The Yankees were coming off a mixed bag season of 1984.
The season began disastrous, as poor play combined with a historically fast start by the Detroit Tigers put the Yankees out of the American League East race early. Out of options for improvement , the team went the unusual (for them) route of giving young players an opportunity and they responded with a 51-29 second half. This was the year of emergence of 23-year old Don Mattingly as a Yankee icon.
With a newfound optimism in the team, the brain trust went into the offseason seeking to make the acquisitions needed to put the team over the top. Consistent with the George Steinbrenner Yankees, the team went big game hunting.
The Yankees acquired from the Oakland Athletics:
Rickey Henderson: Twenty-six year old, four time all-star leftfielder for the A’s. Henderson was entering his last year of his contract, unhappy about his salary, determined to get a lucrative contract – preferably in Oakland but open to other options.
The Yankees dealt to the A’s:
Jose Rijo – nineteen-year old pitcher coming off a 2-8, 4.76 season. Rijo was George Steinbrenner’s answer to the cross-city Mets’ Dwight Gooden phenomenon of 1984, and not a particularly effective one either.
Jay Howell – Yankee reliever who emerged as a solid part of the Yankee pen (9-4, 2.69.) in 1984.
Stan Javier – A solid if not spectacular outfield prospect who reached AAA in 1984.
Eric Plunk – A big (6’5”), twenty-one year old fella with a big arm. In 1984 he led the Class A Florida State league in strikeouts and walks.
Tim Birtsas – Also pitched in the Florida State league in 1984, he was considered a bit more refined than Plunk, and perhaps a bit closer to the majors,
The Short-Term Verdict
Henderson was an immediate hit in New York, leading a juggernaut of an offense that was tops in the American League in 1985. He slashed .314/.419/.516 with 80 stolen bases (a franchise record at the time – he proceeded to set the team standard two more times) and a career high 24 home runs. A true catalyst, he scored 146 runs, setting up sluggers Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield for all-star seasons. Mattingly ended up as the American League MVP with 145 RBI.
The 1985 Yankees were a really good team and battled the Toronto Blue Jays for the AL East title up until the final weekend of the season, but had to settle for a 97-64 second place finish. If today’s divisional setup were in place in 1985, who knows what could have happened.
The rebuilding A’s received relatively good reviews on their take, as Rijo, Plunk and Birtsas were widely considered among the best prospects in the Yankee system, one that was generally well regarded for producing solid major league players – though often for other organizations.
In 1985 the A’s duplicated their 77-85 effort from 1984. Birtsas was 10-6, 4.01, Howell was the A’s closer with 29 saves and a 2.85 ERA. Rijo spend much of 1985 at the triple-A level, joining the team in August – his 6-4, 3.53 ERA gave promise of future stardom.
The Long Term Verdict:
Unfortunately Rijo never became much in Oakland, with a 4.74 ERA while wearing the green and yellow. He was dealt to Cincinnati after the 1987 season along with Birtsas for Dave Parker. Rijo blossomed in Cincinnati, going 97-61, 2.83 for the Reds, including an MVP performance in the 1990 World Series.
Howell, Plunk and Javier were useful players for a period for the A’s, never to reach stardom.
Henderson was an all-star each full season in Pinstripes. By 1989 though, he had fallen out of favor in the Bronx (to be fair, that was a very dysfunctional team) and was dealt back to Oakland for a package of players that included Plunk! Rickey went on win the AL MVP award in 1990, then afterwards bounced around a bit, donning the uniforms of seven other teams, while twice returning to the A’s. He ended his career with 3055 hits, an all-time record (unlikely to be ever broken) of 1406 stolen bases, and Hall of Fame enshrinement in 2009.
Make the deal again? Definitely. While the deal didn’t vault the team into the postseason, it certainly wasn’t Henderson’s doing. The Yankee teams of the 1980s were generally fun to watch due to their hitters, but their lack of frontline pitching usually was the difference between contention and first place. Embed from Getty Images