May 25, 2023, 05:55AM

Learning to Love the Pinstripers

Bill and I first became baseball fans when the Mets were born.

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I’ve been a Yankees fan since I was around 15. That year a few buddies of mine talked me into taking a train into Grand Central Station from our hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut and boarding a subway for 161st St. and Yankee Stadium. Growing up with one parent, my younger brother Bill and I never played baseball or any organized sports as very young kids. When we did, our game was sandlot baseball. Our older sibling Fred Jr. taught us how to throw and catch a ball and bought Bill and I our first baseball gloves, Rocky Colavito models. Long story short: my widowed Dad raised three boys and our sister Mary Beth by himself while working at least six days a week. Fred was our sports instructor. Bill and I first became baseball fans when the Mets were born. Because Dad never forgave the Yankees for releasing Babe Ruth in 1935, he wasn’t a Yankees fan. He became a Dodgers fan and then when they split for the West Coast, a Mets fan. Consequently, Bill and I rooted for the Mets.

But when I went to that game at Yankee Stadium with Pete and Skip all those years ago, Mickey Mantle smacked a home run. He hit it right-handed and it landed in the upper deck of right field. I became a Yankee fan… just as they became a lousy team with CBS running the show. The Yanks got old overnight. CBS gave up and sold the team to investors ostensibly headed by Mike Burke, a CBS executive, who was one of a group of limited partners. Another partner was George Steinbrenner. One of the great baseball quotes attributed to John McMullen, who sold his Yankee stock when he purchased the Houston Astros: “There is nothing quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner’s.” I loved that Miracle Mets team of 1969, my big hippie year—until I got drafted. I still root for the Mets—except when they play the Yankees.

Steinbrenner was a Cleveland guy who bought and then expanded through acquisitions a large shipping conglomerate that his grandfather founded. He’d dabbled in sports ownerships but knew a bargain when he saw it, $10 million for the Yankees. George quickly poached General Manager Gabe Paul from the Cleveland Indians. Paul had introduced Mike Burke to George when Burke was looking for investors. Paul worked his magic bringing in several great players. Thurman Munson and Roy White were already established star players but the new administration brought in more solid contributors. Those 1970s Yankees were an absolute pleasure to watch. Steinbrenner’s greatest successes happened when smart baseball people, like Paul and Gene Michaels, made the big decisions.

As a single guy for much of the 1970s I went to a lot of games at the Stadium and watched on TV with my pals at home or at a bar. After suffering through some bad years the Yankees suddenly were relevant. With Paul running the show the Yanks picked up Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Catfish Hunter, Dick Tidrow, Oscar Gamble, Lou Piniella, Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa, Bucky Dent and Reggie Jackson.Munson and White were finally part of a high-functioning team and Ron Guidry emerged as a star. 1976 was wonderful as the team won the Eastern Division and beat the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series. The Yankees were in the World Series for the first time in 12 years! They were swept by the Cincinnati Reds. That was painful but the new administration had brought in a pennant.

The next two years were full of drama with Billy Martin, Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson appearing on the back pages of the New York newspapers every day. The Pinstripers won the World Series both years. Reggie became Mr. October in 1977 when in the clinching game 6 he hit home runs on three straight pitches. What amazes me is that Reggie had hit a homer his last time up in game 5. In two different games on four straight pitches, he hit four straight home runs… in the World Series. The hirings and firings of Billy Martin were silly but the winning Yanks drew millions and sold a lot of t-shirts, hats and souvenirs.

In 1978 the Yankees were once again highly entertaining and fought a great Red Sox team with Yaz, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans down to the last game of the season. At one time the Yanks were 14 ½ games behind the Sox. Billy Martin resigned as manager and under the laid back leadership of Bob Lemon the Yanks went on a tear, caught the Sox in the standings and the season ended with both teams tied at 99-63. This set up a one-game playoff at Fenway Park with the winner facing Kansas City in the ALCS. I’d been promoted and my company was sending me away to a nine-week training course in New Jersey. I had a lunch date with a girlfriend set up for the day that the playoff game fell on and wasn’t happy about it. We had a lovely lunch and I rushed home in time to catch the game about an inning before Bucky Dent’s fateful homer that helped seal the Division.

1979 was a great year for me as I married the love of my life and had an idea of what I was doing career-wise. Mary and I were wed in May by a Justice of the Peace in our apartment in Trumbull, Connecticut and moved into a small cape in Guilford in December, our first house. Our first year together, however, was in that apartment and I became domesticated as we purchased a washer and dryer—a first for both of us—and other conveniences from an appliance store in Trumbull. It was a warm August day when I stopped in that store to check the status of something we had ordered. The owner ran up to me asked me if I’d heard about the Yankees catcher.  “Munson?” I asked. “Yeah. He died in a plane crash.” I walked out in a daze, robotically turned the key in the ignition and drove the half mile to our apartment. I sat down and cracked open a cold one.

The 1980s started out well with a 103-win season with Dick Howser at the helm. Howser was fired after the Yanks lost an American League Championship Series to the Royals. 1981 was the year of the strike and Gene Michael and Bob Lemon shared the manager job as the firings continued. There were no more Eastern Division titles in the decade. The Yanks had sluggers like Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield as well as the great Rickey Henderson but they resembled the joke about the Red Sox teams of old: “What has 18 legs and no arms?” Pitching did them in every year. Steinbrenner made money but wanted to win and he got involved in everything, including free-agent deals and trades that didn’t work.

Steinbrenner got mixed up with a gambler he was paying to “spy” on Dave Winfield and dig up dirt. Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent suspended Steinbrenner in 1990 for what turned out to be a very productive three years for Gene Michaels. Michaels drafted the “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte. He also traded Roberto Kelly for Paul O’Neill of the Reds and kept Bernie Williams—who Steinbrenner wanted to trade. All of these players came up huge for the Yankees as they won four World Series in five years in the late-1990s. The year before that wild success the Bombers suffered a dramatic loss to the Seattle Mariners in the Wild Card Series of 1995. Michael left the GM job and Bob Watson replaced him. It was Watson who hired Joe Torre, which he was vilified for by fans and sportswriters. One headline was “Clueless Joe.” Watson also traded for Tino Martinez, who was a perfect replacement for the retiring Don Mattingly. The Pinstripers won the World Series in 1996, Watson’s first year as GM and they were eliminated in the playoffs in 1997 by a great Cleveland team. Watson had enough of Steinbrenner’s midnight phone calls and interference and resigned before the 1998 season.

Which brings me to current GM Brian Cashman. He’d started as an intern decades ago primarily because his parents were friends of the Steinbrenners. After Watson’s departure Cashman was promoted from Assistant GM to General Manager. The Yanks won three straight World Series with the team that Michael and Watson put together. Credit Cashman for acquiring David Justice in 2000. Cashman bought a championship in 2009 by signing free agents CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and AJ Burnett. Those contracts and the extension of Alex Rodriguez burdened the team for a long time. I didn’t complain when they won the Series. The 2017 team was fun with a mix of youth in Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez as well as veterans like Brett Gardner and Matt Holliday.

So what did Cashman do? He rankled the esprit de corps. He traded Starlin Castro and a few prospects for Giancarlo Stanton, coming off an MVP season with the Marlins. Stanton played the outfield for the Marlins but he’s become fragile as a Yankee, and has missed more than 40 percent of the games (mostly as a DH) since his arrival. When he does play Stanton is a great hitter but his contract eliminated the Yankees from bidding on free agents who play the field and… play. Cashman also fired Manager Joe Girardi, who was too tough on catcher Gary Sanchez. The 24-year-old Sanchez had just hit 33 homers and knocked in 90 runs. Sanchez has gone downhill ever since. Aaron Boone was working as an on-air personality/analyst for ESPN when Cashman hired him as manager. He’s won a lot of regular season games but no pennants. The amount of injuries that the Yanks have amassed over the last five years continues to amaze me.

Another bad Cashman move was giving Aaron Hicks a seven-year $70M contract. He had one decent year, and was recently DFA’d. Cashman is always grabbing reclamation projects off the scrapheap and he occasionally hits with finds like Gio Urshela or Jose Trevino. But what was he smoking when he traded a rising contributor like Urshela and slumping Sanchez for third baseman Isiah Kiner-Falefa who was put at shortstop as well as an overpaid former star in Josh Donaldson? He should’ve released Sanchez, just picked up by the Mets. Donaldson was once great but not worth the $21M he’s paid this year and is currently rehabbing from a stint on the injured list.

I’ve complained every year that the Yanks don’t develop and/or play their kids. In recent years every position on the field except the one Aaron Judge occupied was fielded by someone another team drafted out of high school or college. The successful teams like the Dodgers, Rays and Astros bring up excellent players from their minors every year. This year the Yankees are actually playing two rookies I like a lot. Anthony Volpe, the highly-touted rookie shortstop, is finding his groove. Oswaldo Cabrera, an infielder who played 40 games last year, now plays many positions, is a switch-hitter, has speed and shows skills in the field. Anthony Rizzo has proven to be a fabulous pickup, playing great defense at 1st base and providing badly needed pop from the left side. The American League East is the best division in baseball this year as every team has a winning record. The division race will be a dog fight.

I love the Yankees, but they need new management. George’s son Hal Steinbrenner has no problem spending money but other teams are simply better managed. The reliance on analytics rewards the team with preset lineups, substitutions, days off for stars and there’s no feel for the game. I can imagine Buck Showalter’s response if he was told to sit Pete Alonso for a planned day off when he’s hit homers in three straight games. Cashman and his backroom nerds call the shots and Boone’s a spokesman for the team. Boone’s a third-generation baseball guy at the major league level and I sometimes wonder what thoughts go through his mind. Gerrit Cole has been great this year but the injuries to the starting pitchers have hurt. Carlos Rodon and Frankie Montas are on the shelf. Luis Severino just got back. Nestor Cortes has been inconsistent but should be fine.

I recently spent some time in my hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut and went to the new Yankee Stadium with my brothers. We had a blast. The last time I was in the Bronx was 2008 as I wanted to see the old Yankee Stadium one last time. My wife Mary and my son Bill went with me. The new one’s nicer, the restrooms are more spacious, the food options are numerous and it was fun. But I miss the old stadium. 


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