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.