This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
This is a tale of how a storied franchise, perhaps the most storied franchise in all of sports, hit rock bottom. And why it was a good thing.
The New York Yankees have a rich tradition of winning. That’s an understatement. 27 World Series titles, by far the most in Major League Baseball. Some of the greatest players in the history of baseball have donned the pinstripes. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter. That’s a who’s who in baseball. All of them were Yankees through and through. In short, this is a legendary franchise.
But in 1990, things weren’t great in The Bronx. The Yankees were under the ownership of the unpredictable George Steinbrenner. The shipping magnate was so eccentric, he was spoofed brilliantly on Seinfeld when George Castanza was an employee of the Yankees. Steinbrenner had a stormy relationship with former manager Billy Martin, whom Steinbrenner fired four times, while Martin resigned another time. Martin was prepared to come back for his sixth stint as Yankees manager, but he was killed in a car accident on Christmas Day, 1989.
After Martin’s death, Steinbrenner decided to bring back Bucky Dent to be the Yankees manager. The former Yankee shortstop was best known for hitting a clutch three-run homer in a one game playoff versus the Boston Red Sox in 1978. Dent came in as manager towards the end of the 1989 season, going 18-22 to close out the season. He was left with the unenviable task of managing a rag-tag crew to some form of glory. Dent lasted 49 games, before getting sacked as the Yankees posted a measly 18-31 record during that span.
Dent was replaced by Stump Merrill who could not turn the team’s fortunes around. Then again, he didn’t have much to work with.
Don Mattingly was Mr. Yankee during his time in The Bronx but in 1990, he was having his worst season of his career. It didn’t help that the longtime first baseman battled a back injury that forced him to miss 60 games during the season. Mattingly’s numbers took a sharp decline, as he batted .256 with 5 home runs and 42 RBIs. Mattingly also had issues with Merrill who told him to cut his hair, as Mattingly had a mullet that Billy Ray Cyrus would be proud of. (This incident happened in 1991)
Mattingly was benched but more importantly, he was featured in an episode of the Simpsons where Mr Burns told Mattingly to shave his sideburns. Mattingly agreed and then muttered “I still like him better than Steinbrenner.”
Second baseman Steve Sax also saw his numbers dwindle. After hitting .315 in 1989, Sax saw his average drop to .260, swatting 4 home runs, while driving in 42 runs.
Right fielder Jesse Barfield led the team with 25 home runs and 78 RBIs but also struck out 150 times, which made him an all or nothing hitter. On a team that lacked talent, Barfield’s approach wasn’t fitting to the team.
The leading hitter on this putrid Yankees team was centre fielder Roberto Kelly who topped the Pinstripes with a .285 batting average. That’s right, no Yankee hitter with enough plate appearances hit over .300 in 1990. These weren’t the Bronx Bombers. These guys were the Bronx Bums.
Young players tried their best. Kevin Maas did swat 21 home runs, but only had 41 RBIs. His poor defensive play made Maas a designated hitter for the most part, even though he wanted to play first base. But with Mattingly taking that spot when he was healthy, Maas only saw spot duty.
Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens was touted to be the next great Yankee power hitter. Standing 6-4 and weighing a muscular 200 lbs, Meulens looked like a stud on the on-deck circle. But once he stepped up to the plate, he was reduced to chasing every pitch known to mankind. Meulens did hit 3 home runs in 23 games, but he could never crack the full-time roster. Meulens bounced around until 1998, when he took his bat and went home forever.
The Yankees were the worst hitting team in all of baseball in 1990, hitting a mere .241 as a team. They also scored the fewest runs in the American League, as only 603 base runners touched home plate, or an average of 3.72 runs scored per game. The Yankees had the fewest RBIs in the American League with 561. Clutch hitting was not a specialty on this Yankee team.
Pitching was only slightly better, but not much. Tim Leary led the team with 9 wins and 134 strikeouts. He also shared the lowest ERA with Dave Lapoint, posting a 4.11 ERA. But a lack of run support hurt Leary, as he lost 19 games to make his season somewhat miserable.
Mike Witt was hoping to revive his career in the Big Apple. But the core had some worms inside. His record was a mediocre 5-6 with a 4.47 ERA. Arm troubles forced Witt to the sidelines and his career never recovered. After a failed comeback in 1991, the hard-throwing right-hander was forced to call it a career.
Andy Hawkins had a year full of bad luck. His ERA ballooned to 5.67 while posting a 5-12 record. But his bad luck reached a new level on July 1. In a game against the Chicago White Sox, Hawkins was brilliant on the mound, hurling a no-hitter against the Southsiders. But his teammates bungled the game for him by committing 3 errors in the eighth inning, letting 4 White Sox cross home plate. The Yankee hitters did their usual disappearing act by not scoring a single run. Thus, Hawkins is credited with a no-hitter while losing 4-0. It is the largest defeat ever for a team when their own pitcher surrendered zero hits. It was that kind of year for the Yankees.
But all of this pales in comparison to the tale of Steinbrenner. The mercurial owner of the Yankees was suspended back in 1974 after Steinbrenner pled guilty to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1972. Then commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner for 2 years but later reduced it to 15 months. President Ronald Reagan pardoned Steinbrenner in 1989.
But Steinbrenner couldn’t stay out of trouble. It started in 1981 when the tyrant signed Dave Winfield to a then record 10-year, $23 million deal. While Winfield put up solid numbers, the team didn’t achieve the success Steinbrenner had desperately hoped for. Winfield’s poor play in stretch drives led Steinbrenner to dub the hulking outfielder “Mr. May”, a take on the Mr. October moniker given to Yankee legend Reggie Jackson.
Winfield missed the entire 1989 season due to a back injury, but was ready to return in time for the 1990 season. The feud erupted into epic proportions. Steinbrenner “hired” known gambler Howie Spira for $40,000 to “dig up dirt” on Winfield. In turn, Winfield sued the Yankees for not donating $300,000 to his charity foundation, which was a stipulation in Winfield’s contract.
MLB commissioner had enough of Steinbrenner and thus banned him from day-t0-day management of the Yankees. (Steinbrenner maintained ownership of the team, but could not hire or fire baseball personnel.) The banishment took place on July 30, 1990 and was set to be a lifetime ban. The announcement took place during the middle of Yankees game at home against the Detroit Tigers. When the announcement was made, the 24,037 patrons at The House That Ruth Built, gave a standing ovation, ending the supposed reign of a ruthless dictator. The happiness was short-lived, as on the very next pitch, Tigers power hitter Cecil Fielder slammed a towering home run into the upper deck, quelling the only joy Yankee fans had all season. It was such a thing that only the 1990 New York Yankees could accomplish. Right after Steinbrenner’s banishment, Winfield was traded to the California Angels.
In the end, the Yankees finished with a 65-97 record, their worst record since 1913. Steinbrenner banishment was lifted in time for the 1993 season, and he became a changed man. Steinbrenner stayed out-of-the-way of the baseball management side, and concentrated more on the business structure of the ball club. It worked like a charm. With Gene Michael running the baseball operations, the Yankees developed young players like Bernie Williams, Jeter, Rivera and Andy Pettitte instead of trading them for veterans. The Yankees developed on the field and soon became contenders. They were in first place in 1994, when the strike cancelled the rest of the season. In 1996, the Yankees rose from the ashes, to capture the World Series, ending an 18-year drought.
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