Results tagged ‘ closer ’

July 2 – Happy Birthday Hal Reniff

When relief ace, Luis Arroyo hurt his arm during the 1962 season, the Yankee bullpen struggled to make up for the devastating loss. The front office decided to go into New York’s farm system to find a successor and his name was Hal Reniff. A pudgy right-hander nicknamed “Porky,” Reniff responded well to the challenge.

Reniff, who had been born in Ohio but grew up in California, had been a starter in the Yankee farm system and a good one at that. He had won 20-games for New York’s Class C team in Modesto, CA. But when he went to spring training with the parent club in 1961, then Manager Ralph Houk told him he wanted Reniff to become a reliever. At first, the pitcher resisted but when Houk made it clear the choice was the Yankee bullpen or back to the minors, he made the switch.

After getting sent back down to Richmond to work on the transition, he was recalled to the Bronx that June and put together a strong half-season for that ’61 Yankee team. He appeared in 25 games, won both his decisions, saved two and compiled a stingy 2.58 ERA. But he didn’t make that year’s Yankees’ World Series roster and then spent most of the following season in the military, while Arroyo’s arm was shutting down.

Returning to full-time action the following year, he won 4 and saved 18, establishing himself as Houk’s best reliever on that 1963 Yankee pennant-winning team. He then pitched brilliantly in the ’63 World Series with little fanfare as his three scoreless and hitless innings of relief were lost in the Dodgers four-straight-game destruction of the Yankees in that Fall Classic.

The following year, Reniff developed some arm problems and Yogi Berra began using Pete Mikkelsen as his closer. When Mikkelsen faltered, the Yankees brought in Pedro Ramos. Still, Hal pitched well when called upon. His seven-season pinstripe career ended in 1967 with 41 career saves and an 18-21 Yankee record, when he was sold to the cross-town Mets. When the Amazin’s released him, Reniff returned to the Yankee farm system, pitching for Syracuse for five more seasons until he hung up his glove for good.

In an interview for Maury Allen’s book Yankees, Where have You Gone, Reniff told the author his best friend on the Yankees was Roger Maris. Like Maris, Reniff was mostly quiet and reserved during his playing days. He liked to do his job and go home and he hated all the media attention the Yankees attracted wherever they went.

Reniff shares his July 2nd birthday with this former AL Rookie of the Year and MVP who is now referred to as “The Chemist.”

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1961 NYY 2 0 1.000 2.58 25 0 16 0 0 2 45.1 31 14 13 1 31 21 1.368
1962 NYY 0 0 7.36 2 0 0 0 0 0 3.2 6 3 3 0 5 1 3.000
1963 NYY 4 3 .571 2.62 48 0 30 0 0 18 89.1 63 31 26 3 42 56 1.175
1964 NYY 6 4 .600 3.12 41 0 27 0 0 9 69.1 47 26 24 3 30 38 1.111
1965 NYY 3 4 .429 3.80 51 0 19 0 0 3 85.1 74 40 36 4 48 74 1.430
1966 NYY 3 7 .300 3.21 56 0 29 0 0 9 95.1 80 37 34 2 49 79 1.353
1967 NYY 0 2 .000 4.28 24 0 11 0 0 0 40.0 40 22 19 0 14 24 1.350
7 Yrs 21 23 .477 3.27 276 0 148 0 0 45 471.1 383 193 171 14 242 314 1.326
NYY (7 yrs) 18 20 .474 3.26 247 0 132 0 0 41 428.1 341 173 155 13 219 293 1.307
NYM (1 yr) 3 3 .500 3.35 29 0 16 0 0 4 43.0 42 20 16 1 23 21 1.512
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/2/2013.

April 28 – Happy Birthday Pedro Ramos

Back in the nineteen fifties, slugger Mickey Mantle would begin drooling a week before his Yankees were scheduled to play a series against the Washington Senators. Why? There were three reasons, and their names were Chuck Stobbs, Camilio Pascual and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, Pedro “Pistol Pete” Ramos. They formed three fifths of Washington’s starting rotation back then and it seemed as if Mantle hit three-fifths of his 536 lifetime home runs off the trio. Pascual and Ramos were both from Cuba and both were actually very talented big league pitchers. In fact, I saw Pascual pitch a couple of times live at Yankee Stadium and several times on television and to this day, I believe he belongs in Cooperstown. Ramos was a notch below his countryman in talent but it would end up being Ramos who would help pitch the Yankees into a World Series.

Pedro pitched his first seven big league seasons for the Senators (who moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961) and achieved double figures in victories in six of them. Unfortunately, thanks in large part to the anemic offense and porous defense of those Washington teams, Ramos also lost 112 games during that same span. He was then traded to the Indians, where he pitched decently for almost three seasons until September 5, 1964 when Yankee GM Ralph Houk acquired him for two players to be named later, who would turn out to be pitchers Ralph Terry and Bud Daley.

Yogi Berra had replaced Houk as Yankee skipper that season and the team took a long time to respond to their new Manager and were in danger of not reaching the World Series for the first time in five straight seasons. Berra’s starting rotation and bullpen were running on fumes. The additions of Mel Stottlemyre and Ramos proved to be the perfect elixir to what ailed Yankee pitching. Ramos took over the closer role and pitched brilliantly, saving eight games down the stretch as New York pulled off a late-season surge to win the AL Pennant. Unfortunately, he had joined the Yankees to late in the season to qualify for the World Series roster so he was forced to watch helplessly as the Cardinals beat New York in that year’s seven-game Fall Classic.

Houk then replaced Berra as Yankee Manager with Johnny Keane right after that series and Ramos spent the next two years as the closer on a Yankee team that was not able to generate too many leads that needed closing. Still, Ramos did save a total 32 games for New York during the 1965 and ’66 seasons before getting dealt to Philadelphia for relief pitcher Joe Verbanic. He retired after the 1970 season with a lifetime record of 117-160, 55 saves and 13 shutouts.

It seems Ramos was pretty much a wild man in his private life. In fact, his nickname “Pistol Pete” was only partially attributable to the right-hander’s fastball. This guy actually carried a gun with him off the field, almost all the time. He once used that gun to shoot out the screen of his family’s television set when he objected to the channel choice of Mrs. Ramos (who quickly thereafter became the ex-Mrs. Ramos.) He also used his gun after his playing days were over when he got himself involved in Little Havana’s drug business, which landed him in jail in the early 1980’s.

Ramos shares his April 28th birthday with this former Yankee pitcher.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1964 NYY 1 0 1.000 1.25 13 0 11 0 0 8 21.2 13 3 3 1 0 21 0.600
1965 NYY 5 5 .500 2.92 65 0 42 0 0 19 92.1 80 34 30 7 27 68 1.159
1966 NYY 3 9 .250 3.61 52 1 38 0 0 13 89.2 98 43 36 10 18 58 1.294
15 Yrs 117 160 .422 4.08 582 268 182 73 13 55 2355.2 2364 1210 1068 316 724 1305 1.311
MIN (7 yrs) 78 112 .411 4.19 290 199 56 58 10 12 1544.1 1579 808 719 210 491 740 1.340
CLE (3 yrs) 26 30 .464 3.87 109 68 15 15 3 1 519.0 489 262 223 75 152 363 1.235
NYY (3 yrs) 9 14 .391 3.05 130 1 91 0 0 40 203.2 191 80 69 18 45 147 1.159
WSA (1 yr) 0 0 7.56 4 0 1 0 0 0 8.1 10 7 7 2 4 10 1.680
CIN (1 yr) 4 3 .571 5.16 38 0 12 0 0 2 66.1 73 41 38 8 24 40 1.462
PIT (1 yr) 0 1 .000 6.00 5 0 3 0 0 0 6.0 8 4 4 2 0 4 1.333
PHI (1 yr) 0 0 9.00 6 0 4 0 0 0 8.0 14 8 8 1 8 1 2.750
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/27/2014.

March 10 – Happy Birthday Steve Howe

howe.jpgI was never a big Steve Howe fan, but I remember reading an article about one of Howe’s seven suspensions for substance abuse in which Yankee Captain, Don Mattingly was quoted and suddenly feeling sorry for the one-time NL Rookie of the Year reliever. According to Mattingly, Howe was one of the hardest working members of the Yankee roster and an outstanding teammate.

For whatever reason, George Steinbrenner loved giving former big league star players with drug problems second chances. Howe was one of the Yankee owner’s first reclamation projects and in the strike shortened season of 1994, he repaid the Boss by once again becoming one of the most effective relief pitchers in baseball. He saved 15 games in that abbreviated year and posted an ERA of under two, helping the Yankees build a huge lead in their division only to have the work stoppage destroy their season.

In 2006, Howe was on a highway in California, driving home to Arizona in his pickup truck following a business meeting. Witnesses say the truck just drifted onto the medium and rolled over. The former pitcher was not wearing his seat belt at the time and he was ejected from the vehicle and killed instantly. He was only 48 years old at the time of his death. Tests later revealed that Howe had methamphetamine in his system at the time of the crash.

Having smoked cigarettes for 17 years of my life, I will never wonder why people cannot overcome their addictions to chemical substances that temporarily relax them and provide a buzz. When we are young, we think we are immortal, able to do anything we want without fear of hurting ourselves. When wiser elders warned me I would find it very difficult to quit cigarettes, I laughed them off. But within a few years of taking my first puff, I was so hooked that I would find myself lying to my family so I could sneak away and grab a smoke. The drug of choice first takes over your body and then controls your life. Those that don’t quit fail to reach a point at which they know their lives will be better without the drug until it is too late, or never at all. I’m glad I was able to do so but again, I will never wonder why stars and celebrities like Steve Howe could not.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1991 NYY 3 1 .750 1.68 37 0 10 0 0 3 48.1 39 12 9 1 7 34 0.952
1992 NYY 3 0 1.000 2.45 20 0 10 0 0 6 22.0 9 7 6 1 3 12 0.545
1993 NYY 3 5 .375 4.97 51 0 19 0 0 4 50.2 58 31 28 7 10 19 1.342
1994 NYY 3 0 1.000 1.80 40 0 25 0 0 15 40.0 28 8 8 2 7 18 0.875
1995 NYY 6 3 .667 4.96 56 0 20 0 0 2 49.0 66 29 27 7 17 28 1.694
1996 NYY 0 1 .000 6.35 25 0 4 0 0 1 17.0 19 12 12 1 6 5 1.471
12 Yrs 47 41 .534 3.03 497 0 257 0 0 91 606.0 586 239 204 32 139 328 1.196
NYY (6 yrs) 18 10 .643 3.57 229 0 88 0 0 31 227.0 219 99 90 19 50 116 1.185
LAD (5 yrs) 24 25 .490 2.35 231 0 149 0 0 59 328.2 306 109 86 10 74 183 1.156
MIN (1 yr) 2 3 .400 6.16 13 0 5 0 0 0 19.0 28 16 13 1 7 10 1.842
TEX (1 yr) 3 3 .500 4.31 24 0 15 0 0 1 31.1 33 15 15 2 8 19 1.309
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/4/2014.

March 2 – Happy Birthday Jim Konstanty

Jim Konstanty became one of baseball’s first outstanding relief specialists when the Phillies brought him up to the big leagues for good in 1948. He threw a lot of junk with great control and in 1950, his work out of the bullpen won the Philadelphia Whiz Kids the NL Pennant and Konstanty an MVP award. But the following season, the right-hander thought he needed another pitch to continue his success and he claimed it was his efforts to develop that pitch that screwed up both his rhythm and confidence. Whatever the reason, Konstanty was never again able to regain his 1950 form as a Phillie. Five years after watching him hold the Yankees to just one run as Philadelphia’s surprise starter in the first game of the1950 Series, Casey Stengel told George Weiss to buy Konstanty’s contract in 1954. Jim pitched well for New York the final month of that season and in 1955, he became a top reliever in the American League with a 7-2 record, 11 saves and a 2.32 ERA.  Stengel had so much pitching depth on his team that season that he decided to leave Konstanty off the World Series roster, forcing the Strykersville, NY native to watch helplessly as Brooklyn finally beat New York in a Fall Classic. New York released Konstanty the following season and he retired after a brief stint with the Cardinals. He died in 1976.

Konstanty shares his birthday with the first hitter in Yankee franchise history to lead the league in most strikeouts during a regular season.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1954 NYY 1 1 .500 0.98 9 0 6 0 0 2 18.1 11 2 2 0 6 3 0.927
1955 NYY 7 2 .778 2.32 45 0 30 0 0 11 73.2 68 28 19 5 24 19 1.249
1956 NYY 0 0 4.91 8 0 5 0 0 2 11.0 15 6 6 3 6 6 1.909
11 Yrs 66 48 .579 3.46 433 36 266 14 2 74 945.2 957 420 364 88 269 268 1.296
PHI (7 yrs) 51 39 .567 3.64 314 23 202 9 1 54 675.1 687 309 273 63 187 205 1.294
NYY (3 yrs) 8 3 .727 2.36 62 0 41 0 0 15 103.0 94 36 27 8 36 28 1.262
CIN (1 yr) 6 4 .600 2.80 20 12 4 5 1 0 112.2 113 46 35 11 33 19 1.296
BSN (1 yr) 0 1 .000 5.28 10 1 3 0 0 0 15.1 17 9 9 2 7 9 1.565
STL (1 yr) 1 1 .500 4.58 27 0 16 0 0 5 39.1 46 20 20 4 6 7 1.322
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/3/2014.

December 12 – Happy Birthday Steve Farr

As bad as the Yankee offense was in the late 1980’s and early ’90s, their starting pitching was even less effective. Tim Leary, Andy Hawkins, Dave LaPoint, Chuck Cary and Mike Witt were the team’s top five starters during the 1990 season and the quintet had a cumulative record of 32-69 in their 133 combined starts. Lee Guetterman led the team in victories that season with 11, pitching out of the bullpen and reliable closer Dave Righetti, had 36 saves. In fact, I remember thinking that particular Yankee team would have been better off letting their relievers start games instead of finishing them. In addition to Righetti and Guetterman, New York had Greg Cadaret and Erik Plunk in the bullpen that season.

To make their horrible pitching situation even more complicated, following that season, New York let the 31-year-old Righetti become a free agent and sign with San Francisco for $10 million over four years. When they replaced Rags three weeks later by signing 34-year-old Steve Farr to a three-year $6.3 million deal, I was truly disappointed. I should not have been.

At the time, Farr was a seven-year veteran who had been an OK Royal closer in 1987 and ’88 before losing his job to Jeff Montgomery the following year. He was able to win thirteen games as a part-time starter and reliever for Kansas City in 1989 but if he lost his job to a guy named Montgomery, how could the Yankees expect him to replace one of the top closers in the game?

Letting Righetti go turned out to be as wise a move as making him the Yankee closer was in the first place. After an OK 24-save first season in San Francisco, the bottom fell out of his career as he accumulated just four saves during the final four seasons of big league pitching. Farr, on the other hand, performed admirably for New York, saving 78 games during his 3-year tenure in the Bronx including a 30-save, 1.56 ERA 1992 season. Steve was 36-years old at the end of his final contract year and when his ERA ballooned to 4.21 in 1993, New York decided not to re-sign the right-hander and handed the 1994 closer role to Steve Howe. You have to give that Yankee front-office credit for their closer decisions during the past quarter-century. Making Rag’s a reliever, replacing him with Farr after Righetti’s last great year, replacing Farr with Howe, signing John Wetteland and then replacing Wetteland with Rivera represents a pretty good track record.

Farr shares his December 12th birthday with this former Yankee shortstopthis former Yankee utility infielder and this one-time Yankee reliever.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1991 NYY 5 5 .500 2.19 60 0 48 0 0 23 70.0 57 19 17 4 20 60 1.100
1992 NYY 2 2 .500 1.56 50 0 42 0 0 30 52.0 34 10 9 2 19 37 1.019
1993 NYY 2 2 .500 4.21 49 0 37 0 0 25 47.0 44 22 22 8 28 39 1.532
11 Yrs 48 45 .516 3.25 509 28 313 1 1 132 824.1 751 326 298 70 334 668 1.316
KCR (6 yrs) 34 24 .586 3.05 289 12 166 1 1 49 511.0 469 193 173 37 203 429 1.315
NYY (3 yrs) 9 9 .500 2.56 159 0 127 0 0 78 169.0 135 51 48 14 67 136 1.195
CLE (2 yrs) 4 12 .250 4.66 50 16 16 0 0 5 131.1 123 73 68 17 61 95 1.401
BOS (1 yr) 1 0 1.000 6.23 11 0 4 0 0 0 13.0 24 9 9 2 3 8 2.077
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/12/2013.

December 4 – Happy Birthday Lee Smith

SmithRaise your hand if you can remember when Lee Smith was the Yankee closer. You remember Smith, I’m sure. He was baseball’s all-time saves leader until Trevor Hoffman notched his 479th save during the 2006 season. A native of Jamestown, Louisiana, Smith had an 18-year big league career that saw him wear the uniform of eight different teams.

The Yankees got him from St.Louis on August 31, 1993, after New York’s regular closer, Steve Farr went on the disabled list. Unfortunately for both Smith and the Yankees, he didn’t get much of a chance to do what he did better than anybody in baseball during his short tenure in Pinstripes. During the month he was a Yankee, the team was only in four save situations and Smith saved three of them, including career number 400.

When asked about his inactivity, the huge right-hander told the Big Apple sports press he didn’t know why the Yanks got him in the first place because what they really needed was a starting pitcher. Sure enough, when Smith’s contract expired at the end of the 1993 regular season, New York let him sign with Baltimore, where he would lead the AL in saves the following year.

Many of the players who played both with and against Smith feel he deserves to be in Cooperstown but he’s never received more than 48% of the sportswriters’ Hall of Fame votes. His one achilles heel was the postseason. He only played fall ball twice during his long career, once with the Cubs in 1984 and again with the Red Sox in ’88. Both teams were eliminated in the LCS round and though Smith did have one save, he also lost two decisions and had a combined ERA of 8.44.

Smith shares his birthday with this former Yankee pitcher and manager, this former Yankee catcher and this one-time Yankee pitching prospect.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1993 NYY 0 0 0.00 8 0 8 0 0 3 8.0 4 0 0 0 5 11 1.125
18 Yrs 71 92 .436 3.03 1022 6 802 0 0 478 1289.1 1133 475 434 89 486 1251 1.256
CHC (8 yrs) 40 51 .440 2.92 458 6 342 0 0 180 681.1 591 240 221 38 264 644 1.255
STL (4 yrs) 15 20 .429 2.90 245 0 209 0 0 160 266.2 239 92 86 23 68 246 1.151
BOS (3 yrs) 12 7 .632 3.04 139 0 115 0 0 58 168.2 138 68 57 13 79 209 1.287
CAL (2 yrs) 0 5 .000 3.28 63 0 59 0 0 37 60.1 50 23 22 3 28 49 1.293
MON (1 yr) 0 1 .000 5.82 25 0 14 0 0 5 21.2 28 16 14 2 8 15 1.662
CIN (1 yr) 3 4 .429 4.06 43 0 16 0 0 2 44.1 49 20 20 4 23 35 1.624
NYY (1 yr) 0 0 0.00 8 0 8 0 0 3 8.0 4 0 0 0 5 11 1.125
BAL (1 yr) 1 4 .200 3.29 41 0 39 0 0 33 38.1 34 16 14 6 11 42 1.174
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/4/2013.

November 29 – Happy Birthday Mariano Rivera

rivera

The best closer ever. Those really are the only four words you need to describe “Mo’s” career with the Yankees. In my fifty-plus years of being an avid Major League baseball fan, I’ve seen nobody end games as successfully as this guy did for the past nineteen seasons. And the amazing thing is that he did it with one pitch, a cut fastball. Yankee fans watched Rivera’s cutter break a remarkable number of big league bats over the years. The pitch had such late and significant movement that it was almost impossible for even the most skilled big league hitters to get the meaty part of their bat on the ball. I heard Jim Kaat try to explain it years ago during one Yankee broadcast by telling viewers that Mariano had very long fingers, which helped him get more spin on the cutter than most other pitchers who threw it. Add in his flawless mechanics which enabled him to precisely replicate his elegant delivery pitch after pitch and you have the formula for closing perfection that danced to the tune of “Enter Sandman.”

When I think of Mariano I will remember his postseason brilliance which included 42 saves, an 8-1 record  and an ERA of 0.70. I will remember him setting the MLB career saves record during the 2011 season. I will remember how he returned from an ACL tear at the age of 43 and went on to save 44 games during the final year of his Hall of Fame career. But most of all, I will remember how secure every Yankee lead seemed to be at the end of the eighth inning for almost two straight decades and how comforting it was as a Yankee fan to see that bullpen door swing open and see number 42 trot in to that elevated circular spot in the middle of the infield from where he performed his magic.

Thank you Mariano Rivera. Yankee fans will never ever forget just how magnificent you were.

This former Yankee outfielder, this former Yankee DH and this one-time Yankee phee-nom share Rivera’s November 29th birthday.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1995 NYY 5 3 .625 5.51 19 10 2 0 0 0 67.0 71 43 41 11 30 51 1.507
1996 NYY 8 3 .727 2.09 61 0 14 0 0 5 107.2 73 25 25 1 34 130 0.994
1997 NYY 6 4 .600 1.88 66 0 56 0 0 43 71.2 65 17 15 5 20 68 1.186
1998 NYY 3 0 1.000 1.91 54 0 49 0 0 36 61.1 48 13 13 3 17 36 1.060
1999 NYY 4 3 .571 1.83 66 0 63 0 0 45 69.0 43 15 14 2 18 52 0.884
2000 NYY 7 4 .636 2.85 66 0 61 0 0 36 75.2 58 26 24 4 25 58 1.097
2001 NYY 4 6 .400 2.34 71 0 66 0 0 50 80.2 61 24 21 5 12 83 0.905
2002 NYY 1 4 .200 2.74 45 0 37 0 0 28 46.0 35 16 14 3 11 41 1.000
2003 NYY 5 2 .714 1.66 64 0 57 0 0 40 70.2 61 15 13 3 10 63 1.005
2004 NYY 4 2 .667 1.94 74 0 69 0 0 53 78.2 65 17 17 3 20 66 1.081
2005 NYY 7 4 .636 1.38 71 0 67 0 0 43 78.1 50 18 12 2 18 80 0.868
2006 NYY 5 5 .500 1.80 63 0 59 0 0 34 75.0 61 16 15 3 11 55 0.960
2007 NYY 3 4 .429 3.15 67 0 59 0 0 30 71.1 68 25 25 4 12 74 1.121
2008 NYY 6 5 .545 1.40 64 0 60 0 0 39 70.2 41 11 11 4 6 77 0.665
2009 NYY 3 3 .500 1.76 66 0 55 0 0 44 66.1 48 14 13 7 12 72 0.905
2010 NYY 3 3 .500 1.80 61 0 55 0 0 33 60.0 39 14 12 2 11 45 0.833
2011 NYY 1 2 .333 1.91 64 0 54 0 0 44 61.1 47 13 13 3 8 60 0.897
2012 NYY 1 1 .500 2.16 9 0 9 0 0 5 8.1 6 2 2 0 2 8 0.960
2013 NYY 6 2 .750 2.11 64 0 60 0 0 44 64.0 58 16 15 6 9 54 1.047
19 Yrs 82 60 .577 2.21 1115 10 952 0 0 652 1283.2 998 340 315 71 286 1173 1.000
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/28/2013.

July 22 – Happy Birthday Sparky Lyle

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:

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1972 NYY 9 5 .643 1.92 59 0 56 0 0 35 107.2 84 25 23 3 29 75 1.050
1973 NYY 5 9 .357 2.51 51 0 45 0 0 27 82.1 66 30 23 4 18 63 1.020
1974 NYY 9 3 .750 1.66 66 0 59 0 0 15 114.0 93 30 21 6 43 89 1.193
1975 NYY 5 7 .417 3.12 49 0 37 0 0 6 89.1 94 34 31 1 36 65 1.455
1976 NYY 7 8 .467 2.26 64 0 58 0 0 23 103.2 82 33 26 5 42 61 1.196
1977 NYY 13 5 .722 2.17 72 0 60 0 0 26 137.0 131 41 33 7 33 68 1.197
1978 NYY 9 3 .750 3.47 59 0 33 0 0 9 111.2 116 46 43 6 33 33 1.334
16 Yrs 99 76 .566 2.88 899 0 634 0 0 238 1390.1 1292 519 445 84 481 873 1.275
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
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/22/2013.

May 28 – Happy Birthday Bob Kuzava

The 1951 New York Yankees had both Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle in their lineup. They had MVP winner Yogi Berra and Rookie of the Year Gil McDougald in it too. Their pitching staff included Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat and Allie Reynolds who together won 59 games that season. But it was a 28 year old WWII veteran named Bob Kuzava who provided the spark that led the Bombers to the AL Pennant that season and the World Championship.

Kuzava was acquired by New York from the Senators, just before midseason that year. He started eight games for the Yankees and relieved in 15 others. He won eight times but more importantly, got five saves during the second half of that season. He then relieved Johnny Sain in the ninth inning of the sixth and final game of that year’s World Series after the Giants had rallied to pull within one run. Kuzava retired the next three batters to earn the save.

One year later, in the seventh game of the 1952 series, after Vic Raschi had loaded the bases with Brooklyn Dodgers, Casey Stengel gave Kuzava the ball again with a 4-2 lead with one out in the seventh inning. The southpaw reliever got the first batter he faced, Duke Snider to hit a harmless popup to the infield for the second out and he then thought he had gotten Jackie Robinson to do the same thing. But the October wind was swirling at Brooklyn’s Ebbets’ field that afternoon and it grabbed Robinson’s ball and started making it dance and flutter. The entire Yankee infield seemed frozen in their tracks when at the last moment, Billy Martin came streaking in from his second base position to snare the ball, inches from the ground, right beside Kuzava and the pitching mound. That catch is considered a great moment in Yankee franchise history. What gets lost in that same history some times is the fact that “Sarge” Kuzava had just gotten two future Hall of Famers to pop up to the infield with the bases loaded and then went on to pitch two more innings of hitless and scoreless relief to preserve another Yankee World Championship.  All in a day’s work I guess.

Kuzava was born in Wyandotte, WI, on May 28, 1923. He pitched in pinstripes until June of 1954 when he was released. His Yankee regular season record was 23-20 with 14 saves and also 4 complete games shutouts. But it was those two October saves that defined his Yankee career.

Update: The above post was originally written in May of 2011. Though most of his Yankee teammates knew him by the nickname “Sarge,” Kuzava also had another alias, given to him by the late great Red Sox second baseman, Johnny Pesky. When both were still playing in the big leagues, Kuzava had once induced Pesky to hit a slow roller back to the pitcher and as Kuzava fielded the ball he heard Pesky scream at him “You white rat!” The new nickname sort of stuck with the pitcher. Years later, Pesky had been hired as a player-coach by the Yankees for their Denver Bears team in the American Association. One of the players’ on the Bears’ roster that year was Herzog. When Pesky saw him, he told the future Hall-of-Fame manager that he was the spitting image of Bob Kuzava. I’m sure Kuzava, who’s still living in his native Michigan and turns 90-years-old today, has no regrets about losing his “White Rat” nickname too Herzog.

Kuzava shares his May 28th birthday with another modern day Yankee reliever.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1951 NYY 8 4 .667 2.40 23 8 13 4 1 5 82.1 76 27 22 5 27 50 1.251
1952 NYY 8 8 .500 3.45 28 12 9 6 1 3 133.0 115 53 51 7 63 67 1.338
1953 NYY 6 5 .545 3.31 33 6 12 2 2 4 92.1 92 35 34 9 34 48 1.365
1954 NYY 1 3 .250 5.45 20 3 6 0 0 1 39.2 46 30 24 3 18 22 1.613
10 Yrs 49 44 .527 4.05 213 99 58 34 7 13 862.0 849 427 388 54 415 446 1.466
NYY (4 yrs) 23 20 .535 3.39 104 29 40 12 4 13 347.1 329 145 131 24 142 187 1.356
WSH (2 yrs) 11 10 .524 4.34 30 30 0 11 1 0 207.1 213 114 100 13 103 106 1.524
CLE (2 yrs) 2 1 .667 3.74 6 6 0 1 1 0 33.2 31 17 14 1 20 13 1.515
BAL (2 yrs) 1 4 .200 4.00 10 5 3 0 0 0 36.0 40 18 16 0 15 20 1.528
CHW (2 yrs) 11 9 .550 4.39 39 25 5 10 1 0 201.0 182 104 98 11 118 104 1.493
PIT (1 yr) 0 0 9.00 4 0 1 0 0 0 2.0 3 2 2 0 3 1 3.000
PHI (1 yr) 1 0 1.000 7.24 17 4 7 0 0 0 32.1 47 26 26 5 12 13 1.825
STL (1 yr) 0 0 3.86 3 0 2 0 0 0 2.1 4 1 1 0 2 2 2.571
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/28/2013.

December 27 – Happy Birthday David Aardsma

aardsma

When Joe Girardi made a pitching change in the bottom of the eighth inning with the Yankees trailing by five runs in a September 27th game against Tampa in 2012, there was only one thing especially noteworthy about the move. It marked the first time in two years and eight days that David Aardsma made an appearance in a big league ball game. The six foot three inch, right-handed native of Denver had been one of the American League’s most effective closers, saving 69 games for the Mariners during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, when he injured both his left hip and his right shoulder, requiring surgery on both joints.

The Yankees signed him during the 2012 preseason knowing he might never pitch an inning for them. New York GM, Brian Cashman called the signing and “R&D move,” At the time, Mariano Rivera was hinting around that 2012 might be his final season and the Yanks were looking at Aardsma as a possible set-up guy for the 2013 season, taking over either David Robertson’s or Raffie Soriano’s slot, depending upon which of the two succeeded the great Rivera as the new Yankee closer. Cashman gave Aardsma a $500,000 one year deal with incentives and an option for a second season.

In a twist of fate, it is Soriano who won’t be pitching in New York in 2013, after he exercised an option in his contract and became a free agent after a superb 2012 season as Yankee closer. Rivera than announced he will be returning in 2013 and the Yanks have exercised their option on Aardsma and are bringing him back as well. In about five or six months we will know if Cashman’s R&D investment returns any big league dividends. Aardsma’s situation brings back memories of Jon Lieber. The Yankees signed the former Cub and 20-game winner in 2003 knowing he would miss that entire year recovering from arm surgery. Lieber than won 14 games as a starter for New York in 2004. Will Aardsma be another Lieber? Yankee fans certainly hope so.

Aardsma shares his December 27th birthday with this former Yankee postseason hero and this great Yankee switch-hitter.