Caveat Emptor- Part Five
The Off-Season: Caveat Emptor- Part Five
by Tim Kabel
February 12, 2022
Background – So far, I have written four articles in this series that I am calling Caveat Emptor, which is about free agent signings the Yankees made that for one reason or another, went awry.
A complete list of the players in this series can be found at the end of this article
Being the gold standard at something is a rare thing. Lots of people can cook a meal. But there was only one Julia Child and only one Paul Prudhomme. Many people can carry a tune but, there was only one Luciano Pavarotti. The man who is the subject of today’s article is the gold standard for failure in free agency.
The beautiful mountains of Tennessee produced a great American hero, Alvin C. York, otherwise known as Sergeant York., He was one of the most decorated United States Army soldiers of World War One and won the Medal of Honor.
The mountains of Tennessee also produced Eddie Lee Whitson, I remind the mountains of Tennessee, “You win some, you lose some.”
In 1984, Ed Whitson had had a career year with the San Diego Padres. He had a record of 14-8 with a 3.24 ERA. He pitched for the Padres In the third game of the National League Championship series, facing elimination. He held the Cubs to five hits and one run over eight innings. The Padres went on to face the Tigers in the World Series, where they lost four games to one. Whitson did not pitch well in the series.
After the 1984 season, Whitson became a free agent and signed a 5-year contract with the New York Yankees worth 4.4 million dollars with a sixth-year option. To say that Whitson did not do well with the Yankees or that he got off to a slow start would be massive understatements. In his first 11 starts, his record was 1-6 with a 6.23 ERA. He became the focal point for heckling fans and received verbal abuse and hate mail. He refused to allow his wife, Kathleen, to attend home games. (In hindsight, he should have allowed her to go to the games, and he should have stayed at home.)
On June 11th, 1985, after giving up five hits and one run against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium, Whitson retired the next 19 batters he faced. Fans began to cheer Whitson during the game and although the game was lost by the bullpen in extra innings, Whitson left the game to a standing ovation in the 10th inning. From there, Whitson turned his season around, going 9-1 with a 4.55 ERA over his next 16 starts. On September 12th, The Yankees were just 2.5 games behind the Blue Jays for first place in the American League East when Toronto came to town for a crucial four game series. The Blue Jays took two of the first three games. Yankees manager, Billy Martin, handed Whitson the ball for the fourth game. Whitson gave up four runs in just two innings and Toronto won the game 8-5, to take a 4.5 game lead in the division.
By September 20th, Billy Martin had become so frustrated with Whitson that he pulled him from his scheduled start against the Orioles. Prior to this, Whitson had been used mostly on the road, so that he wouldn’t have to pitch in front of his own hometown fans. That’s generally not a good sign. On Saturday, September 21st, 1985, Ed Whitson was at the Cross Keys Inn outside Baltimore. Eventually, several other members of the Yankees’ traveling party were in the bar as well. Whitson became increasingly more intoxicated and begin complaining loudly about Billy Martin and the way he was treating Whitson. An attorney from New York happened to be seated nearby, as he was in town to watch the series against Baltimore. He deduced by listening to Whitson’s rantings that he was a ballplayer but, quite possibly didn’t recognize Whitson, due to his numerous truncated outings. So, he peered carefully and closely at Whitson, trying to figure out who he was. Whitson became enraged, and loudly demanded to know why the attorney was eavesdropping on his conversation.
As the confrontation between Whitson and the attorney, Albert Millus. became louder and more contentious, Billy Martin walked over to play the role of peacemaker. Billy Martin never would have been confused with Henry Kissinger. Soon, the confrontation between Whitson and Millus ended but, an even more hostile one broke out between Whitson and Martin. Martin had been involved in an incident in that same bar the night before. He had befriended a couple who had just been married. At one point, he danced with the bride. After the bride and groom left, the groom returned shortly thereafter angrily confronting Martin with the allegation that he told his sweet bride that she had a pot belly. Martin defended himself by saying he had said no such thing and pointed out another woman and reported that he actually said that woman had an extremely large posterior. Martin was able to extract himself from the incident with the two angry husbands without bloodshed. He was not so lucky in regard to the fight with Whitson.
Ed Whitson is a very large man. At that time, he was 6 ft 3 inches tall and weighed over 200 lbs. with a barrel chest. He was also trained in martial arts. Billy Martin was substantially smaller and lighter and was 57 years old at the time. Although he was a seasoned scrapper, who had beaten men bigger than himself numerous times, at that time, he was not equipped to fight someone 27 years his junior. After Billy’s failed attempt to play the role of peacemaker, he and Whitson were rolling around the floor of the bar, wrestling furiously. Punches were thrown, and according to Billy, Whitson kicked him several times. Billy blocked one of the attempts with his forearm, causing it to break. The brawl was broken up multiple times but, the two combatants kept going at each other. Finally, Whitson was pulled through one door of the hotel and taken up in an elevator to his room on the third floor. Martin was taken to a different elevator and brought to his room on the third floor. Unfortunately, both elevator doors opened simultaneously, putting Martin and Whitson face to face once again. The fight continued. Whitson was subsequently sent back to New York with a cut lip, and abrasions on his arms, as well as a bruised rib. Martin had a broken arm. The next day, with his arm in a sling, Martin complained about Whitson’s technique of kicking and using martial arts in their brawl. “I can’t fight feet “, he said.
Whitson finished the season with a 10-8 record and a 4.88 ERA. After the season, Martin was fired despite the fact that the team won 97 games. Most people suspected that he was fired due to the altercation with Whitson. In essence, Whitson was responsible in some way for the firing of two managers that season. Yogi Berra was dismissed after only 16 games, due to the team’s bad start.
Lou Piniella replaced Martin for the 1986 season. Whitson was used as both a starter and a reliever in 1986. He was a combined 5-2 with a 7.54 ERA, before he was traded to the Padres in July. He did not fulfill his contract and was an unqualified disaster as a free agent signing. As I noted in the beginning of this article, he is the paragon of horrible free agent signings.
The Whitson signing was so bad and the fit for him in New York was so incongruous that to this day, every time a player struggles in New York, Whitson is dragged out of mouth balls and held up for comparison. Whitson had not achieved the success in his career that Don Gullett had when the Yankees signed him. Whitson was a middle of the road pitcher and when he came to the Yankees, he became worse, and he wilted under pressure. Imagine having a pitcher on your team who was so awful he could not pitch in front of the home fans.
Ed Whitson is not only the embodiment of Caveat Emptor; he is now used as barometer and a potential warning flag when the Yankees sign new players. The expression often used is, “We don’t want him to be another Ed Whitson.” I guess it’s good to be known for something. Whitson’s claim to fame is being a horrible free agent signing, a mediocre-at-best pitcher, and someone who had no reservations about doing his “karate kid” impersonation while beating up someone twice his age and 2/3 his size.
Previous Articles in this Series: