December 30 is one of the very few days of the year on which no Yankee,
past or present, was born. So instead, as the first decade of the 21st
century is about to end, I’ll share my thoughts on who were the top ten
performing New York Yankees during the past ten years.
Number 1 – Derek Jeter. He had all the numbers but what makes Jeter so
very special are the intangibles. Has their ever been an athlete more
suited to survive and prosper in the pressure cooker of Big Apple
professional sports? I think not.
Number 2 – Mariano Rivera. The best closer in the history of the game and the best there ever will be.
Number 3 – Alex Rodriguez. I have lots of problems rooting for A-Rod
but no doubts at all regarding his abilities on a baseball field.
Without him the Yankees would not be 2009 World Champs.
Number 4 – Jorge Posada. He plays the toughest position in baseball and
there are very few if any who played it any better than this guy has
during the past decade. He may go brain dead on the base paths from
time-to-time and his arm is not what it used to be but this guy is a
Number 5 – Andy Pettitte. Like Jeter, its the intangibles that make
Pettitte the top Yankee pitcher during the past ten years. Case and
point was his performance in the 2009 postseason.
Number 6 – Hideki Matsui. If he did not break his wrist on that diving
catch attempt in 2006, Matsui’s Yankee career would have been magical
instead of just brilliant and probably still going strong. Instead,
Yankee fans now must bear the pain of seeing this elegant athlete play
the game in an opposing team’s uniform.
Number 7 – Robinson Cano. Made this list by bouncing back both at the
plate and in the field during the 2009 regular season and in spite of
his performance in the 2009 postseason.
Number 8 – Mike Mussina. So much was expected of this guy when the
Yankees signed him as a free agent in 2001, that his 123-72 record in
pinstripes is almost overlooked. I guess that’s because the Yankees won
World Series the year before he signed and the year after he left with
none in between.
Number 9 – Bernie Williams. I loved the guy. Started the century with three great seasons but became ordinary in the last four.
Number 10 – I can’t decide between Giambi, Damon or Soriano. I think Wang also deserves consideration. What do you think?
When the 1980 spring training season ended, Yankee manager, Dick Howser brought rookie Dennis Werth north with the team and gave him some at bats and spot starts at first base in April. Werth responded so well that Howser began platooning the young right-handed hitter with veteran Bob Watson at first base. Werth did even better, keeping his batting average above the .350 mark until late June. He cooled off after the All Star break and was sent back down to Columbus but he still managed to hit .308 for the season. He never again approached that figure and by 1982 he was out of baseball for good. Jayson Werth, the Philadelphia Phillies’ right fielder who gave Yankee fans a few fits during the 2009 World Series, is Dennis’ stepson.
As bad as the Yankee offense was in the late 1980′s and early ’90s, their starting pitching was even less effective. Tim Leary, Andy Hawkins, Dave LaPoint, Chuck Cary and Mike Witt were the team’s top five starters during the 1990 season and the quintet had a cumulative record of 32-69 in their 133 combined starts. Lee Guetterman led the team in victories that season with 11, pitching out of the bullpen and reliable closer Dave Righetti, had 36 saves. In fact, I remember thinking that particular Yankee team would have been better off letting their relievers start games instead of finishing them. In addition to Righetti and Guetterman, New York had Greg Cadaret and Erik Plunk in the bullpen that season.
To make their horrible pitching situation even more complicated, following that season, New York let the 31-year-old Righetti become a free agent and sign with San Francisco for $10 million over four years. When they replaced Rags three weeks later by signing 34-year-old Steve Farr to a three-year $6.3 million deal, I was truly disappointed. I should not have been.
At the time, Farr was a seven-year veteran who had been an OK Royal closer in 1987 and ’88 before losing his job to Jeff Montgomery the following year. He was able to win thirteen games as a part-time starter and reliever for Kansas City in 1989 but if he lost his job to a guy named Montgomery, how could the Yankees expect him to replace one of the top closers in the game?
Letting Righetti go turned out to be as wise a move as making him the Yankee closer was in the first place. After an OK 24-save first season in San Francisco, the bottom fell out of his career as he accumulated just four saves during the final four seasons of big league pitching. Farr, on the other hand, performed admirably for New York, saving 78 games during his 3-year tenure in the Bronx including a 30-save, 1.56 ERA 1992 season. Steve was 36-years old at the end of his final contract year and when his ERA ballooned to 4.21 in 1993, New York decided not to re-sign the right-hander and handed the 1994 closer role to Steve Howe. You have to give that Yankee front-office credit for their closer decisions during the past quarter-century. Making Rag’s a reliever, replacing him with Farr after Righetti’s last great year, replacing Farr with Howe, signing John Wetteland and then replacing Wetteland with Rivera represents a pretty good track record.
If I was given the choice of a back seat to sit in on a historical car ride, I’d have a tough time not selecting the 1936 cross-country trip taken by three members of the New York Yankees. The Yankee front office had just purchased the contract of a young Pacific Coast League ballplayer named Joe DiMaggio. The kid lived in San Francisco as did the two players who composed New York’s starting middle infield back then, shortstop Frankie Crosetti and today’s birthday celebrant, second baseman, Tony “Poosh em Up” Lazzeri. The Yankee front office had arranged to have the two veterans pick up DiMaggio at his home and drive him the three thousand or so miles to St. Petersburg, FL, where the Yankees conducted Spring training.
Lazzeri is still considered to be by many, the greatest second baseman in Yankee franchise history. Born in 1903 in San Francisco, his first year in the Bronx was 1926 and he started fast by belting 18 home runs and driving in 114 runs. He would drive in 100 or more runs seven different times and he finished his fourteen-season career with a .292 lifetime batting average and 1,191 RBI’s. Like Crosetti and DiMaggio, Lazzeri was an Italian-American and before the Yankee Clipper joined him in New York, he had become the number one sports hero of the 1 million plus Italian-Americans who were living in the Big Apple. Perhaps the most amazing thing about his accomplishments on the ball field was the fact that he achieved them while being afflicted with epilepsy, at a time when the disease was poorly treated and very misunderstood.
He played in six World Series as a Yankee and won five rings. He was unceremoniously dumped by New York after hitting a career-low .244, in 1937. He signed with the Cubs in 38 and made it back to the World Series for a seventh time as a part-time player for Chicago. In a bittersweet moment for Tony, the Cubbies lost that Fall Classic to the Yankees. After trying to hang on with Brooklyn and then the New York Giants, Lazzeri retired after the 1939 season. He then became a Minor League Manager for a few years before buying a tavern in his native San Francisco. In 1946, Lazzeri’s wife came home from a vacation to find her husband dead. He apparently fell down the stairs in their home and was killed when his head banged against the bannister. The Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee put Tony’s plaque in Cooperstown, in 1991.