Terrence Long was the Number 1 pick of the New York Mets (and 20th overall) in the 1994 MLB Amateur Draft. At the beginning of the 1999 season, the Mets brought the young outfielder north with the team after spring training but he appeared in just three games with the Amazin’s before getting sent back down to the minors. That July, the Mets traded Long to Oakland for veteran pitcher Kenny Rogers. Long made the A’s big league roster the following year and quickly became the team’s starting center fielder. He put together an outstanding rookie season, averaging .288, scoring 104 runs, with 168 hits, 18 home runs and 80 RBIs. That performance earned him a second place finish behind Seattle’s first-year closer, Kazuhiro Suzaki, in the 2000 AL Rookie of the Year voting. Long then pretty much disappeared in his first postseason, hitting just .158 in the A’s five-game loss to the Yankees in that year’s ALDS.
Terrence would then put together another solid regular season in his sophomore year with the green & gold in 2001. He hit .283 with 178 hits and 85 RBIs. He then had an outstanding ALDS against those same Yankees in the 2001 postseason. He hit .389 in that series, going 7-18 in that five-game affair including 2 home runs but it would be a double he hit in the the third game that would begin a play that will forever be part of Yankee lore. New York was down 2-games to none in that series and facing elimination. Mike Mussina had pitched brilliantly in Game 3 and New York was hanging onto a precarious 1-0 lead as the teams entered the bottom half of the seventh. After two quick outs, Oakland’s Jeremy Giambi singled. Long then hit a ball down the right field line that Shane Spencer fielded. When Spencer’s subsequent throw sailed over two Yankee cutoff men, a scrambling Derek Jeter grabbed it at the first-base foul line and famously flipped the ball to catcher Jorge Posada just in time to nip Giambi before his foot touched the plate with the tying run. The Yankees would go on to win the game and the series.
Long remained the A’s center fielder for the next two seasons but in both years, his average was down in the .240s. The A’s again reached the ALDS in both seasons and failed to advance. After their fourth straight first round postseason elimination, the A’s traded Long and Ramon Hernandez to the Padres for Mark Kotsay. He did well as San Diego’s fourth outfielder in 2004, hitting .295. After that one season, the Padres traded him to the Royals, where he started in left field in 2005 and hit .279. The Royals released him following that year and he failed to stick with the Reds. In May of 2006, he signed a minor league deal with New York and when Hideki Matsui broke his wrist, the Yankees brought up Long. He appeared in just 12 games in pinstripes that season and hit only .167. He never again appeared in a big league contest.
I was watching a well-done sports documentary about Bob Hurley Sr. on ESPN this past weekend when the name and image of Willie Banks appeared on my television screen. Hurley is the legendary high school basketball coach at St Anthony’s High School in Jersey City New Jersey. You can add up all the World Series won by Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel and Joe Torre and the total doesn’t exceed the number of New Jersey State Basketball Championships St. Anthony’s has won since Hurley became coach of the program. All of his players graduate, most go to college, a bunch get full rides to do so and quite a few, like Hurley’s own son Bobby Jr. make it to the NBA.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant graduated from St. Anthony’s and played basketball for Hurley Sr. on the same team Bobby Jr played. But basketball was Willie Banks’ second best game. He also played baseball and when he was a student athlete at St Tony’s, Banks’ right arm could already throw a baseball from the pitchers mound to home plate at speeds over ninety miles per hour. In 1987 he became the highest ever draft pick for a New Jersey high school-er when he was selected in the first round (third pick overall) of the 1987 MLB Amateur Draft by the Minnesota Twins. He made the big leagues for the first time in 1991 and in January of 1997 he signed a minor league contract to pitch for the Yankee organization. He spent most of that season in Columbus where he was used primarily as a starter and went 14-5. In September, with the Yankees close to clinching the AL Wild Card spot, Banks was called up to the big leagues and pitched brilliantly, finishing with a 3-0 record and a 1.93 ERA. That strong performance earned him a spot in New York’s bullpen to open the ’98 season. Unfortunately for Banks, he was not able to begin his second season in the Big Apple as effectively as he had finished his first and with an ERA of over ten, he was traded to the Diamondbacks that June for two guys I’ve still never heard of.
Banks kept pitching both in the Majors and minors until 2005 and then stopped when his Mom passed away. She had raised Willie and his brothers by herself in the toughest projects in Jersey City. Banks was extremely close to her and went into a deep depression upon her death. He credits his former Yankee teammate, Tim “Rock” Raines with giving him a reason to live again. Raines was managing the Newark Bears in 2009 and he convinced Banks to come pitch for the team. Willie spent the next two years doing so, finally retiring in 2010 at the age of 41. His big league career record ended up at 33-39 with 2 saves and a 4.58 ERA. By the way, if you get a chance to see that ESPN special about St. Anthony’s, I recommend it highly.
By the early nineties it had become pretty evident that Don Mattingly was never going to regain the stroke that had made him the very best hitter in baseball during the first half of his career. The Yankees would need to find a new first baseman in the very near future and the question became would they go the free agent route, make a trade or was their a prospect down in the minors who had the game to at least attempt to fill “Donnie Baseball’s” hard-to-fill cleats. The best first base prospect at the time in New York’s farm system was today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant.
Jack Thomas Snow, better known as “J. T.” had the genetics of a professional athlete. His Dad was the great All-Pro receiver for the LA Rams, Jack Snow. The younger Snow played his college ball at the University of Arizona and the Yankees had selected him in the fifth round of the 1989 Amateur Draft. I saw him play for the Albany Colonie Yankees in the Eastern League in 1991. He had both a good bat and a fine glove. By 1992 he had made it to the top rung of New York’s farm system and put together a strong season for the Columbus Clippers, averaging .313 with 15 home runs and 78 RBIs. That was also the year that Snow made his big league debut via a seven-game call-up with New York in late September.
As it turned out, the Yankees needed started pitching back then more than they needed a replacement for Mattingly. In December of ’92, they went after the Angels one-handed starter, Jim Abbott. New York had to include Snow in the deal to close it. Getting a chance to watch the remarkable Abbott pitch regularly was certainly a thrill for me but California had gotten the best player in that trade. Snow started at first immediately for the Angels. By 1995, he had won his first Gold Glove and also hit 24 home runs and drove in 102 for California. But when he slumped at the plate the following season, the Halo’s traded him to the Giants, where he would play for the next nine years. His best years in San Fran were his first four, when he won the Gold Glove for first basemen each year while averaging 22 home runs and 94 RBIs per season. By then, Tino Martinez had also replaced Mattingly in New York. Martinez would prove to be the better choice for the Yankees but I’ve always felt J.T. Snow would have handled the job pretty well, himself. We’ll never know.
Snow shares his birthday with this former and pretty famous Yankee third-string catcher and this Yankee pitcher from the roaring twenties.
I absolutely loved watching Paul O’Neill play baseball for the Yankees. I do admit, however, I had my doubts about the deal New York made with Cincinnati to bring him to the Bronx. To get O’Neill in the November 1992 transaction, the Yankees had to give up their starting center fielder at the time, Roberto Kelly. I’m sure there are some of you who have just read the previous line and are asking yourself one of two questions: ”Roberto who?” or “Is this guy kidding?” Not so fast.
If you can remember the Yankee team that was on the field in the very late eighties and very early-nineties than you know how really bad that team was. In 1990, for example, New York finished dead last in the Major Leagues with a .241 batting average. Their lineup cards back then could have been mistaken for a list of players who had just cleared waivers. The only bonafide superstar they had was Don Mattingly and by then his crippled back had forever changed his once classic swing. The only player in their starting lineup who could run, hit, hit with power, field, and throw was Kelly. Perhaps his five tools may not have been of the Craftsman variety, but the guy was the very best all-around player on that Yankee team and I admit I cringed when I read they had just traded him away for Paul O’Neill.
Of course I knew little about O’Neill. I remembered him a bit from the 1990 playoffs. I was rooting for the Reds in that postseason because Sweet Lou Piniella was their manager at the time. O’Neill had a very good NLCS against the Pirates that October but then disappeared and was hardly a factor in Cincinnati’s surprising four-game sweep of the A’s in the World Series. A review of his stats during his time playing with the Reds also underwhelmed you. He hit just .259 during his eight years there and I clearly remember thinking that Piniella was pulling a “get-even” fast one on his old employer by helping to convince the Yankees to trade O’Neill for Kelly.
Simply put, if I were the Yankee GM in November of 1992, I would not have made that deal. (I was so bad at judging the talent of baseball players that my brother-in-law, who co-managed a Little League baseball team with me when both our sons played, would tell me the annual player draft began at 8:30 PM when it actually started two hours earlier.)
In any event, Paul O’Neill went onto become not just a great Yankee but one of my all-time favorite Yankees. He and Bernie Williams took over their starting outfield positions together on that 1993 team and within a year, helped transform New York into perennial postseason participants who would go on to capture four World Series flags. Getting the opportunity to watch O’Neill play regularly, I was amazed at how good he was defensively out in right. I also quickly realized how perfect his swing was for Yankee Stadium. The .259 career hitter as a Red became a .303 hitter during his nine seasons in pinstripes. We could count on him to provide 20 homers and right around 100 RBIs every season.
Though he was so instrumental in turning the Yankees into winners, ironically it was during a Yankee defeat that I feel O’Neill gave us his greatest moment in pinstripes. It was the dramatic five-game 1997 ALDS between New York and Cleveland. In the opener, O’Neill’s homer contributed to an 8-6 Yankee victory. He then hit a grand slam and drove in five runs in Game 3 to once again give New York a one-game edge. Then in Game 5, with New York down by a run and just a single out from elimination, O’Neill came to the plate and faced Cleveland’s ace closer, Jose Mesa. Every Yankee fan watching that day can still picture O’Neill’s bullet-like drive hitting Jacobs Field’s center field wall, just inches from becoming a game-tying home run. But it was O’Neill’s harrowing slide into second base on that play, just ahead of Marquis Grissom’s outstanding throw, that I will always remember. I thought he had knocked himself out during the slide but he stood himself up and when he saw a pinch-runner heading toward second, he angrily tried to wave him back to the dugout. That pinch-runner did not score and Cleveland won that game and the Series, but with that one play, O’Neill proved he was indeed a “Warrior” in pinstripes.
One of the things I’ve truly missed since O’Neill retired is watching him go nuts on himself in the Yankee dugout after a bad at bat and seeing his Yankee teammates try to keep from laughing at his antics. Hearing New York fans serenade him with their “Paul O’Neill” chant during the final Yankee home game in the 2001 World Series was also an absolute great moment in Yankee franchise history.
I remember being upset when the Yankees traded third base prospect Mike Lowell to the Marlins, after New York picked up Scott Brosius in 1998. I had been following Lowell’s progress at Columbus at the time and he looked like the real deal. Brosius of course went on to have a super 1998 season and postseason and worked his butt off during his four years in pinstripes.
But Mike Lowell turned out to be a very good ballplayer and a class act in the clubhouse. And he would come back and haunt his former franchise for dealing him. He spent seven solid seasons with the Marlins and in 2003, he led them to the World Series where the Fish pulled off an upset 4-games-to-2 victory against the Yankees. That regular season, Lowell set career highs with 32 home runs and 105 RBIs.
Then in November of 2005, Red Sox GM Brian Epstein pulled off a stunning trade with Florida, getting both Lowell and starting pitcher Josh Beckett for a package of four prospects that included both Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez. That deal brought the one-time Yankee prospect back to the AL East Division. During the next five seasons, Lowell appeared in 76 Red Sox-Yankee games and hit .314 in those contests including 12 home runs and 56 RBIs. Even worse, in 2007, he set new career highs in RBIs (120) and batting average (.324) and led Boston to an AL East Division title. He then averaged .352, smashed 18 hits and drove in 15 runs in the Red Sox’ 14-game ’07 postseason, which culminated with a second ring and a World Series MVP award for Lowell.
That ’07 playoff run would turn out to be the high point of Lowell’s career in Beantown. During the next three seasons, he was afflicted with an A-Rod like hip injury that would eventually force him into retirement after the 2010 season.
Its interesting to think about what would have happened if New York started Lowell at third in 1998. Would they have gone for A-Rod when they did if they had a young and productive Lowell at third? Would that mean Soriano might still be a Yankee today? I of course get to ask these questions while Cashman earns his salary by answering them.
Lowell shares his birthday with this former Yankee utility outfielder.
I was a huge Elston Howard fan when I was a kid. He never seemed to get the amount of media attention accorded to his more famous Yankee teammates but he certainly got the attention of Yankee opponents. In 1961 he hit .348, a ridiculously high average for an everyday big league catcher. In 1962 he drove in 91 runs from the six-hole of the Yankee lineup. In 1963, he was selected the AL MVP and in 1964 he played in 150 games, hit .313 and was named to his seventh consecutive AL All Star team.
The Yankees were slow to integrate their team, waiting till 1956 to do it with Howard, who by then was already 26 years old. Compounding Ellie’s delayed development was a Yankee roster loaded with talent and his first Yankee manager, Casey Stengel’s platoon system, which combined to relegate Howard to less than 375 at bats in five of his first six big league seasons.
It wasn’t until Ralph Houk replaced Stengel in 1961 that Howard became a full-time part of the Yankee lineup and by then, he was already 32 years old. Give him those 450 at bat seasons beginning when he was 22 or 23 and Howard would have hit closer to 300 lifetime home runs instead of 167, he’d have easily added perhaps 700 more hits to his career total of 1,471, he’d have seven world series rings instead of four and perhaps he’d be in Cooperstown today.
It may be hard for younger fans to believe this but at one time, the Baltimore Orioles had one of the best pitching traditions in baseball. The Birds Golden Era of pitching was definitely the 1970′s. In fact, of the 12 AL Cy Young Awards presented from 1969 to 1980, half of them were won by Baltimore starters (Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer(3) Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone.) Remember all the talk this time last year about how the Phillies’ staff had the opportunity to produce four twenty-game winners in 2011? The Orioles actually accomplished that in 1971 with Cuellar, Palmer, Dave McNally and one-time Yankee, Pat Dobson.
Baltimore’s outstanding breeding of pitching excellence had begun way back in the late fifties, just a few years after the franchise had moved to B-town from St. Louis. In 1959, a nineteen year-old right-hander with the rather odd name of Milt Pappas made his first big league start against the Senators. A year later, he was joined by a 22-year-old southpaw named Steve Barber. During the six seasons they pitched together on the Orioles, Pappas (85) and Barber (81) would win 166 games between the two of them, and help turn visiting team road trips to Memorial Stadium into many a batting slump.
In December of 1965, Pappas was traded to the Reds for future Hall-of-Famer, Frank Robinson. “Robbie” would lead Baltimore to the Oriole’s first World Championship the following season. Barber played a huge role in the team’s success by getting off to a 10-3 start that year. When he was named to the 1966 AL All Star team that July, his ERA stood at 1.96. Then tendinitis struck his pitching arm and he only appeared in seven games the second half of that season and completely missed the Birds World Series sweep of the Dodgers that year. By the start of the ’67 season, his left arm felt better and he was pitching the best ball of his career early that April. But he cooled off considerably in the following weeks, and at 29, Barber was by then the oldest member of a very young and very talented Orioles pitching staff, experiencing tendinitis in his throwing arm. Baltimore decided they didn’t need him and dealt him to the Yankees for a backup first baseman named Ray Barker and two Minor League pitchers. None of the three players the Orioles acquired ever appeared in a game for Baltimore.
I remember being thrilled about the trade because the 1967 Yankees were a really bad team that could use all the help it could get. Barber went from being the oldest member of the Orioles rotation to being the senior citizen on a Yankee starting staff that included Mel Stottlemyre, Al Downing, Fritz Peterson and Fred Talbot. Barber’s first start in pinstripes was against his former team in Baltimore on July 7, 1967. He got shelled for six runs and three innings and took the loss. But then he won three of his next four starts rather impressively giving Yankee fans hope that the old Steve Barber was back and now pitching for our side. Unfortunately, that was not the case. He ended up going 6-9 his first half-season in pinstripes and then just 6-5 in ’68. There were moments along the way where you could tell why he had been a 20-game winner in 1963 but for the most part, the old Steve Barber had disappeared. In October of ’68 he also vanished from New York when the Yankees left him unprotected in that year’s AL Expansion Draft and he was selected by the Seattle Pilots.
Barber would pitch until 1974 before retiring with a 121-106 lifetime record and a fine 3.36 career ERA during his fifteen-season big league career. He was born in Takoma Park, MD on February 22, 1938 and passed away in 2007. He shares his birthday with this grandfather of a number 1 Yankee draft pick, this one-time Yankee closer and this former Yankee phee-nom.
You have to be a pretty good Yankee fan to remember Oscar Azocar. Originally signed by the Yankees as a pitcher, this left-hander from Venezuela put together a 14-5 record in the minors with four shutouts and an ERA of 2.31. Evidently, that was not good enough to keep him in the organization because he was about to be released when a coach suggested he try the outfield. During batting practice, the team’s pitchers would play the outfield and according to the coach, it seemed as if Oscar could chase down anything hit out there. He made the move during the 1987 season and impressed everyone by hitting .359 that year. It took him five years after making the switch to make it to the Bronx for his first big league action. One of those years was spent playing for the Albany-Colonie Yankees, New York’s old AA Eastern League affiliate who’s home park was just a 30-minute drive from my house. His Manager at the time, a guy named Tommy Jones, remembered Azocar as a hitter who “doesn’t get cheated,” referring to Oscar’s tendency to be way too aggressive at the plate. Jones once told a reporter that Azocar’s strike zone extended from “his shoes to his hat.”
The Yankees called him up from Columbus in July of the 1990 season and benched football star Deion Sanders who was hitting .158 at the time as the Yankees primary utility outfielder. Azocar got off to a perfect start in his big league debut when Stump Merrill inserted him as a pinch-hitter for Alvaro Espinosa in the eighth inning of a game against the Royals and Oscar singled off future Yankee closer, Steve Farr. In his second game in pinstripes, he finished just a triple short of a cycle, hitting his first-ever big league home run off another future Yankee reliever, Tom Gordon. After his first twenty games, the free-swinging rookie was hitting .350 and starting for New York in left field. Azocar would not be able to keep up that torrid pace. When the season was over, his average had fallen to .248 and he had walked just 2 time in 218 at bats. Since he had minimum power, his inability to walk killed his run-scoring potential and the Yankees gave up on him after that single season and traded him to the Padres in December of 1990 for a young outfielder named Mike Humphreys. The Yankees also released Deion Sanders that September.
Oscar would spend just three seasons in the big leagues and then continue to play both in his native Venezuela and Mexico. On June 14, 2010, Azocar suffered a heart attack in Venezuela and died at the age of 45.
I remember when the Yankees acquired today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant in a straight-up one for one trade with Cincinnati for pitcher Dennis Rasmussen late in the 1987 season. I liked the deal even though Gullickson was a right handed pitcher coming to Yankee Stadium and Rasmussen was a southpaw, leaving it. Those of you who can remember when Gullickson started for the Expos in the early eighties might recall that he was a very good pitcher for Montreal. During his six full seasons with the team he had won 72 games (still good for fourth best on the franchise’s all-time wins list.) He then got traded to the Reds after the ’85 season and he went 15-12 during his one full season there. Gullickson was a big guy, six foot three inches tall but he didn’t throw hard. Instead he depended on pinpoint control, walking an average of just two hitters per nine innings. He gave up quite a few home runs when he pitched but they usually occurred in non-crucial situations, which helps explain why his ERA as an Expo had been just 3.44.
A lot of Yankee fans hated seeing Rasmussen go because as mentioned before, he was a lefty, he had gone 18-6 for New York in 1986, and had a winning record (9-7) at the time the deal was made. At the same time, Gullickson was 10-11 for the Reds and his ERA was a tenth of a point higher than Rasmussen’s even though he had the advantage of pitching to lineups that included pitchers instead of DH’s. Both pitchers were 28-years-old and both were on cold streaks. Rasmussen had lost his last three starts as a Yankee and Gullickson had dropped five straight decisions.
Despite all that, I thought Gullickson was the better pitcher of the two and the future proved me correct. In 1991 he led all AL starters with 20 wins. The problem was he got those wins for the Tigers and not the Yankees. Gullickson would end up pitching just one month in pinstripes, going 4-2 in September of 1987. That was his option year. That also happened to be the same year big league owners allegedly colluded and agreed they would no longer bid for other team’s free agents. Rather than sign again with the Yankees, Gullickson decided to play in Japan for the next three years. In 1990, he returned to the MLB and pitched for the Astros. The following year he signed with the Tigers and put together his career year. He would retire after the 1994 season with a 14-year big league record of 162-136 and a career ERA of 3.93. He also pitched his entire career with diabetes.
Sharing Gullickson’s February 20th birthday is this outfielder who swung at one of the most famous third strikes in Yankee history, this other outfielder who’s overthrow of a cutoff man turned into one of the most famous plays in Yankee history and this former Yankee catcher.
The 1989 season was a bad one for Yankee fans. That year’s team became the first New York club in fifteen seasons to lose more regular season games than it won, (74-87.) It was a season of transition for my favorite baseball team but unfortunately, that transition was moving in the wrong direction. That year would be the last time Don Mattingly would average .300 in a full regular season in pinstripes. It was the first time in almost a decade that Dave Winfield wasn’t a Yankee outfielder and the last season Ricky Henderson was. It was the first year of Ron Guidry’s retirement and the final year George Steinbrenner would officially dictate all team moves before being suspended for his role in the Howie Spira scandal. The Yankee managers that season were Dallas Green and then Bucky Dent, both of whom were fired, clearing the way for the Stump Merrill era to begin one season later or as I like to refer to it as “the era of being completely Stumped.”
It appeared as if the only good thing happening in Yankee Stadium in 1989 was the introduction of a flashy Venezuelan-born starting shortstop. But alas, even that turned out to be an illusion. When I think of Alvaro Espinosa during his Yankee playing days I’m reminded of a line that comedian Billy Crystal used on Saturday Night Live whenever he impersonated the actor, Fernando Lamas, with one slight modification. “It is better to look good than to play good.”
At first appearance to Yankee fans, Alvaro Espinosa looked like a classic Major League shortstop. He hit .282 his first full year as a Yankee and played shortstop with a flair that often thrilled us. As time and Yankee seasons wore on however and the team’s losses mounted, it became clear that Espinosa’s defensive skills, though not horrible were far from great and his propensity to swing at terrible pitches on 3-0 counts and his lack of run production made him a liability in the Yankee lineup. When Buck Showalter replaced Stump Merrill in 1992, Espinosa’s three-year reign as New York’s starting shortstop was officially over. There was of course Espinosa’s great gold necklace. I could be wrong but I do believe it was Alvaro who first introduced bling to big league baseball in the Bronx. In any event, happy 51st birthday to Mr Espinosa and may he enjoy many more. He shares his birthday with this Yankee catcher.