Dave Stewart. Candaleria only lasted an inning, as the Athletics took an early 2-0 lead. They made it 3-0 in the second, and held that lead until the the third inning, as Rickey Henderson, who as we all know, refuses to give up, and scores, making it 3-1 going into the 4th. The Athletics won't score again until the 5th, making it 4-1 Athletics, and my Uncle was getting restless.

Y'see, my Uncle is one of those guys who always in a race with traffic. No matter where he is, he insists on beating traffic. He could have seats on the 50 yard line for the Super Bowl, and insist on leaving in the the 3rd quarter, just to beat the dreaded beast known as traffic.

So, my Uncle, who drove us to the game, decides that he's seen enough, and tells us its time to go, we gotta beat that traffic. So we leave Yankee stadium behind, pile into his Nissan, and begin the trek home. But that evil traffic got the jump on us, as we hit it right outside the stadium. We sat in traffic, with the Stadium in sight, listening to the game continue. The Athletics went on to score 2 runs in the top of the 9th, and my Uncle was satisfied that we didn't have to witness the Yanks making asses out of the themselves. With the game seemingly in the bag, Oakland manager Tony LaRussa sends Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersly to the mound, to do what he does best, get the last three outs, and send everybody home.

I vivdly remember what happened next. We sat in traffic, stadium still in sight, as Eck took the mound. Centerfielder Claudell Washington stepped up to the plate and singled on the 1-1 pitch. Mattingly was up next, and he came through, hitting a single that moved Washington to third. With men on the corners, nobody out, Ken Phelps walked up to the plate.

"Who's Ken Phelps?", you might ask.

Remember the episode of Seinfeld when George decides to go on vacation, and leaves his car in the Yankee stadium parking lot, thinking he can get one over on Steinbrenner, who would think George would be at work everyday, as long as Kramer remembers to clean the restaurant menus from the windshield wiper everyday? Of course Kramer fails, and Steinbrenner comes to the conclusion that George is dead. So he goes to tell Mr. and Mrs. Costanza the bad news, and all Mr. Costanza can say is:


and Steinbrenner responds:

"Well, Buhner was a good prospect, no question about it. But my baseball people love Ken Phelps' bat. They kept saying 'Ken Phelps , Ken Phelps'."

That's Ken Phelps.

In the end, Ken Phelps will most likely be remembered as a Seinfeld punchline.

But not to me.

Ken Phelps stepped up to the plate, and on the first pitch from Eck, he smacks that ball out of the park, bringing Washington and Mattingly home, scoring 3 runs, and brings the tying run to the plate. All with no one out.

My Uncles smirk of self-satisfaction disapeared, as I started to tear up.

And while all this was happening, our car had not moved. It was like time had stopped everwhere, except inside of our car, and on the field of Yankee Stadium.

My arch-enemy Dave Winfield was up next, and I just knew he was going to screw it all up, but suprisingly, he came through in the clutch, and singles. LaRussa pulls Eckersly out of the game, but the damage was done, and the tying run was on first.

And the car does not move.

Pinella sends in Gary Ward to pinch hit for third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, and he singles, again putting men on the corners with no outs. The Athletics make another pitching change, sending in Gene Nelson to replace Greg Cadaret.

And the car does not move.

Catcher Don Slaught gets into the batter's box, takes a swing, and ground a ball to the second baseman for an easy double play.

But it was too late, Dave Winfield had scored. The Yankees had scored 4 runs in the bottom of the night to tie the game at 5.

And the car does not move.

And I began to cry like I never cried before.

My Uncle was sure they were going to blow it. They had 2 men out, nobody on base, and nobody left in the bullpen for the extra innings. Unless somehow, by some miracle, they score one run before the third out of the ninth inning.

Backup second baseman Luis Aguayo, who replaced Randy Valarde in the seventh, singles on the second pitch, putting the go ahead run on first, with two men out.

Shortstop Rafael Santana singles on the third pitch, putting men on the corners for the third time in the ninth inning.

With the go-ahead run in scoring position, Pinella sends future Hall Of Famer Rickey Henderson to the plate to get the job done. He watches the first pitch from Nelson go by for a 1-0 count. Henderson hits the next ball that comes at him out to left fielder Luis Polonia, who is unable to field it. As Henderson rounds first, Aguayo scores.

And the New York Yankees, who would finish the 1988 season with an 85-76 fourth place season, have scored 5 runs in the bottom of the ninth to come back and beat the 1988 AL Champs Oakland Athletics 6-5.

And I was sitting in a car, the House That Ruth Built behind me, and miles of traffic in front of me, crying like an cancer ridden orphan at Micheal Jackson's house.

The car ride home would be silent the rest of the way. Well, silent, except for the non-stop crying emanating from my mouth. As we arrived home for dinner, I entered my house, stopped in the first corner I found, and just stood there and cried. My Mom and my Aunt were confused. Didn't I watch what might have been the best game of the entire 1988 Yankees season? My Dad broke them the news, and I continued to cry. My Dad promised to make it up to me. I took his word for it, and stopped.

The next day, my dad drove me out to a baseball card store up in Rye, New York, and bought me the 1985 Topps Don Mattingly baseball card.

To this day, no matter what happens, I do not leave a baseball game until a winner has officially been declared.

And I never talk to my Dad's side of the family.

***I just want to add that the Mr. Costanza/George Steinbrenner conversation (which is from the Sue Ellen Mishke bra episode) is followed by what might be the funniest line from Seinfeld ever:

"Jerry, it's Frank Costanza, Mr. Steinbrenner is here, George is dead, call me back!"

It is now 9:01 am, and I should get some sleep.

3 williamnyy23   ~  Dec 31, 2009 12:29 pm

I am ashamed to admit that I also viewed the Phelps trade favorably at the time. In retrospect, Phelps was exactly the kind of player who had been undervalued until recently...the only problem was he was already 33 years old and past his prime. While in his prime, however, Digger was a pretty potent hitter.

The best way to look at the trade now is to say that if they had kept Bone, they'd never have traded for Paulie, who worked out quite well in RF.

4 a.O   ~  Dec 31, 2009 12:41 pm

[2] Best post ever.

5 Raf   ~  Dec 31, 2009 12:43 pm

[3] Why be ashamed? It seemed to be a sound move at the time.

6 Bruce Markusen   ~  Dec 31, 2009 4:46 pm

Guys, the retention of Buhner likely would have had little impact on the eventual acquisition of O'Neill. The Yankees originally acquired O'Neill to play left field. He started there for most of the first two months of the 1993 season before moving to right field in late May.

The Yankees' outfield could have been O'Neill/Williams/Buhner, from left to right. Pretty darn good.

7 wsporter   ~  Dec 31, 2009 6:06 pm

I have to admit I liked the trade as well. Additionally there would have been one less classic Seinfeld moment had that trade not been made; who wants to live in a world where that's the case?

Happy New Year to Banterers everywhere.

8 Raf   ~  Dec 31, 2009 9:32 pm

[6] Don't forget Danny Tartabull was there too.

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