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.
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 and this one-time Yankee DH/first baseman.
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 was also born on July 29.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, only 27 former big-league players were born on this date. Other than February 29, I’ve come across no other date during the year when fewer Major League players celebrate a birthday. The most famous player born on this date also once became a Yankee, unofficially for three days anyway. That would be the mega-talented left-handed pitcher, Vida Blue, who first burst on the big league scene in 1970 with Oakland, when he pitched two shutouts including a no-hitter in six late-season starts. Then in 1971, Blue became the best pitcher in baseball with a 24-8 record, a 1.82 ERA and 301 strikeouts for the A’s, winning the AL MVP and Cy Young Awards and leading Oakland to the first of what would become five straight division titles. He also pitched 312 innings with his 21-year-old arm. I guess there was no such thing as a Joba rule back then, huh?
In any event, by the mid seventies, the A’s whacky and egotistical owner, Charley Finley, had become disillusioned with free agency and modern day ballplayers so he tried to cash in by selling the most valuable members of his team’s very loaded roster. Blue was one of those players. On June 15, 1976, Finley struck a deal with an owner who would succeed Charley O as baseball’s most whacky and egotistical owner, a guy named George Steinbrenner, to sell Blue to the Yankees. Three days later, MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided the deal ruling that it was detrimental to the league’s competitive balance. Blue went onto pitch seventeen seasons in the big leagues and win 209 games. He also developed a cocaine addiction and spent time in prison.
There was also an official Yankee born on July 28th who made a sensational final out catch to help the Yankees capture their first-ever Pennant.
Enrique Wilson was a valuable utility infielder for the New York Yankees from 2001, when he was first acquired from the Pirates for pitcher Damaso Marte, through the 2004 season. During that span, he appeared in 104 games at second base, 83 at short and 62 at third. He was only a .244 lifetime hitter during his 9 seasons in the big leagues and hit just .216 during his four years in the Bronx. But when long-time Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez was on the mound, the light-hitting Wilson turned into a reincarnation of Rod Carew. He faced Martinez 25 times in a Yankee uniform and had ten hits against him for an average of .400.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Wilson was a switch-hitter. I admired the guy because of his defensive versatility and his ability to come up big whenever the Yankees faced their arch-rivals from Beantown. I remember one Boston-New York game during the 2002 season when Wilson hit a grand slam off of Red Sox reliever Rich Garces to break a 2-2 tie. Joe Torre was a big fan of Enrique’s and when the Yankees traded Soriano for A-Rod, the Yankee manager told the media that Wilson would be his starter at second base. But Wilson’s bat got real cold and by June of the 2004 season he had lost his job to Miguel Cairo. That September, when Torre didn’t start Wilson against Boston with Martinez on the mound, the disappointed second baseman told reporters he would be leaving the Yankees at the end of the season and that’s exactly what happened.
Ichiro Suzuki recently became the newest starting left fielder for the New York Yankees. In franchise history, left field is traditionally the least glamorous of the team’s three outfield positions. Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle converted the Yankee’s starting center field assignment into the first step in baseball sainthood. Babe Ruth played right field for the Yankees and there has been no shortage of MVPs and Hall of Famers who can also now say the same. But left fielders in Yankee history through the years never seem to find a permanent home there. Instead they come and go. Many, like DiMaggio, Ruth and Dave Winfield began their pinstriped playing careers playing the “sun-field”, but got quickly switched closer to the opposite foul line as vacancies occurred. Others, like Yogi Berra, Tom Tresh, Chuck Knoblauch and Elston Howard have been forced to play left for New York because somebody better than them was playing in their natural positions. Sure there have been a few like Roy White and Gene Woodling, who started in left, starred in left and stayed in left for their entire Yankee careers, but they were certainly exceptions to the rule. Today’s Pinstriped Birthday Celebrant is a classic example of a very good Yankee player who got lost in the team’s left-fielder shuffle.
Norm Siebern was a superb high school athlete, growing up in St. Louis. He starred in both baseball and basketball as a kid and after signing his Yankee contract, he actually played college hoops during his minor league team’s off-seasons. He got his first call-up to the Bronx during the 1956 season and it was not an impressive debut for the then 22-year-old. The platoon master, Casey Stengel was using Elston Howard as his starting left fielder at the time because Yogi Berra was still behind the plate for New York. Though not a particularly great outfielder, Howard was a strong hitter. Stengel tried platooning the left hand hitting Siebern with the right-hand hitting Howard. When Siebern hit just .204 that season he was returned to Denver the following year.
In 1958, Siebern got his second chance to play left field for the Yankees and this time, he was very ready. Stengel played him in 134 games and not only did Siebern hit .300, he also won a Gold Glove for his defense. Then, however, the youngster had a horrible World Series against the Braves. Not only did he hit just .125 against Milwaukee, he also made some critical defensive mistakes in the outfield. Though Stengel joked about it with both the press and Siebern after the Series, I don’t think anyone would have been laughing if the Yankees had failed to eventually beat the Braves in that ’58 Series. Poor postseason performances have plagued dozens of Yankee careers over the years. As Yankee fans, we all can remember instances when our favorite team has traded players or not re-signed free agents who experienced substandard individual performances in the postseason. The end may not come immediately, but Yankee front offices (and Casey Stengel) historically have had long memories when it comes to Fall Classic failures.
Siebern continued to start most of the time in left for the 1959 Yankees, but his average dipped to .271 and he experienced a decline in most of his offensive categories. He wasn’t alone, as that Yankee team finished a disappointing third in the ’59 AL Pennant race , winning just 79 games. That December, the Yankees dealt Siebern, an aging Hank Bauer, World Series hero Don Larsen and “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry to the A’s for a young outfielder named Roger Maris who had something Siebern lacked, a perfect left-handed power stroke for that short right-field porch in the old Stadium. Siebern would go on to become the A’s best player and make three consecutive All Star teams. Maris would go on to make baseball history.
Siebern, who also would play for Baltimore, the Angels and Boston, retired after the 1968 season with a .272 lifetime average and 1,217 big league hits. He shares his July 26th birthday with this one-time Yankee pinch-hitter and this “unhappy” starting pitcher.
If I managed a Dick’s Sporting Goods store in an area with a high demographic of Yankee fans, at the end of the aisle in which the store’s baseball equipment was sold, I’d have a life-sized cutout of Yankee first base coach, Mick Kelleher. Why? Yankee hitters use today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant as their on-the-field locker. Excuse me, I need to elaborate on that statement. I should have started it with “Successful Yankee hitters.” In fact, when I tune into a Yankee game in progress now-a-days, I can sometimes tell how the Yankee offense is doing when a camera shot of Kelleher performing his first base coaching duties comes up on my big screen. If things are going good for NY hitters in that particular inning, Kelleher will be adorned with the hitting accessories of those Yankee players who successfully reached base that inning. He might have A-Rod’s or Cano’s elbow pad on one arm and Mark Teixeira’s ankle guard on the other. Or it could be Jeter’s wrap-around hitting gloves coming out of Mick’s back pocket and Curtis Granderson’s sun glasses resting on top of his hat. Its a good thing for Kelleher that Yankee hitters can run the bases with their jock straps on, huh? In any event, if I managed a Dick’s Sporting Goods store, I’d load up my Kelleher cutout display with every piece of hitting accessory we had in stock.
The ironic thing about that would be that when Kelleher was a big league player himself, he was a horrible hitter. In fact, during his 11-season big league playing career that began in 1972 with the Cardinals and ended in 1982 with the Angels, this native of Seattle averaged just .213 and remains the last big league player who had over 1,000 career at bats without ever hitting a home run. Kelleher made it to the Majors because he was an exceptional defensive infielder, who could play a solid second, short or third. It was also those same defensive skills and Kelleher’s ability to help others learn them that first got Kelleher hired as the Yankees roving minor league infielders coach. His job was to help Yankee prospects like Robbie Cano, Ramiro Pena and Eduardo Nunez become better defensive infielders. His ability to teach defense was also the primary reason the Yankees hired him to replace Tony Pena as the Yankee first base coach in 2009. Its Kelleher who runs all Yankee infield drills for New York including hitting thousands of practice ground balls to Jeter and Cano when the two superstars feel they need the extra work.
Today is the 48th birthday of Major League Baseball’s controversial career home run leader and son of a former-Yankee, Barry Bonds. Exactly one year after Bonds came into this world, today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Joe Oliver played just 12 games of his 13-year big league career in a Yankee uniform as a backup catcher during the 2001 season. He spent his most productive big league seasons with the Reds and started behind the plate for Lou Piniella’s 1990 World Champion Cincinnati team. He caught 1,033 games in thirteen big league seasons. He hit the last of his 102 big league home runs in a Yankee uniform against the great Greg Maddux. No other member of the Yankee family was born on this date.
Will Yankee Fans Go Kookie for Suzuki?
Ichiro Suzuki became a Yankee yesterday (July 23, 2012.) That move caused me to stay awake until early this morning so I could watch the Wizard from Japan play his first game in pinstripes against his former Seattle teammates. He laced a hit up the middle in his first-ever Yankee at bat, with one-out in the third inning and then stole second, where he was stranded. Suzuki was hitless in his last three at bats, though he hit the ball on the screws in two of them but came up empty. Thanks to Ichiro’s countryman, Hiroki Kuroda, the Bombers broke their four-game losing streak by beating the Mariners, 4-1.
I admit to being shocked when I received a fan message from Yankees.com announcing the deal, yesterday. I never imagined Cashman would go after him. The question of course is how will the transaction work out for New York? My guess is it can’t hurt them. Yes, the Yanks gave up two decent pitching prospects in DJ Mitchell and Danny Farquhar, but neither is considered can’t-miss-type-hurlers. In return, they received an aging living legend, in the final year of his contract, who can still hit, run and throw at a better-than-average big league level. With Brett Gardner probably out for the year, Suzuki will assure the Yankee offense or defense doesn’t miss him and if the move rejuvenates Ichiro’s game, watch out postseason. By the way, Suzuki shares Robinson Cano’s October 22nd birthday.
Yankee GM, George Weiss was again on the prowl for some pennant insurance for the last month of the 1952 season. He approached the Red Sox who were willing to sell veteran hurler, Ray Scarborough’s contract to New York. At the time the deal was made, the right-hander was 1-5 for Boston with an ERA near five. Six weeks later, the Yankees were again headed to a World Series, after holding off a very good Cleveland Indians team by two games, thanks in large part to Scarborough, who went 5-1 for Casey Stengel and posted a Yankee ERA of just 2.91.
If Scarborough got the chance to pitch his entire big league career in pinstripes he may have been much more remembered than he is now. He would get to spend parts of just his last two big league seasons with the Yankees in 1952 and ’53. He spent most of his time in the Majors with the lowly Senators, from 1942, his rookie season, until 1950 when he got traded to the White Sox. He lost two of those seasons to service during WWII. Here’s a hint as to how good a pitcher Ray must have been in his earlier years. In 1948, Washington won just 56 games and finished in seventh place in the then-eight-team American League. There were five starters on that squad. The won-lost records and ERA of the other four were: 8-19, 5.82; 8-15, 3.83; 4-16, 5.88; and 5-13, 4.02. Ray’s record that season was 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA. He finished 80-85 lifetime during his decade-long career.
This other not well-known Yankee pitcher was also born on July 23rd and had two first names in his signature. His Pinstripe Birthday post includes my all-time lineup of Yankees who had last names that are also commonly used as first names.
By the time Scott Sanderson became a Yankee, he was already a thirteen-year veteran of the big leagues. He started his career with the Expos in 1978 and was 56-47 during his six seasons up north. He then pitched another half-dozen seasons for the Cubs, where he won in double figures just once. In 1989, this right-handed native of Dearborn, MI signed a one-year free agent deal with Oakland and proceeded to have a career year. Pitching in a rotation that included 20-game-winners Dave Stewart and Bob Welch, Sanderson finished 17-11 during his first season in the American League, helping the A’s win the AL West flag. The A’s re-signed him that December and then almost immediately sold him to the Yankees.
The Yankee rotation Sanderson joined was in a shambles. Tim Leary had been New York’s biggest winner the previous season with a 9-19 record. Not one Yankee starter had managed to finish the 1990 season with a winning record. Sanderson got off to a great start as a Yankee, taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning of his pinstripe mound debut against Detroit. He finished the 1991 season with a 16-10 record and a 3.81 ERA and was the only pitcher on that horrible club to achieve double-digit victories and a winning record.
Sanderson’s second year in the Bronx was not as noteworthy. He again was the only Yankee starter with a winning record, going 12-11, but his ERA climbed to 4.93. When his contract expired at the end of the 1992 season, the Yankees did not try to re-sign him. Sanderson shares his July 22nd birthday with this former Yankee DH and this one-time Cy Young Award winner.