July 2012

July 31 – Happy Birthday Mike Figga

One of the things I enjoy most about authoring this blog is finding out that even the most short-term and unsuccessful Yankee players have interesting stories. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, a catcher named Mike Figga, is a great example. Back when “Boss” Steinbrenner either had to make or approve every decision that needed making in the entire organization, three catchers started the season on the Yankees’ 1999 roster. By that time, Jorge Posada had taken over the starting job behind the plate from Joe Girardi and with those two guys battling for innings, everyone wondered why on earth the Yankees also kept Figga. The “everyone” included interim Yankee manager, Don Zimmer, who was skippering New York that year while Joe Torre recovered from his cancer surgery. When a New York Times reporter following the team asked Zimmer why Figga was on the roster, the irascible “Popeye” responded with some questions of his own. “Can he hit big league pitching? I don’t know. Is he a big league catcher? I don’t know. Why don’t I know? Because I’ve never seen him catch in the big leagues? That interview took place six weeks after the ’99 season started and the only game-time action Figga had seen on the field up to that point was warming up Yankee relief pitchers in the bullpen.

There were two reasons Figga was on that roster. He was out of minor league options and he was born in Tampa, FL. If you wanted to play for the New York Yankees, it didn’t hurt to be from Tampa, which was Steinbrenner’s adopted hometown. The Boss loved Figga and had always hoped he would one day become the Yankees’ starting catcher, but Posada had outplayed him in the minors. Instead of trying to trade or release him however, the Yankee owner instructed Brian Cashman to put him on the big league roster.

So before every game, while Posada or Girardi was walking to home plate with the catcher’s gear on to start that day’s game, Figga, carrying his gear in a big bag, took the long walk out to the Yankee bullpen. Finally on May 22 of that season, with Joe Torre back at the helm, Figga was inserted into the first game of a double header against the White Sox as a defensive replacement for Posada in the ninth inning of a blowout 10-2 Yankee victory. Then, in the second game of that twin-bill, Torre pinch-hit Shane Spencer for Girardi in the bottom of the seventh and replaced him with Figga to start the eighth. Those turned out to be the only two games Figga appeared in as a Yankee during that ’99 season and he didn’t get a plate appearance in either of them. Two weeks later, with his team trying to keep pace with the Red Sox in the AL East, Steinbrenner finally relented and let Cashman put Figga on waivers. He was claimed by the Orioles but Figga’s story doesn’t end there.

Steinbrenner was born on Independence Day. The Orioles happened to be in town on his birthday that year and Baltimore started Figga behind the plate. Late in the game, with the Yankees nursing a 3-2 lead, Figga belted a double to extend what turned out to be the Orioles game-winning rally. As Figga’s ball sailed over Bernie Williams head in center field, I guarantee Cashman’s cell was already ringing and I’m equally certain the first four words he heard when he answered it were “I told you so.”

Figga played 41 games for Baltimore that year and then never appeared in another big league game. He shares his birthday with this former Baltimore manager who was also a star outfielder on five straight world champion Yankee teams and this one-time Yankee announcer.

1997 NYY 2 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 .000 .000 .000 .000
1998 NYY 1 4 4 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .250 .250 .250 .500
1999 NYY 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
3 Yrs 46 99 94 13 20 4 0 1 5 0 2 31 .213 .227 .287 .514
NYY (3 yrs) 5 8 8 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 .125 .125 .125 .250
BAL (1 yr) 41 91 86 12 19 4 0 1 5 0 2 27 .221 .236 .302 .538
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/31/2013.

July 30 – Happy Birthday Steve Trout

Many long-time Yankee fans remember Steve Trout. Many also wish they could forget him. He was the left-handed starting pitcher the Yankees got from the Cubs in July of 1987, who was supposed to help that team win the AL East. Lou Piniella was the Yankee Manager that year and the addition of Trout gave him a starting rotation consisting of four southpaws (Trout, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Dennis Rasmussen) and right-hander Rick Rhoden. The deal occurred in Trout’s tenth big league season. He had come up with the White Sox in 1978 and pitched there for his first five years in the majors and then was traded to the cross-town Cubs. He had compiled a 43-38 record as an AL pitcher and a 37-40 mark as a Cubbie and had never really had a breakout season with either team. But in Trout’s last two starts before being dealt to New York, he had pitched consecutive complete game shutouts. Back then, I think George Steinbrenner used to scour the headlines looking for any player on a hot streak and when he found one, he’d tell his GM to try and get him before their streak ended. So New York sent the disappointing young pitcher, Bob Tewksbury to the Windy City in exchange for Steve “Rainbow” Trout, who’s father was Dizzy Trout, a 170-game winning big league pitcher (mostly with the Tigers) from the 1940’s.

Unfortunately for the Yankees and for Trout, that second straight shutout was the end of his hot streak. When he got to New York, he was cold as ice. In eight starts and four relief appearances with his new team he had an 0-4 record and an ERA that was almost as high as the Empire State Building. He was also the victim of some high crescendo booing during almost all of his painful Yankee Stadium appearances. The low point for Trout came in a relief appearance against the Tigers in early August. He pitched to just two batters and gave up a hit a walk, two wild pitches and two runs. After that game, Piniella told the press “I know this much for sure, we certainly can’t pitch him any more.” Trout was jettisoned to Seattle the following December and Piniella tried to sum up the pitcher’s dismal career in Pinstripes, when he told reporters after the 1987 season, “Maybe he just put too much pressure on himself.”

I’ve certainly criticized Yankee pitchers in my lifetime, but I’ve never disrespected one. Once, when I was in my twenties, I was somewhere where they had a speed gun set-up so you could see how fast you could throw a baseball. I had trouble getting the reading up over 60 mph. I can only dream of being able to do what Steve Trout actually did. He shares his July 30th birthday with this legendary Yankee skipper, this long-ago catcher and this one-time Yankee DH/first baseman.

1987 NYY 0 4 .000 6.60 14 9 2 0 0 0 46.1 51 36 34 4 37 27 1.899
12 Yrs 88 92 .489 4.18 301 236 25 32 9 4 1501.1 1665 791 697 90 578 656 1.494
CHC (5 yrs) 43 38 .531 3.95 138 123 4 13 5 0 746.2 820 357 328 37 286 306 1.481
CHW (5 yrs) 37 40 .481 3.82 115 88 17 19 4 4 622.0 665 318 264 40 207 292 1.402
SEA (2 yrs) 8 10 .444 7.40 34 16 2 0 0 0 86.1 129 80 71 9 48 31 2.050
NYY (1 yr) 0 4 .000 6.60 14 9 2 0 0 0 46.1 51 36 34 4 37 27 1.899
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/30/2013.

July 29 – Happy Birthday Gary Thomasson

My cousin Bob from Syracuse was in town on one Memorial Day weekend during the mid seventies. He was my direct link to the Yankees’ International League farm team that was located in Syracuse during the 1970’s, called the Chiefs. He knew I was a huge Yankee fan so when he saw me that day he told me the Yankees had a new “Mickey” coming up who can hit home runs and play shortstop. When I asked him what the guys name was he said Mickey Klutz. I probably started laughing thinking my cousin was joking with me. He finally convinced me he wasn’t so the next time I went to purchase my copy of the Sunday Times I also picked up the Sporting News so I could check the Chiefs player stats myself and sure enough, I found the name Mickey Klutts listed and he did play shortstop and was leading that Chiefs’ team in home runs. A few weeks later I got to see the Yankees “new Mickey” when he was called to to the parent club for a mid-season look see. He was quickly sent back down but for the next couple of years I kept my eye on him, hoping against hope that the next Yankee Messiah was about to emerge.

In the mean time, the Yankees were doing just fine on the field playing another “Mickey” named Rivers. They won the 1976 AL Pennant and the ’77 World Series. Management wise though, the organization was a mess. Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner were at each others throats and you never knew what the back page headline of the Daily News would be on any given day. The Boss or Martin for that matter were never fans of Yankee left-fielder Roy White and were always trying to replace him with an outfielder with more pop in his bat.  In June of ’78 the Yankees got Gary Thomasson from the A’s in a trade that sent Klutts to Oakland. I was not happy because I had always liked White and was ready to become a huge Mickey Klutts fan.

As it turned out, the Yankees were right about Klutts and wrong about Thomasson, who is today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Martin and then his replacement, Bob Lemon gave their new outfielder the left field spot and he did OK, hitting .276 for the rest of that season, but his 3 home runs and 20 RBI’s impressed no one. The following February, the Yankees traded him to the Dodgers for catcher Brad Gulden. Klutts ended up spending four seasons with Oakland as a utility infielder and was out of the big leagues for good after the 1983 season.

This Glens Falls, NY-born former Yankee pitcher and this former Yankee GM were also born on July 29.

1978 NYY 55 130 116 20 32 4 1 3 20 0 13 22 .276 .346 .405 .751
9 Yrs 901 2702 2373 315 591 103 25 61 294 50 291 463 .249 .330 .391 .721
SFG (6 yrs) 604 1910 1677 233 426 81 22 38 201 42 203 301 .254 .333 .397 .729
LAD (2 yrs) 195 491 426 45 102 14 1 15 57 4 60 96 .239 .335 .383 .718
OAK (1 yr) 47 171 154 17 31 4 1 5 16 4 15 44 .201 .272 .338 .610
NYY (1 yr) 55 130 116 20 32 4 1 3 20 0 13 22 .276 .346 .405 .751
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/29/2013.