“Gentlemen, we have the only legal monopoly in the country and we’re (bleeping) it up.” – Ted Turner, owner of the Atlanta Braves, to his fellow MLB team owners.
In March of 1984, MLB owners hired Peter Ueberroth to be MLB’s commissioner, and in less than two years, he had the majority of owners agreeing with Ted Turner’s sentiment. One of Ueberroth’s mantras was “fiscal responsibility,” which practically speaking meant that owners should maximize profits first, worry about pennants and World Series later.
This was bad news for the Yankees and their fans on two fronts. The 1985 Yankees won 97 games with the core of what was a loaded roster set to return, and with an owner who never shied away from adding pieces if necessary, they entered the 1986 off-season as serious World Series contenders. Also, unbeknownst at the time, the owners decided to collude in order to collectively keep players’ salaries down, and George Steinbrenner was on board with it.
Although this decision affected the rosters and the future wins and losses of many MLB teams, it was particularly damaging to the Yankees, who were very close to being a championship team again, and who passed on several players who may have pushed them over the top. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the players who the Yankees elected to pass on despite being free agents and amenable to switching teams over the off-seasons of 1985 and 1986. We can only imagine how things may have worked out differently.
Carlton Fisk was coming off a 1985 season in which he made another All-Star appearance, won the Silver Slugger award, and finished 13th in the AL MVP voting for a third-place White Sox team. Steinbrenner offered the future Hall of Famer a three-year, $2.25 million dollar contract to come to the Bronx the week of Thanksgiving. Uncharacteristically, Steinbrenner retracted the offer after (not coincidentally) receiving a phone call from Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf. When the Yankees publicly announced that passing on the original “Pudge” and sticking with the catching platoon of Butch Wynegar and Ron Hassey was their plan, many in the know at the time saw that as the official start of collusion.
After a 4.7 WAR season in 1985, Cleveland center fielder Brett Butler was an emerging star in the American League. Always a plus baserunner and defender, Butler added a 123 OPS+ to his resume that year as well. Butler in center field would have allowed the Yankees to move Rickey Henderson back to his natural position of left field, and with Dave Winfield still in right field, would have created a formidable outfield trio, both offensively and defensively.
Alternately, the Tigers’ Kirk Gibson was available and shopping his services as well. At 28 years old, Gibson posted a 5.4 WAR and 140 OPS+ in 1985. Of course, nobody knew WAR and OPS+ from Sparky Anderson’s wad of chewing tobacco in 1985, but Gibson averaged 28 homers, 94 RBI, and 30 stolen bases over the previous two seasons — it was no secret that he and Winfield in the corner outfield spots with Henderson in center would have created a scary trio for opponents. Alas, the Yankees passed on both Butler and Gibson and headed into 1986 confident that a platoon of Dan Pasqua and Gary Roenicke was the prudent choice for the team.
After regressing by seven games and finishing five behind first-place Boston in 1986, one would think that the George Steinbrenner we all knew would return to make his imprint on the 1987 team. Turns out, one would be disappointed if that’s what one was thinking.
In 1986, Montreal’s Tim Raines led the NL in BA, OBP, went 70-for-79 on stolen base attempts, made the All-Star team, won the Silver Slugger, and finished sixth in the NL MVP voting. Given he’d just wrapped up a four-season stretch in which he averaged 6.4 WAR per year, 1986 wasn’t an aberration for the then-26-year-old. Not only were the Yankees not interested, but at one point, Raines spoke to Houston owner John McMullen, who offered Raines a 27 percent pay cut and added “Once you’re making a million, why worry about anything over that?”
Raines’ teammate Andre Dawson couldn’t find any suitors either. Despite being limited to between 130-139 games over the previous three seasons due to cranky knees, Dawson still posted a 123 OPS+ in 1986 and was only 31 years old. A move to a grass playing field in the AL where he could also DH occasionally would likely lead to the return of “The Hawk” who terrified NL pitchers.
Jack Morris not only finished in the top-10 in the AL Cy Young award voting in five of the previous seven seasons, but he had become so frustrated with Tigers management that he wanted to be a Yankee. Coming off a 5.1 WAR, 127 ERA+ season (again, those things didn’t matter in 1986, but pitcher’s wins did and Morris posted 21 of them), Morris and his agent even came up with a creative offer for Steinbrenner: Morris would sign with the Yankees for one season, and an arbitrator would decide his salary. This way, the Yankees wouldn’t be stuck with a long term contract. George said thanks but no thanks and moved on.
Seeing the writing on the wall (the MLBPA had filed a grievance regarding collusion after the 1985-1986 offseason, and it was obvious that the owners were guilty), Steinbrenner felt he needed to do “something” – so he signed outfielders Gary Ward and Claudell Washington, both of whom were older than Dawson.
You might remember how the story ends, but let’s review anyway. After the 1985 offseason:
· Brett Butler went on to average 4.9 WAR per season over the next seven seasons, receiving MVP votes in five of them.
· Kirk Gibson went on to average 4.8 WAR over the next three seasons, including a Silver Slugger award and the 1988 NL MVP award.
· Carlton Fisk, after an off-year in 1986 averaged 3.5 WAR per season from 1987-1990, adding another Silver Slugger to his resume in 1988, and he’d eventually end up in Cooperstown.
After the 1986 offseason:
· Andre Dawson would win the NL MVP award in 1987, win two more Gold Glove awards, another Silver Slugger award and add five more All-Star game appearances to what would become a Hall of Fame resume.
· Jack Morris would add three more top-10 Cy Young award finishes, three top-20 MVP finishes, and two more All-Star appearances over the rest of his career on his way to Cooperstown.
· Tim Raines would average 4.4 WAR per season over the next six seasons, adding another All-Star Game appearance and two top-20 finishes in MVP voting to what would become his Hall of Fame career.
The Yankees? Their win totals dropped every season for five straight seasons bottoming out with an AL-worst 67-win 1990 campaign.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and we’ll never know for certain how things would have worked out for the Yankees and any of those individual players had they come together. But given the environment we’re in today, we may be able to take a few lessons we were reminded of in the mid-1980s.
First, investing in very good baseball players in their prime pays off far more often than it does not. Secondly, as MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr said at the time, “You go through The Sporting News for the last one hundred years, and you’ll find two things were always true: You never have enough pitching, and nobody ever made money.”
*Thanks to John Heylar’s book “Lords of the Realm” for some of the background here.