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Passing Through Pinstripes: Don Slaught and Billy Martin’s last season

Don Slaught played just two seasons for the Yankees. Despite the short tenure, he is forever linked with Billy Martin’s last turn as Yankees manager.

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

In November of 1987, the Yankees traded for 29-year-old veteran catcher Don Slaught in exchange for a player to be named later. They would eventually send Brad Arnsberg to the Rangers to complete the deal.

Unlike many deals of the late 1980s, this trade made a bit of sense. Slaught was a veteran backstop who still had some prime years left. With an excellent defensive reputation, and with the Yankees saying goodbye to the unproductive catching duo of Rick Cerone and Mark Salas, the idea of bringing in Slaught was a positive one. It wasn’t costly and it should’ve stabilized the catching position for a few years.

Before coming to the Yankees, Slaught was used in a part-time role for the Royals and Rangers during his first six major league seasons. He averaged 90 games and 282 at-bats per season. In four of the six seasons, he threw out more than 30 percent of would-be base stealers. Notably, during his time in Texas, Slaught was involved in a pretty gruesome hit by pitch incident, as he was hit in the face by a Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd fastball during the 1986 season. He would suffer a broken nose and broken cheek bone.

In retrospect, he would have been an ideal platoon-partner had the Yankees had a catcher to hit against right-handers. They didn’t, as Joel Skinner and Bob Geren were the other part of the catching equation during Slaught’s two seasons in New York. That was the era of the late ‘80s in a nutshell; the Yankees brought in some good, useful players. Nothing ever fit together or was properly valued.

Slaught’s first season in pinstripes was his best offensive season to that point. He would play in 97 games and hit .283/.334/.450 with 25 doubles and nine home runs. He would throw out just 22 percent of base runners, one of the worst marks of his career. But, his offensive production was part of the reason why the Yankees would finish in the top six in every major offensive category and get off to such a strong start to the season.

Dallas Green circa 1989 Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

Yet, that isn’t the story of Don Slaught’s brief time with the Yankees. While he never garnered headlines, he was at the very center of Billy Martin’s last days ever as a Yankee manager.

The 1988 New York Yankees are one of the most fascinating teams of the ‘80s. They weren’t a playoff team; they finished fifth in the American League East. They were in first place for 65 days, the last being July 27th. They won 85 games, the last time the organization would finish over .500 until 1993.

The Yankees were actually in first place by three games in mid-June and posted a winning months from April through July before going 10-19 in August. That August slump wasn’t all that surprising given their lack of pitching, but the club was 18 games over .500 heading into that season-crushing month.

The club featured future Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson. The two were backed by Don Mattingly, Jack Clark, and a solid season from Claudell Washington. It would be the last time Ron Guidry would pitch on a major league mound. It was also the year that the Yankees infamously sent Jay Buhner to the Mariners for Ken Phelps. Billy Martin would manage the club for his final time.

The club was the warped epitome of the George Steinbrenner late ‘80s teams. He had a penchant for veteran offensive players and, unfortunately, veteran starting pitchers. The 1988 team’s rotation was headlined by a combined 62 starts from 35-year-old Rick Rhoden and 45-year-old Tommy John. They were a flawed yet talented team that could’ve benefited from a couple of tweaks to the pitching staff.

Instead, Steinbrenner continued his managerial carousel, starting the season with Martin, only to end it with Lou Piniella on the bench. In true Steinbrenner fashion, Piniella started the season as the general manager, only to resign because of Martin.

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Martin’s final stint as manager began with a relatively quiet spring training. Then, supposedly, he sabotaged an offseason running program that Steinbrenner and Piniella liked. After getting off to a 5-0 start, the Yankees lost their first game of the season to the Blue Jays by the score of 17-9. Martin ripped shortstop Rafael Santana for a first inning error.

It would be the first of a few incidents involving Martin and his players. 1988 was also the year Winfield’s autobiography came out; obviously, Steinbrenner wasn’t happy. Martin backed the owner in public rather than his player. Martin was ejected from games three times, the last in Oakland which became national headline news as the umpires were not happy with how the league office handled Martin’s punishment.

Martin was also involved in an incident in Texas where he would wind up with 40 stitches after a fight. Martin would claim he was beat up in the bathroom; police reports disputed it.

Believe it or not, all of that didn’t lead to his immediate dismissal. After all, the Yankees were in first place. One move led to Martin’s final outburst and dismissal on June 23rd. The final straw involved a player who was only in pinstripes for two years.

What was the final straw? Don Slaught’s injured list stint.

Slaught was placed on the DL on May 16th with a groin injury. He was, at the time, one of the Yankees’ leading hitters, hitting .378/.446/.653 with 12 doubles, five home runs, and 26 RBI. Slaught was activated ahead of the June 22nd game against the Detroit Tigers by newly promoted general manager Bob Quinn at the behest of Steinbrenner. Martin complained to the media that Slaught was not ready and that they (Quinn and Steinbrenner) left him a man short. He would go on to say, “If they want to fire me and think it’s the best thing to fire me, then fire me.”

Martin was fired the next day and replaced by Piniella, the person who started the year as the general manager.

New York Yankees

There’s no chaos like ‘80s George Steinbrenner chaos.

The team, as mentioned above, would struggle in August and limp home with a second half record of 36-40. Dallas Green and Bucky Dent would be the next two managers for 1989.

1989 was the first year into the abyss of losing for the Yankees. Winfield, Clark, and Washington were gone. They were replaced by Jesse Barfield (traded for shortly into the season for Al Leiter), Steve Balboni, and a young Roberto Kelly.

This was the year they traded away Rickey Henderson for Eric Plunk, Greg Cadaret, and Luis Polonia. After a .500 first half, the 1989 Yankees won just 31 games in the second half, en route to a 74-87 season.

Slaught would play in 117 games in 1989, the second highest of his career and the most he would ever play for the rest of his time in the bigs. He hit just .251/.315/.371 with 21 doubles, three triples, and five home runs. Defensively, however, he rebounded from his poor 1988 season by throwing out 39 percent of potential base stealers. The Yankees traded Slaught after the season, sending him to the Pirates for Jeff Robinson and Willie Smith.

In keeping with the theme of Yankees’ ineptitude, Slaught found the ideal situation in Pittsburgh, enjoying the best stretch of his career. He formed a productive platoon with left-handed hitter Mike LaValliere and helped the Pirates get to the playoffs from 1990 through 1992. The pairing with the lefty catcher was what the Yankees didn’t have. In the last eight years of his career, six of those seasons with the Pirates, Slaught would average 80 games per season along with a batting line of .306/.368/.422 with 13 doubles and four home runs. In four of his six seasons in Pittsburgh, he posted a wRC+ over 114, with a high of 144 in 1992. Because he was used in the proper platoon, the Pirates were able to maximize his value and production.

Keeping Don Slaught would not have helped the Yankees avoid that dark period from 1989 through 1993. The real problem was that they traded him away because they couldn’t structure the proper type of environment for him to succeed, just another example of why the organization was in a tailspin.

The Yankees would eventually create those types of platoons, especially on the 1995 and 1996 teams. Role players such as Jim Leyritz, Tim Raines, and Darryl Strawberry would be utilized properly and give solid production.

Slaught’s time in New York was brief and nondescript. However, his time was a clear illustration of how the Yankees would consistently fail to maximize production while consistently making headlines for all the wrong reasons.