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1996 Yankees 20th Anniversary Retrospective: Ruben Sierra

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Ruben Sierra had an up and down career with the Yankees and ultimately did not contribute significantly to their 1996 World Series, but his legacy in the Bronx remains a positive one.

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Background

Ruben Sierra grew up in Puerto Rico where he was originally discovered by baseball scouts prior to the Texas Rangers signing him in 1982. Just 17 years old, Sierra would have to wait until 1986 before he would play in his first Major League Baseball game, during which he hit a home run in his second plate appearance. He would finish the season batting .265 with 16 home runs, and over the next three years would establish himself as a potent power hitter capable of triple digit RBI totals. In 1989, Sierra truly broke out with 29 home runs, leading the American League in RBI (119), Slugging (.543), and extra base hits (78, including 14 triples). He would finish second in the Most Valuable Player voting to Robin Yount. He suffered a steep decline in 1990 before bouncing back in 1991, hitting .307 and earning his second all-star appearance.

Sierra was traded the next year to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Jose Canseco in one of the more infamous and bizarre transactions in professional sports history. Canseco remains among the only players ever traded during a game, and he also happened to be standing in the on-deck circle. Sierra would finish the year better than he had started it, hitting .277/.359/.426. The Athletics would make the Championship Series that year, ultimately succumbing to the Blue Jays in six games. Sierra was essentially traded to replace an outbound legend in Canseco but would play the worst season of his young career in 1993, with a 40 point drop in OPS+ from 126 to 86.

Sierra bounced back in 1994 to make his fourth and final All-Star appearance before being traded to the Yankees in 1995 for Danny Tartabull, whose production had fallen steeply off a cliff compared to his past several seasons. Ten days after his trade to the Yankees, Sierra would drive in seven runs while batting cleanup against the Baltimore Orioles. The next series against the Cleveland Indians, Sierra would hit a grand slam off Orel Hershiser in a loss. He continued to hit clutch home runs down the stretch to help the Yankees earn a spot in the 1995 postseason, where they lost to the Seattle Mariners.

Perhaps Sierra's greatest contribution to the Yankees during his time in the Bronx was hitting the first of back-to-back home runs with Don Mattingly in Game Two during that ALDS, a series the entire team was playing for Mattingly. Sierra absolutely smoked a garbage slider over the right field wall before the legendary first baseman took advantage of Andy Benes' first pitch, and it provoked the beloved call from Gary Thorne: "Ohhh hang onto the roof!"

1996 Performance

Results: 96 G, .258/.327/.403, 17 2B, 11 HR, 83 OPS+, -0.9 WAR

Sierra picked up where he left off in April 1996 with a line of .261/.337/.466, and he continued his act with a huge home run on June 22nd against Cleveland to pull the Yankees even in the sixth inning. However, his numbers had slipped so badly against righties that the Yankees had been forced to start playing Sierra in left field rather than at designated hitter. As a result, Sierra feuded with manager Joe Torre about his playing time, alienating himself further from the clubhouse.

Sierra was never better than "somewhat serviceable" in the field, and the Yankees ultimately decided to make a move in a year they were gunning for a World Series. On July 31st Sierra was traded along with highly touted pitching prospect Matt Drews to the Detroit Tigers for Cecil Fielder. If you have not yet read it, Jason's story on Fielder's 1996 contributions details that he cracked 13 home runs down the stretch and came up huge during the postseason, ultimately impacting each of the ALDS, ALCS, and the World Series. Sierra on the other hand, having been traded to the worst team in baseball, batted .222 and only managed a single home run for the rest of the season.

What did he do after?

Take one look at his Baseball-Reference page and it is clear that Ruben Sierra was the consummate MLB journeyman in his 30s. After his brief stint in Detroit, Sierra would play for Cincinnati, Toronto, Chicago (AL), Seattle, and repeat stints with Texas and the Yankees, where he reconciled with Torre. He played part-time DH and hit 17 homers for the 2004 Yankees, who combined to hit 242 home runs as a team that season. Sierra had a highlight in the ALDS, where five outs away from the Twins forcing a Game 5, he stunned the Metrodome with a game-tying three-run homer in the eighth inning. The Yankees sent the Twins home a few innings later, but Sierra ended up being the final out in the worst or second-worst series most Yankees fans have ever seen (2004 ALCS). He was completely ineffective in 2005 due in part to injury, and played the final 14 games of his career in 2006 as a member of the Minnesota Twins.

Ultimately, Ruben Sierra had one of the stranger careers in recent baseball history. He began his career in the late 1980s as a powerful, gap-hitting outfielder capable of triple digit RBI totals, and by the end of the 90s he was relegated to a DH role to which he could only bring situational value. Strangely, his power numbers and overall hitting grew worse as the steroid era took off, and he was bad enough in the last eight or so years of his career that it is now easy to overlook that he finished with 2,000 hits, 300 home runs, 1,300 RBI, 1,000 runs, and 400 doubles. His Yankees legacy is filled with all-or-nothing home runs and an inability to contribute in 1996, but he was a good player who was inducted into the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame in 2009.