The 1995 season was full of memorable games for the New York Yankees going down the stretch. They had to play at an incredibly high level to reach the playoffs, and without a scalding hot 21-6 September, they might not have made it to the postseason. September 3rd was one of those elusive September losses, but it was one of their most competitive games of the season. It was also the day that shortstop Tony Fernandez ensured that he would not simply be known as "the guy who preceded Derek Jeter." The future All-Star was the consensus Minor League Player of the Year in '94 after advancing from High-A Tampa to AAA Columbus during the year and hitting .349/.439/.492 in 35 games at the top level. The Yankees signed Fernandez to a two-year contract in December anyway since they were hesitant about letting the kid who had some right shoulder inflammation in the Arizona Fall League that year get the position without a challenge. Fernandez had a fine season for a shortstop in '94 with the Cincinnati Reds (.279/.361/.426, 106 OPS+), but to prospect enthusiasts, it would be about as frustrating as when the Yankees signed Russell Martin to catch 15 years later despite catching prospect Jesus Montero's hitting exploits at AAA.
Matters only got worse for Fernandez as the season progressed; he hit a career-low .245/.322/.346 with a 75 OPS+ and missed time due to injury between May 20th and June 8th, allowing Jeter to have a brief stint at the major-league level. Jeter did not set the world on fire in his cameo appearance in the big leagues, but he was clearly not suited for AAA baseball anymore (.317/.394/.422 with Columbus in '95). Amid this tension between the struggles of an established veteran and the potential of a top prospect, Fernandez broke through on September 3rd in New York with his best game as a Yankee.
The Yankees played against a Wild Card rival, the Oakland Athletics. Oakland would collapse in September, but they were only a game and half behind the Yankees at the time. They were managed by the great Tony LaRussa in his final campaign with the Athletics and featured great stars like first baseman Mark McGwire, who had an even OPS+ of 200 and hit 39 homers in 109 games, and left fielder Rickey Henderson, a 36-year-old but still-dangerous .307/.407/.477 hitter back for his third stint with the team. Righthander Steve Ontiveros started for Oakland, and though he struggled to a 4.37 ERA in '95, he led the league with a 2.65 mark in '94 as a "swing man," excelling both as a starter and a reliever. He was opposed this afternoon by trade deadline acquisition David Cone, the quintessential "hired gun." Neither pitcher was on top of his game that day though.
Oakland took a quick 1-0 lead when left fielder Stan Javier grounded a single to right, stole second, and scored on another ground ball single to right, this time by second baseman Brent Gates. The Yankees countered against Ontiveros as third baseman Wade Boggs hit a leadoff triple to straightaway center and scored when rising star Bernie Williams doubled him home. Williams moved to third on a fly ball and scored on a slow ground ball to first base by DH Darryl Strawberry. Oakland came right back in the second on shortstop Mike Bordick's seventh home run of the season, a fly ball down the left field line that stayed fair. It was evident that pitchers would face their struggles holding a lead in this game as the offenses traded blows. However, it also did not appear as though Fernandez would play much of a role in the offensive attack since he weakly fouled out in his first at bat and he was hitting at a meager .241/.317/.330 clip when the day began.
The Athletics expanded their lead to 4-2 in the fourth after right fielder Geronimo Berroa circled the bases on a line drive off the left field wall that took a weird bounce away from Dion James and catcher Terry Steinbach scored shortly after hitting a double. In the bottom half of the frame, resurgent Yankee captain Don Mattingly lined a one-out single to center. Mike Stanley was the tying run at the plate, and he showed great power for a catcher by hitting 61 homers from '93-'95. He lined to Berroa in right though, bringing Fernandez to the plate. Fernandez was not at all the threat that Stanley was since he hit only four homers all year and 94 over 8,793 plate appearances in his career. Nonetheless, he connected on a shot to deep right field that soared over the fence for a two-run homer. The Yankees had a chance for more runs but stranded runners on second and third to end the inning despite Boggs's ground-rule double.
A wild Cone broke the tie by walking Javier, allowing him to steal second, and uncorking a wild pitch to score him from third. Cone was very frustrated by his performance, muttering, "I can't remember an inning where they didn't score or where I wasn't working from the stretch." Fortunately for him, he would leave the game with an 8-6 lead thanks to a seven-hit, four-run fifth inning by the resilient Yankees. They knocked Ontiveros out of the game and notched a couple of hits against normally-reliable reliever Rich Honeycutt (179 ERA+ in 49 games in '95). This rally featured a single each by Fernandez and Boggs, who was just a homer away from a cycle of his own. Cone allowed another run in the sixth, then departed after Berroa hit a double in the seventh. Manager Buck Showalter defended his decision to let Cone stay in so long despite 133 pitches, reasoning, "David was our best option. They weren't exactly beating his brains out." Bob Wickman relieved Cone and induced a pair of ground outs to end the seventh.
Fernandez notched his third different hit of the day with one out in the eighth with new reliever Jim Corsi on the hill. He grounded his first triple of the year into the right field corner to draw within a double of the cycle. Second baseman Randy Velarde needed only a fly ball to bring him home, but he watched strike three from Corsi settle into Steinbach's mitt. A homer from Boggs would give him the cycle and a four-run Yankee lead. Never one to chase, he walked on five pitches, passing the baton to Williams. No insurance was provided; Bernie grounded out. This missed opportunity hurt the Yankees an inning later when the Athletics smacked Wickman around for four hits and three runs in the eighth. Three of those hits were two-out ground balls, Wickman's specialty, but they narrowly escaped the reach of both Fernandez and Velarde, both fine fielders. He still felt he let the team down though, saying, "It was the team's day until I came in there and blew it." One of those hits was a single by Berroa, now a triple away from a possible third cycle in the game. Such is baseball. Oakland took a 9-8 lead to the eighth inning, which meant Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley soon entered the game.
"Eck" was a month shy of his 41st birthday though and no longer the dominant pitcher he once was though. His ERA for the season was an unsightly 4.83. Regardless, he entered with a runner on first in the eighth and pitched a scoreless inning, striking out two Yankees in the process. Fernandez faced him to lead off the ninth. He smacked a line drive to left that went for a double, and Fernandez had officially hit for the cycle. Surprisingly, it was the first cycle by a Yankee since Bobby Murcer (announcing the game on TV) did it 23 years prior, and it was accomplished by one of the most unlikely players on the roster. More importantly, Fernandez was the tying run in scoring position with no one out. Velarde sacrificed him to third. Boggs again had a chance to complete a cycle with a home run--it would even win the game. It would have been an incredible feat for two teammates to complete a cycle in the same inning with the latter a walk-off homer. The Hall of Famer settled for a game-tying sacrifice fly to deep center field.
Closer John Wetteland entered the tie game as it continued to extra innings. The oft-booed Henderson worked him to a count of 2-2, then launched his eighth homer of the year to quiet the Yankee Stadium crowd. He drew the ire of the fans by almost getting into a fight with starter Jack McDowell the day before, but he claimed the anger merely brought his game to another level: "It was very emotional. The fans here get all over me, and that boosts me up." Like Boggs, Berroa missed an opportunity for the second cycle of the game when he flew out to center to end the top of the tenth. In his third inning, Eckersley had no such problems as he did in the ninth. Ruben Sierra grounded a two-out single to extend the game and bring the winning run to the plate in the form of the Mattingly. Alas, the Captain sent an easy fly ball to Jose Herrera in center field, who caught it to end a thrilling 10-9 victory for Oakland.
While Showalter and Cone were very pleased by Fernandez's performance, it was clear that he would have traded the cycle for the win. "Anyone who does [hit for the cycle] has to feel some satisfaction, but it would have been nicer if we won the game." The Yankees shook off the loss and went 20-5 to finish the month and make the playoffs. Fernandez broke his right elbow in Spring Training next March and the job was officially Jeter's. He never played another game for the Yankees after the '95 season ended. By hitting for the cycle though, he secured himself a mention on Yankee telecasts any time a player approached a cycle for the next 14 years until Melky Cabrera joined him in Yankee cycle history on August 2, 2009. At least it gave him something else to be known for as a Yankee besides being the last of a long run of disappointing Yankee shortstops that played the position before Jeter.
Box score. Graph score. Game recap.
Further sources: Tan, Cecilia. The 50 Greatest Yankee Games. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005.