"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Card Corner: More Maas

I find it nearly impossible to believe that 20 years have passed since the Yankees put arguably the worst team in franchise history on the playing field. Unfortunately, I remember that team all too well. The 1990 Yankees won a mere 67 games, finishing 21 games out of first place in the American League East. Not only did they end up dead last in the seven-team division, but they checked in last among all American League teams. And the Yankees deserved every bit of that futile finish. The Yankees’ offensive capacity, with a past-his-prime Jesse Barfield representing the most reliable power threat, was putrid—last in the league in runs scored. Their pitching, led by staff “ace” Tim Leary, his 4.14 ERA and 19 losses, proved almost as impoverished.

Injuries made a bad team more horrid. Free-swinging left-handed power hitters Mel Hall and Matt Nokes, who would have been complementary players on a good team, looked like baseball royalty on the 1990 Yankees, but each spent significant time on the disabled list. With Nokes hurt, the Yankees had to play Bob Geren, a career minor leaguer, the majority of the time behind the plate. Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni, the regular DH, batted a cool .192. Two-thirds of the triumvirate of Luis Polonia, Eric Plunk, and Greg Cadaret—extracted from the A’s as part of the previous summer’s Rickey Henderson deal—failed to deliver as hoped. Polonia was traded after only 11 games, sent to the Angels for Claudell Washington, 35 years old and over the hill. Only Plunk performed capably, but even that came in the role of middle relief, often a moot point because of the Yankees’ poor starting pitching.

Amidst the wreckage of a lost summer, Yankee fans found some hope in the middle of the season. It arrived in late June with the call-up of Kevin Maas, a young left-handed slugger that few fans had known much about at the start of the season. Almost from the start, Maas showed himself to be a cut above pseudo-prospects like Jim “The King” Leyritz and Oscar Azocar, who were falsely hyped as part of the Yankees’ new wave youth movement. (Leyritz became a good bench player, but hardly a building block for a team in need of mass renovation.) Although Maas had little defensive value as a lumbering first baseman-outfielder, it was plainly evident that he could hit. Unlike Leyritz and Azocar, Maas possessed a keen and discernible eye at the plate; he rarely ventured out of the strike zone to swing at stray pitches. He also possessed a picturesque swing, which seemed to be cut out of the pages of a hitter’s manual. With a little bit of an uppercut and a tendency to pull pitches to right, Maas looked like he was sent directly from heaven to Yankee Stadium.

Maas also looked chiseled in appearance, with his lantern jaw and muscular but lean physique. Maas became all the rage at Yankee Stadium, prompting some women fans to remove their “Maas tops” and wave them after he hit another home run into the right field stands. (The ladies were eventually barred from entering the Stadium.) Statistically, Maas’ numbers supported the superficialities of his appearance and swing. In 254 at-bats with the Yankees, Maas hit 21 home runs, slugged .535, and reached base 36 per cent of the time. Only his batting average of .252 carried any kind of blemish, but that became far more tolerable in light of his wholly impressive slugging and on-base numbers.

Given his second-half rookie performance, I felt the Yankees had found a keeper in Maas. It looked like he would perennially top 30 home runs and 80 walks in a season, making him a legitimate left-handed slugger, a younger model of Ken Phelps. Perhaps he wouldn’t be good enough to bat cleanup, but his hitting talents had him pegged to bat fifth or sixth, at the least, with ample production to justify such an important place in the lineup.

Safe to say, it never happened for Kevin Maas. To my amazement, Maas played his final major league game in 1995, registering 22 forgettable appearances with the Twins. His Yankee career, which ended in 1993, didn’t even last long enough to enjoy firsthand the pinstriped dynasty that began in 1996. Injuries played a part in his decline, but there was more to it than that. Although his batting eye and swing remained exemplary, his batting stance and approach carried some unwanted stiffness. He looked robotic against breaking pitches, a condition he could never overcome. Maas just never became better, which young players need to do as they adjust to a league that has learned their weaknesses and tendencies.

A few years later, I learned something about Maas that might have partially explained his fleet fall from possible stardom. Some friends of mine in Cooperstown told me that they had once met Maas at Yankee “Fan Fest” in New York. They told me that, without question, Maas was the most unpleasant of all the Yankees they encountered. He spent most of the time complaining about how tired he was after staying up late the previous night. He came across as arrogant and aloof to the extreme, completely detached from those who bothered to ask for his autograph or tried to ask him a question. After hearing this assessment of Maas, I theorized that it might explain his major league failures. Was he too arrogant to work hard on his game in an effort to improve? Was he more interested in partying than preparing for the next day’s game? I have no way of knowing for sure if there is a correlation here, but the story of Maas’ behavior makes me wonder to this day.

With all of these thought patterns still running through my mind, I anticipated Maas’ visit to Cooperstown last summer to take part in the first Hall of Fame Classic old-timers game. As part of the weekend festivities, Maas was scheduled to serve as an instructor at a youth baseball clinic. I brought my nephew to the clinic, somewhat dreading Maas’ discussion on hitting. So we took our seats in the Doubleday Field grandstand, the location of the clinic due to a heavy downpour of rain that afternoon.

Wearing his full pinstriped uniform and looking much like he did during his 1990s playing days, Maas began his presentation not by talking about himself, but by listing some of the great Yankees he played with, from Mattingly to O’Neill to Jeter. He then, both articulately and enthusiastically, discussed the importance of maintaining good balance at the plate. In an effort to illustrate his point, Maas actually jumped up onto one of the metal grandstand railings, trying to stay balanced while taking his stance at the plate. It was a brief, but creative way of demonstrating his lesson.

Simply put, I was amazed by Maas’ effort during the clinic. He was one of the stars of the show—well-spoken, charismatic, and engaging. In spite of the pounding rain, he acted as if there were no other place he would rather be than Doubleday Field in Cooperstown. I came away from the clinic contemplating two possibilities: either my friends had caught Maas on a bad day, or he had seen the light over the last two decades.

Either way, I look at Kevin Maas’ Topps cards a lot more happily these days.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Bruce Markusen

Share: Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email %PRINT_TEXT


1 monkeypants   ~  Jan 15, 2010 10:00 am

[0] The Daily News ran a decent interview with Maas last year or two---it's hard to tel from the article if he has changed much. On the one hand, he seemed to admit that he was not entirely happy as a player, but on the other is still defensive about the worth of his career. Still, he appears happy now, so maybe he just had to come to grips with what must be daunting for any man: the thought that you "peaked" at age 24.


2 RagingTartabull   ~  Jan 15, 2010 10:03 am

I'm gonna make a motion that this upcoming season we have some kind of on-going celebration of the 20th anniversary of the '90 season.

Think of the possibilities...a Howie Spira interview, a look back at the storied Deion Sanders/Carlton Fisk rivalry, a SABRmetric analysis of the odds of Andy Hawkins' no-hit loss playing out the way it did.

Lets make this happen!

3 Diane Firstman   ~  Jan 15, 2010 10:08 am

On a different matter ...

In Comerica, Damon may need *2* relay men to get a throw to home plate.

4 Paul   ~  Jan 15, 2010 10:21 am

To me, you're not a True Yankee fan if you didn't live and die with the 1990 team. If you're a fan after 1994, then you jumped on the bandwagon. I'm sorry, but I have those emotional scars. You don't. Kevin Maas is foremost among them. I wonder if I knew then what I know now if I would have been lured into every possible game. I mean, I thought Jesse Barfield redeemed all with his cannon arm. And Mel Hall and Matt Nokes really were "stars". Ugh.

[3] It will be hilarious/sad if for twice as much money the Tigers have Damon and Valverde for Granderson. Oooof. And Granderson is going to have a huge season this year. My heart goes out all of the diehard Tigers fans.

[2] THAT's a great idea.

5 Steve Flack   ~  Jan 15, 2010 10:40 am

A few weeks after his call up, and home-run hitting debut, my father and I were at a baseball card show in White Plains. I wanted a Kevin Maas card, since he was now my second favorite baseball player (behind Donnie Baseball, of course). The dealers were hawking whatever Maas merch they could find, but being so new, there wasn't much available. Except for one guy who had a Kevin Maas minor league card for $50. My father asked to see it, and the guy pulled out a pile of at least a hundred copies of that card.. The guy selling it was ranting about how "this card could end up putting your kid through college."

My father, disgusted by the fact that someone would charge so much money for a card that appeared to not be rare at all, walked away from it. To this day, at every baseball card show we go to, we talk about that card a look for any Kevin Maas merchandise we can find. Sadly, we've never seen that card again. I guess it was indeed super-rare.

It's a shame then, that nobody wants it.

6 Horace Clarke Era   ~  Jan 15, 2010 10:41 am

Sorry, Paul, 1990 is ... is WAY late for the scarring.


Horace Clarke

7 Mattpat11   ~  Jan 15, 2010 11:15 am

And really, anyone that lived through the Kyle Farnsworth days has their own scarring.

8 Paul   ~  Jan 15, 2010 11:42 am

[6] I was 13 in 1990. That was low-tide in my lifetime. The 80s weren't great. But they were consistently good.

[7] Umm, no. He's doesn't compare to Bob Geren and the hope that Kevin Maas (and even Luis Polonia) represented. Though I'd love to see your response to Greg Cadaret.

9 standuptriple   ~  Jan 15, 2010 11:46 am

That Leaf set was one of my favorites and coincided with my departure from card collecting. Looking back, it was a great time to leave that "hobby" (as it was becoming way too elite and costly). No time for it when you're playing nearly year 'round and all other time is spent chasing skirts. Maas was lightning in a bottle though and the emergence of one Shane Spencer brought back some of those fond memories.
I hope the NoMaas guys have a year-long tribute in store.

10 The Mick536   ~  Jan 15, 2010 4:41 pm

Noticeably absent from your discussion and quite surprising, and I say this tongue-in-cheek, since I have great admiration for all of your work, is any meaningful discussion of the managers on this subpar unit. The 1989 Yankees weren't much better and also deserve a looksee.

Initially led by Dallas Grren, they finished the season with Bucky Dent at the helm. 1/3 of the way through that season, they traded Ricky Henderson to Oakland. Bucky started the 1990 season, lasted 51 games. Stump Merrill finished the season. Dallas Green, Bucky Dent, and Stump Merill. Give me a break. How about Roberto Kelly? CS17 times. Phew. Leary also led the league in wild pitches, 23. Lee Guetterman, a name from the past, went 11-7, not bad.

I loved the 1990 season and the Yankees. They were so bad. Forgeddabout the Mass girls. The girls in the outfield did a lot more for spare balls during batting practice. Oakland defeated the Sox to win the pennant. Clemmens fans can revel in his possible roid caused ejection in game five which led to a suspension to begin 1991. Reds won the series under Lou Pinella. Sweet Lou who the Yankees let get away. May have been the last time the Pirates made the playoffs, but I would have to look it up. Oakand lost the series 4-0. Dave Stewart who should be in the Hall and Rickey who is and who played for the Yankees the year before starred for the A's. Rickey won the MVP.

11 joejoejoe   ~  Jan 15, 2010 5:37 pm

Starting SS Alvaro Espinoza, OPS+ 50
Backup SS Wayne Tolleson, OPS+ 13

I don't recall them exactly being Ozzie Smith in the field either.

12 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Jan 15, 2010 7:22 pm

[11] I was 16 and actually modeled my limited "game" on Alvaro Espinoza..wiry all-glove/no-hit SS with glasses..and I actually argued with my Mets friends back then that ByeBye Balboni was as good a power hitter as Daryl Strawberry, he just was hampered by Death Valley in LCF...

[2] Am totally up for that!!

13 Raf   ~  Jan 15, 2010 8:29 pm

Let's not forget things like the Winfield trade brouhaha, Mattingly throwing out his back, or prized FA acqusition Pascual Perez blowing his shoulder out a month into the season.

Nokes and Cerrone were hurt in 90 (Nokes came over in a midseason trade after Cerrone went down))

[10] The Pirates last made the playoffs in 1992. That was also the last year they finished .500

14 Start Spreading the News   ~  Jan 16, 2010 10:37 am

For me the high point of 1990 was the September 6 game against the Angels. I paid the usual $10 bucks to cheap seats and slowly slid down to the first row behind first base. They didn't care back then.

We all cheered Dave Winfield who seemed happy to be off the Yanks and booed Chuck Cary who only lasted 1.2 innings. Eric Plunk came in out of the bullpen and pitched 1 run ball for 7 innings. The Yanks eventually tied it and sent it to extra innings where Lee Gutterman gave up 6 runs in the 11th and lost it.

But the fun part was when Luis Polonia pinch ran for Winfield at the end of the game. If you remember, Luis Polonia was arrested for statutory rape as a Yankee. He was found in a hotel room with a 15 year old he met in a NY night club. So he was traded (or cut) to the Angels earlier that year.

So needless to say, the Bronx crowd, looking for something to keep them going and interested in the wee hours of the night, roared awake with chants of "JAILBAIT." To make matters more hysterical, Polonia was number 18!!! So naturally people had fun stuff to say about that as well. By this time in the night, there were a few hundred fans left at the stadium and almost everyone was sitting in the good seats. So it was pretty intimate and the players could hear individual jeers.

When he pinch ran, the crowd was just getting warmed up. But he actually got to hit later. That's when the stadium rained "Jailbait" as loud as it could down on his head. I have never seen Polonia try so hard to get a base hit which he did. Once he got to first base, he looked towards us and gave us the finger in surreptitiously (unlike Jack McDowell in a later year). We actually all cheered and laughed knowing that we had gotten to him. Once he saw our reaction, he then broke out in a smile. I think it just hit him that we were just having fun instead of really trying to be mean.

I found out years later that a friend of mine had dated Polonia. She was waiting to see the Yanks as they left the stadium after a game when some guy came up to her and handed her a card. It said "Luis Polonia, baseball player" and a number. It was a member of his entourage. She was in law school at the time and decidedly over 15 so this was before the troubles that drove him out of town. She dated him for a few months until she realized that he had other women. When I met her years later, she was really embarrassed about having dated Polonia because it took several drinks to coax his name out of her.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver