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There are adults who were still in diapers and pinstriped onesies when Wade Boggs rode a horse around the Yankee Stadium infield after the Bombers won the 1996 World Series. Those adults, and those born after them, have grown up unacquainted with the idea that the New York Yankees can, for lack of a better term, suck. Sure, Millennials might not think they Yankees will win the World Series every year; it has happened only once since 2000. They've even been disabused of the notion that the Yankees are an annual lock to make the playoffs, having seen them fail to do that three times going back to 2008. But lose? The Yankees haven't finished under .500 since Bill Clinton became president.
Wednesday's ninth-inning win against the Texas Rangers notwithstanding, this year's Yankees are not good, and they're criminally boring, but they have not yet experienced the kind of avant-garde futility that defined the last great epoch of Yankees mediocrity. It's tough to describe the ways in which those Yankees teams were bad and sad, but here's a start: this week, in 1990, a player the team had just signed to a disastrous free agent contract threw a no-hitter and lost. In the process, Andy Hawkins became an emblem of the whole lousy wasted era.
When the Yankees signed Hawkins, they were coming off a run that was simultaneously successful and a complete failure. Throughout the 1980s, Yankees broadcast shills would trumpet on a nightly basis that the team had won more games than any other team that decade. It was true, too. From 1980 through 1989, the Yankees went 854-708.They had 15 more wins than the runner-up Detroit Tigers and 28 more than the third-place Kansas City Royals.
The Tigers, though, won a World Series in 1984, and the Royals earned their rings in 1985. The Yankees won nothing at all between 1978 and 1996. This gap will not elicit any sympathy from Chicago Cubs fans, who have been waiting their lifetime plus their parents' and their grandparents' and their great-grandparents' lifetimes to see their team take a bow. It shouldn't elicit sympathy from anyone: the Yankees' "triumph" of the 1980s, which subsided into almost total collapse beginning in 1989, was one of the great sustained examples of overpriced incompetence in baseball history—a blowhard organization hiding behind bogus achievements instead of facing its failures, compulsively spending on free agents while willfully neglecting the farm system, denigrating the few young players that somehow emerged from those stagnant pastures, and then, when they couldn't win championships, boasting that they'd won more games than anyone.
The Yankees did reach the postseason in 1980 and again in 1981. The first time, they were swept out of the playoffs by the Royals. The next year, they took a two-games-to-none lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series and lost from then on. In both cases, the core was the aging remains of the 1976-78 pennant winners: Ron Guidry, Bucky Dent, Graig Nettles, Reggie Jackson, Lou Piniella. To get to the next era, the Yankees had to figure out how to rebuild and win at the same time.
This is a difficult proposition for the strongest of front offices, and the Yankees were at a unique disadvantage thanks to their owner. The predicament was very similar to the one the team is in now: it had cut itself off from good young pitching. From good young hitting, too, but let's focus on the pitchers.
Steinbrenner had no patience for young players or the adjustment period that even top-tier talents need in order to succeed in the majors. That adjustment is historically harder for pitchers than hitters, and Steinbrenner was harder on pitchers, too. When 24-year-old sophomore pitcher Mike Griffin lost a spring training game to the New York Mets in 1981, Steinbrenner said, "Mike Griffin has fooled us long enough." Griffin's major league career at that point comprised nine starts and seven relief appearances. "We found out about him today. That does it for him. He won't be pitching for us this year." That's how much rope kid pitchers had. During spring training in 1986, Steinbrenner shouted at 27-year-old Dennis Rasmussen, "I've seen enough! It's off to Columbus for you!" Steinbrenner was perpetually this close to turning into a John Tenniel illustration and shouting, "Off with his head!"
And so many young pitchers were dealt for their older brethren, with varying results. Griffin was traded that August for Rick Reuschel, 32. Future Cy Young winner Doug Drabek, 24, was traded for Rick Rhoden, 34. Jim DeShaies, 25, was swapped for Joe Niekro, 40. Bob Tewksbury, 26, brought back Steve Trout, who was already a ten-year veteran at age 29. Al Leiter, 23, brought back a very good position player in Jesse Barfield, but Barfield was 29 and running down early due to injuries.
None of this is to imply that the Yankees were drowning in young pitchers—they sent away almost all of their first-round picks from 1979 through 1989 in free-agent signings. (The team's only actual pick in that 11-year span, 1984 first-rounder Rick Pries, had a career strikeout rate in the minor leagues of 3.8 per nine innings, about as clean a miss on a prospect as is possible.) In return, they gained the services of Tommy John and Dave Winfield but also of Dave Collins and Ed Whitson.
OK, so the Yankees didn't know how to draft or develop young pitchers. Ideally, they could sign a bunch of the 30-year-old Cy Young types on the free agent market, but in the 1980s the good pitchers mostly weren't there to be signed, either due to when they came up, personal choice, or this stupid (and illegal) thing called collusion, in which the owners agreed not to sign away each other's players. Steinbrenner cooperated, presumably on rancid principle, despite the fact that this limited the one thing he knew how to do: buy players other teams had already identified as good. The Yankees didn't have the prospects to trade for those guys; the rare times they dealt away a veteran in his prime, they muffed the return. That was the vicious circle on which the Yankees hamster-wheeled their way through the decade.
Add it all up, and you get a team that had only four pitchers compile even ten WAR with the team during the 1980s, two of whom were primarily relievers. Don Mattingly put it best in an interview with Bill Madden for the book Pride of October:
"It seemed like we hit the wall an awful lot in August, pitching-wise.... We never got those dominant kind of pitchers, either through our system or in the market.... We were trying to win asking Tommy John and Phil Niekro to make 30 quality starts at 42 years old. Nothing against them. They were gamers and great pitchers in their prime, but they should have been No. 4 or No. 5 starters with us and we were asking them to be No. 1 or 2."
And so that left things in the hands of Andy Hawkins, whom the Yanks signed in 1988. What recommended Hawkins was that he was 1) a big league pitcher and 2) a signable free agent. In seven seasons with the Padres, he had struck out 4.0 batters per nine innings while walking 3.4. Both trailed the league average. His ERA of 3.84 was below league average, as well, and he never had two good years in a row.
In his report on the Hawkins signing, the New York Times' Murray Chass showed uncharacteristic perspicacity when he wrote, "Manager Dallas Green said that Hawkins, who will be 29 years old next month, would be the anchor of his starting rotation, which raised instant questions about the talent that will make up the rotation."
Hawkins went 15-15 in 1989, with a well below average 4.80 ERA. The 1990 season represented a giant step down from that already low point of departure. The right-hander entered a July 1st start at Chicago's Comiskey Park with an ERA of 6.49; opposing hitters were averaging .300/.385/.490 against him. Hawkins was allowing 11 hits per nine innings, and there were rumors that he would be released. Nolan Ryan this was not.
The wind was swirling in left field that day, making it hard on rookie Jim Leyritz, who was playing his fourth- or fifth-best position on a list that began at DH and traveled through catcher before eventually reaching the outfield. In the bottom of the first, Lance Johnson popped a ball into left, which Leyritz barely snatched off the grass as it drifted back toward the infield. In the bottom of the fifth, 20-year-old White Sox rookie Sammy Sosa, batting eighth that day, hit a fly to left that had home-run distance but was knocked back in bounds at the wall by the wind.
Hawkins limited the White Sox to three walks through seven, but Sox lefty Greg Hibbard and a pair of relievers matched him on the run-prevention side, holding the Yankees scoreless on four hits and no walks. Hawkins induced the first two batters in the bottom of the eighth to pop out, but rookie third baseman Mike Blowers mishandled Sosa's routine grounder, allowing him to reach on a headfirst slide into the first-base bag. After Sosa stole second, Hawkins issued consecutive walks to Ozzie Guillen and Lance Johnson, two hitters who would rather fight than take ball four.
This would have been a good time to pull Hawkins, who was well over 100 pitches—he'd finish at 135—but manager Stump Merrill later said it never occurred to him. The next batter, Robin Ventura, lifted a routine fly to Leyritz, but the wind took it, Leyritz turned the wrong way, and the ball hit off the tip of his mitt and shot away at a right angle. All three runners scored. Ivan Calderon followed with a high fly to right, which two-time Gold Glove winner Barfield lost in the sun. It, too, tipped off his mitt, allowing Ventura to score. The Yankees failed to rally in the top of the ninth. Hawkins' final line has a strange look: 8 IP/0 H/4 R/0 ER/5 BB/3 SO. And, of course, a loss.
"I got beat and that stinks, but I still threw a no-hitter and that will never be taken away from me," Hawkins said afterward. "I'm starting to feel better about it." A year later, Major League Baseball changed its definition of a no-hitter and Hawkins' game was indeed taken away from him. Dark times.
As misguided as the Yankees pitching was in 1990, the hitting was even worse, just as it is in 2016. The team couldn't find a shortstop, and they had to weather Steinbrenner's endless firing of managers and pitching coaches, his petty secret war on Dave Winfield, and myriad other consequences of their owner's personal smallness. Steinbrenner had learned all the wrong lessons from his mid-70s successes. He and GM Gabe Paul traded and spent their way to a great team composed mostly of veterans, but that approach fails more often than not. He had lucked into a group that responded to, or at least withstood, his bullying. Later teams had a different personality, and merely became resentful.
"That's the way things have gone for me," Hawkins said on July 3rd. "I can't even throw a no-hitter right." It wasn't him, though; it was the Yankees. He shouldn't have been there in the first place. You could say the same about the many present-day Yankees veterans playing out the back end of overly lengthy contracts. What eventually turned the Yankees around last time were not more vets of Hawkins' ilk but Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. Rescue came from within. Two decades later, it's a lesson the Yankees appear to have forgotten.
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