I suppose the typical way to introduce a new column is for the columnist to reveal a bit about himself, give the CV that persuaded the staff here to give the new guy a chance. My basic qualification is my having spent the last two years maintaining my own blog “This Annotated Day in Baseball History.” Having recently graduated from college—as a history major of course—and discovered the 9-to-5 world fails to offer the same flexibility as college life, daily writing became impractical so I’ve switched here to a weekly contribution. If I can convince you to spend a few minutes reading this every week, I’m sure more of ‘me’ will emerge, probably in little chunks like the biography of Law & Order characters; for now, however, let’s move on to the history.
I am just barely old enough to remember the Yankees teams of the early 1990s, when they were really dire. For the three years at the beginning of the decade, the Yankees went 214-272, a collective 58 games under .500, numerically one the team’s bleakest stretches since they first began to win regularly in the 1920s. I’m not old enough to remember the celebrated Royals teams of the 1970s and ‘80s, when they won a World Series, a pennant and seven Division titles, unquestionably the franchise’s greatest success. Danny Tartabull functions as a symbol for the rise of the Yankees from George Steinbrenner’s inept teams to Gene Michael’s powerhouses and of the Royals’ descent from a great franchise to one unable to cope with baseball’s changing economics.
Tartabull was a second-generation player, the son of outfielder Jose Tartabull. Bill James wrote that there is perhaps no father-son combination less similar as players than Jose and Danny, and he might be on to something. Jose was all speed and defense, swiping double-digit bags four times and making just 14 errors over the course of his career. Danny, meanwhile, was all power and…well, more power. He never stole more than nine bases in a season and made 18 errors in the 1986 season alone. Meanwhile, Jose hit two home runs his entire career, a total Danny matched during his 10-game cup of coffee with Seattle in 1984; he would go on to hit 260 more. Despite their differences, the younger Tartabull is clearly the better player of the pair, as 260-plus home runs with poor defense tend to outweigh 81 career steals.
As I mentioned, Danny first came to the big leagues with the Mariners in the mid-1980s. He was drafted by the Reds in 1980 and then taken by Seattle as part of a free agent compensation scheme in 1983. He had been a middle infielder in the minor leagues, and had he been able to stick he would likely have been one of the most valuable players in the league for several years. Unfortunately for both Danny and the M’s, he made 16 errors in just 61 games in the infield for the Mariners over three years, and they moved him, first to the outfield and then to Kansas City.
It was as a Royal that Tartabull finally began to shine. Playing regularly as an outfielder at age 24, Tartabull was easily the Royals’ best offensive player, leading the team in OPS, home runs, RBIs and total bases while ranking second in average and OBP. Tartabull’s numbers declined somewhat in 1988 but he once again led the Royals in home runs and slugging. He began to suffer the injury problems that would plague him on and off for the rest of his career in 1989, limiting him to just 133 games; 40% of them as the designated hitter. The next year was even worse as Tartabull saw action in just 88 games.
With free agency looming after the 1991 season, Tartabull was under pressure to produce and he came through. Although playing in just over 130 games, Tartabull hit .316, made the All-Star team, led the Royals in most offensive statistics and finished second in the American League in adjusted OPS. He was handsomely rewarded for his season, as the Yankees came calling. Looking to restore some luster to the franchise and acquire a proven slugger, Tartabull was signed to a five-year contract worth $25 million, making him the highest-paid player in the league for 1992.
That would seem a lot of pressure, but Tartabull was ready for it, explaining to the Yankees’ 1992 Yearbook that “what makes Danny Tartabull tick is pressure…if I go out and play Danny Tartabull baseball and stay within myself, that should be enough.” Two clichés and two instances of referring to himself in the third person, clearly the Yankees had acquired more than merely a right fielder and clean-up hitter. Tartabull also played up his improved defense claiming he’d “made great strides in [his] defensive game.” Tartabull’s first season in pinstripes was a success in the batter’s box, as he led the team in OPS and home run, but his inability to carry a mediocre team to greater glory despite being the league’s highest-paid player led to unpopularity among some Yankees fans. Manager Buck Showalter was also unconvinced of Tartabull’s defensive improvement, and by the end of the season injuries and ineptitude saw the slugger seeing nearly as much time at designated hitter as in right field.
In 1993 Tartabull spent a majority of his time as the designated hitter, but his overall performance dropped and the strike-shortened 1994 season saw Tartabull replaced by Paul O’Neill (among others) as the premier offensive player of the Yankees. He was traded to Oakland in mid-1995 for Ruben Sierra. This began the nomadic phase of his career, playing for Oakland, Chicago and three games for the Phillies, unable to regain the power that had made him worthy of his Yankee contract. Tartabull never appeared in the Majors after his short stint with the Phils in 1997 and was most recently in the news engaged in litigation over the purchase of a house that the previous owners—a husband and wife pair of pop stars—claimed Tartabull had ceased paying them for, essentially making him a squatter.
Despite flaws both real and perceived, Tartabull was a major positive step for the Yankees, their first marquee free agent in some time and a sign that the Mel Halls of the world would no longer be acceptable as off-season acquisitions. In fact, Tartabull arguably was more important to the Yankees as a symbol than as an actual player. The 1992 offseason saw the team add Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key, and by 1994 the Yankees had baseball’s best record at the time of the strike. Tartabull also serves as a symbol of the Royals, as one of the most successful franchises of the previous two decades found the game’s new economics began to catch up with them, and players like Tartabull (and Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran and…) would prove themselves in KC only to collect bigger paychecks in bigger cities. At the time one could never have known such a thing, of course, and perhaps some day we’ll look back at the signing of say, Gil Meche, to represent the rebirth of the Royals and the end of the Mariners. I suppose time will tell.