Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #98 Mickey Rivers

1977 Topps card - Chad Finn

“Mick the Quick” was a very popular member of the champion Yankee teams in the late ‘70s, and the fans had good reason to cheer for the speedy center fielder.

Name: Mickey Rivers
Position: Centerfield (LHB)
Born: October 30, 1948 (Miami, FL)
Yankee Years: 1976-79
Primary number: 17
Yankee statistics: 490 G, .299/.324/.422, 92 2B, 26 3B, 34 HR, 93 SB, 73.8 SB%, 110 wRC+, 15.0 rWAR, 12.7 fWAR

Biography

Thirty-seven years before Brett Gardner broke through with a stellar season as the Yankees' center fielder, the team featured another fleet-footed player with superb defense: Mickey Rivers. He only played three and a half seasons with the Yankees, but "Mick the Quick" instantly became a fan favorite for his solid production as the leadoff hitter for three American League pennant-winning squads and two World Series champions.

JuCo stardom

Rivers was born John Milton Rivers on October 30, 1948 in Miami, and during infancy, his family nicknamed him "Mickey" amusingly for his resemblance to his Aunt Mickey. He developed incredible speed in his youth with the Northwestern High School Bulls in Miami, lettering in baseball, track, football, and basketball before graduating from there in '67. Rivers moved on to Miami Dade College for a couple seasons, coincidentally playing alongside future Yankees teammate Bucky Dent. He became one of the finest Junior College players in history, later being named in 1999 to the National Junior College All-Century Team and the Florida Community College All-Time team.

Major League Baseball did multiple drafts per year at this time, and Rivers was drafted out of college four separate times from January of '68 through June of '69 by the White Sox, Mets, Senators, and ultimately, the Braves. Rivers held out long enough to play for the team closest to home, but it would not last. After hitting .307/.464/.511 with 31 steals in 67 games on the Pioneer League's Magic Valley Cowboys, Rivers was traded for the first of three times in his career. The Braves sought pitching help down the stretch as they sought to clinch their first division title since the move from Milwaukee in '66, so the 20-year-old was off to Anaheim and the California Angels along with pitching prospect Clint Compton in a September 8 deal for veteran knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm and Bob Priddy.

Running roughshod

Rivers spent the offseason with the Puerto Rican Winter League's Santurce Crabbers, then jumped to Double-A El Paso at the start of the '70 season. He dominated the Texas League with a .343/.426/.537 triple slash, impressing the Angels enough to earn a promotion by the end of the season to the majors at age 21. Rivers split parts of the next three seasons between Salt Lake City and the Angels, clearly outclassing his peers in Triple-A, but never impressing any of the three managers to skipper the Angels from '71-'73. In the final month of '73 though, he hit .349/.391/.457 in 141 plate appearances with eight stolen bases in 30 games. Manager Bobby WInkles's eyes were finally opened to Rivers, and he spent all of '74 in the majors.

In his first two full seasons, Rivers hit .285/.335/.373 with a 109 OPS+ and 6.8 rWAR. However, the leadoff hitter's breakneck speed is what really made him stand out--he led the AL in triples with 11 in 118 games in '74, then led the majors in triple with 13 in '75. He finished sixth in the AL in steals in '74 with 30 before far surpassing that with a league-high and career-high 70 in '75. Outside of Bert Campaneris and Luis Aparicio, the stolen base had become a lost art in the AL since the end of the Deadball Era; Rivers was only the second AL player to notch 70 steals in a 60-year stretch dating back to Ty Cobb's 96 in 1915.

A championship trade

Yankees team president and general manager Gabe Paul had a team that contended in '75, but could not catch up to the division-winning Red Sox. Thanks to assistant and future Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick, Paul was able to turn the overachievers on his '75 squad into multiple players through trades. On December 11, he pulled off two trades that would make a huge impact on Billy Martin's team. Starter Doc Medich was sent to the Pirates for pitchers Ken Brett and Dock Ellis in addition to unheralded second baseman Willie Randolph, and 30/30 outfielder Bobby Bonds was dealt to the Angels for Rivers and starter Ed Figueroa. Bonds impressed the Yankees in his only season with them following the controversial Bobby Murcer-for-Bobby Bonds deal, but management expressed concerns over Bonds's alcoholism. Thus, the Yankees had their third All-Star caliber center fielder in three years.

Rivers had actually never been an All-Star before, but a strong .310/.322/.448 first half with 20 doubles and 25 stolen bases earned him the only All-Star selection of his career. He proved to be the igniter the Yankees needed at the top of the batting order that year, and while he did not steal nearly as many bases as he did in '75, his 43 steals in 50 attempts led to a league-best 86% stolen base percentage. Rivers also played better defense than he ever had before in his career, leading to a 1.5 dWAR, 13 TZ, and a 6.3 rWAR season in total (fifth in the AL). He finished third in AL MVP voting for his outstanding efforts and the Yankees won the AL East to clinch their first playoff berth in 12 years. The Yankees actually voted Rivers team MVP over his teammate and captain, Thurman Munson, despite the fact that the latter was the winner of the AL MVP. The long wait plagued by horrid baseball in wake of the Stengel/Houk dynasty years was over.

The Yankees faced the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS, who were making the first playoff appearance in franchise history. Rivers had a multi-hit game in the opener, and both times, the Yankees' offense brought him home; they in won 4-1. The Royals cooled him off in the next three games, holding him to two singles and a walk in 14 plate appearances, helping them knot the series and bring it to a decisive Game 5. Rivers came up big in this must-win game, going 4-for-5 with a triple with three runs scored out of the Yankees' seven. When cleanup hitter Chris Chambliss's solo homer off Mark Littell sailed over the wall in the bottom of the ninth, bedlam erupted. The Yankees were going to the World Series and Rivers was off to his first Fall Classic.

The World Series was a huge letdown from the exciting ALCS. The Cincinnati Reds' dominant "Big Red Machine" destroyed the Yankees in a four-game sweep. The fact that Reds pitchers limited Rivers to just three hits in 18 plate appearances in the series was crucial to their victory. During this time, Rivers' off-the-field problems really started to crop up. He would gamble away his paycheck almost immediately after receiving it, and his wife Mary even requested that George Steinbrenner mail his checks directly to her. In the middle of the World Series, she took her wrath out on Rivers in the Yankees' parking lot, where she literally played bumper cars. It was a terrible distraction to the team and drove Steinbrenner crazy.

On the plus side, Rivers had a season nearly as great as his '76 in '77, accompanied by another stellar performance in the ALCS against Kansas City. He pummeled Royals pitching for nine hits and a .391 average as the Yankees proceeded to their second consecutive World Series. Rivers slumped again to a .222/.222/.296 triple slash against the Dodgers, but the Yankees were able to prevail behind World Series MVP Reggie Jackson. Rivers and Jackson had an interesting dynamic together. Jackson told reporters one time that Rivers should learn how to read and write, to which Rivers replied, "You'd better stop readin' and writing' and start hittin'!" On another occasion, Jackson told reporters that he had an IQ of 160, and Rivers quipped back, "Out of what, a thousand?"

Rivers slumped to slightly below league average offensively in '78, especially struggling as the Yankees fell 14.5 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. In the second half though, he recovered with an improved .270/.309/.410 triple slash with 19 doubles and 15 steals. He was even better in the playoffs when the Yankees passed the Red Sox to capture the AL East in a one-game playoff. Rivers had his finest overall postseason to date, batting .379/.419/.379 in nine games, finally complementing another superb ALCS (.455/.538/.455 in four games) with a solid World Series against the Dodgers. Rivers was a champion for the second time in his career.

Dealt away

Rivers was off to another mediocre start in '79 (98 OPS+), and on August 1, the Yankees dealt away their embattled center fielder to the Texas Rangers in an eight-player deal to reacquire Oscar Gamble. He was still a decent player, but the Yankees had grown tired of his off-the-field problems, and they longed to bring Rivers's former teammate Gamble back after letting him go following his '76 season. The deal worked out for both teams, as Gamble played five and a half more years in New York with a 143 OPS+ (albeit somewhat part-time), and Rivers set the Rangers' single-season record for hits in 1980 with 210, a mark that lasted for 35 years until Michael Young broke it with 221 in 2005. Rangers baseball writers selected him as Texas's player of the year in '80.

Rivers hit .303/.327/.397 over the next five and a half seasons with the Rangers, but his caliber of play precipitously fell after his age-32 season in '81. His amusing line about season goals of "hitting .300, scoring 100 runs, and staying injury-prone," was only 33 percent fulfilled... by the last "goal." His speed declined, as he only stole 48 bases throughout his Texas career, and he played only 115 games from '82-'83. After a modest comeback to a 93 OPS+ in 102 games in '84, he called it quits at age 35. Rivers retired as a .295/.327/.397 hitting in 1,468 games over 15 seasons with 267 stolen bases and 32.3 rWAR to his name.

Since retiring, Rivers returned home to Florida, where he brought his interest of racehorses to a healthier state, preferring to raise them rather than gamble away his earnings on them. He's been a constant presence at Old Timers' Day since '88 (when he amusingly only 39), and he was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in '95. Bill James ranked Rivers the 59th greatest center fielder in MLB history in his 2002 Historical Baseball Abstract.

"Mick the Quick" had quite the up-and-down Yankees tenure, but throughout it all, he was a crucial addition to the Yankees' lineup. Without their sparkplug, it's unclear whether or not the Yankees could have reached the great heights as back-to-back champions in the late-'70s.

Andrew's rank: N/A

Tanya's rank: 89

Community's rank: 79

Avg. WAR rank: N/A

Season Stats

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB rWAR fWAR
1976 27 NYY 137 612 590 95 184 31 8 8 67 43 7 13 51 0.312 0.327 0.432 0.760 123 255 6.3 5.5
1977 28 NYY 138 594 565 79 184 18 5 12 69 22 14 18 45 0.326 0.350 0.439 0.789 115 248 5.3 4.4
1978 29 NYY 141 604 559 78 148 25 8 11 48 25 5 29 51 0.265 0.302 0.397 0.699 98 222 3.5 3.1
1979 30 NYY 74 307 286 37 82 18 5 3 25 3 7 13 21 0.287 0.315 0.416 0.731 98 119 -0.2 -0.3
NYY (4 yrs) 490 2117 2000 289 598 92 26 34 209 93 33 73 168 0.299 0.324 0.422 0.746 110 844 32.3 12.7

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

BR Bullpen

Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Mick the Quick.com

MickeyRivers.com

Other Top 100 Yankees

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