There is always a time in one’s fandom when you have to say goodbye to one of your favorite players. If you’re lucky, a player spends his whole career with your team and gets a fitting farewell. Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter certainly provided some memorable moments on their ways out of the door in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Most times, however, the business of baseball takes over, crushing the romanticism we all have for the sport. Yankees fans of the 1970s and ‘80s rarely got that opportunity, as players seemingly revolved in and out of New York. We got to see Guidry throw his last pitch in pinstripes, but even that wasn’t a ceremony, as the former Cy Young Award winner was injured and simply unable to come back. And we definitely got robbed of that opportunity to give Guidry’s co-captain a proper goodbye.
Willie Randolph was one of the most underrated Yankees in their long history. While he wasn’t a New York farmhand, he was the starting second baseman for us ‘80s kids. He actually began the 1976 season as the Yankees’ starter; I was barely a year old. With all of the ups and downs the Yankees had during our childhood and the constant roster turnover, we could all count on two things: No. 30 was playing second base and batting in one of the top two spots in the order.
As kids, we didn’t know that Randolph was one of the better players to have manned the keystone. We just knew that he was our guy, he played hard, and was always doing something positive for the team. Looking back, Randolph is definitely worthy of more accolades, as his career on-base percentage of .373 ranks 22nd all-time among second basemen and his fWAR of 62 compares quite favorably to Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar. He was one of the most consistent performers of his generation, and not only the co-captain of the Yankees, but arguably the one stabilizing force.
During the tumultuous 1988 season, the 33-year-old Randolph posted his worst season as a Yankee while also battling injuries. As the Yankees continued to rapidly descend to being the worst team in baseball, the front office — then general manager Bob Quinn —decided to move on from Randolph in the offseason.
There was no farewell. There was no formal announcement. There was just an announcement that the team agreed to a three-year, $4 million deal with Steve Sax. The three-time All-Star was given a no-trade clause as well, something the Yankees were not willing to do for Randolph. In fairness, the Yankees did offer Randolph a two-year deal, but they wanted him to waive his no-trade rights.
In a mere transaction, the Yankees’ co-captain was gone and replaced by a National Leaguer—a Dodger, no less. Randolph would turn around and sign with the Dodgers that winter.
Something didn’t feel quite right.
Of course, the trade was sold as the Yankees trying to get younger, as Sax was entering his age-29 season after an eight-year career in LA that saw him hit .282/.339/.356 overall. The most we knew about him was that he was the guy with the “yips” during the early ’80s. Looking at his production, he was simply a younger Willie Randolph. Why would the Yankees not keep their co-captain?
Despite our feelings for Randolph, Sax would win us over with the way he played the game. He had the unfortunate timing of being one of the better players on three of the worst teams in modern Yankees history. The 1989 ballclub would post the Yankees’ first sub-.500 record since 1982 and kick off four consecutive losing seasons. One of the hallmarks of Sax’s career was his durability, and it showed during his first season in pinstripes. He played in 158 games, slashing .315/.364/.387 with 26 doubles, 3 triples, 5 home runs, and 43 stolen bases with a .341 wOBA and wRC+ of 114. In terms of WAR, Sax led the Yankees, edging out Don Mattingly for the team lead. Sax would make the All-Star team and garner down-ballot MVP votes.
During a dark time in Yankees history, Sax was one player we appreciated. He was intense. He always seemed to get dirty. He always played like he cared. While Mattingly was our tortured superstar, Sax was the guy from the World Series-winning Dodgers who seemed like the losing actually bothered him. He’d be bothered every year in New York.
1989 was a bad year for the Yankees, as they went from the ill-fated choice of Dallas Green as their manager to Bucky Dent. The folk hero would start 1990, but he’d last just 49 games, paving the way for the “Stump Merrill Era” of Yankees’ history. It was a significant year, however, as Gene Michael took over as general manager, and George Steinbrenner took a back seat due to his suspension.
Sax made the All-Star Team in 1990 despite it being the worst season of his Yankees’ career. He played in 155 games and hit .260/.316/.325 with 24 doubles, 4 home runs, and 43 stolen bases with a .290 wOBA and a wRC+ of 80. The one interesting note of that 1990 team was that it featured four regulars who played in more than 150 games. The offense would finish last in runs scored, but there was not much of an effort to change the roster, as GM “Stick” began the focus of developing the farm system for the next Yankees’ dynasty.
While Michael deservedly gets credit for his rebuild of the Yankees, he did have one quite questionable decision during the winter of 1990. For some reason, the Yankees agreed to a four year contract extension with Sax, paying him $12.4 million. The extension was to keep him in pinstripes through the 1995 season.
Sax rewarded the decision with an above-average 1991 season by playing in 158 games, slashing .304/.345/.414 with 24 doubles, 4 home runs, and 31 stolen bases with a wOBA of .340 and a wRC+ of 110. One would think that Sax was locked in through the rebuild, providing veteran leadership and steady play.
It didn’t turn out that way. During that 1991 season, Sax would be forced to shift to third base to make room for the young Pat Kelly. It was just five games, but the move to the younger Yankees began. It drew the ire of new captain Don Mattingly, who questioned why one of the Yankees’ best players was being treated so poorly and being pushed out. That led to manager Merrill questioning why players had opinions. It was one of the few times Mattingly spoke out against management. Sax’s time in the Bronx was coming to an end (and it didn’t have anything to do with his run-in with the law).
The Yankees headed into the offseason on the precipice of the complete rebuild. Buck Showalter was named the new manager. Names like Bernie Williams, Mike Stanley, and Gerald Williams made appearances. Danny Tartabull was signed as a free agent. With little in the pitching department, Michael made it clear that he was looking to shop Sax, who was already named their third baseman in favor of Kelly at second base.
Michael couldn’t move Sax at the winter meetings because of his “huge contract.” In January, Sax was finally traded to the Chicago White Sox for a package of Domingo Jean, Melido Pérez, and Bob Wickman. While none of the three played a major role in the next dynasty, Pérez and Wickman were big parts of the 1994 team’s success, and the latter was dealt to Milwaukee as part of a late-1996 trade for a surprise playoff hero, reliever Graeme Lloyd.
Sax would play two years for the White Sox and one for the A’s before retiring at the age of 34 in 1994 after undergoing heel surgery.
In all, Steve Sax was one of the best players on the Yankees during their worst time. During his three years, he appeared in 471 out of a possible 486 games. From 1989-92, Sax would compile a .294/.392/.376 batting line with 88 doubles and 142 stolen bases. He was an above average player on some terrible teams.
Was he worth the loss of franchise favorite Willie Randolph?
Statistically, no. Randolph hit .290/.377/.341 with 45 doubles and 18 stolen bases in 478 games for the Dodgers, A’s, and Brewers during those three seasons (making another World Series in ‘90 with Oakland, too). Adding Sax for Randolph added negligible production and only a handful more of games played. It certainly didn’t make a difference in the standings, though they at least got Lloyd out of Sax in a roundabout way.
It was a shame to lose the chance to say goodbye to Willie Randolph, considering that he still played well after leaving the Yankees. However, Steve Sax was easy to root for when there wasn’t a whole lot to root for. His brief time won’t be remembered for winning; it will be remembered for how hard he played each night. There wasn’t a whole lot of that in the early ‘90s.