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Yankee For A Minute: 1992

You could say that 1991 was when the franchise hit rock-bottom by losing 91 games and coming in fifth in the AL East (at the time, there were only two divisions in each league; no Central and no wild card) and 20 games behind the talent-laden Toronto Blue Jays; led by former player and Blue Jays hitting coach-turned-third year manager Cito Gaston, who initially declined taking over after manager Jimy Williams because he liked what he was already doing (the players rallied to change his mind, and good for them). Black History Moment: 17 years after Hall of Famer Frank Robinson became the first African American manager in Major League Baseball, Clarence Edwin “Cito” Gaston became the first African American MLB manager to win a World Series, then went ahead and did it again next season. He was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, and inducted into both the Ontario and San Antonio Sports Halls of Fame, not to mention was awarded the Negro League Hall of Fame Legacy Award (aka Jackie Robinson Award). Way to go, Cito!

Meanwhile back in 1991, when the Yanks survived a lot of underground chaos within the clubhouse and the organization to make it to 1992… when they finished in fourth place (tied with Cleveland) and improved by five games, but somehow still 20 games behind the eventual champion Toronto Blue Jays.  Stump Merrill would be moved out of the managerial hot seat to make way for one of his lieutenants, third base coach William Nathanial “Buck” Showalter III. Before he was Buck, he was “Nat” Showalter, an All American at Mississippi State and a fifth round draft pick by the Yanks in 1977. He would spend seven years in their farm system, wracking up fairly solid numbers by future coach standards, finally making the jump in 1985; collecting honors and working his way up the ladder. in 1992, Buck Showalter arrived, and the transformation of the Yanks kicked into a new gear.

Gene Michael; operating as the chief architect of the new brain-trust that included Buck, a gallery of respected scouts and talent evaluators  and a newly-appointed owner/managing partner Joe Malloy; George’s son-in-law via his daughter Jessica, set to making deals as soon as the 1991 season ended.  When the season began, he had a new ace in the rotation, a new starting right fielder, third baseman and shortstop, not to mention a couple of new draftees who would also become mainstays in future rosters.  Yet even with all of that, there were some even larger moves that were attempted, but for various reasons did not work out.  And man if they had, they very likely would have entirely changed the history of Yankee franchise as we know it…

  • Opening Day Starters:                                   underline
  • Also Played:                                                        #
  • Regulars On Roster:                                       blank
  • Renowned From Other Teams:                 bold
  • Unheralded Rookie/Prospect:                   *
  • Unheralded Vet:                                                italics
  • Rookie Season (became regulars):          ~

Pitchers

  • 41 Tim Burke
  • 25 Greg Cadaret#
  • 26 Steve Farr#
  • 35 Lee Guetterman
  • 42 John Habyan#
  • 36 Shawn Hillegas
  • 54 Sterling Hitchcock~
  • 57 Steve Howe
  • 49,43 Jeff Johnson
  • 22 Scott Kamieniecki
  • 54 Tim Leary
  • 43 Sam Militello*
  • 55 Rich Monteleone
  • 34 Jerry Nielsen*
  • 33 Mélido Pérez
  • 21 Scott Sanderson
  • 36 Russ Springer*
  • 31 Bob Wickman~
  • 35 Curt Young

 Catchers

  • 12 Jim Leyritz
  • 38 Matt Nokes
  • 20 Mike Stanley

 Infielders

  • Mike Gallego
  • 28 Charlie Hayes
  • 14 Pat Kelly
  • 24 Kevin Maas
  • 23 Don Mattingly
  • 59 Hensley Meulens
  • 56 Dave Silvestri*~
  • 60 J. T. Snow~
  • 17 Andy Stankiewicz~
  • 18 Randy Velarde

 Outfielders

  • 29 Jesse Barfield
  • 27 Mel Hall
  • 31 Mike Humphreys
  • 19 Dion James
  • 39 Roberto Kelly
  • 45 Danny Tartabull
  • 51 Bernie Williams
  • 13 Gerald Williams~

So as usual I had some trouble with categories with some players:

Sterling Hitchcock was heralded coming up and was part of the staff for his first four seasons, but his better seasons were spent as a starter with San Diego. He came back via trade in 2001, but was largely ineffectual and used in long relief and spot-start duty until he was traded in mid-2003. So yeah, he was a heralded rookie who had better years elsewhere; didn’t really pan out with the Yanks and was not even a big part of their 2001 WS team.

Russ Springer was kind of the same; he started off with the Yanks, but had better success elsewhere, as well as longevity.  It’s hard to consider him a heralded rookie, though I kind of remember him being touted to some degree. Like Hitchcock, he was never an All Star, but he was a useful arm on other teams’ staffs.

Bob Wickman also was a rookie, though he started out inn the Chicago White Sox farm system, coming over with Melido Perez and Domingo Jean in a trade for 2B Steve Sax. While getting Melido at the time seemed like a boon for a rebuilding team, the real prize in the brain trust’s mind was Wickman:

“We considered Wickman one of their top arms and I think they did, too,” said Brian Sabean, the Yankees’ vice president of player development.

Indeed, Wickman showed promise two seasons later, but not enough to prevent him from being traded in the midst of the team’s successful run at a World Series two seasons further. He reached his potential as a reliever with Milwaukee in closing and high leverage situations, then spent the predominant part of his career in Cleveland in the same role, earning quite a bit of respect in a fairly long career before finishing out in Atlanta and Arizona respectively in 2007.

Melido was solid for the Yankees, but he couldn’t move the needle for his older brother, who had spent a significant amount of time on the injured list after arm surgery in 1990 before being suspended during spring training for the entire 1992 season for a failed drug test, which all but ended his career. Melido for his part enjoyed a career year in 1992, with the second highest total in strikeouts in the AL (behind Randy Johnson), but his career also ended abruptly in 1995, with a tear in the elbow of his pitching arm. He attempted a comeback in 1997 with Cleveland, but didn’t make the cut from spring training. Today, Melido is mayor of the town of San Gregorio de Nigua… the same town where his erstwhile older brother Pascual was found murdered after a home invasion in 2012.

Curt Young spent the majority of his career with Oakland, he was on the pitching staff for the teams that won back-to-back in 1989-90. When he came to the Yanks, it was at the tail end of a relatively successful career working in the shadows of Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, Storm Davis, Scott Sanderson, Mike Moore, Rick Honeycutt and of course Dennis Eckersley.

Jack Thomas “J.T.” Snow was of course heralded as Mattingly’s eventual successor; he had a pedigree in sports as the scion of former Pro Bowl wide receiver Jack Snow of the L.A. Rams, who developed J.T. as a first baseman from a young age, and played with a number of sports luminaries as a three-sport star in high school and college and was drafted by the Yanks in the fifth round in 1989. He made his debut at the tail end of the season with the Yanks, but in the off-season he was traded along with Russ Springer and Jerry Nielsen to the California Angels for one Jim Abbott.  Welcoming the trade as a respite from “playing in oblivion behind Mattingly”, he won two Gold Gloves with the Angels before moving on to San Francisco and becoming an All-Star fixture along with former Met Jeff Kent and former Pirate Barry Bonds (who, surprise, was almost was a Yankee himself in 1992).

Lastly, there’s Gerald Williams. selected in the fourteenth round in 1987, Gerald had a down and up minor league career, alternately struggling and showing big promise. He debuted in September 1992, spent the bulk of 93 in the minors again and returned to stay in 94. By 1996 he was getting the bulk of the starts in left field, but in late August he and Wickman were dealt to Milwaukee. Both received World Series rings at the end of the 96 season as they had played the significant part of the year with the Yanks.  Gerald would go on to be a regular bench guy with Atlanta and Tampa Bay (then known as the Devil Rays) before returning for a second stint with the Yanks for their 2001-03 seasons; the last year of which he was traded to the Florida Marlins, only this time he won a ring after the trade with his new team.  He finished as a Met in 2004-05, and has recently been a regular at Old Timer’s Day with the Yankees.  Although he wasn’t any type of star like his other namesake Bernie (no relation), perhaps his greatest contribution as a Yankee was being best friends with a young Derek Jeter, who credited him as being like a big brother “always looking out for me.” Jeter returned the favor when he invited him as a VIP guest to his retirement ceremony at Yankee Stadium (which I was lucky enough to be in attendance for) and personally thanked him during his speech.

Offseason

  • November 13, 1991: Ramiro Mendoza was signed as an amateur free agent by the Yankees.
  • November 20, 1991: Eric Plunk was released by the New York Yankees.
  • December 2, 1991: Bob Geren was selected off waivers from the Yankees by the Cincinnati Reds.
  • January 6, 1992: Danny Tartabull was signed as a free agent with the Yankees.
  • January 8, 1992: Darrin Chapin was traded by the Yankees to the Philadelphia Phillies for a player to be named later. The Phillies completed the deal by sending Charlie Hayes to the Yankees on February 19.
  • January 9, 1992: Mike Gallego signed as a free agent with the Yankees.
  • January 10, 1992: Steve Sax was traded by the Yankees to the Chicago White Sox for Bob Wickman, Domingo Jean and Mélido Pérez.
  •  

Notable transactions

  • April 9, 1992: Shawn Hillegas was signed as a free agent by the Yankees.
  • June 1, 1992: Derek Jeter was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 1st round (6th pick) of the 1992 amateur draft. Player signed June 27, 1992.
  • August 22, 1992: Tim Leary and cash were traded by the Yankees to the Seattle Mariners for Sean Twitty (minors).
  • August 22, 1992: Shawn Hillegas was released by the New York Yankees.

The first act of the offseason was one of the most significant, if rather underrated.  Ramiro Mendoza became the prototype for middle reliever/spot starter/do-all throughout the Yankees championship run in the 90s (and for another team in particular which shall remain unmentioned). However, it may be surprising to realize that Mendoza was not part of the post-season roster on several occasions, largely due to his unsteadiness during certain seasons, but when he did pitch in post-season play, he was usually a highly-effective mid-game stopper. Signed two years after fellow countryman and best friend Mo, Mendoza became the Yoeman of the pitching staff (similar to yoeman bench player Clay Bellinger) and was very much liked by his teammates.  Mike Axsia of River Avenue Blues has a more in-depth analysis of his career and impact on the Yankees.

I only note the acquisition of Charlie Hayes to explain that this was the first of two relatively short stints with the Yanks, though Hayes made an indelible mark on Yankee history in his second coming.  Here in 1992, he hit .257 and struck out a career-high 100 times. After the season, the new expansion team Colorado Rockies drafted Hayes, but the Yankees fought his selection on the grounds that the expansion Florida Marlins were not fairly compensating the Yankees for taking away their minor-league territory in Ft. Lauderdale, were the Yanks had a long-situated minor league team and played many of their spring training home games. However,  Commissioner Fay Vincent (perhaps still cranky over Steinbrenner’s banishment or his subsequently imminent return) ruled against them, and Hayes became an inaugural member of the Rockies. The loss was not unnoticed by Yanks brass and fans alike, though his records tell us he was actually much better with the Rockies than anywhere else. His post-season play in his second stint was unremarkable except for his steady defense at third, and the image of him catching Mark Lemke’s foul pop-up off of third in Game 6 of the 96 series is perhaps his identifying career image and moment. It was mostly downhill after that; he was traded during the following season and bounced around between the Ginats, Mets, Brewers and Astros, retiring in 2001. However, he has not fallen into obscurity as one would think; he operates a baseball academy in Texas and is a base coach for the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate.  He also has two sons who played professionally; son Tyree was a pitcher from 2006-12, while son Ke’Bryan was the 32nd overall pick by the Pirates in 2015; the team Charlie played for before rejoining the Yanks in 1996. And just like his old man, he’s a third baseman. A helluva third baseman, in fact…

With Steinbrenner, the Yanks had a penchant for pilfering players from World Series-winning teams; the theory of course being that such players would contribute to winning ways on the Yankees.  That tradition continued unabated in fact, though under Michael it was probably for a different reason.  Mike Gallego, late of the Oakland A’s and a contributor to their on-field success was obviously such a signing; although the starting second baseman with Oakland, Gallego played mostly at shortstop for the Yanks, while also playing second and third throughout his tenure. Trivia: Gallego is the last Yankee player to wear No. 2, right before it was to become synonymous with RE2PECT.  Gallego was known more for his glove and being able to move the runner over than as a hitter; in fact his best year as a hitter was with the Yanks in the following season when he inexplicably hit double digits in home runs, but after 93 he returned to normal and returned to Oakland for one more season in 95 before finishing out his career with two seasons in St. Louis with his old boss, Tony LaRussa.  Today, he’s the director of player development for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Sean Hilligas, on the other hand, did not have an extended stay with the Yanks and was gone by the end of August. He was drafted by the Dodgers and made his debut in 1984, having a very decent rookie year in the rotation, but by 1988 he had pretty much fallen off the radar in L.A. and was traded to the White Sox during the Dodgers’ stretch run to the championship. The Yanks picked him up in 1992 as rotation depth, but he continued to disappoint, leading to his inevitable release. He continued bouncing around for another year before finally retiring, never to return to baseball again (but occasionally talking about it).

Oh yeah, speaking of RE2PECT

I also want to get back to what i said earlier about 1992 being just as much about what the Yankees didn’t do (besides play at least .500 ball; the last season that this ever occurred by the way). As we know, Stick was trying hard to turn things around in Steinbrenner’s absence, and he wasn’t afraid to go after a big name if he really felt it would move the timeline faster without disrupting the architecture.  This lead him to go after the biggest free agent in the winter of 1991: Barry Bonds. Barry was one of two godheads in Pittsburgh; the other being his assumed soul brother Bobby Bonilla, who left a season earlier to attach to the Mets (who to this day are still paying his salary, no joke). There was mutual interest between the two; Barry was far and wide the best hitter on the market, while Bonds (whose father Bobby played for the Yanks in the early-to-mid 70s) was unafraid of the bright lights and big city mentality of New York.  However, Bonds and his agent stood pat on a long-term, high salary contract that was apparently a year too long for Stick’s comfort. “We have to draw the line somewhere,” Michael said. “I have no regrets saying we did not offer him a sixth year. We offered him a fantastic contract for five years. We really went out of our way to make a nice offer.” Apparently, 6yrs/$43 million was a vast and uncrossable difference from 5yrs/$36 million for a 28 year old MVP (Hmmmmm…), while on the flip side Barry didn’t think $36 mil was an appropriately high enough offer for a player of his caliber (he may have been right at the time, even though both were ghastly sums of money). After Stick abruptly ended negotiations with Bonds and his agent, he turned his attention to the rotation, seeking an audience with free agent Cubs ace Greg Maddux, who took time to think and pass around the Yanks’ offer before settling on Atlanta, where he continued his career as a pitcher extraordinaire unabated. Michael also considered trading for aces like Greg Swindell or David Cone before finally trading off a significant piece in starting second baseman Steve Sax for Melido Perez and company.

Question: how different would the Yankees look in the enduing years if they had both Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux in the fold? They already had one future legend playing backup in the clubhouse, with four more on the way. Would Bernie have been purged to accommodate Bonds’ salary and ego at any point? More than likely, one of Jesse Barfield or Mel Hall and one or two others would have been moved off the roster in subsequent trades in order to keep Roberto Kelly and Bernie (though with Bernie, there were questions about his fortitude early on, but that’s an entirely different story). Would Michael have been willing or able to make a trade for Paul O’Neill (probably not), Jim Abbott (maybe, but not very likely), David Cone (again), Tino Martinez (perhaps?) and so-on? It’s safe to say they wouldn’t have signed Danny Tartabull; with right field shut down for 5–6 years, that wasn’t going to happen even on a DH level. As things turned out, Michael didn’t regret not signing Bonds, but he did lament not getting Maddux for a time, especially when he, Smoltz and Glavine not only brought the Braves from worst to first, but also to their first championship in the city of Atlanta a few years later.  But as things turned out in the long run, I kinda think Stick knew he did a good job after all.

Yankee For A Minute: 1991

The year 1991 brought reality to the Yankees; the turnaround from George’s style of management to something more akin to the rest of baseball was not going to be a quick fix. Michael was not going to land the biggest fish in the ocean because George said so, and at this point it wasn’t looking like anyone of true All Star caliber was interested in joining them. Aside from soon-to-be All-Star ace Scott Sanderson and hard-luck starter Tim Leary (who was involved in a dicey trade with the Reds for future good hitter Hal Morris) and perhaps Roberto Kelly, Kevin Maas, Matt Nokes and some kid named Bernie Williams, there wasn’t much to speak of about the 1991 Yanks (well, besides Mel Hall terrorizing Bernie in the locker room among many other things).  Stump Merrill was in his first full season as Yankee manager, having taken over from Bucky Dent, who was shockingly fired while in Boston for a series with the Red Sox in 1990 by Steinbrenner, a month or so before he himself was “fired” by baseball.  Stump continued the status quo with the major league team, losing far more games than winning through little fault of his own.

  • Opening Day Starters:                                   underline
  • Also Played:                                                        #
  • Regulars On Roster:                                       blank
  • Renowned From Other Teams:                 bold
  • Unheralded Rookie/Prospect:                   *
  • Unheralded Vet:                                                italics
  • Rookie Season (became regulars):          ~

Pitchers

  • 25 Greg Cadaret#
  • 51 Chuck Cary
  • 60 Darrin Chapin*
  • 28 Dave Eiland
  • 26 Steve Farr#
  • 35 Lee Guetterman
  • 42,57 John Habyan
  • 40 Andy Hawkins
  • 57 Steve Howe
  • 43 Jeff Johnson
  • 40 Scott Kamieniecki~
  • 54 Tim Leary
  • 50 Alan Mills
  • 45 Rich Monteleone
  • 34 Pascual Pérez
  • 33 Eric Plunk#
  • 21 Scott Sanderson
  • 41 Wade Taylor*
  • 36 Mike Witt

 Catchers

  • 53 Bob Geren
  • 38 Matt Nokes#
  • 48 John Ramos*

 Infielders

  • 14 Mike Blowers
  • 20 Álvaro Espinoza
  • 14 Pat Kelly~
  • 12 Jim Leyritz
  • 13,43 Torey Lovullo*
  • 23 Don Mattingly
  • 12 Carlos Rodríguez*
  •  6 Steve Sax
  • 18 Randy Velarde#

Outfielders

  • 29 Jesse Barfield
  • 27 Mel Hall#
  • 36 Mike Humphreys*
  • 39 Roberto Kelly
  • 17 Scott Lusader
  • 31 Hensley Meulens
  • 17 Pat Sheridan
  • 51 Bernie Williams~

Other Positions

  • 24 Kevin Maas

Hey, remember Pat Kelly? He was kinda touted as the second basemen of the future while with the Yanks, and he stuck around long enough to win a ring with the 1996 team, although he only played 13 games the whole season. But how many remember that in 1991, Kelly was a third baseman? He came up as a replacement for the recently-departed Mike Blowers, who was traded to Seattle for a bag of balls. Blowers for his part would become a regular with Seattle, so he would qualify as a player who was (much) better somewhere else, like Jay Buhner before him. Kelly switched to second in 1992 and remained there for the entire tenure of his career with the Yanks and beyond.

Scott Kamieniecki is definitely a name that stands out; he was one of their best pitchers during the dark ages if you will, but I somehow misremember him as being in the rotation in the 80s. I guess when you have Chuck Cary, Richard Dotson, Ron Guidry and Dave LaPoint on your staff at any given moment, you’re going to misremember quite a few things (and try to forget others, like giving away Doug Drabek, grrr…) Kamieniecki was not the best pitcher on staff, but the fans knew him well enough over the next few seasons and I suppose you could consider him one of the Hard Luck Boys of the early 90s. Hard luck followed him into the championship days as well, when for whatever reason, the Yanks decided not to give him a ring for being with the team in ’96, though he spent much of the year on the DL. He later blasted the Yanks for “strong-arming him to the DL with a fake injury” and for “putting on a show” by having him sized for a ring that he never received after the team was criticized for leaving him and a few other players out of the ceremony. He was definitely not a fan of Joe Torre, whose glare at certain players was an automatic ticket to the Doghouse, if not the kiss-off to their Yankee tenure.  I’m guessing though Scott and the Yanks have pretty much made up at this point

Steve Howe was interesting. He had been out of baseball for four years before the Yanks signed him, and he was very effective most of the time.  However, he was a drug addict throughout most of his career well before coming to the Yanks, so much so that he had already been suspended several times. It was his effectiveness as a reliever that kept him in baseball, and though he was banned for life the next season, he was reinstated upon appeal and went on to have one of the best seasons in his career. There was a lot of debate about him while he continued to play, get banned and then be reinstated; was the league enabling his habits because he was a good pitcher? Howe wasn’t the only player who had a drug problem, but he was probably the only one who kept coming back after falling down the well many times. As things go, Howe’s Yankee (and MLB) career was ended with him being released in June 1996, making him indeed a member of the Hard Luck Boys. Sadly, his ignominious death ten years later in an accident that eerily resembled Billy Martin’s death has rendered him a cautionary tale of the glamour of the baseball life. Say his name and/or look him up on Wikipedia and you just can’t help but shake your head and wonder, “why?

Scott Sanderson, on the other hand, was a legit anchor and ace of the staff, as it were. His two seasons with the Yanks were good enough to hope that any of your five (six?) starters for 2018 could at least match. In a fairly solid career with the Expos, Cubs and a good season with Oakland prior, 1991 would in fact be his first and only selection to the AL All Star team. He became a partner at Moye Sports Associates in 1996, who currently represent Austin Romine and Jaime Garcia. However, his moralizing during and after his career could be considered problematic to some (particularly in New York)…

Here are the moves the team made prior to and during the season:

  • October 5, 1990: Wayne Tolleson was released by the New York Yankees.
  • November 19, 1990: Tim Leary was signed as a Free Agent with the New York Yankees.
  • December 3, 1990: Frank Seminara was drafted by the San Diego Padres from the New York Yankees in the 1990 rule 5 draft.
  • December 31, 1990: Scott Sanderson was purchased by the New York Yankees from the Oakland Athletics.
  • January 13, 1991: Rick Cerone was released by the New York Yankees.
  • March 19, 1991: Torey Lovullo was traded by the Detroit Tigers to the New York Yankees for Mark Leiter.

Notable transactions

  • April 1, 1991:Steve Balboni was released by the New York Yankees.
  • April 5, 1991: Scott Lusader was selected off waivers by the New York Yankees from the Detroit Tigers.
  • May 9, 1991: Andy Hawkins was released by the New York Yankees.
  • May 17, 1991: Mike Blowers was traded by the New York Yankees to the Seattle Mariners for a player to be named later and cash. The Seattle Mariners sent Jim Blueberg (minors) (June 22, 1991) to the New York Yankees to complete the trade.
  • May 25, 1991: Andy Pettite was signed by the New York Yankees as an amateur free agent.

Draft picks

  • With the first overall pick in the MLB draft, the New York Yankees selected Brien Taylor. He was a Left Handed Pitcher from Beaufort, North Carolina who competed at East Carteret High School.

With the release of Wayne Tolleson, the Yanks could now tell who was who between him and Alvaro Espinoza. Tim Leary was drafted by the Mets in 1978 and spent his first four seasons in the majors there before he managed to win a ring with the 1988 Dodgers. Rick Cerone had the last of three stints with the Yankees, previously having been a starter from 1980-84 and a backup in 1987.  Mark Leiter, like his brother Al, was sent away and became a better pitcher with his next teams, but unlike Al, he never returned to the Yanks. Torey Luvullo? Pat Sheridan? Scott Lusader…? Balboni would try one more season in 1993 with Texas before saying bye-bye to major league baseball for good.

And Brien Taylor… *sigh*

Yankee For A Minute – 1990

Honestly, this was the best card picture of him as a Yankee that I could find. He looked downright miserable in others. Not that anyone could blame him at the time.

I decided to begin with the year 1990 for one reason: I believe this was the year that the perennially contending Yankees as we know them actually began, with the ouster of Steinbrenner and the functional head of the organization now being Gene Michael (Steinbrenner’s last official act as managing partner of the Yankees was to fire the current GM Harding Peterson in favor of Michael), the Yanks began the process of reinventing themselves into an organization that valued growing and developing players first, rather than simply being the highest bidder for the biggest star in the free agent market, or trading away developing prospects for tried-and-true veterans whom somehow either flopped or otherwise failed to live up to expectations.  Michael’s method valued potential over past results, and that method yielded some genuine value in both prospects and veterans (signed or traded for) who became franchise mainstays.

But within this process, there had to be players who either didn’t fit into the plan long term for one reason or another; perhaps they didn’t make the cut and were either relegated to the minors or released or traded, perhaps they were at the tail end of their careers and were basically picking up another check before they bid the major leagues adieu. Or, in some cases, they started out with the Yanks but didn’t make it with them, so they went somewhere else and became All Stars, or at the very least fan faves with another team.  Many will be surprised at who donned the famous pinstripes at one point or another in their careers.  Many know of the players who got a second wind with the Yankees after their stars had dimmed elsewhere; Strawberry, Gooden, Cone, Boggs, Fielder, Justice and the like.  But as we start with 1990 and make our way to last season, you’ll find names that would have never occurred to you unless someone (here!) brought them to your attention.  You can tell me if it’s fair or not to include them as “honorable mentions” or “who dat’s”, but that’s what I hope will keep the discussion lively. Feel free to contribute any stories about mentioned players that you might find interesting.

I’m going to build a key here and hope that it sticks:

  • Opening Day Starters:                                   underline
  • Also Played:                                                        #
  • Regulars On Roster:                                       blank
  • Renowned From Other Teams:                 bold
  • Unheralded Rookie/Prospect:                   *
  • Unheralded Vet:                                                italics 

So, here we go:

Pitchers

  • 59 Steve Adkins*
  • 25 Greg Cadaret#
  • 51 Chuck Cary
  • 58 Dave Eiland
  • 35 Lee Guetterman
  • 61 John Habyan
  • 40 Andy Hawkins
  • 26 Jimmy Jones
  • 42 Dave LaPoint
  • 54 Tim Leary
  • 56 Mark Leiter
  • 41 Lance McCullers
  • 28,69 Alan Mills*
  • 55 Rich Monteleone
  • 38 Clay Parker
  • 34 Pascual Pérez
  • 33 Eric Plunk#
  • 19 Dave Righetti
  • 43 Jeff Robinson#
  • 22 Mike Witt

Catchers

  • 11 Rick Cerone
  • 28 Brian Dorsett
  • 53 Bob Geren
  • 38 Matt Nokes

Outfielders

  • 50 Oscar Azócar*
  • 29 Jesse Barfield
  • 27 Mel Hall
  • 39 Roberto Kelly
  • 31 Hensley Meulens
  • 21 Deion Sanders
  • 17 Claudell Washington
  • 31 Dave Winfield

Other batters

  • 22 Luis Polonia#

Infielders

  • 45 Steve Balboni
  • 24,21 Mike Blowers*
  • 20 Álvaro Espinoza
  • 12 Jim Leyritz
  • 24 Kevin Maas
  • 23 Don Mattingly
  • Steve Sax
  • 2 Wayne Tolleson
  • 18 Randy Velarde#
  • 63 Jim Walewander 

Of that list, I had a little trouble categorizing Bob Geren, Claudell Washington,  Rich Monteleone, Oscar Azócar and Mike Blowers because they were known/heralded, but not great players. The last two in particular were part of a pre-Michaels youth movement that also had rookies Steve Adkins, Mark Leiter, Jim Leyritz, Kevin Maas and Alan Mills making their major league debuts in 1990. Of this group, Leyritz would remain as a fixture, Maas would become a fan favorite for a time (but never a productive cog in the the team’s ambitions as Leyritz would be), Mills would star in Baltimore (but was often foiled by his former team), and Leiter went onto greater things with Detroit among other teams. Hensley Meulens was very much heralded and made his debut in 1985, but by 1990 was pretty much a permanent shuttle inhabitant between Columbus and the Bronx. But he did become a fixture and hero of The Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, and he almost became the Yankees’ new manager recently, so there’s that.

Deion Sanders obviously has to be the name that jumps out the most, but he was well known for being a two-sport star; at the time playing for the Atlanta Falcons. If he had not struggled in his first two seasons with the Yanks and had Bo Jackson not suffered the injury that effectively ended his sports career, not to mention his “Prime Time” persona that rubbed quite a few baseball people the wrong way, Deion might have had a longer career with the Yanks. However, Stick released him after an unproductive second season and contentious contract extension talks, saying that football was stunting his growth as a baseball player.  Perhaps this stung Deion in some way, or maybe the ease of being in the same city for both professions helped; when he signed with the Atlanta Braves, he suddenly became Bo Jackson Lite and was an immediate contributor to the teams that won two NL pennants in 1991-92. Consider it one of Michael’s few missteps.

This was also Dave Winfield’s last season with the Yanks, before he was traded in mid-May for pitcher Mike Witt. We all know the story with Winfield, which led to George’s ouster, but Witt was formerly a solid, if not ace-quality pitcher with the California Angels until he suddenly lost his mojo, and after the trade it never came back, with Witt mercifully disappearing from baseball after little more than two seasons and a plethora of injuries.

Offseason
Notable transactions

  • October 1989: Dickie Noles was released by the Yankees.
  • October 4, 1989: Steve Kiefer was released by the Yankees.
  • November 20, 1989: Rafael Santana was released by the Yankees.
  • November 21, 1989: Pascual Pérez was signed as a free agent by the Yankees.
  • December 12, 1989: Hal Morris and Rodney Imes (minors) were traded by the Yankees to the Cincinnati Reds for Tim Leary and Van Snider.
  • December 20, 1989: Rick Cerone was signed as a free agent by the Yankees.
  • February 17, 1990: Mariano Rivera was signed as an amateur free agent by the Yankees.
  • March 13, 1990: Orlando Miller was traded by the Yankees to the Houston Astros for Dave Silvestri and a player to be named later. The Astros completed the deal by sending Daven Bond (minors) to the Yankees on June 11.
  • April 29, 1990: Luis Polonia was traded by the Yankees to the California Angels for Claudell Washington and Rich Monteleone.
  • May 11, 1990: Dave Winfield was traded by the Yankees to the California Angels in exchange for Mike Witt.
  • June 4, 1990: Clay Parker and Lance McCullers were traded by the Yankees to the Detroit Tigers for Matt Nokes.
  • September 24, 1990: Deion Sanders was released by the Yankees.

Draft picks
June 4, 1990: 1990 Major League Baseball Draft

  • Carl Everett was drafted by the Yankees in the 1st round.
  • Robert Eenhoorn was drafted by the Yankees in the 2nd round of the 1990 June Draft. Player signed June 10, 1990.
  • Sam Militello was drafted by the Yankees in the 6th round.
  • Jalal Leach was drafted by the Yankees in the 7th round. Player signed June 8, 1990.
  • Ricky Ledée was drafted by the Yankees in the 16th round. Player signed June 5, 1990.
  • Andy Pettitte was drafted by the Yankees in the 22nd round, but did not sign.
  • Jorge Posada was drafted by the Yankees in the 24th round. Player signed May 24, 1991.
  • Shane Spencer was drafted by the Yankees in the 28th round. Player signed June 7, 1990.

Whoa, what a fun draft that was. There are quite a few others to talk about here, so look them up and ask away or talk about any that stand out beyond who or what I highlighted.  Do you think the indications are fair? You tell me.

Yankee For A Minute

Hat-tip to our own Mr. OK Jazz Tokyo for the idea!

I intend for this to be a mini-series throughout this year’s Spring Training, wherein we shine a desk lamp light on those former or future All-Stars (or solid players in any regard) who played for more or less one season with the Yankees during and after their 90’s Dynasty years.

Not that this is an anomaly for the Yankees exclusive to this era (anyone who rooted for the Yanks since Steinbrenner bought the team would know this became part of their DNA through the 80s), but I wanted to focus on this particular era, given that the strongest season from that era and in team history is now 20 years in the past…(!) The folks over at River Avenue Blues presented their annual (and highly recommended Retro Week before the beginning of Spring Training; this year highlighting interesting moments and insights of the super-duper 1998 season. While discussing this series, Jazz suggested writing about some of the well-known players who we (sometimes intentionally) forget were on the Yankee roster for a brief moment.  Since it’s too early to forget Matt Holliday or Chris Carter (among others last season), we’ll leave them off this list. We’ll see…

For now, we’ll exclude players who were signed for specific roles, but then ended up becoming fixtures in the clubhouse (i.e. David Justice, Scott Brosius, Luis Sojo, et al) or prospects who played for the big club and stuck around longer than one season (Shane Spenser, Juan Rivera, Ricky Ledee, et al), and for the sake of this series and out of respect to the great writers at River Avenue Blues who indirectly inspired this series, we’ll not rehash Mike Lowell’s cup of coffee as a Yankee heir apparent; whose opportunity was usurped by a spectacular Brosius regular and World Series MVP season on the cusp of what turned out to be a fairly solid All Star career.

For now though, if you have any suggestions of who to highlight from say 1994 (the natural beginning of 90s dynasty-era dominance) to the present, feel free to comment below.  I don’t have strict rules for the moment, but I am compiling a list and researching as much info as I can about each player; their bios, their accomplishments, what they’re up to now, as much as a guy who is a baseball fan and blog writer with no press credentials can muster and present in an interesting fashion.  It would be easy to just wiki these guys yourself, but who else wants to bother to make the list and do that? >;)

Oh, No

Our guy, Oscar has passed away. Sad new.

The Inside Story of Inside Sports

Head on over to Don Van Natta’s Sunday Long Read (co-run by Jacob Feldman) and check out my long oral history of Inside Sports. Spent a few years putting this sucker together. Plenty of baseball stuff in there. Enjoy!

The A-Z Bar Tour

Back in the mid-’70s through the early ’80s, magazine editor John A. Walsh was the ringleader of the A-Z Bar tour, which is exactly what it sounds like, a bar crawl that ran the gamut of watering holes from A to Z. It began in San Francisco (Walsh was briefly the managing editor at Rolling Stone), moved to Washington D.C. (where he worked as an editor at the Post’s fabled Style section) and eventually landed in New York (Walsh was the original editor of Inside Sports).

Thought you might appreciate the rules n regulations:

[Photo Via: John A. Walsh]

 

Booooring

Hot Stove my eye. Well, at least there’s football…Oh, Hell, I can’t even type that without scoffing to myself.

That said, the Vikings win last week was some kind of fun, right? And if the Jaguars find a way to beat the Patriots today, that will be just fine, too.

Meanwhile, it’s been reading, movies, TV-show streaming, reading, and NBA action for me the past month or so, which is all well and good for hibernation, but once our boys hit spring training things will perk up, nu?

IcyHot Stove

Sooo… how ’bout that weather?

Indeed, it’s been an effort this winter to stay warm and in a cheery mood, not that Cashman and the Yanks haven’t tried to help. After all, snatching up a reigning MVP entering his prime from one league and pairing him with a homegrown runner-up MVP who also happens to be the unequivocal Rookie of the Year and still a couple years away from his prime (hopefully) has to qualify as a heat-seeking missile maneuver to say the least. Re-signing C.C. seems like posturing after the Mother Of All Dunks (hey, they ain’t called the Bronx Bombers for nothing…). Yet even with that, the ripples of time have dissipated far and long enough enough for us to see that this off-season has been in relative stasis; the iguanas falling out of the trees are frozen in expectation of better conditions to act within their nature.

So what are we waiting for?

I guess we’re still waiting on that market, huh? Yunnow, the one that seems to be getting busy later and later in the off-season these past few years? I dunno, with what amounts to a soft-cap looming over the proceedings and a new generation of smart shoppers analyzing everything with modified Hubble telescopes and probability vector algorithms, the Hot Stove has been as interesting as watching flies fiduciary-fiduciary-fiduciary… you get the picture.

To be honest, I’m quite pleased with the relative “restraint” the Yanks have shown in this and the last few seasons; Ellsbury notwithstanding. They’ve figured out how to add and subtract big contracts and farm pieces without putting too much pressure on their bottom line, but obviously the major factor in this formula working is the fact that their prospects are mostly living up to their rankings when they hit the big stage, which creates more capital to pull off a big trade such as Ultron for Rikki Tikki Tavi and two diamond pinkie rings. And so far, what they haven’t done has given them credibility going forward; not trading for Gerritt Cole, who not long ago gave us all the impression that he never wanted to be a Yankee to begin with to me makes up for the pre-dynasty years wasted on Jack McDowell. Now if they can only avoid making a long-term regret with Yu Darvish… I like Darvish and our old Toaster fam Mike Plugh was not wrong about him, but I also like that he purportedly skipped a ridiculously Ellsburyish offer with a 48-hr deadline, which probably means if he does sign with the Yanks, it’ll be for significantly less ducats.  As is, the Yanks can live somewhere around $25-30 million under the luxury tax line without him.

So as presently constructed, what do you think we can expect from this influx of power and youth? Is it safe to consider the roster a go heading into February, or are we waiting for the fire to heat up now that certain teams are starting to make a few moves? Is Gleyber a lock at second or does Cashman want to let him warm up in SWB coming off an  injury and all… is Miguel Andujar the answer at third or is Todd Fraizer going to slide in under the budget line somehow? Does Jacoby break with the team going north and turn in a Headleyesque barnburner of an April-May that gets him some admirers from far-flung contenders? Will Hicks continue to build on what the Twins didn’t have the patience for? Can Gardy… wait, do we still have to do the stupid “name-y” thing now that Joe’s gone? And who’s going to be our Achilles’ Heel bench guy who had one good season and is signed to keep the lineup human THIS year?

Oh yeah, and is Aaron Freakin’ Boone gonna do it or what? Will our new Ulysses prove Cashman to be the brilliant Texas Hold-Em Pragmatic Genius that we hope he is at this point, or will Cashman be forced to do a Dan Jennings The Elder and take over halfway through May? What’s it gonna be, Bob Brenly  or Bucky Dent?

*Before you say it, I know Brenly was a coach with the Giants under Roger Craig and Dusty Baker before he replaced Buck Showalter in Arizona, but it was his first season and first manager job, dangit! One would hope that Boone can outdo Brenly given the roster he gets to handle. As for Bucky… Bucky F*cking Dent, woo hoo!!

 

Step to the Left

Notorious Yankee-killer Evan Longoria gets shipped to San Francisco, a long ways away. Happy to see him gone from the AL East, but, as the saying goes, I’d grown accustomed to his face. He was a worthy adversary, and will be missed in a weird way. Of course, you all know the Yanks re-signed C.C. to a one-year, $10 million deal and that sounds about right. They also shipped away Chase Headley to save some dough and that sounds about right too. But I am also sorry to see him go because that Chase Headley’s a good egg.

Last summer, I spent a couple of days at the Stadium on assignment for Esquire poking around about Aaron Judge. I spoke to Judge, briefly, and to a few of his teammates: C.C. was standoffish, Didi was terse and odd, Aaron Hicks, then on the DL, was interesting and Brett Gardner was generous and helpful, and I’ll tell you this—Chase Headley was just such a good guy. No airs, no pretense, professional, but thoughtful, just a good guy. Gave me a lot of time, had some great observations. I’d never been his biggest fan just watching him but after meeting him I had no choice but to root for him for the rest of his career. Wish him luck.

[Photo Credit: Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports]

 

I Want Me a Chevy Truck with…Two Steering Wheels!

From an Albert Brooks routine describing a stoned redneck’s fantasy gift.

Well, the Yanks have Aaron Judge, emerging superstar and giant home run hitting/whiff machine in right field. But apparently they want the more expensive version as well, and reports have the Yanks agreeing to a trade with the Marlins to acquire Giancarlo Stanton. Physicals, approval, etc. still pending.

On the surface it is a head-scratcher. Then again, we don’t know what else is involved in the trade yet (word is Starlin Castro and prospects). And on another hand, this is a classic Yankee boffo move. They got more expensive, they got more powerful, they got more star power and that, my friends, is, and has always been, the Yankee way.

Step Up Front

Aaron Boone press conference today.

Yadda-Yadda-Yadda. 

That said, I am excited for Boonie. Why not, right?

Picture by Bags

Boone Over Bam Bam in the Boogie Down Bronx

Aaron Boone will be the new Yankee skipper. Yanks hope the neophyte can be a New Age Joe Torre and lead this young team to big time success. On the surface, Boone doesn’t exit me, but then again, a) he doesn’t need to be exiting to be good, and b), what the hell do I know? Wishing him the best of luck regardless now that he’s got the gig.

And away we go…

Just Hanging Out

Aw, man, my apologies for being remiss in this space of late. Hope all is well and that your Thanksgiving was plentiful.

So interesting that the Yanks don’t have a skipper yet. Can’t wait to see who it’ll be. Been a still off-season so far. That won’t last forever. Hey, you hear that Aaron Judge had surgery on his left shoulder—maybe that accounts for his second half swoon. If so it makes what he did even more impressive.

In the meantime, hope you guys are watching something cool, or reading something interesting, and listening to something incredible. And, of course, eating something tasty and finding a way to laugh.

One More Night?

We interrupt another day of madness with some relief in a minor note. A baseball game means nothing in the big picture but as a momentary diversion it will do. The Dodgers will try to find someway to get to the Great Verlander, or at least survive him and beat up on the bullpen, as they try to force a seventh and deciding game. If they do manage to win it wouldn’t it be fitting if Justin Turner—the Great Pumpkin—played hero?

My money goes on Verlander and the visiting ’Stros to close them out but here’s hoping it goes the distance.

Never mind the craziness:

Let’s Go Base-ball!

Picture by Bags

Say it Ain’t So

According to reports, the Yankees have decided not to bring Joe Girardi back as manager next year. I am sad to see him go but also think it’s a fine time for a new blood as well. With a team this talented maybe it will be a Buck Showalter-to-Joe Torre kind of transition for the new guy. Whoever they pick, I hope he has a feel for the players, a good sense of humor, and stamina. Seems like a dream gig to me, for the right guy.

In the meanwhile, here’s to Joe G, an upstanding Yankee player and a damn good Yankee manager, better than most in my eyes. Sure he was a tight-ass and sometimes overly stern or proud but I never begrudged him for that, too much. Maybe he was a phony in a righteous kind of way, I don’t know. He worked hard, cared a lot, and he could be funny. And was also a big softy, too—remember how emotional he got during Alex Rodriguez’s departure?

He survived a Fred Merkle-level blunder this October that could have regrettably stained an otherwise stellar career. He won a Whirled Serious title, he more than successfully followed-up the toughest act in show business, Joe Torre, and then ushered the team through the decline of the Jeter, Mariano, A Rod, Texieira years, to the future, which is now.

Curious to hear more as it comes out. I’m sure it’s a tough call for him. He was a good company man. He represented the Yankees well. And that’s not nothing.

The End

Pitchers and catchers report in mid February, the rest of the players follow a week later, and it begins. The first games are in early March, and we begin to see evidence of baseball in highlights shot from odd angles and showing the previous year’s heroes hitting home runs against pitchers we’ll never hear from again. April blooms soon enough, bringing with it a bouquet of baseball. The grass is green, the rookies are raw, and hope is everywhere. A team that had lost a hundred games the year before could make the playoffs; another that lost a hundred games three seasons in a row only a few years earlier could make the World Series. A young rookie might defy the experts and hit fifty home runs; a pitcher unlikely to make the rotation could end up in the Cy Young conversation. A team the experts pick to finish at the bottom of the division could surprise everyone and make a run deep into October.

More than any other sport, baseball is about hope. On Saturday night, hope ran out for the New York Yankees.

They entered the night the same as they had the night before, needing just one win to advance to the World Series and a matchup with the franchise’s most common autumn dance partner, the Los Angeles Dodgers. They exited the way all but one team will, short of the ultimate goal.

There were signs as early as the first inning that this would be a challenging night. Charlie Morton was on the mound for the Astros, and he was ready from the first pitch of the game. He struck out Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius on three pitches each and had little trouble dispatching Aaron Judge in between, spending just ten pitches in the frame. The Yankee dynasty of the late 90s pioneered the idea of working pitch counts to drive starting pitchers from the game, but these Yankees were much more aggressive, especially during this series. Six Yankee at bats on Saturday night lasted only one pitch.

Opposing Morton was none other than the Yankee Savior. CC Sabathia had compiled a 10-0 mark in 2017 with an ERA under two in starts following Yankee losses, so it appeared that the right man was on the hill for New York. He started the game even more efficiently than Morton, yielding a leadoff single to George Springer, but needing just three pitches to retire the next three hitters on three ground balls.

But Sabathia’s control wasn’t as sharp as necessary, and after that first easy inning, the rest of his night would be incredibly stressful. He put up zeros in the second and third innings, but those frames weren’t easy. He threw twenty pitches (ten balls and ten strikes) while allowing a hit and a walk in the second (and he was saved when Judge made a brilliant play to steal a home run from Yuli Gurriel), and then eighteen more pitches with another hit and a walk in the third. Each inning’s last out came with a clear sense that CC and the Yankees had dodged a bullet.

The team once called the Colt .45s took dead aim in the fourth, and this time Sabathia wasn’t able to escape. Designated hitter Evan Gattis started out the inning by battling through six pitches, fouling off the last three shots at his weakness, fastballs at the top of the zone. He laid off a slider down low, but then CC allowed a 2-2 slider to float up into the zone a bit, and Gattis crushed it over the high wall in left center for the first run of the game.

Even at the time, that home run felt huge. Morton was busy doing his best Justin Verlander impression, mowing down Yankee hitters as if they were dandelions in his front lawn, while Sabathia had been spinning plates on poles all night. The first dish had fallen, and it seemed like only a matter of time until the rest came crashing down around him.

It wouldn’t take long. He walked Brian McCann, and two batters later he gave up a loud single to Marwin González to put runners on first and third with one out, and that would be it. In any other game, probably even in any other playoff game, Sabathia would never have been lifted after giving up a single run in three and third innings, but not even CC was surprised when Joe Girardi hopped out of the dugout to get him.

When Sabathia handed the ball to Girardi, it was one of the most pivotal moments of the game, but there was something more. Sabathia had arrived in New York the year after Girardi had taken the helm, and during that time Girardi sent him to the mound 255 times in the regular season and 17 more in the playoffs, far more than any other pitcher. With both men unsigned beyond this year, this could’ve been their final meeting on the mound.

But the game and season was in the balance, so Girardi had no choice but to go to the bullpen. The formula I had had in my head prior to the game had been four innings from Sabathia followed by five from Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, and Aroldis Chapman, so perhaps, I told myself, CC’s early exit wasn’t as worrisome as it seemed. Kahnle entered the game, only two outs ahead of my schedule, and used just one pitch to get those two outs on a ground ball double play from George Springer.

The game almost changed in the top of the fifth. Morton had been cruising, needing just 36 pitches to cover the first four innings, but Greg Bird greeted him by rocking the first pitch of the inning to right for a leadoff double. Morton rebounded by striking out Starlin Castro, but then Aaron Hicks walked on four pitches, the fourth ball being a wild pitch that allowed Bird to move to third, and the Yankees were putting together their first rally of the night.

With runners on first and third and a chance to at least tie the game, Todd Frazier dribbled a soft ground ball towards third. Bird and third baseman Alex Bregman were both in motion immediately, Bird breaking for home and Bregman charging hard for the ball. Knowing he had no chance to turn the double play, Bregman instead scooped the ball up and fired home, hoping to cut down the run.

No one can be faulted here. Down by a run in the seventh game of the series and facing a dominant pitcher, the Yankees had to put on the contact play, even with the slowest runner in the lineup on third. Even as Bird was lumbering down the line, it was clear that Bregman would have to field the ball flawlessly and make a perfect throw to get the out. He did both. His throw hit McCann’s glove two inches above the ground and two inches in front of the plate, arriving a breath before Bird’s outstretched leg. If everything hadn’t worked perfectly for the Astros, the game would’ve been tied and the Yankees would’ve had two runners on with only one out. Instead it was two outs, and when Chase Headley followed with a ground ball to second, the Yankees’ best chance was wasted.

But it was still only a one-run game, and New York pressed forward, leaning on a bullpen that had been the strength of its team. Kahnle, in particular, had been a revelation. He hadn’t been the “player to be named later” in the Chicago deal, he had been the “player you haven’t heard of,” but he quickly became one of Girardi’s favorite weapons out of the bullpen. He struck out 36 batters in just 26.2 innings after coming over in the trade, and he had been even better in the postseason, yielding just two hits and no runs over his first ten innings.

After the two outs on the double play that had ended the fourth and a fly out from Bregman to start the fifth, Kahnle’s scoreless string stretched to eleven innings, but that would be it. On a 1-1 pitch to José Altuve, Kahnle left a changeup in the heart of the zone, and Altuve slapped it just over the wall in right field to double the Houston lead. Before the crowd had even settled down, Carlos Correa took the first pitch he saw and lined it into center for a single. Gurriel followed that with a hit-and-run single that skipped right through the spot Castro had vacated at second base, and now things were serious.

The game was only just past its halfway point, but with a two-run lead and runners on first and third and only one out, the Astros had a chance to deliver a death blow. Kahnle responded by striking out Gattis, leaving things to McCann. After mixing his fastball and change throughout the inning, Kahnle decided to throw only changeups to McCann. The first four brought the count to 2-2, and I moved forward to the edge of the couch, knowing the next pitch would likely decide the game. The previous four pitches had all been either just in or just out of the strike zone, but the fifth changeup was just below the belt and in the middle of the plate. A batting practice fastball. McCann ripped it into the left field corner for a double, scoring both runners. Adam Warren came on to get the final out of the inning, but the damage was done.

Over the course of three half innings, from the bottom of the fourth to the bottom of the fifth, the game was decided. The Gattis home run in the fourth, the missed opportunity for the Yankees in top of the fifth, and this three-run rally for the Astros. (Side note: Brian McCann had a great night and a nice series, and there are already ham-handed headlines out there saying “McCann Returns to Haunt Yankees,” as if there had been a decision to make last winter. Be sure to check Gary Sanchez’s stat line before jumping to any foolish conclusions.)

Unlike any other sport, baseball changes when its postseason arrives, and those changes become even greater in an elimination game like this. (Can you imagine Bill Belichick saying the night before a Super Bowl, “It’s all hands on deck tomorrow; all three quarterbacks are available”?) The Yankees (and many teams before them) often chose to reach earlier into the strength of their bullpen during these playoffs, but on this night Houston manager A.J. Hinch did the opposite, choosing to avoid his struggling relievers altogether.

Morton had emptied his tank as planned, and now Hinch turned to Game 4 starter Lance McCullers, Jr., clearly operating with the same instructions given to Morton — go as hard as you can, as long as you can. In fact, if he had run into trouble or if Hinch had needed a closer, I’m sure we would’ve seen Dallas Keuchel, not Ken Giles.

As it turned out, none of that was necessary. McCullers was as good as Morton had been, giving up just a single to Gardner in the sixth and a walk to Frazier in the eighth. He closed out the Yankees uneventfully with two strikeouts and a pop up to center in the ninth, and the season was done.

It’s never easy when a season ends, especially when it ends in the playoffs. Last year’s campaign was a long march through mediocrity, but at least everyone saw the end coming and knew when it would arrive. It’s different in the postseason. The change is immediate and dramatic. One moment the team is battling side by side and fighting to survive, and the next they’re shrinking into the clubhouse, stealing glances at another team’s celebration while wondering about their own team’s future.

And so it was with the Yankees. When asked to look back at the moment he took the ball from Sabathia, Girardi fought back tears as he explained how much CC had meant to him and the entire team. Aaron Judge thanked the veterans for teaching him so much, typically avoided any discussion of his own success, but acknowledged that he couldn’t express the disappointment he felt in the moment.

It will be difficult for the organization to get past this disappointment. Even though no one had expected the team to get to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, most will remember the failure to get to the World Series, not the heroic effort to win the wild card game over Minnesota or the historic comeback to beat Cleveland in the divisional series.

This is the nature of sports; we remember our defeats. The trick, of course, is to turn those negative memories into something positive. Paul O’Neill spoke about the devastation he and his teammates felt after losing to Cleveland in the 1997 divisional series and admitted that he couldn’t bring himself to watch the World Series that year. But then he dropped this: “When we lost in 1997, it was such a disappointment that I don’t think we win in ’98, ’99, and 2000 without that disappointment.”

So this is the challenge for these young Yankees. Not to win the next three World Series, but to use this defeat to get better.

And what about us? What about those of us who followed this team with religious devotion over the past six months, who recorded games to watch after work in July, who made pilgrimages to the Bronx and other ballparks around the country to see this team in person, who clicked over to Alex’s site to commune with the like-minded, who juggled schedules in October to accommodate inconvenient start times, who carefully selected just the right jersey to wear on Saturday? (For me it was a pinstriped #2; in key moments I noticed my left hand rubbing the DJ3K patch on the right sleeve for luck.) What are we to do?

For the devoted, a loss like this is like a death, and those who know us understand. My family was genuinely sorry for me, and it took about five seconds after the final out for friends near and far to begin texting me. “Sorry bro” from one a few blocks away, “Condolences” from another in Japan. Simple messages to acknowledge the important role this team has played in my life for the past four decades.

But as the sun rises the day after this disappointment, all I can feel is hope and joy. Not since the days of Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have I loved a team the way I loved the 2017 New York Yankees. There were times when they were hard to love, like when the losses were mounting in August, but even when things looked bleak, there was reason for hope.

This team gave us 52 home runs from Aaron Judge, 104 MPH fastballs from Aroldis Chapman, slow curveballs from CC Sabathia, and a big thumbs down from Todd Frazier. When I think back on this year I’ll remember the on-field exploits, but I’ll also remember the mock interviews in the dugout after big home runs. I’ll remember Didi’s emoji tweets. I’ll remember Torreyes climbing on Didi’s shoulders to reach Judge for a high five.

This was a team that I could cheer for and laugh with, a group that seemed to have more fun than any Yankee team in years. And the best part? They’re only going to get better. Youngsters Judge, Sánchez, and Bird will likely sit in the heart of the lineup for years to come, and more great young hitters like Clint Frazier and Miguel Andujar are on the way, as well as top prospect Gleyber Torres. No major pieces of this current team are likely to move on, unless the Yankees decide to part ways with Todd Frazier (possible) or CC Sabathia (highly unlikely), or if Masahiro Tanaka opts out of the final three years of his contract and walks away from $70 million (coin flip).

Beyond that, there’s the tantalizing prospect of Japanese phenom Shohei Otani, a potential superstar who would still be affordable enough to fit with New York’s new sensible spending plans.

So the future is definitely bright, brighter than it’s been in years. Nothing is promised, of course, and the more talented teams in New York’s future aren’t guaranteed any World Series berths, but they will certainly be fun to watch. I’ll be watching. There is so much hope.

What He Said

Hank says Believe and that is good to hear because I have been sulking around since the middle of last night’s game. The Wife and I went out for a hike in nature today and it was lovely to see all the photosynthesis and all but didn’t really help. I still felt the knot in my stomach, and kept imagining all the ways things will fall apart tonight.

But Hank says Believe. And lucky for us—win or lose—I know the Yankee players Believe.

So never mind the gloom:

LET’S GO YANK-EEES!

Don’t Worry. Believe.

If you didn’t watch Game 6 in Houston between the Astros and the Yankees and only saw the 7-1 final score — or even if you only saw the highlights — what I’m about to say will make no sense. This was a six-run Houston win that easily could’ve gone either way were it not for a moment here or there. The narrative that will run in most of the newspapers across the land will be about Justin Verlander’s continued dominance, José Altuve’s continued success, and the reemergence of the Houston offense. There’s truth in all of that, but like most stories, especially the ones told in October, it’s important to take a deeper look.

After the Yankee hitters were able to take care of Dallas Keuchel in their second look at him in Game 5, there was hope that we might see more of the same with Verlander on the mound in Game 6. Looking for a different result, the Yankees came out with a different game plan. Instead of making Verlander work and looking to exploit any lingering effects of his 124-pitch effort last Saturday, the New York hitters were aggressive all night long, jumping on pitches early in the count to avoid falling behind and giving a great pitcher a greater advantage.

Brett Gardner singled on the third pitch of the game, but a double play from Aaron Judge and a popup from Didi Gregorius consumed just eight pitches and the Yankees were done. From there Verlander would throw thirteen pitches in the second, eleven in the third, twelve in the fourth, and fourteen in the fifth. No Yankee hitter would see more than five pitches during those first five innings, one would see just two, and two others (Gardner and Castro) would go down on a single pitch.

Opposing Verlander was Luís Severino. There can be no doubt that Severino has the potential to be the Yankee ace for years to come, but this postseason has been something of an education for him. After that disastrous start in the Wild Card game against Minnesota that almost ended this playoff run before it began, Sevy rebounded with seven strong innings against Cleveland in Game 4 of the divisional series, but was pulled after four innings in the second game of this series when an injury scare forced him from the game.

How would he respond on this stage, paired against one of the best pitchers in the game in a hostile environment, with an opportunity to pitch his team into the World Series? Early on, he was more than good. In fact, he was better than Verlander. He walked Yuli Gurriel with one out in the second, but didn’t yield his first hit until Carlos Correa singled with two outs in the fourth.

In fifth, however, things began to unravel. Alex Bregman worked a leadoff walk, laying off pitches that teased the edges of the strike zone. After Marwin González hit a soft grounder to Starlin Castro to advance Bregman to second, designated hitter Evan Gattis brought his bat up to the plate even though he wouldn’t end up needing it. Perhaps reading from the wrong scouting report, Severino pitched Gattis as carefully as if he were Altuve or Correa, and the result was a four-pitch walk, bringing our old friend Brian McCann into the batter’s box.

One look makes it clear that McCann left his razor in New York when he was traded away following last season’s emergence of Gary Sánchez. He is completely unrecognizable. As he dug in against Severino with one out and runners on first and second, his Keuchelish beard dipped into the strike zone as he prepared for what would probably be the biggest at bat of his Houston career.

The walk to Gattis notwithstanding, Severino was still in control, and if his first two pitches to McCann — a 98-MPH fastball on the outside corner followed by a 90-MPH slider in essentially the same spot — demonstrated this, his next three were even better. With McCann frustrated with home plate umpire Jim Reynolds’s strike zone (more on this later), Severino shrewdly tried to stretch that strike zone a bit more, looking to entice either a swing from McCann or a strike call from Reynolds with a slider and a fastball just a few inches farther outside. Neither hitter nor umpire bit, so Severino came back into the zone with his 2-2 pitch. It was a good pitch, 98 and heading right for his catcher’s glove on the outside corner, but McKeuchel reached across the plate and slashed a hard liner that rocketed past Aaron Judge before leaping into the right field stands for a ground rule double and a 1-0 Houston lead.

With runners now on second and third and only one out (and Verlander pitching well), it was important to turn back this Houston uprising without any further damage. Severino walked George Springer on four pitches, kind of intentionally unintentional, to face Josh Reddick, who hasn’t had a hit in almost two weeks. It was a good choice, as Reddick popped up harmlessly to Aaron Hicks in short center, but all that meant was that Altuve was coming to the plate with the bases loaded.

Altuve had disappeared with the rest of the Houston offense during the three games in New York, going hitless in those three losses, but the tiniest Astro is still a serious threat. Severino was in an interesting spot. The ultra-aggressive Altuve feasts on first-pitch fastballs, so the Yankee pitchers have made it clear that he’ll never see another one from them. The problem with this, of course, is that now Altuve knows that every at bat will start with a breaking ball. In this moment he was clearly sitting on a slider, and Severino threw him a bad one. The pitch floated up into the zone a bit, and Altuve pounced on it, rifling a line drive through the left side of the infield and scoring two more Houston runs to build the lead to 3-0.

Severino’s night was done, but Verlander’s was just about to get interesting. The red hot Chase Headley started the sixth inning with a single, and after Gardner and Judge each made out, Gregorius shot a line drive base hit into right field to bring Sánchez to the plate as the tying run. Verlander went to his fastball, but his three attempts to lure Sánchez out of the strike zone all failed, and suddenly the Kraken was in the driver’s seat. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to jump back into the game with one swing, manager Joe Girardi gave Sánchez the green light. Perhaps sensing that Girardi was sensing this, Verlander went to his slider, and this time Sánchez bit. Kind of. Fooled by the pitch, Sánchez tried to check his swing but ended up making minimal contact, dribbling the ball out to Correa at short for the final out of the inning.

The Yankees’ best chance would come in the following frame. Greg Bird worked a six-pitch walk to lead off the inning, and two pitches later Verlander nicked Castro’s sweatband to put runners on first and second with Hicks coming up. It will be noted that Hicks put on a professional at bat, pushing Verlander for ten pitches before striking out, but one thing that won’t make it into any box score was a pitch that could’ve changed the entire game. Verlander’s first three pitches were balls, and after taking the next pitch down the middle for strike one, Hicks got ready for a 3-1 pitch and waited for the chance to get his team back in the game. Verlander’s pitch tailed out of the strike zone — clearly out of the strike zone — and Hicks began to toss his bat away in anticipation of a walk that would’ve loaded the bases with none out.

But Jim Reynolds called the pitch a ball. In fairness, Reynolds’s strike zone was a moving target all night long for both teams, but this particular call victimized Hicks and stifled a rally. Had Hicks been awarded first base, Houston manager A.J. Hinch would’ve faced a difficult decision: stay with Verlander or take his chances with his shaky bullpen. But he didn’t have to think about that. Five pitches later, Hicks struck out.

Todd Frazier wilted beneath the spin of a curveball on the first pitch of the next at bat, putting him down 0-1, but then Frazier found a fastball to his liking and pounded it deep to center field. I was up off the couch almost immediately, yelling at the ball to get out, but Springer was tracking it, heading confidently back to the wall. He got to the warning track and leapt up against the ten-foot barrier, robbing not a homer but an extra base hit from Frazier and preserving Verlander’s shutout.

Twice it looked like the game was going to change, but twice it remained the same. The next hitter was Headley, who grounded out to end the inning.

The Astros happily accepted those seven scoreless inning from Verlander and turned to their bullpen in the eighth. Brad Peacock came in, and Aaron Judge reminded everyone that Altuve wasn’t the only MVP candidate on the field when he launched a monstrous home run to left, cutting the Houston lead to two runs at 3-1. Peacock was momentarily shaken by the blow and initially struggled to regain the strike zone against Gregorius, but then Didi popped up and Sánchez watched a fastball down the middle for strike three, and the inning was over.

David Robertson came on for the bottom of the eighth to keep things close, but instead he blew everything up, and it only took twelve pitches. Five of those were to Altuve. With the count 2-2, Robertson made a nice pitch, a slider that started at the knees before dipping below the strike zone, but Altuve reached for it anyway and flicked a fly ball that barely carried over the high wall in left for a home run. I see you Aaron Judge, and I raise you. The lead was back to three.

Shockingly, the Astros would add two more runs in what seemed like thirty seconds. Correa jumped on the next pitch and laced a double down the line in left, then Gurriel singled him to third three pitches later. Three pitches after that Bregman pounded a long double to center to score Correa and Gurriel. 6-1. With one eye already on Game 7, Girardi pulled Robertson and waved the white flag, bringing in Delin Betances to finish the inning. Delin eventually allowed a seventh run, and that was that.

While it might sting a bit to know that the Yankees missed a chance to clinch the series on Friday night and avoid the cauldron of Game 7, I can’t imagine there’s a player on the roster, a suit in the front office, or a fan wearing pinstripes who sees anything but opportunity waiting on Saturday night.

When Joe Girardi first saw the replay of the ball hitting Lonnie Chisenhall’s hand after the loss in Game 2 put the Yankees in an 0-2 hole in Cleveland, do you think he would’ve turned down Game 7 in the LCS? When CC Sabathia walked away from the team in the closing weeks of 2015 to pursue treatment for alcoholism, do you think he would’ve shied away from an October start two years later? Or what about when he tweaked his knee in August and feared he might never pitch again? Don’t you think he would’ve given anything to get the ball in Game 7? When Greg Bird was lying in a hospital bed in the winter of 2015, rehabbing throughout 2016, then missing more than 100 games in 2017, don’t you think he’d have given years of his life to play in this deciding game?

During this past off-season, faced with the prospect of rebuilding a team whose stated goal is to compete for a championship every season, do you think general manager Brian Cashman could ever have imagined a one-game shot for the World Series?

And what about you? When the Yankees were wandering aimlessly in the desert, losing fifteen games in August, did you even believe they’d make the playoffs? Did you ever imagine that Judge and Sanchez and Bird and Severino would draw legitimate comparisons — this year — to Jeter and Posada and Pettitte and Rivera? Could you have possibly dreamed of a run like this, a unlikely trip through October that has finally arrived at the most magical of destinations? If you did, your dream has come true.

Game 7.

Don’t worry. Believe.

Take it to the Bridge

Yanks one win away from a date with the Dodgers in the Whirled Serious. Man, would that be sweet or what?

Lot of work to do before they get there.

We’ll be here—as always—root-root-rootin’ out boys on.

Never mind those Houston Astros:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

 

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