If you’re old enough to remember when Lou Piniella played for the Yankees, you most likely enjoyed watching him do so. He had very little speed and not much power so he mixed every ounce of talent he had with every bit of effort he could muster to play a huge role in helping New York win five pennants and two World Series during his eleven seasons with the team. Oh yeah, he also had a beautiful swing which earned him the nickname “Sweet Lou.” He first donned the pinstripes in 1974, when the Yankees picked up the 1969 AL Rookie of the Year winner from the Royals in a trade for veteran reliever Lindy McDaniel. It turned out to be one of the best transactions in Yankee history. He hit .305 as manager Bill Virdon’s everyday right-fielder during his first year in the Bronx but then he went through a horrible season in 1975, averaging just .186 and helping to get Virdon fired and replaced by the fiery Billy Martin. Billy began playing Piniella a little bit in right field, a little bit in left and a little bit at DH. Lou simply thrived in this semi-utility role, averaging over .300 for the rest of his Yankee career. The play he will always be remembered for in the Big Apple was his famous feint on the Jerry Remy liner that he lost in the sun during the 1978 playoff game against the Red Sox. If he doesn’t make believe he sees that ball, Rick Burleson, who was on first at the time, easily gets to third and might have scored. Then Lou spears the ball on one hop and again prevents Burleson from getting past second.
George Steinbrenner loved players born in his adopted home-town of Tampa and Lou was the first native of that city to play for The Boss. That helps explain why George gave Lou his first manager and general manager jobs with the Yankees. Piniella’s temper and Steinbrenner’s famous impatience with anyone placed in either of those positions ended any chance Lou might have had to retire from baseball as a Yankee. Instead he went on to win three Manager of the Year titles, the 1991 World Series and finally ended his 43-year big league career this month when he walked away from the Wrigley Field dugout to spend time with his ailing Mom and go fishing.
Lou turns 68 years-old today. The guy who gave up the home run to Bucky Dent in that 1978 playoff game, the pitcher who started that playoff game for New York and this former Yankee second baseman were all also born on August 28th.
I remember the first time I saw Bobby Meacham taking ground balls during a Yankee spring training workout in the early eighties. Born in Los Angeles on this date in 1960, Meacham looked so smooth that morning that I thought the Yankees had found themselves a keeper. As it turned out, he played each of his six seasons and 457 big league games as a Yankee but he never became a star. He was given the opportunity when he took over New York’s starting shortstop job in 1985. Appearing in 156 games, the then 24-year-old switch hitter used his speed to steal 25 bases but he just could not hit, finishing the season with a paltry .218 batting average.
Bobby got another chance to wear Pinstripes when Joe Girardi made him his third base and infield coach for the 2008 season. Unfortunately, Meacham was replacing the popular Larry Bowa and rumors were that the Yankee front office blamed Bobby for Robinson Cano’s uninspired infield play that season and replaced him with Robby Thomson.
The following season, new Yankee manager Ralph Houk put Stafford in his starting rotation and over the next two seasons, he went 28-18 in that role to help New York win two consecutive World Championships. He got his only postseason win in Game 3 of the 1962 Fall Classic, when he held the Giants scoreless for eight and two thirds innings in a brilliant, four-hit, 3-2 victory. At that point in his career, he was just 22-years-old and the sky seemed the limit for this guy. I clearly remember thinking he was on his way to becoming a Hall-of-Fame pitcher and if the Yankees had put him on the market after their ’62 Series triumph, they could have demanded and received just about any player in the game in return. That’s how good Bill Stafford was. So what happened to him?
On April 10, 1963, Stafford made his first start of the season against the A’s in Kansas City. There were fewer than 4,000 people in the stands and the temperature at game time was way below normal for that time of year in KC. Stafford grinded his way through six plus innings and got the win but he also hurt his arm. Instead of resting, he tried to pitch through the injury but finished the ’63 season with a 4-8 record and was demoted to the bullpen. His right arm was never the same after that season. New York put him in the bullpen in 1964 and he went 5-0 in 31 games as a reliever. He was then returned to the rotation in ’65 and finished that season 3-8, as the Yankee dynasty began to crumble away. Stafford was traded to the A’s in June of 1966. He was out of baseball by 1968. He died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 62. He shares his birthday with this former Yankee shortstop and this current Yankee reliever.
Andy was already 27 years old when he made his big league debut for Buck Showalter’s 1992 Yankees. He actually took over for Randy Velarde as that team’s starting shortstop. I had first seen “Stanky” play in 1989, when he started at second base for New York’s Albany-Colonie Double A franchise. The thing that stuck out at you when you watched him on the field was his hustle. That’s why Showalter liked him and gave him the opportunity to play. That first big league season turned out to be the highlight of Andy’s seven-year career in the big leagues. Over time, however, Andy proved he couldn’t hit big league pitching well enough to play every day at that level. Andy was born on this date in 1964, in Inglewood, CA.
Also born on this date in the Big Apple in 1933 was Rocco Domenico Colavito. If you saw him play during the late fifties and sixties, you have to remember how he used to point his bat at the opposing pitcher’s head at the end of his warm-up swings. He only played a part of one season in pinstripes and it was the final season (1968) of his 14-year big league career. He hit the last five of his 374 big league home runs in a Yankee uniform. You can read more about Colavito in this post. This second Yankee outfielder and former Albany-Colonie teammate of Stankiewicz’ was also born on August 10.
I hated to see the Yankees trade Ohlendorf to Pittsburgh at the 2008 trading deadline. I did not think Xavier Nady was as good as he was playing for Pittsburgh and I thought Ross O had the stuff and the smarts to become a good starting pitcher at the big league level. I turned out to be right about Nady but the jury’s sill out on Ross O. and time is getting short for him to prove he has the right stuff to be a successful big league pitcher.
He had a real good first full year in Pittsburgh in 2009, going 12-11 but he regressed to 1-11 in 2010. He then spent the 2011 season bouncing up in down between Pittsburgh and three different Pirate minor league teams before being released outright in December of 2011. Two months later, the Red Sox signed Ohlendorf but then released him in June. In July, he resurfaced in the big leagues with the Padres and he’s been starting and relieving for San Diego since. His record as I update this post this morning is 3-2, but his ERA has climbed over six. Ross was born in Austin, TX, in 1982. The guy really is a braniac, having graduated from Princeton with a degree in finance. He got lots of national press attention when he interned at the USDA during the 2009-10 offseason, analyzing if programs to trace livestock diseases were cost-effective.
Larsen will of course always be remembered as the guy who threw the only perfect game in World Series history. When most fans think of this big right-hander they probably visualize the famous clip of that game’s final out, when umpire Babe Pinelli ended the at bat of the Dodgers’ Dale Mitchell with a questionable third strike call. At the end of that clip, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra is shown jumping joyously into Larsen’s arms. Did you know that during that leap, Yogi’s knee hit Larsen squarely in the groin, putting the Yankee pitcher in excruciating pain?
One of the things I most like about sports is getting the opportunity to watch non-stars have their day in the sun. Just two seasons before he became a Yankee legend, Larsen had a 3-21 record for baseball’s worst team at the time, the Baltimore Orioles. After that horrific year, he was traded to the Yankees as part of a sixteen-player transaction that was then the largest trade in baseball history. Can you imagine the current Yankees making a trade involving sixteen players and their agents?
Larsen pitched decently for the Yankees for five seasons, compiling a 45-24 regular season record and a total of three World Series victories against just one defeat. But during his fourteen-year big league career he was traded eight times, lost more games than he won, and was never considered one of baseball’s upper tier pitchers. None of that mattered to Larsen. During the fiftieth year anniversary celebration of his World Series classic, I heard Larsen tell an interviewer that one game performance had changed his life and continued to help him pay the bills a full half century after it happened. Larsen was born on this date in 1929, in Michigan City, IN.
Watching the Yankees struggle in seasons past to build an effective bridge between their starting pitchers and Mariano Rivera made me appreciate Ron Davis even more. From 1979, when he went 14-2 in his rookie season with New York, until 1981 when he was traded to the Twins for Roy Smalley, there was no better bridge pitcher in baseball than this tall, right-handed fireballer. With no disrespect to Dave Robertson, Phil Hughes, Flash Gordon, Mike Stanton or even Mo himself (Mariano began his Yankee career as the very-effective bridge to closer John Wetteland for the 1996 World Champions) if I had to pick a guy to hold a lead in the seventh and eighth inning for the all-time Yankee team, I’d pick the Ron Davis I watched baffle Yankee opponents in those two late-innings for almost three seasons. That’s how good he was. The Twins converted him into a closer and he did fine in that role for four seasons but Ron Davis was born to take the ball from a starter with his team ahead and give it to a closer with that lead still intact. Ron was born on this date in 1955, in Houston. His son Ike now plays first base for the New York Mets.
Over a half-century before George Steinbrenner came on the scene, another son of a wealthy German-American businessman purchased New York City’s American League baseball franchise and wheeled and dealed his way to World Championships and a brand new Big Apple stadium for his team. But instead of building ships like George’s dad, this guy’s father made beer. His name was Jacob Ruppert and he took over the family business when his Dad died in 1915 and immediately began looking for ways to get his brewery’s name in the newspapers more often. He accomplished that by purchasing a baseball team and in a series of astute business and hiring maneuvers, he turned the Yankees into the most valuable brand in all of sports. He brought Babe Ruth to New York. He hired Ed Barrow to build baseball’s best farm system and he put managerial legends, Miller Huggins and then Joe McCarthy in the Yankee dugout. During his 23 years owning the franchise, the Yankees won the first ten of their World Series championships. I agree with those who feel George Steinbrenner belongs in Baseball’s Hall of Fame but only if they put Jake Ruppert in their first.
Wow! Talk about getting knocked off a pedestal. “Rocket’s” seven Cy Young Awards, his 354 victories, those 4,672 career strikeouts, that winning percentage in the mid six hundreds, and those 46 shutouts, all became less meaningful when the rumors of his long-time steroid use gained some substance. And when Clemens refused to follow the leads of Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte and admit his mistakes, his reputation seemed to unravel even quicker. A few weeks ago, a federal judge declared a mistrial in Clemens perjury trial when prosecutors showed jurors evidence that had been previously ruled out. In any event, the Rocket will forever be associated with the rocket fuel he allegedly used to propel himself into baseball’s record books. Will Clemens eventually get into Cooperstown?
Todays Pinstripe Birthday celebrant is best known for his days with the New York Mets. He started at shortstop for the Amazin’s from 1988 through 1991 and set the since broken Major League record for consecutive error-less games at short with 88 straight during the 1988 and ’89 seasons. Kevin’s problem was his offense or lack there-of. He struggled to hit .230 during his days at Shea. When he hurt his shoulder during the 1991 season and underwent surgery, his Met career was all but over. He was then signed and released by respectively, the Dodgers, Marlins and Padres without appearing in a big league game for any of those teams. The Yankees then signed him in May of 1994 and he played in 13 games in pinstripes during the remainder of the 1994 and beginning of the ’95 seasons before he was again released. He signed with Texas in 1996 and suddenly erupted with his bat, hitting 24 home runs and driving in 99 from the bottom spot in the Rangers’ lineup. That one-time spurt got him a $1.6 million dollar one-year contract with the Pirates in ’97 and another $1.5 million in ’98 but he never again approached those lofty numbers.