“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|