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The best team to not reach the playoffs: The 1985 New York Yankees

Despite winning 97 games they weren’t good enough to make the playoffs, but the ‘85 Yankees made me a lifelong fan.

New York Yankees Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield SetNumber: X31971 TK1

One of the best things about growing up in the ‘80s was the purity of our fandom. We didn’t have the constant 24-hour sports news cycle just yet or social media to break stories before they even reached the news. Sure, there were newspapers; most kids of the 80’s didn’t really read those unless we were looking for box scores. The analytics revolution wasn’t on the radar. Instead, we grew up loving the talented players and their exploits on the field.

I was 10 years old in 1985 and I was at the beginning of my lifelong love affair with baseball. The Baseball Bunch was a must-watch on Saturday morning before any cartoon was put on. This Week In Baseball was must view. While the batting title race of 1984 between Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly initiated my love of the Yankees, it was the 1985 Yankees that cemented my life-long Yankees fandom.

The 1985 team would not make the playoffs, and yet they still hold a place in my baseball consciousness as one of the best Yankees teams I ever saw. Perhaps the lens of childhood makes them better than they really were, but even all these years later I still feel the need to tell people that Bob Shirley was an invaluable pitcher.

December of 1984 is when the team really began to take shape. 10-year-old me was smart enough to know that George Steinbrenner was an overwhelming presence and set a tone that made his general manager, Clyde King, push to remodel the team. Steinbrenner had the penchant for always wanting to bring in the star. The ’85 team already had a bunch in Mattingly, Winfield, and Ron Guidry. To a 10-year-old, Willie Randolph was a star as was Don Baylor. There were some great role players that we loved like Ken Griffey Sr. and Mike Pagliarulo, a young guy with his pushed up sleeves who would always get dirty.

The first two trades of the winter brought in Ron Hassey, Rich Bordi, Henry Cotto, and Brian Fisher, all valuable members of the ’85 team. That wasn’t enough to get a 10-year-old excited.

It was that third trade: Steinbrenner sent five players (Stan Javier, Jay Howell, Jose Rijo, Eric Plunk, and Tim Birtsas) to the Oakland A’s for Rickey Henderson and Bert Bradley.

Rickey “Freakin” Henderson.

1985 Major League Baseball All-Star Game

When my friends and I found out that “we got Rickey”, we knew we were going to win the World Series. He was the most exciting player in the game, a player we only got to see on Monday Night Baseball, George Michael’s Sports Machine or This Week In Baseball. Now, he was leading off for us.

Two weeks later, on December 20th, King made another trade, sending Steve Kemp and Tim Foli to the Pirates for Dale Berra and a young prospect named Jay Buhner. Buhner wouldn’t factor into the 1985 season, but he would go on to have his moment in Yankees and pop culture lore. The narrative was that Dale Berra would play for his father, manager and Yankees legend, Yogi Berra.

December would close out with Steinbrenner announcing that he signed Ed Whitson, a 30-year-old right-hander to round out a rotation that included Guidry, Phil Niekro, Joe Cowley, and Dennis Rasmussen. Whitson didn’t pan out, but he did leave his mark in a most interesting way later in the season.

As kids, we may not have known all the names coming to our team, but it was certainly an exciting time for us.

The Yankees were making bold moves. We had three of the best players in the sport in Mattingly, Winfield, and Henderson. Steinbrenner spoke like a maniacal fan. We kids couldn’t figure out why the adults in our life didn’t seem to quite like him as much.

With all the expectations, the Yankees opened up the season with three consecutive losses at Fenway Park. They would immediately win four straight to seemingly right the ship. After being swept by the White Sox to fall to 6-10, Steinbrenner dispatched his GM, King, to fire Yogi Berra. Even a 10-year-old knew that this was harsh (Yogi wouldn’t speak to Steinbrenner for almost 15 years). It was a slow start for sure — but firing Berra just felt wrong.

That was George Steinbrenner. It’s what he always did.

Enter Billy Martin.

Billy Martin Arguing with Umpire

Billy Martin’s return was still “a thing” in New York. We thought that Billy IV would result in a championship. Unlike most managers, Martin lived and died with each game. We loved him for that. After losing the first two games under Martin, the Yankees won eight of nine games. Martin seemed to have the magic touch again.

We didn’t care about statistics as much then, but we knew that the offense was the best in baseball, leading the major leagues in runs scored and stolen bases while finishing in the top three in home runs, walks, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. It featured seven regulars who got on base at a .328 clip or higher. Five of the regulars hit 19 or more home runs.

Mattingly would be named the MVP for the season after posting a .324/.371/.567 line with 48 doubles, three triples, 35 home runs, and 145 RBI.

Henderson hit .314/.419/.516 with 146 runs scored, 28 doubles, five triples, 24 home runs, 69 RBI, and 80 stolen bases. At 9.7 fWAR, he led the major leagues and with a modern eye, had an even better MVP case than his fellow superstar.

Beyond those two icons, the future Hall of Famer Winfield drove in 118 runs, his fourth consecutive season of topping the 100 RBI mark. A Monument Park-bound Randolph posted a .382 on base percentage. The offense as a whole led the AL with 839 runs and 155 stolen bases.

The lineup was incredibly balanced.

The pitching? Not so much.

To Martin’s credit, he got the most out of the staff, especially the relievers. Guidry was the clear ace, posting a 22-6 record with a 3.27 ERA (3.47 FIP) in 259 innings. Knuckleballing 46-year-old Phil Niekro would add 220 innings with a FIP of 4.71. Every other Yankees starter would have a 3.97 or higher FIP and contribute less than 160 innings each. We didn’t have FIP back then; we just knew that our rotation was the weakness.

Martin, however, deployed his relievers to minimize the mediocre rotation. Four relievers — closer Dave Righetti (107 innings), Fisher (98.1), and Bordi (98) — threw at least 98 innings.

This is where we get to Bob Shirley. In the 1990s, the Yankees had Ramiro Mendoza who could start or relieve and give multiple innings. Bob Shirley was that guy in 1985. The 30-year-old southpaw appeared in 48 games, making eight starts. He’d throw two complete games while adding two saves. His FIP of 2.99 in 109 innings would make him one of the most valuable members of the 1985 team. It was a career year for 11-year veteran. As a young fan, Bob Shirley didn’t register as important, but he always seemed to be the guy who Martin trusted the most.

That summer turned out to be special. The Yankees would win 60 of their last 90 games and would enter the final series of the year against the division-leading Blue Jays, trailing by three games. A sweep and a one game playoff was the hope. We saw that before.

They didn’t get there without controversy. In true Billy Martin style, he would get into a fight with the aforementioned Whitson at a hotel in Baltimore. Martin would wind up with a broken arm. We saw that before, too.

The Yankees won the first game. Could this be 1978 all over again?

Doyle Alexander would shut down the Yankees offense to clinch the AL East with a 5-1 win. Our magic season was over.

Mattingly closed out his MVP season in style and Niekro added a fun postscript with his 300th career victory on the season’s last day, but missing October once again despite the otherwise-exciting campaign still hurt.

If there had been the Wild Card system then, there’s no doubt in my mind that the 1985 Yankees would’ve been in the World Series. 97 wins weren’t good enough that year, but they gave our generation our first summer filled with genuine hope of a World Series.

We wouldn’t have this much hope again until 1994. That hope’s foundation started in 1985 too, as the Yankees signed two amateur free agents, one named Jim Leyritz. The other? Well, he was a 16-year-old kid named Bernie Williams, the under-appreciated foundation of the late 1990’s championships.

For a 10-year-old, 1985 provided the first taste of what a real pennant race felt like. It was really the only one of my childhood. That team was special. Mattingly became a star. Winfield, Henderson, Gator, Rags, Babe Hassey, Groove Baylor, Pags, and, yes, Bob Shirley. They were simply the best team to not make the playoffs.