February 2012

February 25 – Happy Birthday Paul O’Neill

POneillI 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.

Sharing O’Neil’s February 25th birthday is this former Yankee first basemanthis WWII era Yankee outfielder and this former Yankee skipper.

Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1993 30 NYY AL 141 547 498 71 155 34 1 20 75 2 44 69 .311 .367 .504 .871
1994 31 NYY AL 103 443 368 68 132 25 1 21 83 5 72 56 .359 .460 .603 1.064
1995 32 NYY AL 127 543 460 82 138 30 4 22 96 1 71 76 .300 .387 .526 .913
1996 33 NYY AL 150 660 546 89 165 35 1 19 91 0 102 76 .302 .411 .474 .885
1997 34 NYY AL 149 637 553 89 179 42 0 21 117 10 75 92 .324 .399 .514 .912
1998 35 NYY AL 152 672 602 95 191 40 2 24 116 15 57 103 .317 .372 .510 .882
1999 36 NYY AL 153 675 597 70 170 39 4 19 110 11 66 89 .285 .353 .459 .812
2000 37 NYY AL 142 628 566 79 160 26 0 18 100 14 51 90 .283 .336 .424 .760
2001 38 NYY AL 137 563 510 77 136 33 1 21 70 22 48 59 .267 .330 .459 .789
17 Yrs 2053 8329 7318 1041 2105 451 21 281 1269 141 892 1166 .288 .363 .470 .833
NYY (9 yrs) 1254 5368 4700 720 1426 304 14 185 858 80 586 710 .303 .377 .492 .869
CIN (8 yrs) 799 2961 2618 321 679 147 7 96 411 61 306 456 .259 .336 .431 .767
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/2/2014.

February 23 – Happy Birthday Elston Howard

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.

This former Yankee outfielder  and this one too, also celebrate birthdays on today’s date.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1955 NYY 97 306 279 33 81 8 7 10 43 0 20 36 .290 .336 .477 .812
1956 NYY 98 316 290 35 76 8 3 5 34 0 21 30 .262 .312 .362 .674
1957 NYY 110 381 356 33 90 13 4 8 44 2 16 43 .253 .283 .379 .663
1958 NYY 103 406 376 45 118 19 5 11 66 1 22 60 .314 .348 .479 .827
1959 NYY 125 475 443 59 121 24 6 18 73 0 20 57 .273 .306 .476 .783
1960 NYY 107 361 323 29 79 11 3 6 39 3 28 43 .245 .298 .353 .651
1961 NYY 129 482 446 64 155 17 5 21 77 0 28 65 .348 .387 .549 .936
1962 NYY 136 538 494 63 138 23 5 21 91 1 31 76 .279 .318 .474 .791
1963 NYY 135 531 487 75 140 21 6 28 85 0 35 68 .287 .342 .528 .869
1964 NYY 150 607 550 63 172 27 3 15 84 1 48 73 .313 .371 .455 .825
1965 NYY 110 418 391 38 91 15 1 9 45 0 24 65 .233 .278 .345 .623
1966 NYY 126 451 410 38 105 19 2 6 35 0 37 65 .256 .317 .356 .673
1967 TOT 108 345 315 22 56 9 0 4 28 0 21 60 .178 .233 .244 .478
1967 NYY 66 216 199 13 39 6 0 3 17 0 12 36 .196 .247 .271 .518
14 Yrs 1605 5846 5363 619 1471 218 50 167 762 9 373 786 .274 .322 .427 .749
NYY (13 yrs) 1492 5488 5044 588 1405 211 50 161 733 8 342 717 .279 .324 .436 .760
BOS (2 yrs) 113 358 319 31 66 7 0 6 29 1 31 69 .207 .279 .285 .564
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/1/2014.

February 22 – Happy Birthday Steve Barber

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, this new Yankee infielder and this former Yankee phee-nom.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1967 NYY 6 9 .400 4.05 17 17 0 3 1 0 97.2 103 47 44 4 54 70 1.608
1968 NYY 6 5 .545 3.23 20 19 0 3 1 0 128.1 127 63 46 7 64 87 1.488
15 Yrs 121 106 .533 3.36 466 272 90 59 21 13 1999.0 1818 870 747 125 950 1309 1.385
BAL (8 yrs) 95 75 .559 3.12 253 211 14 53 19 4 1414.2 1212 573 491 86 668 918 1.329
ATL (3 yrs) 3 2 .600 4.96 49 5 25 0 0 2 105.1 127 62 58 10 36 57 1.547
CAL (2 yrs) 7 6 .538 2.93 84 4 36 0 0 6 147.1 127 56 48 9 62 92 1.283
NYY (2 yrs) 12 14 .462 3.58 37 36 0 6 2 0 226.0 230 110 90 11 118 157 1.540
SFG (1 yr) 0 1 .000 5.27 13 0 6 0 0 1 13.2 13 12 8 0 12 13 1.829
CHC (1 yr) 0 1 .000 9.53 5 0 4 0 0 0 5.2 10 6 6 0 6 3 2.824
SEP (1 yr) 4 7 .364 4.80 25 16 5 0 0 0 86.1 99 51 46 9 48 69 1.703
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/1/2014.