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Caveat Emptor- Part One

The Off-Season: Caveat Emptor- Part One

By Tim Kabel

January 20, 2022


As I sat here, preparing to write this article, wearing my fancy, new, comfy Yankees’ sweatshirt that I received as a Christmas gift, I realized that we all like new things. There’s an excitement when we either buy something new or receive a gift. We like to use our gifts right away. We enjoy showing them off and feeling the excitement.

It’s the same with baseball. Signing free agents is like getting something new: buying a new car, getting a nice piece of jewelry as a gift. It breaks up the doldrums of winter. This year we are stuck in the stagnant swamp of the lockout but, eventually it will end. Then, the wheeling and dealing can begin. The Yankees have historically been major players in free agency. For the team and its fans, this is exciting. Signing new players often feels like it will be the solution for whatever the problems were with the team. There is optimism and hope that the new player or players will make a difference and turn the tide. It’s almost like a marriage in a way. There is great excitement about it and the thought is that this person will be the one who will make a difference and bring the team to the promised land. All marriages and free agent signings start off happy, full of hope and joy. However, not all free agent signings, or marriages for that matter, work out. Some free agent signings don’t last until the end of the contract, and some marriages don’t endure. As Frank Burns said on M*A*S*H*, “marriage is the chief cause of divorce.”

As we fans scan the free agent roster, drooling over potential acquisitions for the Yankees, we can dream big. We are like children in front of a toy store, or me in front of a butcher shop. Our noses are pressed up to the glass as we stare longingly at the stuff of our dreams. Will we get Freddie Freeman or Carlos Correa, or both of them? I don’t wish to temper the enthusiasm of the fans but, some of these signings can be busts. Beginning today, I want to look at some of the free agent signings for the Yankees that did not go as well as anticipated. As is always the case, there are many possible reasons for this.

Steve Kemp was a tough, left-handed hitting outfielder, who in his five seasons with the Detroit Tigers from 1977 to 1981, hit .284 with 89 homers and 422 RBI. After the 1981 season, he was traded to the White Sox for Chet Lemon., which reminds me of the old saying, “when life gives you Chet Lemon, trade him to the Tigers.” In 1982, Kemp hit .286 with 19 homers and 98 RBI. The Yankee signed him to a five-year, $5.5 million contract. It was thought that he would flourish and excel as a Yankee and would take advantage of the short porch in right field. It seemed to be the perfect signing.

Kemp went into the 1983 season feeling great. He was poised to have a great year. In the fourth game of the season, Toronto’s home opener, he collided with Willie Randolph and Jerry Mumphrey because they had cotton in their ears due to the cold weather and the loud fans. They didn’t hear each other and collided. This resulted in a nagging right shoulder injury for Kemp. Although he only missed one game, it affected him for the rest of the season. It was his lead shoulder, and he wasn’t able to drive the ball to the opposite field the way he normally did. On August 25th, he was walking to the outfield during batting practice when Omar Moreno hit a line drive that Kemp did not see. Someone yelled, “lookout”. Kemp turned and was struck in the left eye. He was taken off the field in an ambulance and spent one day in the ICU. He lost his depth perception and had reduced vision in his eye permanently. He was never the same player again.

Kemp was traded after the 1984 season to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In two years as a Yankee, he hit.264 with 19 homers and 90 RBI. He did not complete the five-year contract. In his last year in Pittsburgh, 1986, he played only 13 games. He made a comeback in 1988 with the Texas Rangers but that only lasted 16 games. He is now in his 60’s and works part time selling golf equipment and attends Detroit Tiger fantasy camps.

I suppose it’s fair to say that Kemp’s Yankees’ career was a failure. He certainly didn’t live up to his contract. However, it’s hard to lay any blame at his feet. He attempted to play through his first injury, and the second injury incident was a freak injury, over which he had no control. It would be easy to describe the Kemp signing as foolish or a blunder. However, based on the facts that were available at the time of his signing, it was a good move. If there were a player available today who was 28-years-old and had put up the numbers Kemp had, we would all be clamoring for the Yankees to sign him. Unfortunately, fate plays a role in the life of every person. Signing a free agent is it calculated risk. The team, led by the general manager, has to make the best choice for the good of the team. Sometimes it works; Sometimes it doesn’t in the case of Steve Kemp, it didn’t. Just as in a marriage, you could wind up like Monty Hall, who was married for 69 years, (because he knew how to make a deal). Or you could be like Kim Darby, who was married for 47 days, (I guess she lacked True Grit).

When it comes to free agent signings, it is truly best to heed the old Latin expression, Caveat Emptor.


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