The 1990 Yankees were a bad team – one of the worst in Yankees history if we’re being honest. If you were fortunate enough to miss the test of patience that was the 1990 season, consider yourself fortunate, as it was as bad as it sounds.
DH Steve Balboni posted an OPS+ of 94, which amazingly was good for third-best among regulars in the everyday lineup. Starting pitcher Tim Leary put up a 1.7 WAR season which, almost incomprehensibly, made him the third-most valuable Yankee in 1990. The staff ace Leary was one of five pitchers to make 16 starts or more in 1990 and none of the five achieved the heights of at least a league-average ERA+.
To make Yankees’ fans teeth gnash, even more, Rickey Henderson, who the team traded the previous summer, was putting up a 9.9 WAR, 189 OPS+, AL MVP winning season in Oakland (that sure made left fielder Óscar Azocar’s 77 OPS+ a joy to watch for Yankees’ fans.) Meanwhile, Dave Winfield, who the Yankees traded in May of 1990 for Mike Witt, was posting a 129 OPS+ in California for the Angels. Who needs all these pesky future Hall of Famers around, right?
Although there were far too many frustrating things about that season to cover all of them today, there was an eleven-day stretch in July that brought the team’s ineptitude to new depths, almost comically so, about which we can reminisce.
On July 1st, the Yankees were in Chicago’s Comiskey Park to take on the White Sox. The Yankees entered the game in last place in the AL East, with a league-worst 28-44 record. On that very sunny and very windy afternoon in the windy city, Andy Hawkins would get the start for the Yankees. Hawkins entered action with a 6.49 ERA, 5.59 FIP, had walked more batters than he struck out, and had allowed 119 baserunners in 68 innings – and he was about to make history.
Chicago’s Lance Johnson led off the bottom of the first with a fly ball that should have been routine, but due to the wind was anything but, as Yankees’ left fielder Jim Leyritz was forced to hurriedly charge and make a nice sliding catch. It was a case of foreshadowing if there ever was one because virtually every ball hit in the air that day became an adventure. Yankees’ right fielder Jesse Barfield, also battling the sun in right field in addition to the wind, made several nice grabs on violently windblown balls as did middle infielders Álvaro Espinosa and Steve Sax.
Yet remarkably, no batter was able to reach base safely for either team until Hawkins issued a two-out walk to light-hitting catcher Ron Karkovice with two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning. Yes, you read that correctly: Hawkins was pitching a no-hitter but was being outdueled by White Sox legend Greg Hibbard who was perfect against the Yankees’ lineup through five.
Although the wind was problematic, Hawkins and the Yankees were rather large beneficiaries of its randomness later in that fifth inning. After the walk to Karkovice, Hawkins issued another to Scott Fletcher, which brought 21-year-old Sammy Sosa to the plate with two on and two out in a scoreless game. On a 2-1 count, Sosa drove a ball to very deep left field – a ball that Hawkins would say after the game that on any other day would have been “in the upper deck” – that the wind knocked down and kept in the park, as Leyritz awkwardly corralled it on the warning track.
The Yankees had scratched out a couple of infield hits in the sixth inning to break up Hibbard’s bid at history, but they still hadn’t scored. Hawkins, due in part to some good fortune and a good changeup (“he keeps throwing that dead fish up there” Yankee announcer Phil Rizzuto noted) still held Chicago scoreless and hitless entering the eighth inning. After inducing two more pop-outs to start the bottom of the eighth, Sosa came to the plate once again with two outs.
This time Sosa hit a hard bouncer just to the right of third baseman Mike Blowers who was handcuffed and couldn’t field the ball cleanly, delaying his throw. When Sosa beat the throw with a head-first slide there was a roar from the crowd celebrating the first White Sox base hit. However, within a few seconds, the original official scorer’s call of “hit” was changed to “E5” and the Hawkins’ no-hitter was still intact. This was relatively good news, but the bad news was that Hawkins’ luck was about to change for the much, much, worse.
Walks to the next two batters loaded the bases and brought Robin Ventura to the plate. Ventura lofted the first pitch to left field for what would be a routine fly ball on any other day – but on this day, the wind spun the ball around, forcing Leyritz to spin around in an effort to stay with the ball. Leyritz’s efforts were unsuccessful as the ball glanced off his glove for an error – an error that cleared the bases and put the Yankees down by three runs.
Before the frustration and bewilderment had a chance to set in, Iván Calderon lofted a fly to right field that tracked perfectly between the sun and Barfield’s eyes. When the ball glanced off Barfield’s glove and hit the ground for another error, the Yankees were down by four runs. A pop-out to shortstop Espinosa mercifully ended the inning (a pop-out that Espinosa caught with an angry snap of his hands), but the Yankees were down four runs.
When the Yankees were unable to score in the top of the ninth, the ugly 4-0 loss was in the books. What was also in the books was that Andy Hawkins remarkably pitched eight innings without allowing a hit – and still took the loss. Only a mere 11 days later, Hawkins would get another chance at Chicago, this time in the Bronx.
With regards to the game on July 12, 1990 at the stadium: As my father used to say “the less said, the better.” Hawkins, quite ironically, was perfect through the first 2.1 innings again, bringing his hitless streak against Chicago to 10.1 innings. Then, four straight hits – one a single by Sosa, another a three-run home run from Lance Johnson, his only home run of 1990 in 541 at-bats – opened the flood gates for the White Sox.
The real story of the evening was the weather. The game began under steady rain, with temperatures as cold as they can get in July in New York. (Perhaps not literally, but I had the stark misfortune of being there that night, so I can confirm it certainly felt that way.) In fact, the only thing worse than the weather that evening was the Yankees’.
White Sox starter Mélido Pérez walked 4 of the first 11 Yankees he faced but hadn’t allowed a hit through three innings. Then the Yankees, seemingly as indignant about being there as the fans were, struck out in their next five plate appearances over the fourth and fifth innings. When Espinosa lined out to end the fifth, the Yankees were trailing 8-0 and had yet to record a base hit.
After Pérez retired Roberto Kelly, Steve Sax, and Don Mattingly in order in the bottom of the sixth inning, the game was mercifully called due to the rain with the White Sox batting in the top of the seventh inning. The final score was 8-0 Chicago, with the Yankees recording a grand total of zero hits.
In a span of 11 days, the Yankees had a pitcher throw a no-hitter and lost the game, then were no-hit themselves – facing the same team with the same pitcher starting for them. Again, I watched the first game on TV and I was at the second one and I still needed to do some research to confirm that happened as it’s so ridiculous. (Although the rule was changed in 1991 that a pitcher could only be credited with a no-hitter if he completed nine innings, at the time, these were both considered no-hitters.)
I’ve used the words comical and ridiculous because, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know that was the low point for the Yankees. Less than three weeks after these debacles, George Steinbrenner was suspended (again) from baseball and wouldn’t be allowed to have anything to do with the day-to-day operations of the club. This allowed GM Gene Michael, who took over on August 20th, to operate unfettered from ownership meddling, which was the start of what would become a dynasty a few years down the road. Thankfully all of that happened as that’s the only reason we can look back and laugh about it now.