I remember getting pretty excited by Ray Fontenot’s rookie year performance with the Yankees during the second half of the 1983 season. The Yankee rotation he joined that year included 20-game winner Ron Guidry, perfect game thrower Dave Righetti and Shane Rawley. When Fontenot was called up at the end of June and won his first three big league starts, I thought that Yankee rotation was strong enough to make the postseason. As it turned out, not quite. Fontenot continued to pitch well, finishing the year with an 8-2 record and that Yankee team won 91 games, but Baltimore won 98 and took the Division crown.
Still, it seemed as if the southpaw Fontenot had a bright future with New York. He was just 25 years old during his rookie year but he already pitched with a lot of poise on the mound. His ERA that first year was an impressive 3.33. Like Guidry, he was born in Louisiana and the Yankee beat writers would get a kick out of hearing Gator and the rookie converse in Creole French in the Yankee clubhouse. When New York also added John Montefusco to their starting staff in August of ’83 and “The Count” won five straight decisions, Yankee fans were beginning to feel downright giddy about our starters entering the 1984 season. Boy were we wrong!
First of all, the Yankees didn’t re-sign their closer Goose Gossage after the ’83 season. New York’s front office made the decision to switch Righetti to that role. In my research for today’s blog post, I discovered that Billy Martin, who was then serving as a Steinbrenner consultant, was against making Righetti the closer and actually suggested that Fontenot would be the better alternative. Righetti proved a smart choice as he went on to save 31 games during his first season pitching out of the bullpen. The Yankees signed the veteran knuckleballer, Phil Niekro to replace Righetti in the rotation and he did an outstanding job, going 16-8. But Guidry had an off-year in ’84, finishing with a 10-11 record and both Rawley and Montefusco were injured and appeared in just 11 games each. Ray Fontenot won just 8 games during his first full season in the big leagues and lost 9. He did not pitch really badly, compiling a 3.61 ERA in his sophomore year, but when four starting pitchers on the same staff all under-produce in the same season the results are never pretty.
Back then, the Yankees had little patience with young pitchers and Fontenot was traded to the Cubbies in December of ’84 as part of a six-player deal. He went just 6-10 during his first season with Chicago and was just 3-5 the following year when he was traded and then released by the Minnesota Twins. Although he tried to get back to the big leagues after the 1986 season, he never did.
Steve Kemp was a college star at USC and the overall number one draft pick in MLB’s 1976 amateur draft. After just one year in the minors, the Detroit Tigers brought Kemp up to the big leagues and he responded with an 18-home run, 88-RBI rookie season in 1977. Over the next three seasons, he became one of the upper tier outfielders in the AL and an All Star in 1979, when he belted 26 home runs, drove in 105 and hit .318.
The problem with Kemp was his defense. He was a below average left-fielder with limited range and one of the league’s weakest outfield arms. So when he slumped at the plate during the strike-shortened season of 1981, the Tigers traded him to Chicago for outfielder Chet Lemon. Kemp had a strong year in the Windy City, hitting 19 HRs and driving in 98. When he became a free agent at the end of the ’82 season, White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn offered Kemp a contract worth $800K per year.
But back in 1983, George Steinbrenner was on a free agent spending spree. He seemed to want to sign anybody who ever hit .300 or won 20 games in a season. He gave Kemp a $5.5 million, five-year deal and Reinsdorf and Einhorn howled publicly in protest. They claimed Kemp wasn’t worth those kind of dollars and that “The Boss’s” stupid spending would ruin baseball’s salary structure. They turned out to be half-right anyway.
Kemp became one of the many Steinbrenner signings from that era to fail on the Big Apple stage. During his two seasons in pinstripes he hit just .264 and averaged 9 home runs and only 45 RBIs per season. Yankee Stadium favored left handed pull hitters but not lefties who hit the ball with power into the gaps. Pop ups down the line in the old Stadium were home runs while 400 yard drives to right-center were usually just long outs. Kemp’s power was to that cow-pasture-like gap in right center. His defensive shortcomings were also highlighted by the Stadium’s tough left field.
By 1984, Steinbrenner had seen enough. He OK’d a trade that sent Kemp to Pittsburgh for Yogi’s kid, Dale Berra and a prospect named Jay Buhner. Kemp’s skills faded fast in the Steel City and he was out of the big leagues for good by 1987. He was born in San Angelo, TX on August 7, 1954. Kemp certainly wasn’t a perfect Yankee but he shares today as a birthday with this former Yankee pitcher who on one brilliant October day in 1956, was. Today is also the birthday of this one-time Yankee reliever.
Every fan of the “Seinfeld” television series remembers when George Costanza’s father blurted out this question to George Steinbrenner (played by Larry David). If you didn’t see that episode, you can watch the clip here. The reason that trade was made is today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
Back in the mid eighties, a guy named Bill James was in the process of revolutionizing the way baseball stats were kept and interpreted and he was sharing his work through his annual “Baseball Abstract.” James started applying and trumpeting the use of OPS as a true measure of a baseball player’s value to a team. He would illustrate how the measure was being virtually ignored by coming up with complete lineups of players with great OPS numbers who were then sitting on the benches or playing in the Minor Leagues of MLB teams. Ken Phelps’ name appeared on every one of these lists. That’s why, when George Costanza’s Dad asked about the Buhner trade, Larry David’s Steinbrenner responded that his “baseball people” loved Ken Phelps bat. That’s because Steinbrenner’s real-life baseball people were becoming real-life disciples of Bill James.
Phelps’ career OPS during his 10-season Minor League career was .954. An average OPS for the Major Leagues would be somewhere in the high .700s. Phelps’ OPS during his five plus seasons in Seattle was .913. James loved players like Phelps because his home run per at bat ratio and on base percentage as a minor leaguer had been so impressive. So you could say the Yankees were playing the percentages when they gave away Buhner for Phelps in that mid-season 1988 transaction.
Phelps’ OPS during his 131 games in pinstripes was just .781. By comparison, Buhner’s OPS during his 14 seasons in Seattle, was .852. The Yankees traded “Digger” Phelps to the A’s for a guy named Scott Holcomb in August of 1989. He played big league ball until 1995. The Seinfeld episode was a lot funnier and much more entertaining than the results of the actual trade, especially if you were a Yankee fan.
During last year’s MLB playoffs, in addition to rooting for the Yankees I was also rooting for the Braves to beat the Giants in the ALDS. I had two reasons for wanting Atlanta to win. My wife’s Mom & Dad are huge Atlanta fans and watching Braves’ baseball is their very favorite thing to do. I’m also a huge Bobby Cox fan and he would be ending his outstanding managerial career as soon as the Braves 2010 playoffs were over. I wanted to see that career last until Atlanta made the final out against my Yankees in the 2010 Series. And if the unthinkable happened and the Braves and Cox happened to beat my favorite team in my dream 2010 Fall Classic, I’d probably only be depressed for one month instead of the normal four it took me to get over any other Yankee postseason defeat.
I really also thought Cox and the Braves had a real good shot at getting into the 2010 Series because they had Eric Hinske on their postseason roster. Hinske is the only man in baseball who played in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 World Series. In ’07, he had won a ring with the Red Sox. In ’08, his Tampa Bay team had lost to the Phillies. He then got revenge for that defeat in 2009 as a member of the Yankees, when New York beat Philadelphia and Hinske collected his second ring in three seasons.
After Tampa Bay lost their World Series, Hinske had signed as a free agent with the Pirates and began the 2009 season in Pittsburgh. The Yankees got Hinske the last day of June in 2009 to strengthen their bench and it didn’t take the Menasha, Wisconsin native very long to do just that. He got into seven games during his first month in pinstripes and hit five home runs and drove in eight. He provided a better than expected utility spark and it helped New York kick their season into high gear right after the All Star break. He cooled down after that hot start, finishing his half season in pinstripes hitting just .226.
Hinske’s one and only plate appearance as a Yankee in the postseason took place in New York’s Game 5 loss when he pinch hit, walked and scored a run. He signed with the Braves the following January and has been a valuable role player for that team ever since. Hinske began his big league career with a bang in Toronto, when he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award as a Blue Jay, in 2002.
Dallas Green became the 16th Yankee Manager hired by George Steinbrenner, when he was named to that position prior to the 1989 season. Before that year was over, Green had become the 17th Yankee Skipper to be fired by “The Boss.”
He had replaced Lou Piniella in New York’s dugout and was himself replaced by Bucky Dent. What I remember most about Green is that he lived by Steinbrenner’s sword and then was banished by it. When he first joined the Yankee organization in an advisory role, Steinbrenner suddenly had a soul mate who shared George’s favorite hobby of publicly criticizing Yankee players and staff. Green got what he wished for when he was handed the reins to that 1989 team but part of that wish included perhaps the worst Yankee starting rotation in the history of the franchise. The frustrated new Skipper quickly started blaming the team’s inability to win consistently on the Yankee front office’s inability to get him some decent arms. Steinbrenner did not agree. The soon-to-be-suspended owner would conduct impromptu press conferences during which he would compare his existing team. position-by-position with AL East opponents who were then ahead of New York in the standings and conclude that his current roster was better than its current record. Naturally, that translated into a Manager and coaching staff that was not doing its job.
The Boss also started taking public pot shots at Green’s coaches. When Green reacted angrily, George had his beleaguered field boss right where he wanted him. After a few more weeks of exchanging insults in the sports pages of Big Apple’s tabloids, Steinbrenner put Green out of his misery on August 17, 1989. At the time of his firing, the Yankees were in sixth place in their division with a 56-65 record.
Leaving quietly was not in Green’s nature of course. Instead he blasted Steinbrenner and all the “parasites” and “yes men” the Yankee owner surrounded himself with. I guess that sort of explains why Dallas was never called back to manage a Yankee’s Old Timers’ Day squad.
I was ambivalent about Green when he managed in the Bronx but my eventual dislike for the guy was sparked by his decision to fire Mel Stottlemyre as the Mets’ pitching coach when Green became that team’s manager in 1993. We of course all felt horribly sad for him when his beautiful granddaughter was murdered during the assassination attempt of Gabby Gifford in Tucson, in January of 2011.
Green had a mediocre eight-season career as a big league pitcher, mostly with the Phillies. When his playing days ended in 1968, he went into coaching. He got his first managerial gig with the Phillies at the end of the 1979 season and then led that team to a World Series title the following year. His career record as a big league manager was 454 – 478.
1965 was the year the music died if you were a Yankee fan. Actually, nobody really died but dependable All Stars like Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Roger Maris, Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson each seemed to become too old to play the game all at the same exact time. Tom Tresh won the team’s triple crown that year with just a .279 average, 26 home runs and only 79 RBIs. One year earlier, this same exact team had taken the St Louis Cardinals to seven games in the 1964 World Series. But they’d fallen off a cliff since October and it would be more than a decade before a Yankee pinstriped uniform would appear in another Fall Classic.
If you’re an old enough Yankee fan to remember that ’65 season, you don’t forget Mel Stottlemyre’s amazing 20-9, 2.63 ERA performance. You also don’t forget the first ten days a kid named Roger Repoz had as a Yankee. Repoz was being hailed as Mickey Mantle’s successor back then. He was 24 years old at the time, a native of Bellingham Washington, who was putting up pretty impressive power numbers in the upper levels of the Yankee farm system. Although taller than Mickey at 6’3″, the youngster’s muscular build and great speed had fans like me hoping we were welcoming Mantle’s successor to the Bronx. And after his first week and a half with the team, we really thought that was the case. Although it was close to fifty years ago, I can still remember loving the fact that he had the same first name as Maris and matching first and last name initials like the Mick.
Repoz started his first game of the ’65 season against the Orioles on July 1st and homered in his final at bat against Steve Barber. Ten days later, he had already hit his fifth Yankee home run, went 4-5 in the game against Minnesota and was hitting over .300. Could it be? Had the Yankees pulled another rabbit out of their hat? Would Repoz not only save the Yankee season but lead them to a whole new generation of post season play? Unfortunately not. After that great game against the Twins, Roger began an 0-29 streak. Though he did manage to hit a total of 12 home runs during his half season with the team, he also struck out too much and batted just .220. By the following June, New York’s front office had already given up on their left-hand hitting prospect and traded him to the A’s for reliever Fred Talbot and backup catcher, Bill Bryan.
Repoz ended up playing nine seasons of big league baseball which included four straight years of starting in the California Angel outfield. He also played in Japan after his Major League career ended in 1972. He ended up with 82 home runs in the big leagues but the final 77 of those HRs were not nearly as exciting as his first 5.