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Boston’s good ol’ days: When the Yankees were laughingstocks

BY CHRISTOPHER YOUNG

There’s a whole slew of baseball fans who don’t remember a time when there was no DH in the American League, when there were just the two leagues and no divisions (and certainly no wild-card), and when 50-home-run seasons were as rare as Halley’s comet.

But there was also a time, considered the "dark period" by New York Yankees fans of a certain generation, when the Pinstripers were not perennial playoff contenders and Fall Classic aspirants. There was actually a time before Joe Torre and Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera when the Yankees really did, well, you know. They were ordinary or worse and annually buried in the American League standings. Even though the same blusterous man — George Steinbrenner — oversaw the operation and they had baseball’s highest payroll, it just didn’t matter. The Yankees, between the AL-pennant-winning year of 1981 and the title year of 1996, actually did not win one pennant or one divisional crown. Instead, they were chronic underachievers and often the butt of jokes throughout the land.

For Red Sox fans, those are known as the golden years of the two teams’ ancient rivalry. The Sox weren’t world-beaters themselves during that stretch, but they did capture the pennant in 1986 and divisional honors in 1988 and 1990.

But we’re not talking about Boston today; we’re looking at the team that won back-to-back world titles in 1977 and 1978 and collected additional hardware in 1996, ’98, ’99, and 2000. Not only did the Pinstripers have a title drought throughout the ’80s and early ’90s; they were the crown princes of foolishness, and even the class exuded by today’s Yankees still can’t overshadow some of the exploits that made the team the laughingstock of the majors way back when.

Given some of the lunkheaded moves that the Yankees made then, it is difficult to believe that George Costanza was not part of the organization. The team was already up to its now-familiar tricks regarding free agency, and no organization was more freewheeling about offering big-money contracts to available players. Sure, the Yanks did harvest some home-grown talent, including the likes of Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly, and Mike Pagliarulo, but the majority of top-flight players littering the roster in those years were signed as free agents. The list is remarkably impressive, but as now, only one major-league team could afford to stockpile those marquee players’ talents. Dave Winfield. Reggie Jackson. Catfish Hunter. Don Gullett. Goose Gossage. Tommy John. Luis Tiant. Ken Griffey. Rickey Henderson. Don Baylor. Steve Kemp. Jack Clark. Bert Campaneris. Danny Tartabull. And so on.

Some of these players produced, but many did not. Although this era confirms a theory common among defensive Yankees fans — that just spending the most money does not guarantee a title — the big-money players’ underachievement was not what made the team the object of ridicule.

For that, one had to go to the managerial merry-go-round that began in earnest in 1978 — the Yanks’ last title before the onset of the 18-year drought. In that particular season, the Yankees employed three managers during the course of the year, with (remember this name) Billy Martin getting the ax in late July despite a 52-42 record and a defending world champion on the field. (Martin had called Jackson and Steinbrenner "liars" in the days leading up to his dismissal, which was dubbed a "resignation for health reasons.") Interim manager Dick Howser lost but one game following Martin’s tenure before he too got the boot, and recently fired White Sox manager Bob Lemon was brought in to right the ship. Yet in a strange turn of events, the Yankees announced four days later that Martin would return to manage the team in 1980 — nearly two years in the future.

Most New Englanders know how the ’78 season ended for both the Sox and Yanks, but Martin didn’t have to wait until the spring of ’80, because he was brought back when the Yankees fired Lemon — who had led the Pinstripers to that ’78 title — on June 18, 1979, despite a 34-30 record.

But we’re not even close to the end of this tale, folks. After New York endured the death of catcher Thurman Munson along with a fourth-place finish in ’79, Martin was again replaced, in 1980, by Howser after a hotel confrontation with a marshmallow salesman. Howser guided the team to a 103-59 record and another AL East title. But the Yanks were swept by soon-to-be-champion Kansas City in the ALCS, and Howser was sent into premature "retirement" by Steinbrenner & Co. His replacement? Nope, not who you think — at least not yet. Instead, it was former Yanks infielder Gene Michael. He led the squad to an impressive 34-22 record out of the gate, but when the players’ strike split the season, New York’s second-half record under Michael — 14-12 en route to a 25-26 mark — wasn’t quite up to snuff for you-know-who, so the former shortstop was dismissed. Back in the saddle was Lemon, and though the Hall of Famer led the squad back to the World Series, the Yanks’ six-game loss to the Dodgers put an end to his reign (and also resulted in Steinbrenner’s outlandish "apology" to Yankees fans, which doubled as veiled criticism of free-agent signee Winfield’s 1-for-22 output in the Series). Little did the team know at the time that it wouldn’t be returning to the Fall Classic for another 15 seasons, but the off-field high jinks continued, much to the delight of Yankees-haters everywhere.

When Lemon’s squad got off to a 6-8 start in ’82, off went the skipper into the sunset, and who should come riding in but — nope, wait for it! — Gene Michael again. Alas, the Yanks finished in fifth place, just a game out of the cellar, and Stick was replaced in favor of Clyde King midway through the campaign when the team was 44-42 (NY ultimately closed out the ’82 season at 79-83).

Are you getting all this? All these shenanigans took place in the five years after New York’s ’78 title, but the fun was just beginning.

Not surprisingly, Martin was brought in for his third tour of duty in January of 1983. The rowdy skipper’s term that summer was marred by a three-game suspension for kicking dirt on an ump, plus another two-game benching for calling one of the men in blue "a stone liar." The ’83 Yanks finished 20 games over .500, but third place wasn’t good enough for the top brass, and to avoid a players’ mutiny and restore some order to this incarnation of the Bronx Zoo, Hall of Famer Yogi Berra got to take the reins in 1984. Berra had led the cross-town Mets to a surprising NL pennant a decade earlier, and had even steered the Pinstripers to a pennant in 1964. He seemed to be a breath of fresh air amidst the chaos of the team’s revolving-door managerial situation. Berra guided the Yankees to a respectable 87-75 third-place finish, but when the team sputtered out of the gate the following season with a 6-10 record, the affable skipper’s managing career came to an end at age 60.

Now whom should he be replaced by? Hmmm.

Would the fourth time be a charm for the author of Billyball? Not so much. The Pinstripers went 91-54 the rest of the way in ’85 following Berra’s exit, but the team fell two games short of the divisional lead behind the Blue Jays. All the good things that came out of the promising season — an MVP for Mattingly and 20 wins for Guidry — could not prevent the inevitable from happening: the ouster of Alfred Manuel Martin.

But wait! Over? Nothing’s over until we say it is ... and despite two full seasons of managing by a former Yankee outfielder named Lou Piniella — including two 89-win seasons — the popular ex-Yank was also dismissed in the fall of ’87, only to be replaced with ...

Sad, isn’t it? But this is the way it was for the Yankees during the ’80s. When Martin was indeed brought back for a fifth (and, hallelujah, final) time, in 1988, fans of the sport could only shake their heads at the mindless machinations of King George, the Yanks’ principal owner. And when Martin was fired for the final time, in June (even though the team was 40-28), it was based more on his pattern of questionable behavior than his record on the field. That marked the end of Billy Martin’s professional career. His ultimate end would come on Christmas Day a year later — not surprisingly, in a drunk-driving accident.

Until Torre was hired prior to the ’96 campaign, the Yankees went through five more managers, including Piniella one more time, Bucky Dent, Dallas Green, Stump Merrill, and (for a whopping four full seasons up until 1995) Buck Showalter, with little to show for it until the right guy came aboard in the fall of ’95.

At the time, Torre’s hiring didn’t exactly merit a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan (he had winning records in just five of 15 prior seasons). But his delicate touch obviously worked wonders for the then-beleaguered franchise, and seven pennants and four world championships later (not to mention 18 managerial changes in 17 years), and the Pinstripers finally have their man.

Now the team is again one of baseball’s hallmark organizations. But those who love to hate the so-called Evil Empire rejoice in the recollection of those not-so-remote days when the baseball world got guffaws galore out of the Yankees' tribulations.

The controversial era of Billy, Reggie, and Darryl Strawberry is long gone, but Red Sox fans know that those halcyon days of Yankee infamy can always return — as long as George Steinbrenner is at the helm.

"Sporting Eye" runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com. Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung@phx.com


Issue Date: August 23, 2004
"Sporting Eye" archives: 2004 | 2003 |2002
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