Results tagged ‘ february 25 ’
Just recently, David Price, the AL’s 2012 Cy Young Award winner got quite a rise out of Yankee Universe when he told reporters that should he become a free agent in the future, he would most likely not sign with a team like the Bronx Bombers. He explained that he was not a fan of all the rules the organization requires its players to follow off the field. Price singled out the Yankee front office’s obsession with hair. He indicated that he could not play for anyone who told him he had to shave or get a haircut.
Based on the loud negative reaction of the Yankee media and fans to Price’s comments, you would have thought the talented young hurler had urinated on the grave of Babe Ruth. Perhaps these over-sensitive Yankee rooters have forgotten or weren’t around when one of our team’s all-time favorite players refused to follow the orders of today’s Pinstriped Birthday Celebrant to get his hair cut and was actually pulled from the team’s regular season lineup as punishment. The player with the long locks was none other than Don Mattingly and the guy who ordered “Donnie Baseball” to cut them is today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
When I hear the name Stump Merrill, two phrases pop into my mind. The first is “nice guy.” The second is “yes man.” He was actually a curmudgeonly native of Maine who had become a baseball-lifer after spending the late nineteen sixties and early seventies as a minor league catcher in the Phillies’ organization. By 1978 he was the 34-year-old manager of the Yankees double A affiliate in West Haven, Connecticut. During the next eight seasons he became one of the franchise’s more successful minor league skippers and George Steinbrenner took a liking to him. In 1986 he was rewarded with a job with the parent club as the team’s “eye-in-the-sky.” He would sit in the press box and from his perch, position the Yankee defense. The next season he was promoted to Lou Piniella’s first base coach. He became sort of famous during this first tenure with the Yankees for sleeping in the Stadium’s clubhouse whenever the Yankees were scheduled to play a day game following a night game. During the baseball season, the low-salaried Stump saved money by living with a sister who’s resided in the southern half of Jersey. Instead of making the long ride from the Bronx late at night and then getting up and reversing it early in the morning, Merrill saved some gas money and got his shut-eye on a clubhouse couch.
By 1988 he was back managing in the minors, willing to go anywhere and do anything the organization requested. Steinbrenner would soon reward that blind loyalty. It was during the late eighties that I remember thinking “the Boss” had either gone crazy or was suffering a nervous breakdown. He was up to his eyeballs in the bizarre Howie Spira episode, he was making some of the worst player personnel decisions in Yankee history and he was changing managers more often than a maid at the Hilton changes bed linens. Midway through the 1990 season, Steinbrenner decided Bucky Dent had to go and replaced him with Stump.
The Yankee team Merrill took over had been decimated by poor front-office decision making. Stump’s starting lineup included Bob Geren at catcher, Alvaro Espinosa at short, and a starting outfield of Oscar Azocar, Roberto Kelly and Jesse Barfield. That team’s batting average of .241 was worst in the American League and believe it or not, Stump’s first Yankee pitching staff was just as bad. His record during that first partial season was 49-64, the Yankees finished in last place in their division and me and just about everyone else who followed the team back then were certain Merill’s managing days were over. But the Boss thought differently. For some unknown reason, the owner who fired successful winning managers like Dick Howser, Lou Piniella and Bucky Showalter decided to extend Stump Merrill’s contract to manage the team for two additional years, through the 1992 season.
His first full year at the helm turned out be Merrill’s last. The 1991 Yankees finished with a 71-91 record and in fifth place in the AL East Division. Though his team’s pitching improved, that ’91 club finished third from the bottom in batting average and third from the top in most errors. The now boss-less organization (Steinbrenner was serving his Howie Spira-induced suspension) replaced him with Buck Showalter. Instead of leaving the organization, however, Merrill resumed his career as a Yankee minor league manager. I was happy about the move and didn’t miss the guy but since his dismissal, I’ve learned more about Merrill’s effectiveness for New York at the minor league level. He spent a total of seventeen seasons managing the organization’s farm teams and his overall record doing so was a very impressive 1625-1319. He also crossed paths and earned the respect of every Yankee prospect who in any way contributed to the outstanding success the parent club would enjoy on the field beginning in 1994. They included Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte.
I absolutely loved watching Paul O’Neill play baseball for the Yankees. I do admit, however, I had my doubts about the deal New York made with Cincinnati to bring him to the Bronx. To get O’Neill in the November 1992 transaction, the Yankees had to give up their starting center fielder at the time, Roberto Kelly. I’m sure there are some of you who have just read the previous line and are asking yourself one of two questions: ”Roberto who?” or “Is this guy kidding?” Not so fast.
If you can remember the Yankee team that was on the field in the very late eighties and very early-nineties than you know how really bad that team was. In 1990, for example, New York finished dead last in the Major Leagues with a .241 batting average. Their lineup cards back then could have been mistaken for a list of players who had just cleared waivers. The only bonafide superstar they had was Don Mattingly and by then his crippled back had forever changed his once classic swing. The only player in their starting lineup who could run, hit, hit with power, field, and throw was Kelly. Perhaps his five tools may not have been of the Craftsman variety, but the guy was the very best all-around player on that Yankee team and I admit I cringed when I read they had just traded him away for Paul O’Neill.
Of course I knew little about O’Neill. I remembered him a bit from the 1990 playoffs. I was rooting for the Reds in that postseason because Sweet Lou Piniella was their manager at the time. O’Neill had a very good NLCS against the Pirates that October but then disappeared and was hardly a factor in Cincinnati’s surprising four-game sweep of the A’s in the World Series. A review of his stats during his time playing with the Reds also underwhelmed you. He hit just .259 during his eight years there and I clearly remember thinking that Piniella was pulling a “get-even” fast one on his old employer by helping to convince the Yankees to trade O’Neill for Kelly.
Simply put, if I were the Yankee GM in November of 1992, I would not have made that deal. (I was so bad at judging the talent of baseball players that my brother-in-law, who co-managed a Little League baseball team with me when both our sons played, would tell me the annual player draft began at 8:30 PM when it actually started two hours earlier.)
In any event, Paul O’Neill went onto become not just a great Yankee but one of my all-time favorite Yankees. He and Bernie Williams took over their starting outfield positions together on that 1993 team and within a year, helped transform New York into perennial postseason participants who would go on to capture four World Series flags. Getting the opportunity to watch O’Neill play regularly, I was amazed at how good he was defensively out in right. I also quickly realized how perfect his swing was for Yankee Stadium. The .259 career hitter as a Red became a .303 hitter during his nine seasons in pinstripes. We could count on him to provide 20 homers and right around 100 RBIs every season.
Though he was so instrumental in turning the Yankees into winners, ironically it was during a Yankee defeat that I feel O’Neill gave us his greatest moment in pinstripes. It was the dramatic five-game 1997 ALDS between New York and Cleveland. In the opener, O’Neill’s homer contributed to an 8-6 Yankee victory. He then hit a grand slam and drove in five runs in Game 3 to once again give New York a one-game edge. Then in Game 5, with New York down by a run and just a single out from elimination, O’Neill came to the plate and faced Cleveland’s ace closer, Jose Mesa. Every Yankee fan watching that day can still picture O’Neill’s bullet-like drive hitting Jacobs Field’s center field wall, just inches from becoming a game-tying home run. But it was O’Neill’s harrowing slide into second base on that play, just ahead of Marquis Grissom’s outstanding throw, that I will always remember. I thought he had knocked himself out during the slide but he stood himself up and when he saw a pinch-runner heading toward second, he angrily tried to wave him back to the dugout. That pinch-runner did not score and Cleveland won that game and the Series, but with that one play, O’Neill proved he was indeed a “Warrior” in pinstripes.
One of the things I’ve truly missed since O’Neill retired is watching him go nuts on himself in the Yankee dugout after a bad at bat and seeing his Yankee teammates try to keep from laughing at his antics. Hearing New York fans serenade him with their “Paul O’Neill” chant during the final Yankee home game in the 2001 World Series was also an absolute great moment in Yankee franchise history.
You’d have to be about my age to remember when Al Downing was a young and very good starting pitcher for the New York Yankees. When most fans hear Downing’s name they remember him for giving up Hank Aaron’s 715th home run. Instead, I remember a a fire-balling young southpaw who won 13 games for the pennant-winning Yankee teams of 1963 and ’64 and hearing Downing’s name makes me also think about today’s birthday celebrant. Why? Because in 1969, the Yankees traded Downing to Oakland for Danny Cater. Cater was a good line drive hitter with not much power when he joined the 1970 Yankee team. He hit .301 during his first year in pinstripes, usually batting fifth or sixth in the lineup and he drove in 76 runs. It was a key contribution to a not very robust Yankee offensive attack and it helped that ’70 team win 93 games that season. The following year, Cater’s average slumped to .271 and his run and RBI numbers dropped too. So when Boston was ready to trade their bullpen ace, Sparky Lyle to New York for Cater, the Yankees made the deal. It turned out to be one of the great trades in the franchise’s history. Cater played sparingly in Beantown for three seasons. He retired after the 1975 season with a .276 lifetime batting average. Cater was born on this date in 1940, in Austin TX. He is not the most famous Yankee born on this day. That honor belongs to this guy. This former Yankee manager was also born on February 25th.