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.
|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|
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.
|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|
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.
|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|
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 a guy who would succeed Charley O as baseball’s most whacky and egotistical owner, the one and only 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.
|CLE (4 yrs)||190||607||554||72||159||37||1||6||49||9||36||62||.287||.328||.390||.718|
|NYY (4 yrs)||264||636||579||64||125||25||3||12||69||5||36||70||.216||.261||.332||.593|
|PIT (2 yrs)||86||269||251||18||56||9||1||4||23||0||14||36||.223||.262||.315||.577|
|CHC (1 yr)||15||25||22||1||3||2||0||0||0||0||3||1||.136||.240||.227||.467|