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Former Yankees who returned for one last hurrah

Inspired by Andrew McCutchen’s return to the Pirates, which Yankees left the Bronx but came back at the end of their careers?

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim vs New York Yankees

If you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance you’d agree with me when I say that sports fans rarely agree on anything. Whether we’re discussing hot button topics like the Yankees left field job or inconsequential cosmetic matters such as whether high socks or low socks look better (FYI — high socks all the way), fans will draw lines in the sand and argue as if their lives depended on it. In many ways, it’s part of the fun, getting all irrational about a game, all in the name of entertainment.

But when Andrew McCutchen agreed to a one-year, $5 million contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates yesterday afternoon, the entire baseball world cheered. If there’s one thing we all agree on, it’s that there’s no better way for a veteran to end their career than by returning home, whether that’s to the team that drafted them (as the 2013 NL MVP is doing) or to one with whom their career took off. Amidst the excitement of McCutchen going home, I decided to look back into our own history and call to mind those Yankees who left the Bronx and yet made their triumphant (or, in some cases, not so triumphant) return to pinstripes years later.

Bobby Murcer (1966-1974, 1979-1983)

No list such as this can begin anywhere else except Bobby Murcer. Signed by the Yankees in 1964 as an amateur free agent, Murcer began as a shortstop in the minor leagues before settling into the Yankees outfield after returning from military service in 1969. Although the organization had little success in the early 1970s, none of that can be placed at Murcer’s feet, who posted a 146 OPS+ across a four year stretch (1971-1974) in which he made four consecutive All-Star teams, finished in the top 10 in the AL MVP vote for three consecutive years, and won a Gold Glove for his defensive prowess in center field.

And then, just as the Yankees planned to shift him to right field, he was traded to the San Francisco Giants. He would spend two years there, then two more in Chicago, before finally being traded back to the Yankees on June 26, 1979.

Barely more than a month later, tragedy struck, as team captain Thurman Munson died in a tragic plane crash. On August 6th, hours after giving the eulogy at his best friend’s funeral, Murcer drilled a three-run homer while down 4-0 in the seventh before hitting a walk-off two run single two innings later to give the Yankees a 5-4 victory; he would record all five RBIs.

Murcer would spend four more years in pinstripes before joining the broadcast booth after his career. He would become an icon for generations of fans, a player whose career bounded multiple eras (he was teammates with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford on one end, and Don Mattingly on the other) and a beloved broadcaster for those who never saw him play — although I was just twelve years old at the time, I still have vivid memories of where I was when the news broke in 2008 that he had passed away due to complications from brain cancer.

Tino Martinez (1996-2001, 2005)

Although Tino Martinez began his career as a member of the Seattle Mariners, he is most known for his time in the Bronx. Acquired via trade to replace the retiring Mattingly, Tino was the first baseman for the entirety of the dynasty era, going to the World Series five times and winning four rings. He was a dominant middle of the order bat for his first three seasons before trailing off at the end (125 OPS+ from 1996-1998, 103 from 1999 to 2001), which ultimately led to the team bringing in Jason Giambi in free agency. Despite these struggles, however, he continued to come through in the clutch, cementing his popularity with the fanbase that still resonates to today.

After hitting free agency, Martinez signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, once again replacing a legend (this time, Mark McGwire). He would spend two years there before being traded to the Tampa Bay Rays to make room for Albert Pujols to shift from left field to first base.

With Giambi dealing with scandals and health issues in 2004, the Yankees brought back Martinez, both as insurance and to allow the defensively-challenged Giambi to spend more time as the designated hitter. He put together a respectable curtain call, slashing .241/.328/.439 with 17 home runs in 348 plate appearances.

Andy Pettitte (1995-2003, 2007-2010, 2012-2013)

Selected in the 22nd round of the 1990 amateur draft, Andy Pettitte is one of the faces of the 1990s-2000s Yankees, a member of the Core Four who won five World Series championships. In fact, Pettitte’s career is so intertwined with the Yankees that many fans forget — perhaps deliberately so — that he spent three years of his prime not in the Bronx, but in Houston as a member of the Astros (back when they were in the National League, so at the time it was bad, but not the unforgivably bad such a defection might seem today).

When Pettitte returned to the Bronx for his age-35 season, the end of his career appeared to be on the horizon: his WHIP had jumped almost half a point and his ERA a full two runs, and he signed just a one-year deal worth $16 million. For four seasons, however, he would continue to sign one-year deals, although he struggled in 2008 — he posted the only below league average ERA of his career that year, as his 4.54 ERA translated to a 97 ERA+. He rebounded, however, becoming a critical part of the Yankees’ 2009 World Series run as one of the only three starting pitchers employed by manager Joe Girardi that October and being named to his first All-Star Game in a decade in 2010. He tested retirement in 2011, then returned for one final encore with the Yankees in 2012 and 2013.

Roger Clemens (1999-2003, 2007)

The career of Roger Clemens always feels weird to me. Mathematically, he is a member of the Boston Red Sox, as his 13 seasons there represent more than half his career and more than twice as long as he spent anywhere else. And yet, to somebody born in 1996, Clemens is a member of the Yankees through and through, a key component of the 1999-2003 teams that are among the earliest that I remember.

Early in 2003, Clemens announced that he would retire at the end of the season, only to change his mind and sign with the Houston Astros for the 2004 season. He would do this two more times, returning to Houston each time, before appearing to finally stay retired heading into 2007.

And then, on May 6th...

If you can find a more dramatic way to announce your return than that, well, I’d love to see it.

The Rocket made 18 starts that season, posting a 4.18 ERA (108 ERA+) as a middle of the rotation arm. Unfortunately, his career would end in the ALDS, as he was removed from Game 3 with a hamstring injury after just 2.1 innings. Any chance of his career continuing after that was squashed by the offseason findings of the Mitchell Report.

Alfonso Soriano (1999-2003, 2013-2014)

Originally signed by the Yankees as a free agent out of Japan in 1998, Alfonso Soriano was an electric player in pinstripes. From the get-go, he had a flair for the dramatic, as his first career hit was an 11th-inning walk-off home run against the then-Devil Rays that clinched the AL East title.

After cups of coffee in 1999 and 2000, Soriano truly burst onto the scene in 2001, finishing in third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting and establishing himself as the second baseman of the future. In 2002, he would be named to his first of seven consecutive All-Star Games, and his .300/.332/.547 slash line, 39 home runs, and 41 stolen bases as the Yankees leadoff hitter powered him to a third-place finish in the MVP race. While he didn’t get nearly as much attention in 2003, he essentially repeated his performance, cementing himself as a perennial star.

And because of that, the Yankees were able to use him as the centerpiece in a trade for arguably the best player in the game at the time and reigning AL MVP Alex Rodriguez. He would spend two years in Texas before being flipped to the Washington Nationals prior to the 2006 season. It was at this point in his career that he moved from second base to the outfield, and though he resisted the move at first, he quickly became known for his defense in left field; in fact, he became the only player in baseball history with 40 home runs, 40 stolen bases, and 20 outfield assists in a season. He parlayed that performance into a seven-year deal with the Chicago Cubs worth $136 million.

Six years later, with the Cubs looking to sell at the 2013 trade deadline and the Yankees in need of an outfielder with some pop, the Yankees brought Soriano back home. He immediately flourished, mashing 17 home runs in just 58 games. Just as importantly, Soriano brought excitement to a Yankees team that was anything but, the highlight of which being a four-game stretch in August during which Soriano had a fantastic month.

13 hits, 18 runs batted in, four games. Absolutely nuts.

Unfortunately, 2013 would be the end of the line. Although he started 2014 as the Yankees designated hitter and fourth outfielder, it quickly became clear that he just didn’t have the bat speed anymore to be a productive player. He would be designated for assignment in early July, and would retire that November.

Honorable Mentions

Unfortunately, we don’t have the time or space to include every player who returned to the Bronx around the time that everything was winding down, but here are a few honorable mentions who didn’t quite make the cut for this article:

Dwight Gooden, Jim Leyritz, Al Leiter, Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, Scott Proctor, and one-game cameos from Chris Chambliss and Ramiro Mendoza