Cooperstown Confidential: Is it 1989 again for the Yankees?by Bruce Markusen
March 15, 2013
If you follow baseball long enough, you begin to see patterns that come up again and again, that create the impression that history is repeating itself. The names are always different, but the arc of the stories is so identical as to be almost eerie.
When I look at the Yankees of the spring of 2013, I see the Yankees of 1989 all over again. The pattern is strikingly similar. The trend is disturbing if you’re a Yankees fan.
Having already lost Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez to free agency, and having failed to make a major free agent acquisition for the first time in recent memory, the 2013 Yankees were already put into a weakened state. The free agent departures left the Yankees without a legitimate starting catcher or a right-handed DH while also devastating their bench strength.
A first or second-place finish in the American League was no longer considered a certainty. Now with the springtime injuries to Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, which will keep both men sidelined until the middle of May, the prognosis is looking even bleaker. Will the Yankees be relegated to a fourth-place finish? Or could it be that they will be fighting the Red Sox to stay out of last place?
The situation did not look much better in the late 1980s. During the winter that followed the 1988 season, the Yankees lost Claudell Washington, their valuable center fielder and team leader, to the Angels via free agency. In 1988, with most of his playing time coming against right-handed pitching, Washington put together one of his finest all-around seasons. He batted .308, stole 15 bases, and drove in 64 runs. In addition to better-than-average offensive numbers, he played an excellent center field, especially considering the lofty demands of Yankee Stadium.
That winter, the Yankees also made a questionable deal with the Padres, sending premier slugger Jack Clark to San Diego for a package of hard-throwing reliever Lance McCullers, borderline starter Jimmy Jones, and failed center field prospect Stan Jefferson. The Yankees felt that Clark was expendable because of the presence of Ken Phelps at DH, but most observers felt that the Yankees had failed to acquire enough talent for the man known as “The Ripper.” Critics maintained that if the Yankees had waited longer, they would have secured a much larger package for Clark.
With Washington and Clark subtracted from the lineup, and nothing of substance brought in to replace them at those positions, the outlook for the 1989 Yankees already looked dubious. They were coming off an 85-win season that placed them fifth in a powerhouse Eastern Division; given the departures of two reliable veterans, the Yankees appeared no better than a .500 team heading into the 1989 season.
The loss of Winfield only compounded the decision to trade Clark, stripping the Yankees of most of their right-handed power. Of their returning players, journeyman catcher Don Slaught stood as the leading home run hitter among right-handed batters. Known as “Sluggo,” and that was because of his personality rather than his power, Slaught hit all of nine home runs in 1988. To say the least, the Yankees were now badly vulnerable to left-handed pitching.
As if the loss of Winfield was not a sufficiently major setback, the Yankees’ projected ace, John Candelaria, came down with a sore knee in the spring. Ron Guidry hurt his elbow, forcing him to the sidelines for the first two months of the season. And then newly acquired second baseman Steve Sax pulled a ribcage muscle, putting a temporary halt to his new title as the second base replacement for Willie Randolph.
The barrage of injuries continued in mid-March, when the Yankees lost another member of their starting lineup for the season. Rafael Santana came down with a bad elbow, which mandated tendon replacement surgery. As with Winfield, the injury would eliminate Santana from all competition in 1989. Santana’s season-long departure would have little impact offensively, but figured to hurt the team defensively, robbing the club of a reliable if unspectacular defender.
The Yankees now had vacancies at shortstop and in right field, along with a need for a right-handed hitting DH and a utility infielder. The Yankees also needed more pitching to buttress an aging staff. Their top returning starter, Candelaria, not only was fighting fluid in the knee but was about to turn 35, while free agent acquisitions Andy Hawkins and Dave LaPoint seemed overmatched as No. 2 and No. 3 starters, respectively. The situation appeared so uneasy that the Yankees planned to give 40-something Tommy John, a spring training invitee, a long look in Grapefruit League play.
Still, the Yankees were not ready to toss the towel on the season. Their owner, George Steinbrenner, had no patience for that. Under pressure from “The Boss,” general manager Bob Quinn began to make inquiries of other teams, particularly for outfielders. He talked to the Braves about Dale Murphy, to the Cardinals about Willie McGee, to the Blue Jays about Lloyd Moseby, and to the Indians about Oddibe McDowell.
On March 19, Quinn made his move, settling on none of the above as a replacement for Winfield. It was not a right-handed hitter, but a lefty swinger with a colorful reputation. The Yankees acquired Mel Hall from the Indians for good-field, no-hit catcher Joel Skinner and minor league throw-in Turner Ward. On the surface, it seemed like a steal for the Yankees.
Hall was available in part because of an incident that had happened at the Indians’ spring training hotel only a few days earlier. It turns out that Hall had arranged for both his wife and his girlfriend to stay at the hotel where the Indians stayed. Mrs. Hall and the mistress happened to meet, realized what they had in common, and proceeded to engage in a knockdown, drag-out fight, witnessed by the wife of Indians GM Hank Peters. When the Indians’ GM learned of the “arrangement” and the public fight, he decided that it was time for Hall to go.
In addition to being colorful, Hall would bring some clutch hitting and hustle to the pinstripes. He called his glove “Lucille,” wore batting gloves in his back pockets as a way of saying “bye bye” to baseballs that he hit for home runs, and owned one of the slowest home run trots in the game. Although Hall had his limitations—he never walked much and couldn’t throw worth a damn—he hammered right-handed pitching, played the game hard, and never shied from hitting with runners in scoring position.
All things considered, Hall performed decently for the Yankees in 1989. But he was no Winfield. He didn’t hit much against left-handed pitching, and was miscast in right field, where his weak arm allowed runners to go from first to third routinely. By the end of April, the Yankees would turn right field over to Jesse Barfield, acquired from the Blue Jays for lefty phenom Al Leiter. With Barfield in right, Hall would spend most of the season in left field and as a DH.
Only two days after the acquisition of Hall, Boss Steinbrenner decided to make a change in the front office, demoting Quinn in the process. Somewhat surprisingly, he hired Syd Thrift as the team’s vice president of baseball operations. Thrift essentially became the team’s de facto general manager, even though Quinn continued to hold the title officially. Now working as Thrift’s assistant, Quinn would report directly to his new boss. Only on the Yankees could the general manager actually be the assistant general manager.
An old-time wheeler dealer who loved nothing better than to make trades, Thrift promised to make immediate changes to the Yankees’ projected roster. He went to work promptly, pursuing a right-handed hitter to replace Winfield and a shortstop to take over for Santana. He would soon fill one of those positions.
Only two days after stepping into his new job, Thrift made his first trade, and the Yankees’ second of the spring. Thrift sent failed starter Charles Hudson (whom the Yankees had originally acquired from Philadelphia for Mike Easler) to the Tigers for veteran infielder Tom Brookens. The Yankees regarded the righty-swinging Brookens as a platoon partner with Mike Pagliarulo at third base, a necessity given Pags’ punchless numbers against southpaws. Brookens also figured to give the Yankees some insurance at shortstop, while backing up the newly acquired Steve Sax at second base.
Unfortunately, the Yankees’ timing in acquiring Brookens was not good. At 35 years of age, he was just about done as a major leaguer. He would put up a .606 OPS, one of the worst marks of his career, while hitting a paltry .226 in pinstripes. After the season, the Yankees would release Brookens, who played one season with the Indians before calling it a career.
Even with the additions of Brookens and Hall, the Yankees weren’t done. Only four days after the Brookens swap, Thrift sent hard-throwing minor league reliever Dana Ridenour to Seattle for ex-Yankee Steve Balboni. The deal netted the Yankees a much-needed right-handed power bat and a platoon partner for Phelps.
Playing in 110 games for the Yankees, Balboni would deliver exactly the kind of production he had put together in Seattle and Kansas City. He would reach base only 29 per cent of the time, but he would also hit 17 home runs in 300 at-bats and slug a respectable .460. He gave the Yankees at least little bit of the power they had lost with the departures of Clark and Winfield.
Having made two trades in the span of a week, Thrift could have been excused for taking a break. But that wasn’t his style. He talked to every team that had an available shortstop. One rumor had the Yankees acquiring Tom Foley, a slick-fielding middle infielder with the Expos. Another had them obtaining tiny Rafael Belliard from the Pirates. But the most repeated rumors circulated around the Braves’ young Jeff Blauser, whom the Yankees coveted.
The two teams talked throughout the spring, but the Braves wanted a lot for Blauser. At one point, they asked for a package of Roberto Kelly, who was the Yankees’ top outfield prospect, and backup infielder Randy Velarde. Rejecting that proposal, the Yankees could not satisfy Atlanta’s demands for Blauser.
The Yankees never did acquire a new shortstop that spring. Instead, they turned to an internal option in career minor leaguer Alvaro Espinoza. Practically by default, Espinoza became the starting shortstop. On the surface, he did better than expected, hitting .282. But he rarely walked (14 times to be exact), compiled a terrible on-base percentage, and also committed 22 errors in the field. He was not exactly the second coming of Phil Rizzuto or Tony Kubek. Or even Bucky Dent.
Thanks to the myriad spring training changes, the ‘89 Yankees opened the season with a vastly different roster than originally projected. The selection of Tommy Johnas the Opening Day starter did not bode well. At the age of 45, John was well past his prime; for most teams he would have ranked as no better than a fifth starter.
After winning their first game, the Yankees dropped their next seven. They recovered to flirt with a .500 record under Dallas Green, but Steinbrenner was not satisfied. He told Green that he wanted to fire several of his coaches, including the highly respected Frank Howard. Green refused to accept the firings, telling the Boss that he would quit before allowing any of his coaches to take the fall. So Steinbrenner fired Green, replacing him with Dent, the onetime Yankee hero. Green did not take the news without firing back with a salvo of his own. “George Steinbrenner doesn’t know anything about baseball,” Green told the New York Daily News.
The Yankees played no better under Dent than they had under Green. In August, Thrift resigned, citing concerns about his health, which was only made worse by Steinbrenner’s interference. By season’s end, the Yankees had a record of 74-87, their worst mark since the dreadful summer of 1967.
Twenty-four years later, Balboni is now a scout for the Giants, Brookens is the bench coach for the Tigers, and Hall is in prison. Steinbrenner and Thrift have passed away, while Green is retired. Other than The Boss and perhaps Hall, none of them are particularly well remembered for what they did as Yankees.
So what does the fate of the 1989 Yankees portend for the Yankees of 2013? It’s hard to say, in part because current GM Brian Cashman is so different from Thrift and Steinbrenner. Cashman does not like to make trades; he is conservative by nature, and prefers to respond to injuries by finding answers within the organization. Cashman is far more likely to promote a prospect from Triple-A, or claim a relatively small name from the waiver wire (like a Ben Francisco or perhaps a Brennan Boesch), than he is to make a trade for this year’s version of Mel Hall and Steve Balboni. And perhaps given the lack of success of the 1989 Yankees, that is the better way to go.
Then again, who knows? With the Yankees of 2013 facing offensive vacuums at catcher, first base, left field and DH, and with the pitching staff aging at the front of the rotation and the back of the bullpen, maybe the Yankees are staring at another 74-win season this time around.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.