I was one of the morons who thought the Ken Phelps deal was a good idea.
That’s because I loved Ken Phelps. Having read Bill James’ annual Baseball Abstracts religiously in the late 1980s, I had become a devotee of “Digger” and his game. As a left-handed hitter with power who drew buckets of walks, Phelps looked like a perfect addition to the Yankees, vintage 1988. He could DH against right-handers, allowing the Yankees to alternate days off for aging right-handed hitters like Jack Clark (32) and Dave Winfield (36).
To make the trade even more appetizing, I had my doubts about outfield prospect Jay Buhner, the primary ingredient the Yankees sent to the Mariners for Phelps. “Bone” had several holes in his exaggerated uppercut swing, struck out at an alarming rate, and appeared ill-suited for Death Valley at Yankee Stadium, a frustrating venue for young, right-handed power hitters. So on all fronts, trading Buhner for Phelps made me a happy Yankee fan. But something less than a great evaluator of talent.
Well, the plan didn’t turn out so well. Yankee manager Lou Piniella couldn’t figure out how to get Phelps into the lineup more regularly, limiting him to 45 games and 127 plate appearances over the second half. (Maybe Billy Martin or the late Dick Howser would have been a bit more creative.) Phelps hit pretty well in those games, pounding out ten home runs to the tune of a .551 slugging percentage, better than any Yankee regular. Still, it was too little, too late for a Yankee team that finished third in the American League East.
The following year, Phelps’ performance flatlined; he suddenly became an old 34, struggling to catch up to above-average fastballs. He also struggled with the dimensions of the old Stadium. With his power gravitating toward left-center and right-center field, Phelps didn’t have the kind of pull swing to take advantage of the Stadium’s short porch. By the end of August, the Yankees traded Phelps to the A’s for a minor league prospect named Scott Holcomb, who would never play a single game in pinstripes (or any other team for that matter).
In the meantime, Buhner developed into a near-star in Seattle, becoming a productive power hitter with a cannon arm that played well in the old Kingdome. He would remain an effective right fielder through the 2000 season, before injuries finally caught up with him in 2001, forcing his retirement. If the Yankees had kept Buhner, they never would have felt the urge to trade for a past-his-prime Jesse Barfield, who came at the high cost of a young left-hander named Al Leiter
I feel bad that Yankee fans never really saw the real Ken Phelps. As a Mariner from 1984 to 1988, Phelps slugged at least .521 or better each year, with the exception of an injury-riddled 1985 season. He didn’t strike out as often as most power hitters, and for one three-year stretch, drew more walks than K’s—the sure sign of a smart hitter. As an added bonus, he was an old-schooler who wore the uniform the right way, with his socks up high, the way that ballplayers used to do in the fifties and sixties. Throw in the Popeye forearms and the lampblack under the eyes, and you had the look of an old-time ballplayer.
Although Phelps did little of prolonged consequence with the Yankees, he is far from forgotten. Every once in awhile, I’ll receive a little reminder while watching a rerun of Seinfeld, the character of Frank Costanza will yell at George Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David), questioning how he could have made the Phelps-for-Buhner exchange. Frantically and in rapid-fire delivery, the Boss will respond, “Well, Buhner was a good prospect, no question about it. But my baseball people loved Ken Phelps’ bat. They kept saying Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps!”
I guess I was thinking along the same lines as those “baseball people.”