There Will Never Be Another Jay Buhner-For-Ken Phelps Deal

What the hell did the Yankees trade Jay Buhner for? There's a literal answer to Frank Costanza's question, but the broader one is still baffling, even years later.

by Steven Goldman
Jul 20 2016, 4:00pm

Image via YouTube

The trade deadline is not just a chance for a team to improve itself, it's also an opportunity to blow its credibility completely out the window and ruin everything. Yes, teams can make moves that help them win flags that will fly forever, but also there is no better time for an owner or general manager to make a move so misguided that it becomes immortal. A radio host recently asked me if the Yankees would trade veterans for prospects at the deadline. I replied they've had limited experience with that kind of move; more typical was the opposite—something like Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps.

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And then the interview came to a halt for half for a minute as the host reenacted the Seinfeld dialogue between Jerry Stiller/Frank Costanza and Larry David/George Steinbrenner, as well it should have. You know the words.

"What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for? ...He's got a rocket for an arm... You don't know what the hell you're doing!"

"He was a good prospect, no question about it, but my baseball people loved Ken Phelps' bat."

The host did both voices on his own, and he's probably not alone in being able to do the scene from memory. This is, if you think about it, strikingly weird. The trade was made in July 1988, and the episode was first broadcast in January 1996. It did not lead to a pennant or lose one for either team, at least not exactly. No future Hall of Famers were harmed in the creation of this deal. And yet, children then unborn knew exactly what the radio host was talking about. Even Phelps and Buhner themselves are still talking about it. And it goes on:

Buhner-Phelps retains such resonance because it checked off all the boxes of trade-deadline folly, the pursuit of a very specific self-defeating policy. The issue wasn't so much that Phelps was a bad player or that Buhner was assured of turning into a great one; arguably, he never did, and was just a fine power-hitter in a power-hitting era. The issue was that Phelps was a 33-year-old designated hitter and by definition had a limited shelf-life, while Buhner was 23 and had a future you could discern without squinting. Playing at Triple-A Columbus as a 22-year-old in 1987, he hit .279/.351/.514 with 31 home runs. To make an uncomfortable transposition into actual life, it was like dealing off your Phi Beta Kappa freshman child for someone else's spry grandmother.

Buhner was a player you could dream on. Simultaneously, everyone in baseball knew he was a player you shouldn't dream on so long as he belonged to the Yankees. Even Buhner knew it, telling Phelps of all people (last year, in the link above) that he welcomed the deal: The Yankees "were known for taking all their young talent [and] using it to make trades and try to get veteran guys... so, for me, I thought [the trade] was a great opportunity to come over and get a name for myself and get a chance to step in a lineup and play every day. As a young kid that's all you can ever ask for and ever hope for."

Buhner was right; the Yankees would have sent him back to Triple-A for another year if DH Jack Clark, a player they had signed away from the Cardinals that winter for no discernible reason, had not started the year with a leg injury. Buhner struggled when given a chance to play, and the Yankees convinced themselves he had an irreparable hitch in his swing and a bad attitude; Buhner was then known for the kind of post-strikeout tantrums that would make a folk hero of Paul O'Neill in later days. In April it was reported, and confirmed, that the Yankees had offered Buhner and another prospect with a similar profile, Hensley "Bam-Bam" Meulens, to the Atlanta Braves for the soft-tossing lefty Zane Smith. He was also reportedly offered to the Indians for Mel Hall, who the Yankees would trade for the next March, as well as to the Pirates for Tommy Gregg. Just by virtue of his age and not hitting like Willie Mays from the get-go, Buhner's name was prick'd to the point that he was Gregg-bait. Baseball used to be like this. For some teams, it still is.

A reminder: the Yankees were owned by George M. Steinbrenner III, the man who once said to a butter-fingered young player, "What the hell were you doing last night? Jesus Christ! You looked like a monkey trying to fuck a football out there!" That is to say: by a gentle, refined man, one who was more like a nurturing Montessori school teacher than anything else.

When the trade finally did come, it made no sense whatsoever. In July, the Yankees were in deep in the AL East race, trailing the Detroit Tigers by two games. They desperately needed pitching. Instead, they acquired a platoon DH. Phelps was a wonderful platoon DH, too, about as good as a player with that job description could be. Despite a .239 career average, he was selective, walking 70 or 80 times a year despite only playing three-fourths of the time, and when he did get a pitch to hit he put it in the seats once every 13 times at-bat. That is, give Phelps 550 at-bats and you'd get 42 home runs. Of course, with the platooning, it might take two seasons for him to get there, but still, that was real power, especially in the 1980s. Phelps was what he was, but he was a valuable player.

With a big smile beneath an umbrella-width mustache and huge glasses, Phelps also looked like the world's slugging-est Muppet. That has to be worth some bonus points in assessing a trade, but there were other problems, mainly that Phelps had nowhere to play. The Yankees had a full-time DH in Clark and a first baseman who seemed to be on a Hall of Fame trajectory in Don Mattingly. Manager Lou Piniella talked about moving the latter, a deserving annual Gold Glove-winner, to the outfield to make room for Phelps. That was both insane and problematic as the Yankee left- and right-hand gardens were manned by future Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield. Clark, who tended to land on the DL if asked to reach across the coffee table to pass the remote, wound up spotting in the outfield corners instead. It was not a banner year for the organization, but it's not entirely in the past, either.

When a trade addresses no particular problem through a trade and instead creates a problem, it's easy to first-guess. When the team making it fails to justify the move by winning anything—Phelps hit well down the stretch, but the team's mostly elderly pitchers, who had allowed 4.04 runs per nine innings at the time of the trade, ran out of gas and gave up 5.41 runs per nine thereafter and the Yankees wafted down to fifth place. When the subject of said unnecessary-and-unhelpful trade hangs around for another 13 years and hits over 300 home runs, well, it starts to take on the stature of the French at Dien Bien Phu in terms of history's great debacles.

As it happened, 1985 was also the year of Fred McGriff's first full season in the majors, in which the then-24-year-old would hit .282/.376/.552 with 34 homers; the Yankees drafted him, but later dealt him as part of a package for journeyman reliever Dale Murray. This was talked about constantly, and between that and the Buhner deal, it became painfully clear that the emperor 1) had no clothes, and 2) had no business running a baseball team.

About the time of the Buhner trade, I published a column in my high school paper that contained something like these words: "If you're a Yankees fan and you're young enough to be reading these words, congratulations: chances are you'll outlive George Steinbrenner." It's not so much that I was smart. It's just that everyone but the people making the decisions could see how foolish those decisions were.

In October, 1995, or about when a January 1996 episode of Seinfeld might have been in the process of being scripted, the Yankees reached their first postseason since 1981. Their opponent was the Seattle Mariners. Buhner played right field and went 11-for-24 (.458) with a home run in what would be a humiliating 3-2 Division Series loss. Buhner's conspicuous revenge provided the final impetus for the Seinfeld writers to elevate this transaction to the level of Lucy's chocolate conveyor belt and Archie Bunker's flushing toilet in televised immortality.

This was all rather cruelly unfair to Phelps, who hadn't gotten a chance to play regularly in the major leagues until he was nearly 30 and was now being dumped despite being the Mariners' career leader in home runs. "Why am I always the expendable one?" he asked upon learning of the trade. Upon reaching New York, The Sporting News reported, "all Phelps could do was apologize for not being a pitcher." It wasn't his fault that he was beside the point.

It would be harder for a team to commit a Buhner-Phelps act of self-immolation today, although the Diamondbacks might have done so with the Shelby Miller trade last winter, having given up ace defensive center fielder Ender Inciarte and two former first-round picks in Aaron Blair, a pitcher, and Dansby Swanson, a shortstop. That deal aside, though, there are now significant barriers to dealing promising youth for a player you just don't need. Prospect-watching has since gone mainstream, thanks to thousands of fans who seemingly prefer the trailers to the movie. The social media backlash against a contemporary Buhner-for-Phelps deal would be immediate and sustained, and loud enough that everyone would notice.

The remaining element in the deal is folly, and that's hard to pin down. If the Red Sox traded for another starting pitcher to help them in their race with the Orioles and the Blue Jays, that would be understandable; if they traded Yoan Moncada or Andrew Benintendi for him, even that might be defensible if the pitcher was, say, Chris Sale. It seems unlikely they would trade one of them for—to reach for a Phelps-ian analogue in a world sadly bereft of Ken Phelps-es—Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, given that they already have Xander Bogaerts. Such a move would require the intervention of an activist owner who runs his team like a monkey trying to fuck a football, and how many of those do we really have nowadays?

Among the world's collection of possibly apocryphal, definitely famous last words are these spoken by Pancho Villa: "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something." That was Buhner-Phelps. The Yankees couldn't see their way clear to getting an arm, so they did something purely spasmodic instead. Teams today are either wiser or more easily embarrassed, or just better informed. Or maybe it's just this: if you're young enough to be reading these words, congratulations. You outlived George Steinbrenner.

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