Long time Yankee fans would like to forget the team’s seasons of the late eighties and early nineties. Everything seemed to fall apart during that era. New York reached the depths of despair in 1990, winning just 67 games that season and finishing dead last in their division. Don Mattingly’s bad back kept him out of 62 games and helped lower his batting average to just .256. The lineup around “Donnie Baseball” was pretty putrid. So bad that Jesse Barfield led the team with just 78 runs batted in. Not one starting pitcher on the 1990 squad achieved double digit wins or finished that season with a winning record. Somehow, the Yankee’s closer, Dave Righetti saved 36 games that season and would have been the only bright spot if it weren’t for the debut of Yankee phee-nom Kevin Maas.
Maas made his first appearance with the Yankees as a DH on June 29, 1990 against the White Sox in old Comiskey Park. He went 1-3, singling to right field in the fourth inning off of Jack McDowell. He drove in his first run the next day and then hit his first big league home run off of the Royals’ Brett Saberhagen on the Fourth of July. He ended up hitting 21 home runs in just 79 games in his rookie season, finishing second to the Indians, Sandy Alomar in that year’s AL Rookie of the Year voting.
My sons and I became big fans of Maas. We had so little else to get excited about that all we could do was hope for the future. We even envisioned Maas and a healthy Mattingly becoming a modern day version of the Yankees M&M boys, a new version of Mantle and Maris for the nineties. Boy were we hallucinating.
Kevin did manage to hit 23 home runs in his sophomore season in the Bronx, but he struck out 128 times and hit just .220. It became clear that the AL pitchers knew how to get him out on a regular basis and by 1993, New York released him. He will always have the appreciation of Yankee fans for giving us something to smile about during the bleak, directionless era of Yankee Manager Stump Merrill. Kevin was born on January 20, 1965, in Castro Valley, CA. He shares his birthday with this USC sports legend.
The worst team in Yankee franchise history was probably the 1912 Highlanders. They finished at the bottom of the American League standings with a 50-102 record and no New York team before or since has ever won that few games in a full regular season. Only the St Louis Browns scored fewer runs than New York did that year and the Highlander pitching staff led the league in earned runs allowed. Pat Maloney, a 24-year-old outfielder born in Grosvenordale, CT, was on that Highlander team. He appeared in 22 games that year, batting just .215. That was Maloney’s first and last season of Major League play as he spent the next seven years in the minors interrupted by his service in WWI. That 1912 season was also the last year New York’s American League franchise was known as the Highlanders. In 1913, they moved to the Polo Grounds and became the New York Yankees.Mr. Maloney is joined by this huge journeyman starting pitcher, who completed his eight-year, eight team big league career with one October start for the 1999 Yankees, as the only two members of New York’s all-time roster to be born on this date.
“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.
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.
Tony shared his January 15th birthday with this former Yankee catcher.
Yankee fans do not have fond memories of the 2008 season. It was Joe Girardi’s first year at the helm and the team went into the regular season betting heavily that Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy were going to provide at least two fifths of New York’s starting rotation, with Andy Pettitte, Chien-Ming Wang and Mike Mussina. Not only did the three youngsters fail miserably, Wang ruined his season with a freak base-running accident and Pettitte had a sub-par year going 14-14. Only 20-game winner Mike Mussina delivered better than expected results and by the end of the season, the Yankees found themselves out of the race for a postseason berth.
Besides Mussina, the only good story among the Yankees’ 2008 menagerie of starters was the jolt provided by Darrell Rasner when Gerardi inserted the Nevada-born right-hander into the rotation in early May. Rasner had broken into the big leagues in 2005 with the Nationals. The Yankees got him off waivers just before their 2006 spring training camp opened. In ’06 and ’07 he had bounced back and forth between New York and just about every farm team in the organization. When he got off to a great start in Scranton in 2008, he was called up and thrust into a starting role. He then proceeded to win his first three starts for New York and suddenly the pundits were wondering if it might be Rasner instead of Joba, Hughes or Kennedy who would actually solidify the Yankee rotation. That expectations balloon burst when he went on to lose ten of his last twelve decisions, but for that brief three-week stretch in May, he captured the attention and felt the admiration of Yankee fans.
When the 2008 season ended, Rasner faced a big decision. The Yankees were interested in re-signing him but his agent got him a bigger offer to play in Japan. The difference in dollars was at least a million bucks. He loved pitching in New York and he had lots of apprehension about playing and living in Japan. But his wife was expecting the couple’s second child and the then 28-year-old Rasner knew the money he could make in Japan would help him solidify his growing family’s future so he made the move. He’s been a very effective reliever for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s Pacific League for the past three seasons and the team has picked up his option for 2012.
Rasner shares his birthday with this former Yankee who played some shortstop for New York during WWII.
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 26-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.
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.
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 user. 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.