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Passing Through Pinstripes: Bob Shirley

Bob Shirley’s 1985 season was the best of his career, yet it almost didn’t happen because of Billy Martin.

St. Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Sometimes we can’t explain why we hold some players in our sport’s heart. The stars are easy to root for, but it’s those role players who we latch onto, who we want to see do well. Maybe it’s their imperfect skills that cause them to have to work harder, to struggle more. We can more closely identify with them rather than we can the superhuman athlete who makes everything look so effortless.

Sometimes, the reason for our attachment can be random, like my fascination with Bob Shirley, a Yankees relief pitcher for a short time in the 1980s. I do remember him pitching a lot. It seemed like he was Billy Martin’s favorite player, but it wasn’t for those reasons at all. It was because of one reason and one reason only.

His Strat-O-Matic card was so good.

I was given the gift of knowing how to play “Strat” from my father. For those not in the know, Strat-O-Matic Baseball is a card dice game that simulates a game of baseball. Dad taught me the game in the early 80s and it instantly became an obsession. We would order cards every season and then either draft our own teams or play out a season. The 1985 Yankees were my favorite team to play with and Bob Shirley’s card had great value because he could start or relieve without fatigue being a factor. While he didn’t have a lot of strikeouts, his card was good to get through the middle innings of any game.

Yes, my fascination with Bob Shirley came from a board game. My 10-year-old self remembers Shirley being used so much in 1984 and then 1985. Now, decades later, it turns out that Shirley’s magical 1985 season came with more difficulties than we thought. In true Billy Martin style, Shirley had to earn his manager’s trust. When he didn’t have that trust, he was, quite literally, not used. It is yet another fascinating story from the Martin years.

Shirley was a left-handed pitcher who spent five years with the New York Yankees. Originally drafted by the San Diego Padres in the first round (eighth pick overall) of the 1976 draft, Shirley carved out an 11-year career as a major league pitcher. He was the primary swingman on pitching staffs throughout his career, appearing in 434 games and making 162 starts. He compiled a record of 67-94 with a 3.82 ERA while allowing 1,432 hits, 543 walks, and 790 strikeouts.

Shirley made his MLB debut for the Padres in 1977 as a 23-year-old and appeared in 197 games over his four years in San Diego. He was involved in a big trade during the winter of 1980 as he was sent along with Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, Gene Tenace, and a player to be named later (who turned out to be future Yankee Bob Geren) to the St. Louis Cardinals for Terry Kennedy, John Littlefield, Al Olmsted, Mike Phillips, Kim Seaman, Steve Swisher, and John Urrea. Shirley would spend one season in St. Louis before being traded to the Reds the following year.

The Yankees signed the southpaw as a free agent in the winter of 1982 to a three-year, $2.05 million deal. Shirley struggled during his first season as a Yankee both on the field and with manager Billy Martin. He appeared in 25 games, while making 17 starts, compiling a 5-8 record along with a 5.08 ERA in 108 innings. He allowed 122 hits, 36 walks, and struck out 56 batters. Had we known about FIP back then, we would see that Shirley wasn’t as bad as his ERA suggested as he posted a FIP of 3.98, but that volatile season almost derailed that special 1985 season.

His two best seasons in the Bronx would follow. Playing for new manager Yogi Berra, he would appear in 41 games during the 1984 season, making seven spot starts. He compiled a 3.38 ERA (3.89 FIP) in 114.1 innings while allowing 119 hits. The 1984 team won just 87 games and wasn’t in the pennant race all season as the Detroit Tigers essentially won the division before the month of April closed out.

Then we get to 1985, which was a different story on many levels. The Yankees won 97 games and had a lineup that included Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Don Baylor, Willie Randolph, and an underrated catching tandem of Butch Wynegar and Ron Hassey. That offense finished in the top three of every single offensive category. The 97 wins were the third most in the major leagues, but in an age without a Wild Card, the Yankees would miss the playoffs by two games.

The weakness of that team was the rotation as only Ron Guidry posted a season that was much better than league average. However, the Yankees bullpen was stellar, led by closer Dave Righetti, setup man Brian Fisher, and a cast of middle relievers that included Rich Bordi and Neil Allen. Shirley was an integral part of that bullpen as he put together the best season of his career.

Working in 48 games and making eight starts, including two complete games, Shirley pitched 109 innings — fifth most on the team — allowing 103 hits, 26 walks, and 55 strikeouts. His 2.64 ERA was the best of his career and the best second best on the entire staff. With a 2.99 FIP and a career best 1.183 WHIP, Shirley’s best year coincided with the Yankees’ apex of the 1980s. They would face five years of steady decline until they were forced to rebuild.

The sum total of the season looks impressive, but getting to that total was quite a different story.

Daily News Front page headline, April 29,1985. , YOGI’S OUT, Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Yogi Berra was fired just 16 games into the season on April 28th. Billy Martin was once again brought back by George Steinbrenner. At the time, Shirley had made six relief appearances totaling 9.2 innings and a 2.37 FIP. Back in Billy Martin’s bullpen, he made one relief appearance on April 30th, an innocuous one scoreless inning in a Yankees’ loss.

Then, Shirley sat in the bullpen for almost a month, a healthy scratch.

He wasn’t hurt and he was never demoted.

Martin just didn’t pitch him.

While completely healthy, Martin didn’t call on him to make another appearance until May 26th, another one inning appearance, this time in a blowout win against the Oakland A’s. Remember, Shirley pitched 109 innings for the season, but entered May with just 10.2 innings pitched.

Evidently, Martin either didn’t really trust or didn’t like Shirley because of his performance in 1983. Shirley would be quoted in June saying that he knew he wasn’t one of Martin’s favorites. Well, that was obvious. With today’s constant roster shuffling, having a pitcher never enter a game for a month would be grounds for firing. Back then, it was just Billy being Billy.

As injuries began to ravage the pitching staff, Martin had no choice; Bob Shirley needed to start. From June 10th through June 30th, Shirley would make four starts and two relief appearances. He’d pitch 25 innings allowing 23 hits with 10 strikeouts and a 2.88 ERA (3.76 FIP). In fact, he started twice during the week of June 10th, throwing 15.1 innings and allowing just two runs. For his efforts, he was awarded MLB Player of the Week. Although the Yankees desperately needed him and he delivered, Martin didn’t praise, but (hopefully) joked, “Player of the week and now he’s giving interviews.

Shirley proved to be valuable, even if he wasn’t the strikeout pitcher Martin craved. After not pitching at all for most of May, Shirley became the Yankees’ most reliable pitcher during the second half of the season, appearing in 29 games and tossing 60 innings.

His season is definitely improbable by today’s standards. First, Martin would’ve never been allowed to not use one of his players for a month. Second, Shirley’s ability to pitch multiple innings each appearance and then slip back to a starter’s role is almost non-existent in today’s game. That type of flexibility in today’s specialized game is quite rare.

In all, Bob Shirley’s Yankees career spanned five seasons and 165 games pitched. He would make 38 starts, finish 39 games, throw four complete games, and save five games. In his 470.2 innings, he allowed 488 hits, 156 walks, and struck out 232 hitters — good for a 4.05 ERA and 3.09 FIP. While never a star, Shirley was, for a two year period, one of the Yankees’ most reliable and versatile pitchers despite having a manager who had a hard time believing in him.

And, that “Strat” card was awesome.