Sparky Lyle was born in DuBois, PA on this date in 1944. I was a huge Sparky fan. When the Yankees grabbed him from the Red Sox in exchange for Danny Cater just before the 1972 season started, I knew it was a good move by the Yankees but I had no idea it would turn out to be one of the greatest trades in Pinstripe history. To understand the impact Lyle had on the Yankees, you need to consider what the Yankee bullpen was like before “The Count” arrived. In 1971, Lindy McDaniel and Jack Aker had shared the Yankee closer role and tied for the team lead in saves with four each. That’s right, it’s not a typo, four saves led the team. In Lyle’s first season as a Yankee, he saved 35 games and won nine more. The Yankees won 79 games that year and Lyle was involved in a total of 44 of those victories. His 1972 ERA was an amazing 1.95. Within a single season, Lyle had turned the Yankee bullpen into one of the best in the league. Gabe Paul continued to work his magic with clever trades over the next few seasons and by 1977 the Yankees were World Series winners and Sparky Lyle won the AL Cy Young Award with a 13-5 record, 26 saves and a 2.17 ERA. He went on to win three games during the 1977 postseason and cemented his reputation as one of the elite closers in all of baseball. So what does George Steinbrenner do? He goes out and signs another elite closer named Goose Gossage.
Update: The above post was written in 2010. Here’s an update. Just as Lyle retired from baseball after the 1982 season, America’s baseball memorabilia craze was gathering steam and Sparky was in a great position to take full advantage of it. Since he called southern New Jersey home by that time, he jumped at an offer to become a greeter at an Atlantic City Casino with former Yankee legend, Mickey Mantle. A New York Times article in 2010 quoted Lyle as saying the five years he spent at that hotel keeping Mickey out of trouble were “the best five years of my life.”
Then in 1998, he went to a New Jersey dealership to buy a new pickup truck and the owner of the place asked Lyle if he was interested in managing a new baseball team he was putting together for the Atlantic League, a brand new minor league that would be unaffiliated with any Major League franchises. Mantle had passed away by then and the memorabilia craze had also died, so Sparky said yes and became the first manager in the history of the Somerset Patriots in 1998, at the age of 53. He remained in that position for 15 years, retiring after the 2012 season. During that span his teams won five league pennants and compiled a won-loss record of 1024 – 913.
Reflecting on Sparky Lyle’s Yankee career today, I tried to compare him with the great Yankee closers I’ve seen pitch in my 54 years as a Yankee fan. He was definitely the first “great” Yankee closer of my lifetime. He lost his job to the second one, Goose Gossage, because he was older and couldn’t throw as hard. In fact, when an eighteen-year-old Lyle had his first-ever big league tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the scout running it watched the young southpaw throw a bunch of pitches and yelled out to him to show him his hard stuff. Lyle responded that he had been throwing his hard stuff, which explains why he was not signed by the Pirates. Still, I think the real reason that Yanks got Gossage in the first place was because Lyle was a bit too vocal about his lack of respect for Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Dave Righetti lacked Lyle’s fun-loving and outgoing personality. For example, Rags would never sit naked on a birthday cake in the middle of a clubhouse, which was a Lyle tradition. Like Mariano, Lyle became great when he perfected one pitch. In Sparky’s case it was a slider, which he learned to throw because the great Ted Williams told him it was the one pitch the Splendid Splinter couldn’t handle. Bottom line is that Rivera will certainly be the last Yankee ever referred to as the greatest pure closer in baseball history but Lyle was the first.
Sparky’s wasn’t the only Yankee career Goose helped end. Ironically, another one belonged to this former teammate of Lyle’s who shares his July 22nd birthday. This former Yankee starting pitcher also share the Count’s birthday.
Here’s Lyle’s seasonal pitching stats as a Yankee and his MLB career totals:
|NYY (7 yrs)||57||40||.588||2.41||420||0||348||0||0||141||745.2||666||239||200||32||234||454||1.207|
|BOS (5 yrs)||22||17||.564||2.85||260||0||160||0||0||69||331.1||294||124||105||27||133||275||1.289|
|PHI (3 yrs)||12||9||.571||4.37||92||0||35||0||0||6||125.2||146||68||61||7||51||47||1.568|
|TEX (2 yrs)||8||10||.444||3.84||116||0||85||0||0||21||175.2||175||84||75||18||56||91||1.315|
|CHW (1 yr)||0||0||3.00||11||0||6||0||0||1||12.0||11||4||4||0||7||6||1.500|
You’d have to be about my age or older to remember today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant and if you do, you might not remember him as a Yankee. That’s because in October of 1967, everyone including me thought Gary Waslewski was on the cusp of becoming a very good starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.
Waslewski was born in Connecticut to a Polish father and a mom who was half German and half Cherokee Indian. He was signed by the Pirates in 1960, after his freshman year of college. He spent the next four years pitching in the Pittsburgh farm system and then, when he was left unprotected in the minor league draft in 1964, the Red Sox grabbed him. Three years later he was called up by Boston when the team was in the midst of their 1967 miracle season. In Waslewski’s second ever big league start, the then 25-year-old right-hander shut out the White Sox for nine innings but was forced to leave the game in the tenth with a strained left shoulder. He recovered quickly and won his next two decisions. He had allowed just 3 earned runs in his first 26.1 big league innings. That’s when his right arm started aching.
He ended up with a 2-2 record that year and a 3.21 ERA. Everybody, including Waslewski was surprised when Boston Manager Dick Williams put him on the World Series roster as a replacement for the injured pitcher, Bucky Brandon. Everyone was pretty much shocked, when Williams named Waslewski as his Game 6 starting pitcher. After all, Boston was down 3 games to 2 to the Cardinals at the time and placing the fate of the team in a must win game on the shoulders of a rookie, much less a 2-game-winning rookie seemed crazy. Dick Williams was crazy, crazy like a fox.
The Boston manager had been impressed by Waslewski’s perfect two-inning relief stint against the heart of the St Louis’s lineup in Game 3. Besides, the manager’s other choices as starters for that game were Jose Santiago or Gary Bell, neither of whom was considered a better than average arm. Waslewski ended up pitching into the sixth inning and leaving that game with a 4-2 lead. Though he didn’t get the win because the Cards later tied the score, Boston pulled out the victory and everyone praised the rookies’ clutch performance and poise. After Boston lost the next game and the Series, Red Sox fans took solace in the fact that a new number 2 starter seemed ready to help Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg get Boston back to the postseason in 1968.
That didn’t happen. After winning his first two starts in 1968, Gary lost his next seven decisions and finished the year 4-7. His bubble had burst in Beantown and following that ’68 season, he was traded to the Cardinals for Dick Schofield. He was sent to Montreal the following June and did nothing for either National League team that indicated he was becoming a better big league pitcher. In fact, his 3-11 record since leaving the Red Sox, a rising ERA and a chronically sore right arm seemed to signal impending retirement. The New York Yankees felt differently.
New York got Waslewski in a May 1970 trade for a first baseman named Dave McDonald. Ralph Houk used him a lot (26 appearances) during the second half of that 1970 season, including 5 starts. Though his record with New York was just 2-2, he pitched well enough to get invited back in 1971. He appeared in 24 games during his only full year in the Bronx and all of them were in relief.
The Yankees cut him toward the end of their 1972 spring training camp. He signed with Oakland but after an 0-3 start he was reassigned to the minors. He hung up his glove for good after the 1974 season.
|MON (2 yrs)||3||9||.250||3.63||36||18||7||3||1||1||134.0||125||67||54||8||78||82||1.515|
|NYY (2 yrs)||2||3||.400||3.18||50||5||13||0||0||1||90.2||70||35||32||6||43||44||1.246|
|BOS (2 yrs)||6||9||.400||3.54||46||19||6||2||0||2||147.1||142||68||58||12||60||79||1.371|
|STL (1 yr)||0||2||.000||3.92||12||0||7||0||0||1||20.2||19||9||9||3||8||16||1.306|
|OAK (1 yr)||0||3||.000||2.04||8||0||3||0||0||0||17.2||12||5||4||3||8||8||1.132|
After nine and one half seasons with the Angels, Witt came to New York in 1990 in the horrible Yankee trade that took Dave Winfield out of pinstripes. George Steinbrenner’s disgraceful efforts to use a brain-damaged con-man named Howie Spira to dig up dirt on his star outfielder had poisoned Winfield’s relationship with the Yankee front office. In trading for Witt, the Yankees were hoping to put the whole sad situation behind them while at the same time acquiring a veteran right-hander with one of the league’s best curve balls for their very weak starting rotation. Witt had won 109 games for the Angels but had gone 9-15 in ’89 and was 0-3 at the time of the trade. I realized Winfield was no spring chicken back then, but I clearly remember thinking at the time that the Yankees were getting the short end of that deal and I was right.
Witt won just eight more games during the next three plus seasons for New York. He spent most of that time including all of 1992 on the injured reserve list. Winfield went on to give the Angels two decent seasons of production and still had enough in the tank to drive in 108 runs for the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays and help them win a World Championship. Witt retired in 1993 after collecting $7.5 million Yankee dollars to appear in just 27 games. In 1997, he became the pitching coach of a California High School’s baseball program.
Witt shares his birthday with the first catcher in franchise history to start in that position for five straight seasons.
|CAL (10 yrs)||109||107||.505||3.76||314||272||22||70||10||6||1965.1||1932||926||820||167||656||1283||1.317|
|NYY (3 yrs)||8||9||.471||4.91||27||27||0||2||1||0||143.0||134||86||78||16||57||90||1.336|