The virtual 1985-1989 New York Yankees (Part 1)

The New York Yankees are, of course, the most successful franchise in major league history, and none other comes remotely close. They established a dynasty beginning in the early 1920s that effectively stands to this day.

But while over the past 90 years the Bronx Bombers have encountered very few “down” periods, they have had a couple. Since the 1910s, the longest drought between Yankee championships took place in the 1980s and early 1990s. Between their pennant of 1981 and their AL East first-place finish of 1994, the Yankees played 12 seasons without achieving a flag (and technically, they didn’t achieve one in ’94, as in that strike-abbreviated season there were no official champions declared, and no postseason tournament conducted, so the Yankees’ first postseason appearance since 1981 would occur as the result of their Wild Card victory in 1995).

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was never a patient, “hands off” sort, of course, but it was in the 1980s that his management style was at its most frantic. Not only did Steinbrenner fire his field managers on a constant basis (between 1980 and 1990 the Yankees changed managers 13 times, with Gene Michael and Lou Piniella each receiving two stints, and Billy Martin three), but he also ground through general managers as though they were backup catchers. In that same 1980-90 time frame, Gene Michael, Bill Bergesch, Murray Cook, Clyde King, Woody Woodward, Lou Piniella, Bob Quinn, and Harding Peterson all were granted the title of Yankees GM. Michael, by the way, was granted it twice.

I use the term “granted the title” purposefully, because it seems clear that in such an environment no one was ever genuinely allowed the kind of authority we customarily assume to be the GMs. Certainly in such an environment, no GM was given the opportunity to formulate a strategic plan and even begin to see it through. What such an environment most distinctly indicates is that the Yankees in this era never employed a true general manager, because that role—that power—was never really delegated by Steinbrenner.

Thus in considering the Yankees’ player transactions in that period, it’s probably a fool’s errand to ascribe the credit (or discredit) for any particular deal to any particular titled GM. Yes, each given trade was officially executed on a given GM’s watch, but one would be naïve to conclude that the trade was therefore authentically the work of that GM. For all practical purposes, the Yankees’ GM through this era was George Steinbrenner.

And the Yankees’ transactional record through this period bears all the Steinbrenner hallmarks: It was bold and fearless to a fault, monumentally impatient, not stupid or incompetent by any means (well, OK, maybe once or twice), but failing to adhere to any semblance of a careful and disciplined plan. It was just too, too much.

Thus, as we’ll see, Steinbrenner pretty well traded his way out of an excellent opportunity to capture multiple championships in the late 1980s. A Yankees regime that more reasonably respected the talent that was being produced by its farm system, that erred on the side of allowing the assets already within its possession to be deployed, would likely have enjoyed a run of success in the late 1980s that would be the furthest thing from one of this storied franchise’s “down” periods.

We’ll apply the same rules we always do in this exercise: We can’t invent any transactions the Yankees of the 1980s didn’t actually make, but we can negate some of the ones they did. Let’s begin.

What might have been: Element No. 1

Oct. 21, 1981: The Yankees traded outfielder Willie McGee to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Bob Sykes.

The issue wasn’t so much that the Yankees traded away McGee. The 23-year-old was a fine prospect, but to be frank he was hardly a great one; he hadn’t yet reached Triple-A, and his minor league hitting was all right but nothing special.

But he was a very fine prospect, because those of us who saw the young McGee can recall just what a marvelous defensive center fielder he was, not just with dazzling speed and range, but with a throwing arm that was, despite his slender build, strong as well as accurate. Surely, anyone who watched this kid play as a minor leaguer could tell that, if he could hit at all, he’d be a significant major league contributor in the field and on the basepaths.

Still, the issue wasn’t so much that the Yankees traded away McGee. It was who they received in return. The 27-year-old Bob Sykes was, well, about as much a proven marginality as has ever been proven. In the fall of 1981 there was absolutely no reason to believe that Sykes would ever become a good major league pitcher; he would need to blossom to achieve mediocrity.

Sykes’ uselessness could hardly be better demonstrated by the fact that the Yankees would never actually, you know, use him. He never made the roster, never pitched an inning for New York, and never pitched a major league inning following this trade.

Let’s assume the Yankees had figured that McGee might be of more future service than Sykes.

What might have been: Element No. 1-A

Dec. 23, 1981: The Yankees signed outfielder Dave Collins as a free agent.

Collins wasn’t a bad ballplayer. His sheer speed was in the all-time elite realm, and he was able to leverage it by getting on base a generally good rate. But he certainly had his limitations: zilch power, and for all his speed Collins lacked the defensive aptitude to handle center field on a regular basis.

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Goodbye for now.

This package of strengths and weaknesses was simply not worth the investment of a hefty free-agent contract, which by the standards of the day this one was. And in particular, it didn’t make sense for the Yankees to make that investment, given that they had no spot in their outfield for Collins to play, and thus they would wind up deploying him primarily at first base in 1982. And in extra particular, if the Yankees still had Willie McGee on their roster, then there really would be no point in signing Collins.

What might have been: Element No. 1-B

Dec. 9, 1982: The Yankees traded outfielder Dave Collins, pitcher Mike Morgan, first baseman Fred McGriff and cash to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitcher Dale Murray and outfielder Tom Dodd.

Well, if we don’t have Collins, we can’t make this fateful trade, given that he was at the time the most prominent figure involved. And while, in all fairness, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that the Yankees’ inclusion of the then-obscure bush leaguer McGriff in the deal appears plainly foolish, in equal fairness it must be pointed out that McGriff had just led the Gulf Coast League in home runs and walks as an 18-year-old—this was no run-of-the-mill bush leaguer.

And anyway, all of this for Dale Freaking Murray, an average-at-best right-handed middle reliever, who was about to turn 33? Seriously?

No, thanks.

What might have been: Element No. 2

Aug. 10, 1983: The Yankees traded outfielder Jerry Mumphrey to the Houston Astros for outfielder Omar Moreno.

If Dave Collins was a guy the Yankees didn’t need, then Omar Moreno was a guy they really didn’t need. Collins presented a skill package that included world-class wheels and little else; in the case of Moreno it was world-class wheels and very close to nothing else. Unlike Collins, Moreno didn’t present the capacity to reliably get himself on base and make use of those wheels, and moreover despite his blazing speed Moreno was a remarkably poor percentage base stealer.

To acquire such a player in direct exchange for Jerry Mumphrey was mind-boggling. Mumphrey was one of those guys who wasn’t great at any particular thing, but he was just a splendidly well-rounded good baseball player: He was a switch-hitter who delivered a consistently fine average, with some pop, and drew his share of walks, and ran quite well, and was a sound defensive center fielder.

The lone positive Moreno brought that Collins didn’t was the ability to play a decent center field. But one certainly didn’t need to trade Mumphrey to get that, and besides our Yankees also still have young Mr. McGee to patrol that position.

Let’s assume the Yankees had kept Mumphrey in preference to Moreno.

What might have been: Element No. 3

Dec. 20, 1983: The Yankees traded pitcher Tim Burke to the Montreal Expos for outfielder Pat Rooney.

Let’s be realistic: Nobody paid any attention to this deal at the time. Burke and Rooney were both obscure, unexciting minor leaguers, neither projecting as anything resembling a star.

But not every non-star-projecting minor leaguer is equal to every other. Burke’s fastball dazzled no one, but he was a 24-year-old who had just gone 12-4 with a 3.21 ERA as a starter in Double-A. That isn’t Swiss cheese. Rooney, meanwhile, was a 25-year-old right-handed-batting corner outfielder who’d spent two-and-a-half seasons in Triple-A, holding his own but failing to advance, delivering decent power but little speed, and poor on-base ability. Which guy would you rather see in your organization?

Let’s assume the Yankees had decided that Burke offered more upside than Rooney.

What might have been: Element No. 4

Feb. 27, 1985: The Yankees traded infielder Toby Harrah to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Billy Sample and a player to be named later. (On July 14, 1985, the Rangers sent pitcher Eric Dersin to the Yankees, completing the deal.)

This wasn’t a significant trade in any regard. But the fact is that our Yankees, with both McGee and Mumphrey still on hand, simply wouldn’t have space on the roster to allow bringing in any new outfielders. So this one won’t go.

What might have been: Element No. 5

Sept. 15, 1985: The Yankees traded pitcher Jim Deshaies and players to be named later to the Houston Astros for pitcher Joe Niekro. (On Sept. 24, 1985, the Yankees sent infielder Neder Horta to the Astros, and on Jan. 11, 1986, the Yankees sent pitcher Dody Rather to the Astros, completing the deal.)

Pay particular attention to the (initial) date of this transaction: the 15th of September. That meant that the Yankees were expending one very good prospect (Deshaies), plus two others, in order to obtain the services of a starting pitcher who would be deployed in just three games over the remainder of the season before becoming a free agent. Three starts from Niekro; that’s all this trade netted the Yankees.

Now, it was the case that as of that 15th of September, the Yankees had a chance at winning the division: They were in second place, four-and-a-half games behind the Blue Jays, with 19 left to play. That wasn’t a great chance, but it was a chance, and adding a good starting pitcher to the rotation could only improve their odds, even though by adding him to the roster at this late date, he wouldn’t be eligible for any postseason play.

You have your reward, and you have your risk, and the two must always be balanced. Niekro was a good starting pitcher, but he’d never been a great one, and at this point, at the age of 40 and chugging along at a 9-12, 93 ERA+ pace with the Astros, he hardly presented himself as an ace, the kind of guy who could seriously swing the balance of the race with a three-start contribution. And he didn’t: Niekro got shelled out early in his first Yankee start, then did so-so in the next two, and the Yankees finished in second. So while one can understand the Yankees’ temptation to pull the trigger on this deal, one can also make the case that their risk/reward calculation didn’t add up.

And with our version of the Yankees—trust me on this—we won’t be desperately seeking help to win the division in mid-September of 1985. So we can confidently assume that our Yankees would pass on this offer, and hang on to young Jim Deshaies.

What might have been: Element No. 5-A

Jan. 8, 1986: The Yankees signed pitcher Joe Niekro as a free agent.

And since we’ve hung on to young Jim Deshaies, there’s no need to be investing in old Joe Niekro as a free agent, either. Is there?

What might have been: Element No. 6

Dec. 12, 1985: The Yankees traded pitcher Rich Bordi and infielder Rex Hudler to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Gary Roenicke and a player to be named later. (On Dec. 16, 1985, the Orioles sent third baseman Leo Hernandez to the Yankees, completing the deal.)

As with the Harrah-for-Sample deal above, this one was neither unreasonable nor particularly impactful. But, as then, our Yankees still have no room to be adding utility outfielders. So it’s a no-go.

What might have been: Element No. 7

Nov. 26, 1986: The Yankees traded pitchers Doug Drabek, Brian Fisher, and Logan Easley to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitchers Rick Rhoden, Cecilio Guante, and Pat Clements.

By this point, the real-life Yankees were frustrated. That’s understandable. In the preceding four years, they’d racked up 91, 87, 97, and 90 wins, but had nothing to show for it but two second-place and two third-place finishes. They were tired of being almost good enough, and were eager to do whatever it might take to get over that last hump.

Thus this trade. Its purpose was obvious: to provide an immediate-term upgrade in both the starting rotation (Rhoden replacing Drabek) and the bullpen (Guante and Clements replacing Fisher).

Even if the deal had worked out as hoped, and yielded dividends in the short run, that’s all it could ever do, as the likelihood was obviously low that the 34-year-old, solid-but-never-special Rhoden would remain better than than the 24-year-old, highly regarded Drabek for very long.

And the deal wouldn’t work out as hoped. In 1987, the rapidly improving Drabek would perform just about exactly as well as the beginning-to-decline Rhoden, and Guante/Clements would prove no better than the so-so Fisher. So while one can empathize with the Yankees’ desire to execute such a maneuver, one can criticize their adeptness at pulling it off. And one can also suggest that there is a danger in allowing the frustration over a circumstance to cloud the judgment of the objective merits of the talent in a transaction.

At any rate, our version of the Yankees wouldn’t be carrying such pent-up frustration in the fall of 1986, so we can assume that our Yankees would be able to exercise the patience to allow Doug Drabek to develop.

What might have been: Element No. 8

Dec. 24, 1986: The Yankees signed outfielder Gary Ward as a free agent.

There would be no room in our Yankee outfield for an over-30 journeyman. We’ll have to pass.

What might have been: Element No. 8-A

June 10, 1987: The Yankees traded outfielder Keith Hughes and infielder Shane Turner to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Mike Easler.

Nor will we be having any need to import a declining veteran bat into the designated hitter role. Thanks, but no thanks.

What might have been: Element No. 8-B

July 21, 1988: The Yankees traded outfielder Jay Buhner, pitcher Rick Balabon, and a player to be named later to the Seattle Mariners for designated hitter Ken Phelps. (On Oct. 12, 1988, the Yankees sent pitcher Troy Evers to the Mariners, completing the deal).

Another year, and still no need for our Yankees to be importing a veteran bat (even if this one wasn’t yet declining) into the DH slot. And being able to hang on to Jay Buhner is a nice bonus.

What might have been: Element No. 9

Oct. 24, 1988: The Yankees traded designated hitter Jack Clark and pitcher Pat Clements to the San Diego Padres for pitchers Lance McCullers and Jimmy Jones and outfielder Stan Jefferson.

The frantic revolving-door nature of the Yankee operation in this period is dramatically illustrated by the team’s handling of Jack Clark. They’d signed the burly free agent slugger to a ballyhooed three-year contract prior to the 1988 season, and he’d delivered just about exactly the performance they should have been expecting: robust three-true-outcomes productivity. Yet they somehow managed to find fault with it, and almost immediately upon the season’s conclusion the Yankees were, well, not exactly dumping Clark, but certainly cashing him in for less than his worth.

Let’s assume our Yankees would think better of that.

What might have been: Element No. 10

March 27, 1989: The Yankees traded pitcher Dana Ridenour to the Seattle Mariners for designated hitter Steve Balboni.

Well, especially with Jack the Ripper still around, our Yankees would have no need to be trafficking in the journeyman DH market.

What might have been: Element No. 10-A

April 30, 1989: The Yankees traded pitcher Al Leiter to the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Jesse Barfield.

Nor is there any room on our Yankee roster to be importing once-outstanding-but-now-nothing-special corner outfielders. And being able to hang on to Al Leiter is a nice bonus.

What might have been: Element No. 11

June 21, 1989: The Yankees traded outfielder Rickey Henderson to the Oakland Athletics for outfielder Luis Polonia and pitchers Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret.

This is what we had to say a few years ago about this intriguing transaction:

Here’s a vivid demonstration of just how different things were in the baseball world of 1989 than they would soon become. Though the Yankees were just 5 games out of first place when this deal was made, clearly they didn’t have much confidence in their capacity to win it, as they dumped off the superstar Henderson for three mid-tier commodities rather than play out the season with him and run the risk of losing him to free agency that fall. They would play poorly the rest of the way and finish in fifth place, and in fact be a bad team for a few more years. The A’s, meanwhile, already the defending AL champs, with Henderson on board would cruise to the division, league, and World Series titles.

Suffice to say that our Yankees will be occupying a very different posture in mid-1989. We’ll be undertaking no fire sales, thanks.

Next time

We’ll see just how the Bronx might have been burning in the late 1980s.

Steve Treder has been a co-author of every Hardball Times Annual publication since its inception in 2004. His work has also been featured in Nine, The National Pastime, and other publications. He has frequently been a presenter at baseball forums such as the SABR National Convention, the Nine Spring Training Conference, and the Cooperstown Symposium. When Steve grows up, he hopes to play center field for the San Francisco Giants.
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12 years ago

The dirty little secret known by all pre-George Yankees fans is that the Yankees have won IN SPITE OF George – not because of George.

The 1970’s team was essentially built thru trades and augmented thru free agency.  Reggie came in AFTER the 1976 pennant; Goose was brought in to pitch along side the reigning Cy Young winner (Sparky Lyle – obtained by trading their starting 1st baseman Danny cater)after TWO pennants (and 1 WS championship)
Willie Randolph – Yanks traded a 19 game winner for a rookie
Chris Chambliss came in a trade where Yankees gave up 4 pitchers from their MLB roster
Dick Tidrow – same trade as Chambliss
Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa came in the Bobby Bonds trade (who was obtained by trading Bobby Murcer)
Bucky Dent – trade that gave up LaMarr Hoyt
Graig Nettles – multi player trade
Thurman Munson – home grown
Ron Guidry – home grown
Roy White – home grown
Dock Ellis – part of Randolph trade
Lou Piniella – trade for Lindy Mcdaniel

So, mostly astute front office work was reason for 1970’s Yanks success

The current “Dynasty” is famously anchored by the Core 4 of homegown talent (plus Bernie Williams), complemented (during the WS years)by trades for Joe Girardi, Scott Brosius, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and several more
George was serving a 2nd suspension during this ascendency

Typically when George is in charge – and flahing the cash – the Yankees do not deliver as well as when baseball folks get to build a baseball team

12 years ago

I seem to recall that the McGee for Sykes trade was more about the Yankees not having room on the 40 man roster, asking the Cards to “borrow” and then return him later, and the Cards refused when they relized he was really good.  Am I completely off base?

Steve Treder
12 years ago


I’ve never heard that, but it could be true; it would be as rational an explanation for the move as any other.

But if it’s true, here’s what it indicates:

a)  An egregious misreading by the Yankees of McGee’s potential and value.  McGee wasn’t an elite prospect, but after all he had just hit 322/360/454 with 24 SBs in AA at the age of 22.  This is a guy you can’t fit on your 40-man?

b)  A remarkable foolishness on the part of the Yankees to expect the Cardinals to voluntarily send McGee back in the event that he did turn out to be a good ballplayer.  Unless there was a signed agreement committing the Cards to doing that, why should they?

12 years ago

It is true that Willie McGee was traded because they did not have room on the 40-man roster.  According to the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, that move was forced because the Yanks signed Dave Collins as a free agent.  So elements 1 and 1-A are more interconnected than Steve thought.  I suppose the Collins signing should be 1 and the McGee trade 1-A, but nonetheless the logic that reverses both of them stands.

Steve Treder
12 years ago

Well, that would make the McGee move “forced” only in anticipation of signing Collins, because McGee was traded in October, and Collins signed two months later.

Michael Anderson
12 years ago

The Yankees should have definitely kept McGee. He had a lot of potential and was turning into a good player.

Craig Tyle
12 years ago

There was also Tewksbury for Steve Trout, although Tewksbury didn’t develop till later.

I still remember cursing a blue streak the day they traded Drabek.

Northern Rebel
12 years ago

Ahh, the good old days!

Being a Sawx fan, I enjoyed every one of those bad trades, and wish George’s son would emulate him a little more.

BTW: Thanks for Don Baylor, although I wish the Red Sox had been smarter than all the other teams, and gave Mike Easler a chance when he was 25 years old. Had someone taught him to hit lefties in the minors, he would have gotten 3500 major league hits. What a swing!

That being said, it was impossible to dislike the late 90’s champs. The were good old fashioned, clean cut, red blooded American boys, and were greater than the sum of their parts.

(I will now wander out into traffic)

I was thrilled when they aquired the racist Gary Sheffield, so I finally had someone to hate! Then they got Roger (“take me out of the world series, I have a blister”) Clemens, and my ability to hate the Yankees became even easier.

Now with Alex (“I know how to sthlap at ballth”)Roidriguez , and Mark (“Wait, I have to ask my wife where I’m allowed to play”) Texiera on the team, and their utter disdain and disrespect shown to Joe Torre, all’s well in the despicable world that is Stankeeville.

Let the hating continue!  ;o)

Prime time Pete
7 years ago
Reply to  Northern Rebel

I have read all these comments but you guys fail to realize that Steinbrenner thought the right mixture of speed & Power won championships. When he won those WS in the late 70’s in my opinion he got lucky & hit the lottery when it came to forming a team. He signed Reggie Jackson already had Munson, Nettles, added Randolph & Chambliss. He had the current CY Young Winner in Sparky Lyle, always had a crush on Power hitting or pitching so he aquired Goose & seriously Guidry was a home brewed boy who pitched two seasons that are compared to bob Gibson. For the next 10 years he tried to duplicate that chemistry by getting Players like Winfeld, Henderson, then spending money & trading away talented prospects on the likes of Gary Ward, Jesse Barfield, Jack Clark, Mel Hall, Danny Tartubull, Steve Sax, Matt Nokes. In this process he ignored pitching. He would spend bundles on flash in the pan pitchers like Eddie Winston or trade the farm away for Rick Rhoden. They traded Al Leiter for Jesse Barfield. They had Fred Mcgriff, Willie McGhee, Jose Rijo, Doug Drabek & J Deshaies in the farm system. Everyone got traded. The Yankees had the most wins out of any team in the 1980’s but had no pitching at all. The meat of there battling order was legit. Rickey, Donny, Winfield, Clark & future star Roberto Kelly (who sucked but he made it comfortable to trade Rickey) Then they trade Rickey in a contract year for garbage. Luis Polinia, Greg Caderet & Erick Plunk. When your starting pitching is Dave Lapoint, Andy Hawkins, Cecil Guantee, John Candaleria & Bobby Fischer. Followed by the Lee Glutterman, plunk, Caderet & Righetti. The best thing happened to the Yankees because Steinbrenner got suspended for the Winfeld incident and the Genius Gene “the Stick” Michael takes over operations. He rebuilds the farm system, gets rid of all the bad chemistry, trades and signs only proven champions & signs a no nonsense manager in Buck Showalter. Trades clubhouse headaches like Roberto Kelly for an intense WS winner Paul O’Neil. Then signs a another WS series winner in 2B Chuck Knoblach. Signs a perennial all-star and winner in Wade Boggs. Signs the two most important proven pitchers also WS winners in Jimmy Key & David Cone W/ gritty veterans like Black Jack McDowell & Melido Perez accompanied by the rotating fifth starter
Like Sterling Hitchcock & Doc Gooden. Slowly he added more winners and called up his home grown groomed prospects like Jeter, Williams, Posada, Pettite & Rivera. He also had to replace a generations favorite player and added the class act Tino Martinez & unknown 3rd Baseman by the name of start Broisus soon became a fan favorite for his fearless play. Then the stick signs a highly underrated player Tim Raines along with talented clutch key bench Players with the likes of Joe Giradi to tutor Posada plus the likes of seasoned veterans Cecil Feilder, Daryl Strawberry & Ruben Seiara. Plus another crafty young lefty in Kenny Rogers (they would aquire David Wells in the following year) By Mid 95 & the start of 96 he rebuilt the farm system & brought up the homegrown prospects of Jeter, Rivera, Posada, Williams, Pettite & Mendoza. He brought in veteran winners, got rid of the cancer in the locker room. Brought up the talent and surrounded them with proven winners, built the pitching staff to be Cone, Key, Pettite, Rogers then Wells then built the best bullpen in history. Long relief with Ramiro Mendoza, short relief in righty Jeff Nelson & lefty Grame Lyold( Stanton would take his place) set up man Mariano Rivera & the stick signed the best free agent closer in the game John Wetteland. The line up would turn into Chuck, Raines, O’neil, Tino, Williams, Brosius, Posada, Jeter. Fielder or Strawberry DHing. He built a organization scientifically like a piece of art. Gene “the Stick” Michael built a Dynasty on Chemistry and Yankee fans should be greatful and appreciate what his wisdomgave them after watching Steinbrenners big pockets kill the Yankees in the 1980’s. Hey Red Sox Fan Mattingly should have been on that horse in the WS not Boggs.

Ralph C.
12 years ago

The signing of Dave Collins was part of George’s declaration that the era of the homerun was over and it was to be speed that ruled the 1980s.  I think Ken Griffey was acquired as a result of this declaration (which was a nice deal as Griffey could actually hit and play decent defense, though he wasn’t a centerfielder and they ended up playing him at first, which was strange, seeing a centerfielder-firstbaseman… didn’t Joe Pepitone do that for the Yankees?), as well as not re-signing Reggie Jackson (who I think he didn’t get along with any longer, as well as thinking Reggie was finished.  Well, Reggie showed George he wasn’t quite finished in the 1980s). 

There were some high base-stealing totals at that time in baseball, with Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines (who was a 1981 sensation, with 71 stolen bases in 88 games in the strike-shortened season) running around and stealing bases with reckless abandon, as well as Ron LeFlore (97 steals) and Omar Moreno (96 steals) in the NL. Who knows what George read and/or heard during that time, in the sunrise of the 1980s.  Whatever truly motivated him, he made that declaration, assembled the speed team of 1982 and then, when he saw it wasn’t working, went out and acquired guys like John Mayberry to bring back the left-handed power (which was always one of the keys to the Yankees’ success over the years).

I was in my late teens and early 20s during the tme Steve is writing about.  I remember hoping for a Subway Series because the Mets were a-movin’ and a-groovin’ beginning in 1984 and the Yankees were competitive, beginning in 1983. I was always hoping the Yankees would get that staring pitching they needed in the mid-1980s that would’ve gave them an excellent change to get to the Big Shewww.  However, it was those once-tragic Mets who were coming up with all that sweet, sweet starting pitching (Dwight “Dr.K” Gooden, Ron Darling, El Sid Fernandez, Bob Ojeda, then David Cone for Ed Hearn during the winter of 1987-1988…. Ed Hearn!?). 

I started reading The Baseball Abstract, the 1985 Baseball Abstract, in September of that year, which changed the way I looked at baseball and helped me to understand better what the Yankees did, and continued to do, wrong during the 1980s.  Drabek and DeShaies were pretty good, weren’t they?  Of course, DeShaies had helped from the Astrodome but, sheesh, Yankee Stadium was a pitcher’s part, basically, so DeShaies might have done something for them. 

Ah, baseball in the 1980s.  What a fun time.  Lucky I have every Strat-O-Matic season from the 1980s either in carded form or in the computer game.  I should play a game from 1985 today.

12 years ago

Didn’t the Yankees also trade 2B Damaso Garcia to the Blue Jays in the early 1980s too?

Steve Treder
12 years ago

The Yankees did trade Damaso Garcia to the Blue Jays.  The trade was on Nov. 1, 1979, and Garcia was part of the package (including Chris Chambliss and Paul Mirabella) with which the Yankees acquired Rick Cerone and Tom Underwood, plus a minor league outfielder named Ted Wilborn.

That was a reasonable and fair trade which worked out fine for the Yankees.  Garcia was a pretty good player, but he would be completely surplus behind Willie Randolph.

Mike Treder
12 years ago

Element 8-B will make Mr. Costanza (George’s father on Seinfeld) a very happy man.

Ralph C.
12 years ago

The 1979 trade mentioned by Steve worked out for the 1980 season as Underwood was a solid 4th starter that year with a 3.66 ERA & Cerone had a career year, hitting .277 with 14 home runs and 85 RBIs, along with Gold-Glove defense (with a great throwing arm).  Underwood & Cerone wouldn’t be so good beyond 1980.  Cerone lasted a long time off of that season, never getting nearly as many at-bats and home runs again. 

Chambliss went on to the Atlanta Braves (I believe the immortal Pat Rockett was involved in that trade), never playing a with the Blue Jays, and hit 18 home runs with a .282 batting average, with good defense, in 1980, then hitting 20 home runs two or three seasons later.

Damaso Garcia was a solid and sometimes spectacular second-sacker who hit .310 in 1983 with the Blue Jays.  As Steve mentioned, he wasn’t good enough to move Randolph off of second base, so no big loss there. Garcia only knew walks as something you did with the dog or down to the general store, could steal a few bases but was frustrating, in a way, for perhaps not getting as much out of his talent as some though he could.  I believe he played with the Braves in the late 1980s but, by then, he was a shadow of his once-former self (such as that was).

The Yankees were good (or bad, depending in which dugout you were sitting in) at trading off their young prospects for “proven” major-league players or signing such players (Omar Moreno was a “proven” player, alright).  This was a sad but fun thing to see, in a way, seeing guys like Don Baylor, Steve Kemp and, later on, one of my favorites, Ken Phelps, coming in.  What was frustrating with quite a few of these players was the need to platoon them or not play them full-time since they had so many of them. Kemp was a sad story due to he was such a good player, always in the lineup but he comes to the Yankees and can’t get his 500-plus at-bats because the Yankees were collecting All-Stars and they had to play sometime.

Oh, those crazy, impetuous Yankees of the 1980s.  Bless their little hearts.

(FYI: All the stats and “facts” listed are from my sometimes-sketchy memory.  Please forgive me for any errors or mis-information.  I know I can look it up but writing from memory can be fun!)

Robert E. Armidon
12 years ago

McGee hit .322 for the Yankees’ AA affiliate in 1981, but was nevertheless left off New York’s 40-man roster.  This meant that McGee would be available in the minor-league draft, and the Cardinals planned to take him if he had not been claimed by the time their turn came around to draft.  According to Whitey Herzog, since the Cardinals had a low draft pick in 1981 and their chances of getting McGee were concomitantly small, the Cardinals contacted the Yankees and worked out the McGee-for-Sykes trade.

This trade does present a wrinkle, though: Herzog claims that the Cardinals and Yankees made a “gentleman’s agreement” that the Yankees would receive “future considerations” if McGee performed well.  Accordingly, on December 14, 1982, the Cardinals traded two blue-ribbon prospects—shortstop Bobby Meacham and outfielder Stan Javier—to the Yankees for three minor leaguers of little note.

Javier only appeared in seven games for the Yankees in 1984.  Following that season the Yankees traded him, along with pitchers Tim Birtsas, Jay Howell, Eric Plunk, and Jose Rijo, to Oakland for pitcher Bert Bradley, cash…and Rickey Henderson.

I have no idea if Javier was crucial to the trade, but it seems that you are going to have to bend the rules a bit if you want to stop the McGee-for-Sykes swap and still have the Henderson trade go through.

Steve Treder
12 years ago

“I have no idea if Javier was crucial to the trade, but it seems that you are going to have to bend the rules a bit if you want to stop the McGee-for-Sykes swap and still have the Henderson trade go through.”

Fair enough.  Obviously I was unfamiliar with the Yankees-Cardinals “gentleman’s agreement.”  Thanks for enlightening me.

But I guess I’d say a couple of things:

1) I’m fairly certain that Javier’s inclusion wasn’t crucial to the Henderson deal.  Rijo was, but not Javier.

2) Again, the issue that looms as significant is the Yankees’ organizational decision to leave McGee off the 40-man roster in the first place.  I think it’s reasonable for our counterfactual scenario to just start with the premise that they were bright enough to figure out that he was something better than the 41st-most precious player in their organization in the fall of 1981, and therefore they’d be better off exposing someone else to the draft.

Robert E. Armidon
12 years ago

What might have been: Element No. 1-C

April 10, 1982: The Yankees traded minor league shortstop Greg Gagne and pitchers Paul Boris and Ron Davis to the Minnesota Twins for shortstop Roy Smalley.

Although Smalley posted good numbers at the plate during his two-and-a-half year tenure with the Yankees, his range at shortstop was greatly diminished by spondylolysis, a condition in his lower back.  Yankees manager Clyde King described Smalley’s fielding abilities thusly: “When I watch Smalley playing shortstop, I think of those old movies (like) The Mummy.  You know, when the guy is wrapped up with all those bandages and walks so stiff he can hardly move.  That’s my shortstop.  The mummy.”

The trade for Smalley and the trading away of incumbent shortstop Bucky Dent to the Texas Rangers in August 1982 started the revolving door at shortstop that would last until the arrival of Derek Jeter in 1996.  Such stalwarts as Meacham, Dale Berra, Mike Fischlin, Ivan DeJesus, Paul Zuvella, Wayne Tolleson, Alvaro Espinoza, Mike Gallego, Spike Owen, and a past-his-prime Tony Fernandez would grace the position in the interim.

In the meantime, Greg Gagne would go on to a 15-year career in the majors, during which he would be the starting shortstop for two World Series winners, the 1987 and 1991 Minnesota Twins.

Steve Treder
12 years ago

“In the meantime, Greg Gagne would go on to a 15-year career in the majors, during which he would be the starting shortstop for two World Series winners, the 1987 and 1991 Minnesota Twins.”

Yeah, but dude:  who did the Yankees get when they traded Smalley to the White Sox in 1984?

Robert E. Armidon
12 years ago

I know, I know: Doug Drabek.  So the question then becomes whether Gagne at shortstop from 1985-89 would be more valuable than Drabek on the mound.

Steve Treder
12 years ago

Right, and more broadly, not just in 1985-89, but over the long haul.  I would contend that Drabek was a meaningfully better player than Gagne.

12 years ago

Out of every name on the list Pat Rooney probably made the most money as he is know lead agent at SFX

12 years ago

Gagne may have played a long time but this does not make him a good player. Lifetime OPS+ of 83. never once cracking 100. I am not sure the Yankees were really that much worse off with their collection of ‘yuk’ that they trotted out there.

11 years ago

I did a quick, superficial look at the SS situation for the Yankees from 1985, when Gagne broke in, until his last season in 1997.  Looking at OPS+ only, Gagne was a significantly superior hitter to whatever the Yankees were trotting out there from 1986-1991, regularly besting the Yankee representative(s) by 16 to 23 points.  After 1992 the Yankees are clearly better offensively, though that is in part due to the superior hitting of Randy Velarde, a guy the Bombers treated more like a utility infielder.  (I am using a primitive weighted average for OPS+ when the Yanks used multiple shortstops, so Velarde may be skewing numbers higher than they should be).

Here is the yearly breakdown with the OPS+ of Gagne and my weighted average, along with the Yanks shortstops and their individual OPS+:

1985 60 59 Meachem
1986 88 67 Tolleson(86), Meachem(63), Fischlin(35) 
1987 92 70 Tolleson(49), Meachem(102)
1988 88 65 Santana
1989 96 80 Espinoza
1990 73 50 Espinoza
1991 90 73 Espinoza
1992 73 98 Stankiewicz(93), Velarde(102)
1993 89 98 Owen(66), Gallego(112), Velarde(125)
1994 79 90 Gallego(80), Velarde(102)
1995 79 88 Fernandez(75), Velarde(102)
1996 90 101 Jeter
1997 76 103 Jeter

So Gagne would have been useful, given his superior hitting and good defensive reputation.  Even after the Yanks get better offensively, he was still usually better than the primary starter until Jeter showed up.  Is he more useful than Drabek?  Now that’s another story.  He was better than what they got back in that trade though.

11 years ago

FYI, my weighted average for OPS+ is by PAs.  I just re-ran it for defensive innings to see if I could shake Velarde’s influence.  Most of the seasons are the same or very close except for 1987 (70 -> 65), 1993 (98 -> 88), and 1995 (88 -> 80).  So Gagne comes up roughly even in 1993 and 1995, so he would have been good enough or better offensively except in 1992 (by a lot) and 1994 (decent amount).  He may have never broken 100 in OPS+, but his competition was even less impressive until Jeter showed up.