As I avidly followed baseball in the early 1980s, some of my favorite ballplayers did not happen to play for the Yankees. One of those players was Billy Sample. He was playing for the Rangers at the time, a team with which I’ve never had any kind of affiliation. Sample wasn’t a star. He was a pretty good ballplayer, though, a speedy defensive left fielder who stole bases, hit for a decent average, and launched an occasional longball. In other words, he was a role player, one who had to overcome the stigma that comes with being five feet, nine inches tall. I’ve always liked role players, in part because they have to struggle—just like us. Little comes easy to them, but they find a way to contribute in tangible and important ways.
One winter day in 1984, I was doing some broadcasting for WHCL, the radio station for Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. As I was preparing my afternoon sports report, I noticed a transaction on the AP wire. It involved the Yankees. They had made a wintertime trade, sending an over-the-hill Toby Harrah to the Rangers—for Billy Sample. Yes!
I immediately began to think of what role Sample might play for the Yankees in 1984. Left field looked like the logical destination, perhaps in a platoon with the elder Ken Griffey. You see, the Yankees collected outfielders in the early 1980s the way that Adrian Monk collects phobias. Only stars played every day in the Yankee outfield back then, Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson. A player like Sample, a complementary role player, appeared destined to platoon in pinstripes.
Even so, a timeshare in left field looked appealing to Sample, who was glad to be out of Texas, a team that had lost 92 games. He also looked forward to playing for a new leader in Yogi Berra, a man with a reputation for being the consummate player’s manager. Unfortunately, no one could have anticipated that Berra would manage the Yankees for a mere 16 games in 1985. An early managerial changeover brought the worst of possible successors for Sample—the fourth pinstriped tenure of Billy Martin.