We hadn’t been in our seats for very long when Dad pointed out the changes Yankee Stadium underwent during its renovation in the mid 1970s. Over there was where the Yankees bullpen was, Dad said as he pointed to an out-of-place nook behind the rightfield fence. Right there is where me and my grandfather sat when he took me to Yankees games when I was your age, Dad explained as he pointed to a section of empty seats in dead centerfield that were blacked out and blocked off, serving as a batters’ eye. Dad also pointed out the changed outfield dimensions and the monuments beyond the leftfield fence, which Dad said used to be located in centerfield, where they were in play. I stared at the retired numbers painted on the wall out by the bullpens in leftfield; there were so many of them.
I was a budding baseball fan on that night in 1989, two days shy of my tenth birthday, but I was already acutely aware of the storied history of the New York Yankees. I wasn’t even a Yankees fan, choosing to root for the New York Mets like Dad, Mom, Grandpa and nearly everyone else in my family who mattered. Yet, I couldn’t help but be awed thinking about all of the great players who roamed Yankee Stadium’s lush green grass. However, I was too young to remember the last great era of Yankees baseball; I was a fetus when the Yankees won the last of their record 22 World Series, in 1978, and I was two years old when the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Yankees in the 1981 World Series, their last postseason appearance. The Yankees had been marked by discord, dysfunction and a revolving door of players and managers ever since George Steinbrenner became their majority owner in 1973, but they’d always won, their drama not adversely affecting their play on the field. But, that was starting to change.
Ever since their last World Series game, the Yankees had been competitive, but not good enough to get over the hump. Their teams were marked by high payrolls and very good offenses, but also by inconsistent play and mediocre pitching. And, the Yankees certainly didn’t play like a well-oiled machine on this overcast June night. They committed six errors, leading to 12 unearned runs for their opponents, the Baltimore Orioles. Four of the errors occurred in the first three innings. Two of the errors were committed by first baseman Don Mattingly, the franchise cornerstone and winner of multiple Gold Gloves for his fielding acumen. The Yankees were down 7-0 in the top of the third inning when manager Dallas Green pulled starting pitcher Andy Hawkins. However, two batters later, Steve Finley – a rookie I’d never heard of – hit a grand slam off reliever Chuck Cary. Rain was in that evening’s forecast and many of the fans in attendance began opening their umbrellas and chanting for rain to wash the game away during the Yankees’ disastrous top of the third. Much to their chagrin, the rain stayed away all evening as the Orioles cruised to a 16-3 victory.
By the end of the 1989 season, the Yankees had suffered their third losing campaign since Steinbrenner’s reign began. Not surprisingly, the year included a managerial change, with Green being replaced by Bucky Dent in mid August. Meanwhile the Mets – the redheaded stepchild of New York City baseball for much of their history – continued to capture the hearts and minds of New Yorkers with their young, brash ballclub and dominant pitching. The Mets finished second in the National League East in ’89, but they were a year removed from a division title and three years removed from a dominant season that ended in a World Series triumph. Clearly, the Mets’ star was rising while the Yankees’ star was falling.
The biggest problem the Yankees had in those days can be summed up in two words: starting pitching. The ’89 season fell in the middle of a stretch in which the Yankees had a different Opening Day starting pitcher for nine straight seasons. That year Tommy John – a 45-year-old who wasn’t expected to make the team – took the hill for the Yankees in the opener. John won on Opening Day, but was released less than two months later with a 2-7 record and a 5.80 ERA; he never pitched in the Majors again. In 1985, the Yankees opened the season with 46-year-old knuckleballer Phil Niekro on the hill. 1991’s Opening Day hurler was journeyman Tim Leary, who’d lost a league-leading 19 games the year before. In 1990, Dave LaPoint, who had a 5.62 ERA in ’89, got the ball in the opener; he was released the following spring training and saw action in only two more Major League games after the ’90 season. Hawkins wasn’t one of the many Yankees Opening Day starters of that era, but he was signed to a hefty contract as a free agent, only to disappoint. Even when he wasn’t disappointing, Hawkins was still losing; in 1990, he threw a no-hitter in Chicago against the White Sox, but the Yankees committed three errors in a four-run eighth and Hawkins and the Yankees lost 4-0. The next start, Hawkins tossed 11 shutout innings against the Minnesota Twins, but allowed two runs in the 12th and lost 2-0. It’s pretty hard to go 0-2 over a two-start stretch that includes 19 consecutive innings without an earned run, but Hawkins and the Yankees were able to make that happen (to add insult to injury, in 1991, Major League Baseball ruled that Hawkins’ performance in Chicago would no longer be officially recognized as a no-hitter because he only threw eight innings. That wasn’t Hawkins’ fault; since the White Sox led after 8 ½ innings, they didn’t have to bat in the bottom of the ninth).
But, the Yankees didn’t miss only on veteran pitchers. In 1984, the Mets began the season with 19-year-old phenom Dwight Gooden in their rotation and the Yankees, not to be outdone, put 18-year-old Jose Rijo on their season-opening roster. Rijo wasn’t a phenom, bouncing between the Yankees and Triple-A in ’84 before being traded to the Oakland Athletics after the season; Rijo later became a solid starting pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds, whom he helped to a championship in 1990. In 1986, 23-year-old Doug Drabek spent most of the year in the Yankees’ rotation before being shipped to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he became one of the best pitchers in baseball, winning the National League’s Cy Young Award in 1990. Hard-throwing lefthander Al Leiter had great stuff, but struggled to throw strikes. Nevertheless, the Yankees refused to limit his pitch count. As a 23-year-old in ’89, Leiter threw 163 pitches in a start in which he walked nine, struck out 10 and allowed five runs; two starts later, Leiter walked seven and allowed four runs in a 130-pitch effort. Shortly thereafter, Leiter was dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays, where he had arthroscopic shoulder surgery before becoming a rotation mainstay and an integral part of championship teams with Toronto and the Florida Marlins.
The Yankees weren’t much better with position-player prospects. First baseman Kevin Maas – whose batting stance resembled someone sitting on the toilet – set a record by hitting 10 home runs in his first 79 Major League at-bats, but his performance went in the toilet after that. Outfielder Oscar Azocar liked to set fire to his bats, but he didn’t set the world on fire with his hitting. Hensley Meulens was nicknamed “Bam Bam” because of his prodigious power, but that moniker became a punch line as the outfielder struggled to make consistent contact. The Yankees had promising power hitters Fred McGriff and Jay Buhner in their system in the 1980s, but they traded both away. Both became All Star sluggers with other franchises.
I felt fortunate that I decided to latch onto the Mets rather than the Yankees. Sure, the Yankees had all that tradition, but they were a mess. Meanwhile, the Mets were winning with talented young pitching – Gooden was only 24 in 1989 and he’d already won a Cy Young Award – and scrappy position players scored runs in bunches in a lineup anchored by Darryl Strawberry, perhaps the National League’s best power hitter. The Mets finished second again in 1990, but at least they didn’t lose 95 games like the Yankees, who finished last for the first time since the Johnson Administration. But, Strawberry departed as a free agent after that season, Gooden struggled with injuries and drug abuse and the Mets started a freefall into mediocrity. Meanwhile, the Yankees seemed to have figured it out all of a sudden, making some savvy trades and free agent signings just as their farm system started to bear fruit. By the mid 1990s, the Mets were the rudderless ship and the Yankees were becoming dynastic again. To add insult to injury, both Gooden and Strawberry found themselves in Yankees pinstripes, where they redeemed their careers (Strawberry’s bouts with drug addiction became public after he left the Mets) and helped the Yankees win championships.
Nowadays, the Yankees aren’t quite as good as they were in the 1990s, but they’re still one of baseball’s best teams year after year. A generation of baseball fans has come of age knowing nothing but Yankees success. However, I remember an era when the Yankees seemed incapable of doing anything right and the Mets owned New York City. Where have you gone, Andy Hawkins? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.Follow @raford3