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Revisiting an unintentionally funny moment in Yankees’ history

Non-traditional decision making was a forte of Billy Martin - but this was particularly odd.

Billy Martin

2021 has been an up-and-down season thus far for the Yankees and their fans, and tensions remain pretty high in Yankee-land given the team’s circumstances. With that in mind, perhaps we should revisit one of the more unintentionally funny scenes in Yankee history to lighten the mood a little bit.

On September 18, 1985, Yankees manager Billy Martin sent Mike Pagliarulo to the plate to bat right-handed. For those of you who may not remember “Pags”, he was a left-handed hitter – not a right-handed hitter, or switch-hitter. You might recall that Larry Walker (for a moment), Javier Báez, and Ji-Man Choi have all taken at-bats from their respective unnatural, opposite sides of the plate. Well, Martin sending Pagliarulo up there right-handed was a slightly different situation than those, and that’s the most understated manner in which I can frame it. Like any amusing circumstance, it can only be appreciated with the proper context, so let’s back up a little bit.

The 1985 Yankees are generally remembered for being one of the best Yankee teams to not win, and for being an offensive juggernaut. Employing Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly, and Dave Winfield in their primes certainly helped in that regard. What many people may not remember is that much of their offensive success was due to some key platoon arrangements. Sure, they had plus-hitters in Don Baylor and Willie Randolph in addition to the aforementioned ball murderers – but they also had platoons of Ken Griffey Sr. and Billy Sample in left field, and Butch Wynegar and Ron Hassey at catcher that created a very deep lineup for Martin to deploy on an everyday basis.

They also had Andre Robertson. Pagliarulo played most days at third base, but Robertson did man the hot corner 31 times in 1985, typically against tough lefties. Although Robertson would never be confused with Mike Schmidt, he put up professional at-bats versus southpaws, posting a .320 BA and .346 OBP against them in 1985. Pagliarulo, who could clearly hit righties, and had a glove that Martin preferred to Robertson’s, got some appearances versus left-handers, but it typically didn’t go well for him, posting a .157/.267/.275 slash line against lefties in 1985.

The Yankees were in a tight division race with Toronto in September of 1985, and they were visiting Detroit on this fateful afternoon. Starting for the Tigers was hard-throwing righty Juan Berenguer, who before moving on to Minnesota and Atlanta as a very good relief pitcher, was a spot starter for Detroit in 1985. Facing the Yankees’ left-handed platoon lineup, Juan got off to a bad start: he faced six batters (two of them the lefty platooning Griffey and Hassey) gave up three hits, two walks, two runs, and had runners on second and third bases.

What every kid who played Strat-O-Matic baseball in the 80s could tell you — and what Tigers manager Sparky Anderson certainly knew — is that when your number five starter is struggling, you do not wait to see if he can straighten himself out. You go to the bullpen, bring in a pitcher who throws with the opposite hand of your starter, and voila – you now have a platoon advantage for however long you want it.

With Pagliarulo due up with two on, that’s exactly what Sparky did. In came left-handed Mickey Mahler to replace Berenguer for the Tigers, who promptly struck Pagliarulo out and induced a popup from switch-hitter Bobby Meacham to end the threat. When Pagliarulo got another shot at Mahler in the fourth inning, it was more of the same – good morning, good afternoon, good night, and back to the dugout. A couple of innings later, “Pags” would get a third shot at Mahler – and that’s when things got interesting.

New York Yankees v California Angels Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

With the game now tied at 2-2 and two outs on the scoreboard, Winfield on third base representing the go-ahead run, Baylor at the plate, and Pagliarulo on deck, Anderson forced Martin’s hand by having Mahler walk Baylor intentionally.

That’s when the conversation and questions on the broadcast, led by Phil Rizzuto, mimicked what was simultaneously ongoing in fans’ heads: Pagliarulo couldn’t hit lefties and looked bad against Mahler – do you send him back up there? Do you have Robertson pinch-hit? Billy Sample and his .357 OBP versus lefties were available, as was Wynegar and his .360 OBP versus lefties. Heck, even righty-hitting reserve outfielder Henry Cotto was available – what would Martin do?

Due to the extra few seconds afforded by the intentional walk, there was some time for the broadcasters to thoroughly hash out the options. As they were doing so, Mike Pagliarulo stood in the on-deck circle and put a helmet – with the ear flap on the left side – on his head.

I can’t speak for all Yankee fans, but it was at that moment that this fan thought out loud, “Oh my God. He’s going to bat righty.”

Due to the ongoing conversation, no one in the broadcast booth noticed this or Pagliarulo’s right-handed warm-up swings which resembled someone chopping down a decaying hydrangea in the yard. It was only when Pagliarulo walked around the umpire and got into the right-handers’ box did the announcers notice, and frankly, that’s an assumption on my part based on the awkward silence.

Pagliarulo played 11 seasons in the show and always seemed like a good dude, so there’s no need to belabor the point, but he struck out again. Unfortunately, I can’t say he went down on a nasty slider or splitter because he just didn’t swing particularly well. He “swung like a rusty gate” as my father used to say.

If you were wondering if —perhaps like Choi — Pagliarulo had any real experience as a switch-hitter, the answer is “no.” (Unless you count high school and college, where his right-handed hitting was such that the idea was abandoned.) The fact that Martin, in spite of this, thought sending him up there right-handed against big-league pitching – with Sample, Robertson, et al, available – is one of the unintentionally funniest memories of Yankee baseball for me. That’s with the caveat it’s funny in hindsight because unlike the Báez and Walker situations, which were tongue in cheek, this was a huge spot in what might have been a great season for the Yankees.

In what was a career of unintentionally bizarre behavior, this may have been Martin’s wacky baseball Sistine Chapel. Yes, I remember the dugout incident with Reggie Jackson. Yes, I remember the game Martin delivered the lineup card to home plate wearing giant sunglasses and calling the umpire names that would make a sailor blush (Martin was so hungover he didn’t think he’d survive the game and thought a pregame ejection was his only hope). Heck, a few days after the Pagliarulo incident, Martin broke his arm in a fight with Yankees’ pitcher Ed Whitson, and held a press conference the next morning, cast and all, to clarify the problem was that Whitson was a cheap shot artist.

Time heals all wounds they say, and it does in this case because there’s no way to relive this and not laugh in amazement. Oh, if you were curious how the game turned out, the Yankees went on to lose. Trailing 5-2, with two outs and nobody on base, Andre Robertson – pinch-hitting for Pagliarulo – popped out to end the game.