Over the two-year period between 2004 and 2005, Gary Sheffield was the best player on the Yankee team. He was the best hitter, the best fielder, an outstanding base runner and he had a cannon for an arm. He played hurt. He hustled on every play and for the most part, he got along with his teammates, Manager Joe Torre and the Yankee front office.
He made me a true Gary Sheffield fan during those first two extremely productive years as a Yankee. I loved to watch him take some of the American League’s best pitchers, extremely deep into counts during at bats that would always include at least one and sometimes several rocket line drives into foul territory down the left-field line. I found it incredible that a guy with such a powerful swing did not strike out all that much which meant a very efficient on base percentage and plenty of run scoring production.
Then in 2006, Sheffield injured his wrist in a late April game and didn’t return to the lineup until September. By then, the Yankees had acquired Bobby Abreu to play right field and had probably already decided to not resign Sheffield. Sheffield realized this as well and reacted by becoming a much more divisive force in both the New York media and the clubhouse. He felt unappreciated and responded more like a child than an adult professional athlete who had already earned millions of dollars.
I had the opportunity to watch both Sheffield and Abreu during their Yankee careers and given my druthers, I would much prefer to have a healthy and happy Sheffield as my favorite team’s right fielder. My problem with Gary is that I think he was a pretty significant steroid user and nothing he’s said or done to refute that allegation has succeeded in dampening my suspicions.
Sheffield’s last big league season was 2009. He retired with 509 home runs and a .292 lifetime batting average. He was born in Tampa and turns 43 years old today. He also shares his November 18th birthday with this former Yankee reliever.
The great Yankee teams of the late nineties won four World Series because of their bullpens. I’m not just referring to the closers on those teams either. Granted, there was nobody better at getting the last three outs than John Wetteland in 1996 and the great Mariano ever since, but those guys needed a lead to do their job and it was the great Yankee set-up relievers who made that possible. I’m talking about Rivera himself, when he setup for Wetteland, then Mike Stanton, Graeme Lloyd, Ramiro Mendoza and today’s birthday boy, Jeff Nelson. Born in Baltimore in 1966, there was no better right-handed setup man in baseball from 1996 through 2000, than this baby-faced, 6′ 8″ right-hander with a wicked curve. Yankee Manager, Joe Torre never hesitated to insert Nelson in tight ball games whenever an important out was needed with a tough right-handed hitter at the plate. Nelson pitched in 307 regular-season games during that span and almost fifty more during Yankee post season play. Nelson hated to lose and his smart-alecky personality could drive Torre crazy at times, but far more often than not, he got the out the Yankees needed to get at big moments in big games. During the last decade, we Yankee fans have come to realize how difficult it can be to find new Jeff Nelson’s to add to our bullpen. Nelson’s last year in the big leagues was 2006 with the White Sox.
Nelson shares his November 17th birthday with this long-ago Yankee manager.
I remember not being thrilled with the July 2008 Yankee trade that brought Nady to the Bronx. It wasn’t so much that I felt New York gave up too much to get the guy. I just thought one of the four players sent to the Pirates in the deal, Russ Ohlendorf would become a good big league pitcher and I didn’t think Nady was that good. I had remembered taking a bit of interest in him when he played for the Mets because his first name caught my attention. He was a decent player back then but I knew his acquisition by New York most likely meant good bye for Bobby Abreu in 2009 and I thought Abreu was still the better all-around player. Then just three days after the deal was made, the Pirates gave up Jason Bay to Boston in a three-way trade that netted Pittsburgh Andy LaRoche, Craig Hansen and Brandon Moss. Theo Epstein really out-maneuvered Brian Cashman that week. Nady played OK for New York during the second half of 2008 while Bay was playing terrific for the Red Sox. Then Xavier had the misfortune of getting hurt in 2009 and missing the entire season.
In the mean time it looks like I might have been wrong about Ohlendorf. After a good first season in Pittsburgh, he’s looked pretty bad the past three. Instead it has been another pitcher the Yankees included in the deal for Nady, the right-hander Jeff Karstens, who could be evolving into a solid starter in Steeltown. As for Xavier, he’s still keeping his suit case packed and moving. After New York didn’t offer him a contract for 2010, he signed with the Cubs and then in 2011 he played quite a bit of first base for the Diamondbacks before breaking his hand. He started out 2012 playing for Washington and then ended the year as a utility outfielder with the World Champion Giants. He turns 34 years-old today.
Nady shares his November 14th birthday with this now infamous cousin of Mariano Rivera.
Five months before the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, they made a trade with Boston during the 1919 regular season for this right-handed starting pitcher. Mays went 9-3 for New York that year and then won 26 games for the 1920 Yankees, during Ruth’s first season in New York. He was also directly involved in one of baseball’s greatest tragedies in August of that same season. It was Mays who threw the pitch that hit and killed Indian shortstop, Roy Chapman.
At the time, Mays had become one of the least liked players in baseball history. There were good reasons why. In the minors, this native of Liberty, KY had converted his conventional pitching delivery to an extreme sidearm, almost underhand delivery. It was unorthodox to say the least which is why Mays was successful with it. One of the keys to becoming a good big league hitter is being able to pick up the ball while it is still in the pitchers hand. This is much easier to do when the guy on the mound throws overhand because at one point the ball is held high over his head, making it much easier to see. Instead of throwing from over his head, May’s pitches came hurling at opposing hitters from his shoe-tops. Back when he pitched, there were no lights in Major League stadiums and pitchers were permitted to rub up the baseball so vigorously that its whiteness was transformed into a hard-to-see rainbow of earth-tone colors. Everyone also smoked back then so there was a very visible, smog-like haze present in the air of every big league game caused by tens of thousands of fans exhaling their cigarette and cigar byproducts. Then there were the shadows, resulting from the fact that with no lights, every Major League game began in the early afternoon when the sun was high but ended in the shadows caused as it made its daily descent behind the tops of stadium walls, toward the western horizon.
This all explains why opposing hitters had a real difficult time seeing Mays’ pitches. Now add to that the fact that Mays was one mean and crazy dude. He had a ferocious temper and hated to lose. He fought just as much with his own teammates as he did with opposing players. His own Yankee Manager, Miller Huggins once said that if he came across Mays lying down in a gutter, he’d kick the guy! To top it all off, the guy was a self-avowed headhunter. He admitted throwing his already hard-to-see submarine fastball up and in under the chins of hitters as a way of intimidating them. That’s why so many players and sports pundits refused to believe Mays when he claimed the the pitch that killed Chapman was an accident.
Mays helped New York capture its first AL pennant the following season with a 27-9 regular season performance. He then lost two of three decisions in that year’s World Series defeat to the New York Giants and slumped to 12-14 the following year. Mays had pitched over 646 innings of baseball during his two twenty-win seasons in New York and the stress on his left arm must have been horrific. He was able to pitch just 81 innings for the Yankees in 1923 and was sold to Cincinnati. He rebounded with the Reds, winning 20 games in 1924. But his pitching arm was never again the same. He retired after the 1929 season with a 207-126 lifetime record.
Mays shares his November 12th birthday with this former Yankee speedster.
Kenny Rogers was a very good Major League pitcher for two decades. New York signed him to a four-year $20 million free agent contract in December of 1995, when the left hander was thirty years old. He was the second best starting pitcher on the Yankee staff during the 1996 regular season, winning 12 of his 20 decisions. What Kenny Rogers wasn’t able to do, was pitch well for the Yankees in the postseason. If you can’t pitch well in pinstripes in October and you get paid $5 million per season, you’re in trouble. In 1996, Rogers had one of the worst postseason performances of any Yankee starting pitcher in history. He started three games, one each in the ALDS, ALCS and the Series. He did not last longer than three innings in any of them and he gave up 11 total runs for an ERA of 14.14. Even though New York won all three of those series, Rogers became a player Yankee fans loved to hate. When he followed his disastrous postseason up by going 6-7 in 1997, he was jettisoned to Oakland for a player to be named later, who turned out to be Scott Brosius. From the date of that trade until he retired from baseball at the end of the 2008 season, Rogers went 131-77 for five different teams. In 2006 he went 3-0 in a great postseason performance for Detroit that featured a seven-plus inning shutout victory over the Yankees in the 2006 ALDS. Rogers was born in Savannah, GA, on November 10, 1964.
Kenny shares his November 10th birthday with this former Yankee DH.
When Del Webb and Dan Topping purchased the Yankees in 1945, they needed a baseball man to run things and they selected former Dodger and Cardinal team president, Larry MacPhail to fulfill that role. The two multi-millionaires loaned MacPhail the $900,000 he needed to purchase ten percent of the team. That presented a problem for legendary Yankee Manager, Joe McCarthy, who did not like MacPhail. It became the key reason why Marse Joe quit as the Yankee skipper 35 games into the 1946 season. He was replaced by Yankee catching legend Bill Dickey, who had been one of McCarthy’s coaches.
The Yankees finished in third place in 1946 and Dickey did not even finish the season as manager, resigning that September, as soon as the Red Sox had eliminated New York from the pennant race. Two days after Dickey quit as skipper, MacPhail hired Bucky Harris to an unnamed front office position, to serve as MacPhail’s personal liason with the Yankee clubhouse. Harris then got the Manager’s job after the 1946 season ended.
Bucky had become famous in 1926, when at just 27 years of age, he became the player manager of the Senators and led the team to a World Series Championship that season. He then continued to manage for the next two decades but had not won another World Series.
The Yankee team he inherited in 1947 was getting old and ornery. His outfield was a mess. Joe DiMaggio had sore heels, Charley Keller a bad back and Tommy Henrich had turned 37 and hit just .251 in 1946. His infield wasn’t any better. First baseman Nick Etten had become an automatic out once big league pitchers returned from serving in WWII plus he was a horrible defensive first baseman. Third baseman Snuffy Stirnweiss was also a much less effective hitter against post war pitching and both second baseman Joe Gordon and shortstop Phil Rizzuto had a difficult time getting their swings back after their military service. As for pitching, Red Ruffing had retired and Spud Chandler was getting old fast.
Working with MacPhail, Harris made a series of moves that turned out to be genius-like. He replaced Etten at first with 38-year old George McQuinn, an NL veteran with a decent glove and good bat. MacPhail traded Joe Gordon to the Indians for pitcher Allie Reynolds and Harris switched Stirnweiss from third to Gordon’s old spot at second and inserted rookie Billy Johnson at the hot corner. He benched Keller and made Johnny Lindell his starting left fielder. His best move was converting Yankee starter Joe Page to his closer. Each of these maneuvers panned out perfectly and with DiMaggio, Henrich and Rizzuto all enjoying bounce back seasons, the Yankees rolled to the 1947 AL Pennant, finishing a dozen games ahead of the second place Tigers. A few weeks later, Harris had his second World Championship as a Manager when the Yankees beat the Dodgers in seven games.
Despite winning 94 games the following season, the Yankees finished a disappointing third in the AL Pennant race. MacPhail had also been bought out by Topping and Webb, who had installed George Weiss as the new Yankee GM. Weiss used the Yankees third place finish in ’47 as an excuse to replace Harris with his own man, Casey Stengel.
If a Manager was hired in today’s times, who then won 191 regular season games during his first two years managing a team plus a World Series, he’d get a multi-year contract worth eight figures. Instead, Bucky Harris got fired. In all, Harris managed 30 years in the Majors. He was named to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans’ Committee in 1975.
Harris shares his birthday with this short-time Yankee outfielder.
Born in Granada, MS in 1938, Jerry Dean Gibbs was a superb high school athlete who starred at both football and baseball. In fact, the reason he finally attended Mississippi on a football scholarship was because they were going to permit him to continue to play both sports, which he did with great success. Jake was the starting quarterback for the Ole Miss football team and during his senior year with the Rebels in 1960, he quarterbacked them to an undefeated season and a victory in the Sugar Bowl. Being a pretty pragmatic young man at the time, Gibbs had good reasons for choosing baseball over football as a profession. The first one of course, was money. The Yankees were offering the kid a $100,000 bonus to sign with their team. The second reason Gibbs chose the diamond over the gridiron as his workplace was safety and health related. During his pre-senior years at Mississippi, Gibbs had suffered a series of painful injuries playing football. He knew the pro game was even rougher, making that $100,000 bonus look even more attractive.
So Gibbs became a Yankee. Back then, he was a third baseman but New York’s plan was to convert him to catching and have him some day succeed Elston Howard. At first, Gibbs resisted the idea but Yankee skipper Ralph Houk, himself a former catcher, convinced Jake that the switch would get him to the big leagues faster and keep him there longer and Houk was right. The Yankees gave Gibbs regular call-ups to the big league roster beginning in 1962 and by ’65, he was Howard’s full-time backup. He then served as the starting Yankee catcher in 1967 and ’68.
Gibbs was a very good defensive receiver but the reason the Yankees weren’t completely happy with him was his lack of offense. He was a lifetime .230 hitter with little power so it wasn’t too tough a decision for New York to return him to the backup catcher role in 1969 in favor of that season’s AL Rookie of the Year, Thurman Munson. Ironically, Gibbs greatest Yankee season took place as Munson’s backup in 1970. In just 49 games that year, he hit more home runs (8) than he ever had in pinstripes plus, he batted .301.
After Gibbs quit playing in 1971, he returned to Ole Miss where he became the Rebel’s highly successful varsity baseball coach. He also did a two-year stint as a catching coach for the Yankees in the early 1990′s.
Gibbs shares his November 7th birthday with this former Yankee relief pitcher and game announcer and this one-time Yankee starting pitcher.
Curtis had three productive seasons in pinstripes from 1997 through 1999 as the team’s top reserve outfielder. His two home runs in the third game of the 1999 World Series, which included a bottom-of-the-tenth-inning walk-off blast, helped the Yankees sweep the Braves. Born in Marion, IN in 1968, Chad may have had one problem not too many Yankees have experienced during the past 14 years. The rumor was that he and Derek Jeter did not like each other. His problems with the Yankees’ all-time hit leader stemmed from Jeter’s behavior during an August 1999 game between New York and Seattle. There was a brawl between the two teams during the game and instead of getting in the middle of it, Jeter and the Mariners’ Alex Rodriguez stayed off to the side of the action, pretty much making believe they were holding onto each other. Curtis thought Jeter should have worked harder to defend his teammates during the melee and told the shortstop that not once but twice after the incident including once in the Yankee locker room within earshot of reporters. Jeter did not appreciate the criticism and from that point onward, barely spoke to Curtis again. Yankee management then made sure that Jeter would not have to go out of his way to avoid or ignore Curtis any longer when they traded the outfielder to Texas after that 1999 World Series.
You can consider yourself a solid fan of Yankee baseball if you can remember this Chestertown, MD native, who was born on November 4, 1967. He played his first four seasons of big league ball as a regularly-used spare outfielder with the Mets. In 2000, he was signed as a free agent by the Yankees after that season’s All Star break. He got off to a fast start, driving in five runs during his first two games in pinstripes. In 33 games that year, he hit .260 and drove in 14 runs. The Yankees did not put him on that season’s postseason roster and released Thompson in the off-season that followed.
The only other Yankee I could find who was born on November 2nd is this Yankee pitcher from the late 1930s.
When the Yankees signed free agent Paul Quantrill to a two-year, six-million dollar deal on December 17, 2003, it looked like the perfect Christmas present for Joe Torre. The Yankee skipper had developed a reputation for overusing his bullpen but in Quantrill, he appeared to have baseball’s version of Iron Arm. During the previous three seasons, the skinny right-hander had led the AL with 80, 86 and 89 appearances respectively. Torre made sure the poor guy would lead the league for a fourth straight time by calling on him to pitch 86 times in 2004. Quantrill was superb early in the season, but by August, after getting warmed up more times than Betty Crocker’s oven, he started to break down. On July 31st his ERA was 3.26. It was 3.83 one month later and by the end of the regular season it had ballooned to 4.72. I can clearly remember sitting in front of my TV watching Yankee games during the latter part of that 2004 season and actually switching channels or turning the darn set off when Quantrill came into a game. Quantrill wasn’t the only Yankee with a tired arm that season. New York’s eighth inning setup specialist, Flash Gordon had pitched in 80 games himself.
Quantrill had enough left to pitch well in two appearances against the Twins in that year’s ALDS, even getting the win in the extra inning Game 2 of that series. Then disaster struck the Yankees and their worn out reliever in that year’s ALCS. New York blew a 3-0 series lead to the hated Red Sox and Quantrill pitched poorly in three of the four Yankee losses. His lowest moment took place after Mo Rivera had come within one out of a series sweep and allowed Boston to score the tying run in the ninth inning of Game 4. I remember Torre inserting Quantrill to pitch the bottom half of the twelfth like it was yesterday. I absolutely knew the Red Sox would score the winning run against him. Sure enough, he immediately gave up a single to Manny Ramirez and then that back-breaking, game-winning home run by David Ortiz.