Jimmy Key pitched just four short seasons for the Yankees. Yet somehow his legacy feels greater than the sum of his combined 98 regular season and postseason starts for the Pinstripes. I suppose that is what happens when you face the greatest pitcher of your generation in Game 6 of the World Series and come away with a victory.
Key was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama where he excelled as both a hitter and pitcher for S.R. Butler Senior High School. His performance earned him a selection in the 10th round of the 1979 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox, but he declined to sign a professional contract and instead enrolled at Clemson University. In three seasons at Clemson, Key pitched and served as the team's DH during his days away from the mound. He earned first-team All-ACC honors at both positions in 1982, and in that year was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the third round of the draft.
Key pitched in 44 minor league games between 1982 and 1983 before making his debut with the Blue Jays on April 6, 1984. Key pitched 63 games in relief his rookie season, before Blue Jays manager Bobby Cox made him a starter for the 1985 season. Key rewarded Cox's decision by becoming an All Star while pitching to a 3.00 ERA, 1.119 WHIP, 3.96 FIP, and 5.1 WAR. Key's best season as a Blue Jay came the following year in 1986 when he finished second in the Cy Young balloting to Roger Clemens with a 2.76 ERA and 4.9 WAR over 232 innings pitched.
Key was an All Star again in 1991 ahead of becoming a World Series champion for the first time with the Blue Jays in 1992. Key's most notable postseason performance that October came in Game 4 of the World Series at the Skydome against the Atlanta Braves. He pitched 7 2/3 innings of one-run baseball, including an unfair-it's-so-good pickoff of Otis Nixon, who stole 41 bases for the Braves that year.
He became a free agent for the first time after the 1992 season, signing a four-year, $17 million pact with the Yankees that was negotiated by his wife Cindy. Key was not the Yankees top free agent pitching priority that offseason. They had hoped to land Greg Maddux, Key's eventual World Series nemesis, but failed to do so when Maddux instead opted to sign with the Braves, citing the disarray of the Yankees front office with George Steinbrenner preparing to return from a two-year suspension.
Key's first two seasons in the Bronx were incredibly successful, again landing him in the All Star Game twice, and top-four balloting in the AL Cy Young race in both 1993 and 1994. Unfortunately, Key's 1995 campaign was cut short by injury. Placed on the disabled list in May 1995 with an apparent bout of tendinitis, Key would ultimately require surgery on his left rotator cuff. That was the fourth significant operation he would undergo on his pitching arm prior to the 1996 season.
Results: 30 GS, 169.1 IP, 4.68 ERA, 116 SO, 1.352 WHIP, 2.9 WAR.
Key defied expectations by beginning the 1996 season on the active roster despite having undergone rotator cuff surgery the previous summer. He struggled out of the gate, going 2-6 with a 7.06 ERA through his first 10 starts. In May, first-year Yankees manager Joe Torre sent Key down to Florida to rehab his arm in warmer weather, and in June Key hit the disabled list again with a strained calf.
He rebounded as the season progressed, including a 20 inning scoreless streak and a 10-4 record with a 3.18 ERA across 18 starts between June and September. His performance late in the season garnered him a Game 3 start against the Texas Rangers in the ALDS, in which he allowed two runs over five innings in a Yankees victory.
In the ALCS, against their AL East rival Baltimore Orioles, Key again started Game 3 against future Yankees great Mike Mussina in Baltimore. After allowing a two-run blast to Todd Zeile in the first, Key settled down and allowed just one more hit through eight innings as the Yankees took a 2-1 series lead.
Key's most memorable performance as a Yankee was still to come in the World Series against the defending champion Braves in Game 6. He took the ball in Game 2, and although Key battled through six innings while allowing 10 hits, two walks, and four runs, it was not enough to match the masterful Maddux who shut the Yankees out across eight innings, allowing six hits and no walks.
Having out-dueled Key in Game 2, Maddux and the Braves came into Game 6 confident in the matchup despite trailing the Yankees in the series 3-2. But Saturday night, October 26, 1996, belonged to Key and the Yankees. In what would be his final start for the Yankees, Key had his trademark grit on full display across 5.1 innings of work.
Key held the Braves scoreless through the first three innings, and in the bottom of the third, catcher Joe Girardi led the charge on a three-run inning with an RBI triple. The Braves stormed back in the top of the fourth to load the bases with one out. It was a serious threat for Key, and the pressure was on.
Key yielded the first run to the Braves on a walk to Jermaine Dye, before having to face former National League batting champion Terry Pendleton with the bases loaded. In his finest moment as a Yankee, Key got Pendleton to ground into a 6-6-3 double play to Derek Jeter, putting an end to the Braves' rally.
After giving up a leadoff double to Chipper Jones in the sixth inning, Key was left in to face left-handed slugger Fred McGriff and was able to induce a ground out. Key was relieved by David Weathers, who ultimately gave way to Yankees left-handed relief ace Graeme Lloyd, and the storybook bullpen duo of Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland, who combined for 3.2 innings of three-hit, one-run baseball. Key did not dominate Game 6, but in a performance that embodied his unflappable demeanor on the mound, he did his job by protecting the Yankees' lead into the sixth inning.
What did he do after?
Key pitched two more seasons with the Orioles. His 1997 campaign was a strong one, as Key pitched to a 3.43 ERA and 4.6 WAR across 212.1 innings of work, and helped to propel the Orioles to an AL East title. His final season in MLB was again beset by injuries, and Key retired after appearing in 25 more games in 1998 for a total of 79.1 innings pitched.
Key has maintained some ties with the Yankees since retiring, having participated in Old Timer's Day in 2008. These days Key spends much of his time on the golf course in Florida, where he asserts that his experience as a big-game pitcher helps him to manage his nerves when he competes. This is unsurprising to Yankees fans who had the opportunity to watch Key at the height of his craft between 1993 and 1996. Whatever he lacked in velocity and stuff, he more than made up for with his control, pitch selection, and poise on the mound.