“Popeye’s” original connection to New York City baseball was over half a century ago when he was being groomed to replace the great Pee Wee Reese as the Brooklyn Dodger starting shortstop. That never happened. A terrible beaning Zimmer suffered as a minor leaguer in the Dodger organization left him unconscious for three weeks and resulted in a metal plate being inserted in his head. The incident left him a different player. He still had the shotgun arm his teammates raved about but he would never become a productive big league hitter. He played three part-time seasons in Brooklyn and two more in LA before he was dealt to the Cubs after the 1959 season. He got quite a few at bats in Chicago but never got his batting average above the .250’s and the Mets drafted him in the NL expansion draft of 1961. Zimmer lasted only 14 games with the Amazins and retired as a player in 1965. He then began the most successful part of his Major League baseball career.
He got his first big league managerial assignment with the Padres, replacing Preston Gomez twenty games into the 1972 season. The Padres lost 190 games during Zim’s almost two season tenure, which lost him that job. During the 1976 season, he was named the Red Sox Manager, replacing Darryl Johnson. The four and a half seasons he spent calling the on-the-field shots in Fenway were the most successful of his career. His Boston teams finished 411-304 but couldn’t get past the Yankees to make the playoffs. Zimmer then got managing jobs for the Rangers and the Cubs. In 1996, he became the fiery bench coach for Joe Torre’s four-time World Champion Yankees. His most famous moment in pinstripes came when he went after then Red Sox ace, Pedro Martinez in the third game of the 2003 American League championship series, after the teams exchanged brush-back pitches.
Zim left the Yankees, livid at George Steinbrenner’s treatment of Yankee manager Joe Torre and his fellow Yankee coaches. I enjoyed his colorful behavior both on and off the field.
I was always a fan of Steve Balboni. Show me a power-hitting paisano in pinstripes with a great nickname and I guarantee I’ll love the guy. Balboni’s nickname was “Bye-Bye,” given to him in recognition of how far and fast squarely hit balls would travel off his bat. The Brockton, MA native was born on this date in 1957. He got my attention during his minor league years in the Yankee farm system by hitting 150 home runs over a five year period. The Yankees needed right hand power back in the early eighties and I thought Balboni would be a star in the Bronx. But by the time he was ready for the big leagues, Don Mattingly had claimed the Yankee first base job and Dave Winfield was providing the right-handed long-ball bat the team needed so Balboni was shipped to the Royals.
As he had done in the minors, Bye-Bye averaged thirty home runs a year during his four year stay in Kansas City but he also struck out about 140 times a season. The Royals released Balboni early in the 1988 season, he got picked up by the Mariners and then released by Seattle at the end of that year. As fate would have it, that spring the Yankees announced Dave Winfield would miss the entire 1989 regular season because of a back injury. New York needed to find a right-handed bat to put behind Mattingly in the batting order. They chose Balboni. Steve’s second tenure in pinstripes lasted two seasons. He hit 17 home runs in each of those years but when he averaged just .192 in 1990, the writing was on the wall. Steve was released on the final day of the Yankee’s 1991 spring training season. Even though his Yankee career did not turn out to be what I had hoped it would, I remember still feeling bad when New York said so long to Bye-Bye.
|KCR (5 yrs)||566||2201||1999||232||459||89||6||119||318||1||175||568||.230||.294||.459||.752|
|NYY (5 yrs)||295||858||766||75||164||23||4||41||116||0||75||219||.214||.286||.415||.701|
|TEX (1 yr)||2||5||5||0||3||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||.600||.600||.600||1.200|
|SEA (1 yr)||97||376||350||44||88||15||1||21||61||0||23||67||.251||.298||.480||.778|
Back in the mid-to-late sixties, the Yankees’ big league lineup had fallen apart. All of the great players from their early-sixties dynasty were over-the-hill or out-of-the-game all together and none of the players they traded for seemed to work out. We Yankee fans were left hoping that youngsters from the team’s farm system would be coming up soon to restore greatness to the franchise. But even the team’s prospects from that era seemed grossly over-matched when they reached the big dance. The promises the Yankee front office made about players like Steve Whitaker, Roger Repoz, Ross Mosschito, and Frank Tepedino all ended up being broken.
I thought Tony Solaita would be different. First of all, he was and still is the only native of American Samoa to play baseball. Secondly, he was a left-handed power hitter, perfectly suited for Yankee Stadium. In 1968, he had hit 51 home runs for the Yankees’ A-level affiliate in the Carolina League, and his name started popping up in the New York Daily News whenever Yankees of the future were being referred to. Then there was the home run contest before a Boston Red Sox/Yankee game at the Stadium. Tony competed against Mickey Mantle, Carl Yaztrzemski, Rocky Colavito, Hawk Harrelson and Reggie Smith. Solaita won the thing by hitting four home runs in his ten swings but it was a fifth swing he took that most impressed the fans and press in attendance that day. Solaita drove a ball barely foul down the the right field line that hit the famous facade at the top edge of the Stadium. That seemed to prove we finally had found the next Mickey Mantle. But we had not.
Solaita got just one at-bat in pinstripes, striking out against the Tigers John Hiller. I’m still not sure why, but the Yankees sent him back down to the minors and he seemed to get worse instead of better over the next five seasons. They ended up trading him to the Pirates organization in 1973 and then he was selected by the Royals in the Rule 5 Draft that same year. He finally got a chance to play some big league ball with Kansas City in 1974 but by that time he was already 27-years-old. He became a good backup to Royal first baseman, John Mayberry as well as a DH. After three years with Kansas City he was traded to the Angels and played three more seasons in Anaheim. He eventually went to Japan where he finally once again became a top home run hitter. During his seven years in the Majors, he played in just 525 games and he hit just 50 home runs.
After his playing career was over, Solaita returned to his native Samoa where, with his brother, he began a baseball program for Samoan children. In February of 1990, Tony was tragically shot and killed on the island, during an argument with a man. He was just 43-years-old.
|KCR (3 yrs)||220||631||538||70||140||27||0||23||83||0||80||166||.260||.355||.439||.794|
|CAL (3 yrs)||239||748||633||75||157||27||0||24||100||2||106||146||.248||.353||.404||.757|
|MON (1 yr)||29||53||42||5||12||4||0||1||7||0||11||16||.286||.434||.452||.886|
|NYY (1 yr)||1||1||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||.000||.000||.000||.000|
|TOR (1 yr)||36||121||102||14||27||8||1||2||13||0||17||16||.265||.364||.422||.785|
Ivan became the Yankees’ Super Nova during the 2011 season. I’m the first to admit I was skeptical that spring when New York made the decision to include this 6’4″, 225 pound Dominican right-hander as the fifth starter in the team’s regular season pitching rotation. He changed my mind! In fact, when this kid went 8-4 during the first half of 2011 and then was demoted back to Scranton to make room for Phil Hughes’ return from the DL, I strongly disagreed. What impressed me most about Nova two seasons ago however, was the fact that he understood those circumstances, accepted that demotion and just kept pitching and getting better. When he was called back up to New York, he was a beast on the mound, winning each of his eight final decisions to finish the year, 16-4. His hot streak was huge for the Yankees’ drive to the AL East Division crown because Bartolo Colon, Freddie Garcia and even CC Sabathia all experienced bad streaks in the second half of the 2011 season.
Nova continued to impress in that year’s ALDS versus Detroit. Scheduled to start Game 2, instead he found himself finishing the rain-delayed Game 1 in place of CC Sabathia. He went out and pitched seven and a third solid innings to help New York capture that first game. In fact, the only time all season he failed to deliver more than expected turned out to be Game 5 of that same Series. He gave up back-to-back home runs to the Tigers in the first and left the game after completing the second inning with a “tight forearm.”
I remember when the Yankees first brought Nova up in 2010, when both AJ Burnett and Javier Vazquez were pitching like crap. There was a story in the media at the time that the kid was being investigated for taking vitamin B12 shots before his minor league starts. I’d read about how players from the Dominican Republic were big B12 users and how often-times the substance they are told is B12 is laced with PEDs. Nova was eventually cleared of any wrong doing but I was definitely put off by the fact that he hadn’t even gotten started with the Yankees and already rumors about steroid use were circulating. I’ve kept my fingers crossed since that the kid is and remains PED clean.
If he was using the juice last year, he must have gotten a bad batch. Even though he won ten of his first 13 decisions in 2012, he really struggled with his consistency from start-to-start and even inning-to-inning. Sure enough, those struggles got the best of him in the second half. He went 2-5 during from July 9th on, his ERA climbed to over five and he was even dropped from the rotation by Joe Girardi, in favor of Yankee rookie, David Phelps.
Nova turns 27-years-old today and the Yankees have him wrapped up through 2016. If he can rebound to his form of two seasons ago, that will be good news for the Yankees and a big boost to their chances of defending the AL East flag in 2013.
Back in the second decade of the last century, Eddie Collins was considered to be the best second baseman in the American League and today’s birthday celebrant was thought to be the junior circuit’s second best second sacker. For most of that decade, Del Pratt played for the lowly St. Louis Browns. I say lowly because during Pratt’s six years with the team, the Browns’ cumulative record was 380-542 and their highest finish in the standings was fifth place. Things got so bad for the franchise that the suspicious Browns’ owner, who’s last name happened to be “Ball,” accused several of the team’s players of purposely playing poorly so that they’d be traded to a more successful franchise. Pratt reacted angrily to the accusation and actually sued the owner for slander. While his case was still in the courts, Pratt was ironically traded to the Yankees, which sort of indicated that the best way to get traded was not to lay down on the job but instead, to sue your boss.
In any event, Pratt spent three very productive years patrolling the middle of the Yankee infield. He averaged .295 in pinstripes and drove in 97 runs in 1920, his first and only season as a teammate of the great Babe Ruth. Just before Christmas of that same year, the Yankees dealt Pratt to the Red Sox in a deal that brought Waite Hoyt to New York. After two seasons in Boston and two more in Detroit, Pratt retired with 1,996 career hits and a .292 lifetime batting average. He was born in Walhalla, SC, in 1888. He shares his January 10th birthday with this former Yankee starting pitcher and this one-time Yankee outfielder.
|SLB (6 yrs)||905||3763||3394||386||957||179||72||21||455||174||239||305||.282||.332||.396||.728|
|NYY (3 yrs)||420||1775||1578||218||465||83||22||10||208||46||121||74||.295||.348||.394||.743|
|BOS (2 yrs)||289||1248||1128||153||352||80||17||11||188||15||97||30||.312||.369||.442||.811|
|DET (2 yrs)||222||827||726||99||222||50||6||1||117||12||56||19||.306||.362||.395||.757|
If you were a young prospect in the Yankee organization back in the eighties, you usually were not one for very long. That’s because George Steinbrenner treated the franchise’s top minor league talent as currency for the sole purpose of being used to acquire older, more experienced big league veterans. Today’s birthday celebrant was a good example of that philosophy.
Back in 1983, Otis Nixon was considered the top outfield prospect in the Yankee organization. He had been New York’s top selection and third overall pick in the 1979 amateur draft and moved steadily up the alphabet ladder of the team’s minor league affiliates. Though he had little power, Nixon had blazing speed and a great batting eye and he raised the eyebrows of the entire Yankee organization when he stole 107 bases during the 1982 minor league season. His lowest on-base-percentage during his five year climb through the team’s farm system had been .391. New York brought Nixon up for a cup of coffee look in September of 1983. He got into 13 games, got his first two big league hits, scored his first two runs and stole his first two bases.The following February, the Yankees had to include Nixon in the deal they made with Cleveland for veteran third baseman Toby Harrah. Harrah ended up playing one season and 88 games in pinstripes. Nixon ended up playing sixteen more seasons of big league ball which included tenures with nine different teams. He collected 1,379 hits, stole 620 bases, batted .270 and had a lifetime on base percentage of .343.
Nixon was born on January 9, 1959 in Evergreen, NC. He shares his birthday with another former Yankee outfield prospect who had a long big league career away from New York, with this long-ago co-owner of the Yankee franchise and also with this former Yankee 20-game winner.
|ATL (4 yrs)||462||1670||1469||268||408||38||7||3||80||186||170||172||.278||.351||.319||.670|
|CLE (4 yrs)||277||407||365||85||78||8||1||3||19||57||32||54||.214||.276||.266||.542|
|MON (3 yrs)||335||861||760||134||180||21||6||1||56||133||89||111||.237||.316||.284||.600|
|TOR (2 yrs)||228||1039||897||141||247||27||2||2||55||101||123||122||.275||.362||.317||.678|
|MIN (1 yr)||110||500||448||71||133||6||6||1||20||37||44||56||.297||.361||.344||.705|
|BOS (1 yr)||103||461||398||60||109||15||1||0||25||42||55||65||.274||.360||.317||.677|
|LAD (1 yr)||42||191||175||30||48||6||2||1||18||12||13||24||.274||.323||.349||.671|
|TEX (1 yr)||139||656||589||87||174||21||2||0||45||50||58||85||.295||.357||.338||.695|
|NYY (1 yr)||13||15||14||2||2||0||0||0||0||2||1||5||.143||.200||.143||.343|
In 2009, Jason Giambi had concluded a seven year contract with New York that paid him about $120 million. Jason was one of baseball’s self-admitted steroid users. He was also a terrible defensive first baseman. The Yankees made it to only a single World Series during his seven years with the team, after having played in five during the previous six years. So there’s no way you can feel sorry for this guy, right? Wrong, at least according to my lovely wife and passionate Yankee fan, Rosemary.
In June of 2005, Rosie’s birthday present to me was two tickets to a Yankee game against the Pirates. At the time, the Yankees had been playing .500 ball and Giambi was contributing next to nothing. Yankee fans remember that 2004 had been the year they found a tumor on Giambi’s pituitary gland, ending what had already become the worst season of the slugger’s career. During the 2004 post season, reports of Giambi’s admitted steroid use became public and he then issued his famous “sort of an apology”. So when Rosie and I took our seats in the first row of Yankee Stadium’s right field upper deck, Giambi was lost at the plate and New York skipper, Joe Torre, was actually batting him eighth in that day’s lineup. What surprised me a whole lot more was the volume and fierceness of the jeers from the fans that met Giambi when his name was announced before his first at-bat in the bottom of the second inning. That’s when my wife stood up and began screaming “Let’s Go Giambi, you can do it.” When she sat down I asked her when she had become such a huge Giambi fan and she told me she felt sorry for him. On that day, Giambi became her new favorite Yankee. Jason proceeded to smash a hard line drive single to right field.
In his next three at bats he did not reach base and struck out twice but the Yankees did rally from a four run deficit to force the game into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Giambi came up with the winning run on second and with Rosemary standing on her feet and screaming at the top of her lungs, smashed a Jose Mesa fast ball into the right field upper deck for a game-winning two-run home run.
Remarkably, Giambi proceeded to go on a tear at the plate. When that day’s game against the Pirates started, Giambi’s batting average was .238 and he had a total of 4 home runs and 17 RBI’s for the season. By the end of that season Giambi had hit 32 home runs, driven in 87 and raised his average to .271. The Yankee record from the day of that game was 63-35 and they captured the 2005 divisional title.
|OAK (8 yrs)||1036||4411||3667||640||1100||241||7||198||715||9||636||674||.300||.406||.531||.938|
|NYY (7 yrs)||897||3693||2934||515||764||134||2||209||604||9||619||706||.260||.404||.521||.925|
|COL (4 yrs)||230||518||420||48||104||20||0||22||86||2||79||124||.248||.375||.452||.827|
|CLE (1 yr)||71||216||186||21||34||8||0||9||31||0||23||56||.183||.282||.371||.653|
The 1965 season was a “year of discovery” for the Yankee front office and Yankee fans but what they discovered wasn’t pretty. They went into that season thinking the defending AL Champion Bronx Bombers had everything in place on-the-field to win the team’s sixth straight pennant and ended the year realizing their cupboard was bare.
The problems started at the top with GM Ralph Houk. He had proved himself as a solid field manager but he was no George Weiss when it came to general managing. The team’s first-year field skipper, Johnny Keane found out that the veteran Yankee roster did not respond to his “disciplined” approach in the dugout or in the clubhouse. Whitey Ford was near the end of the line and the futures of one-time young stud pitchers Jim Bouton and Al Downing did not look so bright anymore. At first base, an immature Joe Pepitone was proving he’d never be a player the team could depend upon. Behind the plate, Elston Howard was breaking down physically. In the outfield, both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris had awful seasons in ’65. And most shocking of all, the middle of New York’s infield, for decades the core of Yankee dynasty teams, was about to disappear entirely.
Shortstop Tony Kubek had gone to the Mayo Clinic to try and find out the true source of the excruciating pain he constantly felt in his shoulder. The diagnosis was not good. It was a vertebrae problem at the base of Kubek’s neck that could not be resolved. The doctors recommended complete rest and the 29-year-old Kubek went one step beyond and completely retired from the game. His second base partner, Bobby Richardson, also just 29-years-old, was also ready to hang up his cleats after the ’65 season but agreed to play one more year to help break in his own and Kubek’s successors.
Finding Kubek’s successor would prove to be Houk’s most pressing and difficult challenge. The Yankees backup shortstop was actually more of a natural second baseman by the name of Phil Linz. Linz had gained fame for his harmonica playing on the Yankee team bus during the 1964 season. The guy wore glasses and looked almost professorial but he was actually a pretty wild party animal who hung around with the even crazier Pepitone. Linz also couldn’t hit at all.
Houk liked the Yankee’s top minor league shortstop at the time, a kid from Oklahoma named Bobby Murcer, but the GM knew he couldn’t depend on a rookie, so he looked around the big leagues to find out what veteran shortstops were available. Not many were. The one Houk settled on had been the NL Gold Glove winner at the position in 1964, with the Phillies. His name was Ruben Amaro. That ’64 season in Philadelphia had been the highlight of Amaro’s career but the truth was his lifetime average (.241) was five points lower than Linz’s at the time. Houk settled on Amaro because he was a better defensive player than Linz and a much more mature individual as well. When Philadelphia was willing to accept Linz in exchange for Amaro, Houk made the trade.
The 1966 season turned out to be one of the all-time worst years in Yankee franchise history. Amaro’s contribution to that season pretty much ended after just four games. In the first inning of the Yankee’s fifth game of the season versus Baltimore, the Orioles’ Curt Blefary hit a popup off of Al Downing into short left field. Amaro went back and Yankee left-fielder Tom Tresh charged in. The collision tore all the ligaments in the shortstop’s left knee and he wouldn’t play his next Yankee game until September 6th. By then the Yankee record was 62-80 and the team would finish the year in the AL basement.
Amaro came back to play 123 games at short for New York in 1967. Just as Houk expected, he showed a pretty good glove, was a positive influence in the rapidly changing Yankee clubhouse but no help offensively to a lineup that was desperate for assistance. Amaro had hit just .223 and scored only 31 runs. Murcer had already proven he was not a shortstop and Houk’s 1966 experiment to play third baseman Clete Boyer at short had failed as well. Instead Houk went searching for a trade. He tried to get Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio but fell short in both pursuits. All he could come up with was a guy named Gene Michael who, ironically would turn out to be a much better evaluator of player talent for the New York Yankees than Ralph Houk would ever be. Amaro ended up getting sold to the Angels.
Ruben is also the father of the very talented GM of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ruben Amaro Jr. The elder Amaro shares his January 6th birthday with this former Yankee pitcher who played his best ball for the Cincinnati Reds, this other former Yankee pitcher who played his best ball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, this long-ago Highlander starting pitcher and this former reliever.
|PHI (6 yrs)||668||1790||1571||165||379||60||12||7||135||8||166||209||.241||.315||.308||.623|
|NYY (3 yrs)||191||543||481||34||103||13||0||1||20||3||52||57||.214||.292||.247||.540|
|STL (1 yr)||40||82||76||8||17||2||1||0||0||0||5||8||.224||.272||.276||.548|
|CAL (1 yr)||41||36||27||4||6||0||0||0||1||0||4||6||.222||.323||.222||.545|
You need to be a pretty good and long time Yankee fan to remember today’s featured player. The 1985 and ’86 Yankees would have been the AL Wildcard playoff team if that postseason format was in play back then. The 1987 squad finished fourth in the super-tough AL East but would have won the West Division crown with their 89 victories. These were good Yankee teams, with offenses anchored by Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield and before he was traded, Ricky Henderson. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was a Bronx born outfielder who hoped to join Winfield and Henderson as a starter in the Yankee outfield.
That didn’t happen. Cotto first came to New York in a December 1984 trade with the Cubs.The Yankees got him, catcher Ron Hassey, pitcher Rich Bordi and Porfi Altamirano (that last guy’s name is not misspelled) for pitcher Ray Fontenot and outfielder Brian Dayett. In 1985, Ken Griffey started in left for New York while Cotto, when he was not down in Columbus, hit .304 during his first season in pinstripes, appearing in 34 games. He was supposed to compete for the job the following year but Cotto’s back and forth trips to Columbus continued as Dan Pasqua ended up starting. In 1987, Cotto saw his most action in pinstripes, playing in 68 games, hitting five home runs and driving in 21. But he hit just .235 with a putrid .OBP of just .269 as Gary Ward took over in left for New York.
Cotto had had his three strikes in Yankee Stadium and he was out, when in December of 87, the Yanks traded him and pitcher Steve Trout to Seattle for pitchers Lee Guettermann, Clay Parker and Wade Taylor. That deal turned out to be a Godsend for Henry because the Yankees evolved into a horrible team over the next few seasons and Cotto finally got a chance to start in a big league outfield as a Mariner. He played the next five and a half years in Seattle, until 1993. Though he was never more than an average player, his big league career lasted a decade. He ended up with a .261 lifetime average and 44 big league home runs. He played in Japan in 1994 and then ended up back with Seattle, coaching in the Mariner’s organization.
Cotto shares his January 5th birthday with this 1983 winner of the AL Rookie of the Year Award and this legendary Yankee third base coach.
|SEA (6 yrs)||588||1732||1612||221||420||61||9||34||156||102||83||247||.261||.301||.373||.674|
|NYY (3 yrs)||137||300||285||36||69||14||0||7||32||8||11||64||.242||.272||.365||.637|
|CHC (1 yr)||105||160||146||24||40||5||0||0||8||9||10||23||.274||.325||.308||.633|
|FLA (1 yr)||54||142||135||15||40||7||0||3||14||11||3||18||.296||.312||.415||.727|
Talk about the ultimate “can’t win” situation, imagine you’re the guy who’s been selected to replace Babe Ruth as the Yankee’s starting right fielder. That was the role given to this Canadian in 1935 after the Yankee front office gave the Bambino his unconditional release. At first, Yankee fans did not approve. The first Yankee home opener without the Babe in right field drew just 29,000 people to the Stadium, the smallest opening crowd since New York had moved into the place, twelve years earlier. Selkirk responded admirably. He certainly was no Ruth but he did hit over .300 in five of his first six seasons with New York and he drove in 100 runs during two of those years. Most importantly, the Yankees kept winning without their Sultan of Swat. Selkirk earned five World Series rings during his nine years in New York. What really helped take the pressure off of Selkirk was the continued remarkable performance of Lou Gehrig and the just as remarkable emergence of Joe DiMaggio as the next Yankee superstar. George was nicknamed “Twinkletoes” because he walked and ran in a distinctive style, up on the balls of his feet. Unlike Ruth, Selkirk also had a keen mind. He’s credited with coming up with the idea for baseball’s warning track to help cut down on the violent collisions suffered by so many Major League outfielders back in the day. When World War II broke out, Selkirk enlisted in the navy and became an aerial gunner. He never again played in a Major League game. He started managing in the minors, eventually became Kansas City’s Director of Scouting and then the first General Manager of the expansion Washington Senators. He was born in Huntsville, Ontario, in 1909 and died in 1987.
Also born on this date was this fifth starter on the Yankees’ 2001 pitching staff, this former Yankee reliever and this former Yankee GM.