Just how bad were the Yankees in 1990? The pitching was atrocious, the offense was even worse, and the managers of the team were Bucky Dent and Carl “Stump” Merrill. When Lee Guetterman is your best player, that’s a pretty good sign that things have hit rock-bottom.
Yes, Lee Guetterman (pronounced Goo-ter-min) was just about the best thing the Yankees had going for them in 1990. An awkwardly tall left-hander with a bushy mustache, Guetterman did not fit the profile of a Yankee hero. He did not start a single contest and saved only a pair of games. But he did lead the staff with 11 wins, while posting a fine ERA of 3.39. Pitching in the inglorious role of middle relief, Guetterman gave the Yankees their most reliable innings of the season. “Throw him the Guetter Ball,” I would yell at the TV! Heck, he was even more effective than Dave Righetti, the Yankee closer who had forged a more famous reputation and a far better career than Guetterman.
Prior to 1990, Guetterman had been a journeyman, a failed prospect in the Seattle Mariners’ organization. He was best known for his height; at six feet, eight inches, the gangly Guetterman looked more like a small forward than a relief pitcher. When he made his debut for the Mariners in 1984, he actually became the third tallest pitcher in major league history.
Guetterman was big, but he didn’t throw hard. He instead relied on a sinking fastball and a deceptive delivery, featuring a pronounced leg lift. There must be something about tall left-handers and their inability to throw hard. Unlike Randy Johnson, who has been an exception to the rule, the tall southpaws I remember have been soft tossers, like Guetterman and former New York Met Eric Hillman, who was six-ten and couldn’t break glass either.
The lack of speed didn’t dissuade the Yankees. After the 1987 season, the Yankees made a five-player deal with the Mariners. Cutting their losses on the disastrous Steve Trout experiment, the Yankees sent a package featuring the flaky left-hander and backup outfielder Henry Cotto to Seattle for a return of three young pitchers: Wade Taylor, Clay Parker, and Guetterman. The Yankees saw Guetterman as a candidate for long relief, or possibly the back end of their paper-thin rotation.
By 1990, the Yankees had no great expectations for Guetterman. He simply pitched well when called upon, inspiring more confidence from both Dent and Merrill, who summoned him repeatedly in the middle to late innings. They called on him 64 times for a total of 93 innings. That’s the kind of workload that few relievers undertake today, but the game was different 20 years ago. Back then, middle relievers often pitched two or three innings at a time, something that the rubber-armed Guetterman was fully capable of doing.
If the Yankees had been smart, they would have traded Guetterman at season’s end. Already 31, he was neither a top, young prospect nor a left-hander who had suddenly turned from journeyman to star, ala Warren Spahn. He simply happened to have a good year–a career year at that– and his trade value would stretch no higher. Instead of trading him for a prospect or two, the Yankees stubbornly held on to him and watched him come back to Earth in 1991. His ERA climbed to 3.68, as his strikeouts fell and his hits allowed rose. That was more like the Guetterman of old.
The following year, Guetterman began to foreshadow Felix “The Run Fairy” Heredia. He allowed 24 runs in his first 22 innings, his ERA rising like volcanic smoke to 9.53. Even with their low pitching standards of the day, the Yankees had seen enough. So they did something they rarely do: they made a trade with the rival Mets. The Yankees sent Guetterman to Queens for right-handed reliever Tim Burke. Guetterman and Burke shared something in common, as both were born-again Christians. Unfortunately, both veterans had seen their best days as pitchers. Guetterman completed the year with the Mets, spent a season in St. Louis, and then returned to Seattle, where he finished out his career in 1986.
So what’s the moral of this tale? Though he seems to have been a genuinely nice guy, Guetterman was not a great Yankee, nor is he fondly remembered by most fans. Yet, he is emblematic of a dark period in the franchise’s history, when the team was so bad that a middle reliever could emerge as the MVP of the club. That’s a stark contrast to the Yankees of today–defending world champions, filled with stars, and seemingly primed to make another run at the postseason.
Given what happened in 1990, we should all appreciate the current state of glory that is Yankees baseball.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.