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The Yankees and their “gift returns”

Remembering some instances when the Yankees sent a player back to the team they had acquired him from.

New York Yankees Photo Day at Legends Field Photo by Robbie Rogers/MLB via Getty Images

While the Christmas and holiday season is a time of giving, sometimes the stuff you get isn’t quite what you were looking for. Around now is the part of the year where a lot of people will return some gifts that they don’t love — maybe say, that sweater from your aunt.

In baseball, the main mechanism of returning players comes via the Rule 5 Draft. Every team, teams can select players from other organizations to put on their roster, but they must return them if they don’t keep them on the 26-man major league roster for a whole season.

A less common instance, but one that still occasionally happens, is a team trading for a player, only to then trade him back to that team at a later date. That is more in line with the tradition idea of a gift return, so in that line of thinking, let’s look back at some notable instances of “gift returns” from Yankees history.

Rickey Henderson

Oakland Athletics v New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

As Esteban recounted just the other day as part of our Top 100 Yankees series, Henderson’s tenure with the Yankees was a massive success on the field. Having acquired him from the Athletics ahead of the 1985 season, Henderson put up a 135 OPS+ and 30.8 bWAR in 596 games with the Yankees. His first year with the team saw him finish third in MVP voting, and — while I know this is some what heretical to say on a Yankees’ site — he probably should’ve beaten out teammate Don Mattingly for the award.

However off the field, things could get a little weird. Rickey certainly had some eccentricities to him, and that often proved to be an awkward fit with the New York media, especially during a time when George Steinbrenner was arguably at his George Steinbrenner-y peak. Eventually with the Yankees not really in contention (they never managed to get enough pitching to match their potent offense) and Henderson about to hit the free agent market, they traded him back to Oakland in July 1989.

Henderson went on to help the A’s to the World Series that year, and won AL MVP the following season, as he was still very much in the prime of a Hall of Fame career.

Randy Johnson

In the running with Rickey for the most famous name on this list, Johnson’s Yankee career didn’t particularly go smoothly on or off the field.

Having just allegedly run into some troubles in the 2004 postseason, the Yankees sought to alleviate them, and acquired Johnson — who had been one of the bests pitcher in baseball for years at that point — ahead of 2005 from the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team he had helped beat the Yankees in the 2001 World Series.

Johnson was solid in 2005, but wasn’t quite at his five-time Cy Young Award-winning peak. He then really struggled the next year, putting up an ERA+ below average for the first time since 1989, as he dealt with a back injury. Add into that, there were dreaded “Could he handle New York?” questions always circulating, adding a layer to his struggles.

Citing a desire to be closer to home after the death of his brother, Johnson was traded back to Arizona in January 2007. He rebounded across the next two seasons, helping him inch closer to 300 victories, which he reached in 2009 with the Giants before retiring and entering Cooperstown in 2015.

Ron Hassey

Not as famous as some of the other names on this list, but this sequence is arguably the funniest on this list.

In December 1984, the Yankees acquired veteran catcher Ron Hassey from the Cubs as part of a seven-player trade. After a productive 1985 campaign, Hassey was then traded by the Yankees to the White Sox in December 1985.

Just a couple months later, before ever even playing a game with the White Sox, Chicago sent him right back to the Yankees in February. Included in a package going back to the White Sox was minor league outfielder Glenn Braxton, who the Yankees had gotten from the Sox in the December Hassey trade.

After appearing in 64 games at the start of the 1986 season, the Yankees once again decided to move him. “Where?” you might wonder: that’s right, they sent him to the White Sox in July. Hassey later became a free agent in 1987 and again in 1989. He didn’t sign with either the Yankees or White Sox either time, and frankly, I wouldn’t have even picked up the phone had one of them called me.

Scott Proctor

New York Yankees v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Stephen Dunn /Getty Images

The Yankees acquired the relief pitcher and former Dodgers fifth-round draft pick Proctor in July 2003, as part of a deal that sent Robin Ventura to LA and brought reserve outfielder Bubba Crosby to New York. At that point, Proctor had yet to pitch in the major leagues.

Four years and approximately nine million innings later — shoutout to Joe Torre — the Yankees traded him to the Dodgers for Wilson Betemit, who they later used to help acquire Nick Swisher.

Brad Gulden

This was an occasion of the Yankees being on the other end of a “gift return,” but it’s too good to not at least make it an honorable mention here. Gulden caught parts of two seasons for the Yankees from 1979-80 before being dealt to the Mariners on November 18, 1980 for a player to be named later and Larry Milbourne.

Gulden made just eight MLB appearances for Seattle before being sent away in May 1981 as the aforementioned PTBNL in that November 1980 trade. He didn’t actually appear in the majors again for the Yankees, but he remains one of four players in MLB history to be traded for himself.

Tyler Wade

Let’s end on a funny note at look at one more person who went away from the Yankees, only to return.

After a couple seasons as mostly a bench/utility player, the Yankees traded Wade to the Angels in November 2021 for a player to be named later. While playing for the Angels, Wade — who came up through the Yankees’ system with and was good friends with Yankees’ star Aaron Judge — joked that he had “planted some seeds” for the idea that Judge should’ve sign with the Angels upon reaching free agency after the 2022 season.

Just a couple months later, Wade was traded back to the Yankees for a player to be named later or cash considerations. Beyond a brief taxi squad appearance, he never returned to the New York clubhouse in 2022, but considering that Judge is still a Yankee, maybe Wade did plant some seeds — just for his final team of 2022, rather than the one with whom he started the season.