December 6 – Happy Birthday Gary Ward
Long time Yankee fans look back at the 1980s as the era of bad free agent signings for the franchise. After taking brilliant advantage of the Supreme Court’s striking down of baseball’s reserve clause in the 1970s, the Yankee front office led by the impetuous and impatient George Steinbrenner, evolved into one of the worst judges of free agent talent in all of baseball. They’d sign guys with games that did not complement the Yankee lineups they were expected to join or were not conducive to the dimensions of the old Yankee Stadium. It was these poor fits that used to upset me most. They’d give lots of bucks to players who performed well on their old teams and in their old ballparks but once they put on the pinstripes, it seemed as if they lost half their skills and most of their confidence. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was a classic example.
Gary Ward had been in the big leagues for eight seasons when the Yankees signed him to a three-year, two million dollar free agent contract on the day before Christmas, in 1986. He had averaged right around .290 with both Minnesota and Texas and could be counted on to hit between 15-to-20 home runs and drive in close to 80 runs every season. The Yankees were depending on the burly native of L.A. to produce similar numbers in pinstripes and take up a significant chunk of the offensive slack and one of the two outfield holes created with the departures of both Ricky Henderson and Dan Pasqua.
During the first half of the 1987 season it looked as if the Ward signing was a stroke of genius, as he got off to a torrid start at the plate. Even though he slumped badly in the second half of the season, he still managed to produce 16 home runs and 78 RBIs during his initial year as a Yankee but as his slump worsened, his average plummeted into the .240s. He was unfortunately in the process of discovering how the spacious left field of Yankee Stadium acted as a burial ground for well-hit balls off the bats of right-handed hitters.
In 1988, things got much worse for Ward. He averaged just .225, hit only four home runs and drove in the putrid total of just 24 runs. By the second half of that season he had become a part-time player and the Yankees ended up giving him his outright release during the first month of the 1989 regular season. The Tigers picked him up and he spent his last two big league seasons in Motown, as Detroit’s fourth outfielder.