The Yankees entered action on the evening of July 30, 1990 with the following starting lineup: Roberto Kelly in center field, Steve Sax at second, Oscar Azocar in left, Steve Balboni at first, Jesse Barfield in right, Jim Leyritz at third, Brian Dorsett as the DH, Bob Geren catching, and Alvaro Espinoza at short, with Dave LaPoint on the mound.
If your first thought is “Wow, that’s a bad lineup” you’d be wrong. It was worse than bad — bad enough that it “led” the Yankees to the worst record in MLB to that point in the season.
Smartphones were only something we’d seen on Star Trek at that point, but transistor radios were still pretty common. Those primitive communication devices would come in handy as it would turn out because, in the fourth inning, news broke that MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent had suspended Yankees owner George Steinbrenner from baseball for conspiring with known mob-connected gambler Howie Spira to “dig up dirt” on former Yankees’ outfielder Dave Winfield and/or his charitable foundation, The Winfield Foundation.
It turned out that Steinbrenner realized after the fact that his annual payments to the Winfield foundation that was part of Winfield’s original contract escalated annually — learning this rubbed George the wrong way. Simultaneously, Spira claimed Winfield occasionally lent him money and wasn’t very accommodating about repayment terms, which rubbed Howie the wrong way.
When Vincent learned of the Steinbrenner and Spira conspiracy, he suspended Steinbrenner from having any involvement with the day-to-day activities of the team, including the hiring or firing of management. Citing “a pattern of behavior that borders on the bizarre”, Vincent mandated Steinbrenner step down by August 20th of 1990.
When word of the suspension quickly spread that night, the crowd of 24,037 in attendance stood and applauded in an approving expression of thanks and joy. I can confirm this, as my uncle and I were two of the fans standing and cheering that night. Perhaps if you weren’t around to experience it, or if unlike me, you’ve exorcised it from your memory forever, it would be good to have a quick review of how things got so bad, and what lessons we can apply today.
Upon the advent of free agency in the mid-1970s, Steinbrenner (to his credit) was one of the first to realize that free agency was a useful tool. If you already had a good core roster built through the draft and keen trades (which the Yankees did), spending on the right free agents could push you over the top. Very quickly, however, other teams had caught on and been also succeeding through a combination of sound drafting, good trades, and good free agent signings.
Unfortunately, George’s response was to throw more money at more free agents. Unlike in the ‘70s however, he didn’t sign future Hall of Famers like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Rich Gossage (ironically, Winfield being the notable exception) — he threw money at too many players to list here, but let’s say the Dave Collins, Steve Kemp, and Ed Whitson signings were closer to the norm than exceptions.
Compounding the issue, what had been “keen” trades in the ‘70s turned into “trade prospects for veterans, regardless of how good the prospects are or veterans are not” in the ‘80s. Jay Buhner was made famous by Frank Costanza, but in addition to Buhner, the Yankees traded then-prospects Willie McGee (1985 NL MVP, two batting titles), Doug Drabek (1990 NL Cy Young), Fred McGriff (493 career HR), and Bob Tewksbury (1992 All-Star, two time MLB leader in K/BB ratio) among many others. In case you’re wondering, Bob Sykes, Cecilio Guante, Ken Phelps, Dale Murray (not “Murphy”), a 35-year-old Rick Rhoden, and Steve Trout (no relation to Mike, either familial or in baseball skills) — the key veterans they received for the aforementioned prospects — did not, in fact, push New York over the top.
As you’d imagine, despite being directed to make most of the above moves, the blame was always laid upon the GMs and managers. In 1980, the Yankees finished with 103 wins under GM Gene Michael and manager Dick Howser (who went on to win a World Series with the Royals; we’ll come back to Michael in a moment), but after a loss in the ALCS George needed to make changes. Michael was one of seven GM changes over the next nine years and Howser was one of 14 managerial changes over the same time frame. The end result was a team that decreased its win total in five consecutive seasons, culminating in the 1990 team which is on the shortlist of worst Yankee teams ever.
Michael took over the GM duties on August 20, 1990, the first day at Yankee Stadium II without George Steinbrenner. Once unfettered from owner interference, Michael didn’t waste time righting the ship using addition by subtraction — out of the team’s top 12 WAR producers in 1990, 10 were gone within two years. By the time Steinbrenner was reinstated two and a half years later, Michael had built a team that went on to win 88 games in 1993, posted the AL’s best record in 1994, and reached the postseason in 1995 — the team’s first such appearance since the strike-shortened 1981 campaign.
Michael and his successor Bob Watson made far too many significant additions through trades and free-agent signings to delineate here, but perhaps the most important thing they did was hang on to Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera — something that would have been very unlikely a decade sooner.
Although Watson would resign just prior to spring training in 1998 (over an ultimatum given to him by Steinbrenner to trade both Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte for Chuck Knoblauch*), he had already supplemented Michael’s work and built the majority of the roster that became a dynasty from 1998-2000. A dynasty that created virtually unmatched financial resources that were (and still are) a big part of the consistently good teams put on the field since.
With the benefit of hindsight, some fans feel Howie Spira deserves a plaque in Monument Park for his role in turning the Yankees from the literal worst team in baseball into a dynasty. If you think that’s just fan hyperbole, consider that Yankee announcer Tony Kubek said the Yankees should hold a “Howie Spira Day” on the MSG broadcast of the game the night of Steinbrenner’s suspension.
Why is this significant today? Much of the chatter surrounding the present-day Yankees centers around the organization’s newfound frugality, its extreme patience with middle and upper management, and tolerance of what appears to be a blasé attitude among some members of the team. This often culminates in some form of “None of this would be happening if Hal’s father were still around!”
That may be true, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, which I say as a long-time vocal critic of the current owner. Winning not being the number one priority of an organization may not work, but over-the-top ego-driven micromanaging doesn’t work either. Here’s hoping Hal can find a middle ground soon.
*Read Jon Pessah’s “The Game” for the receipts on the parting of Watson and Steinbrenner.