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The Strangest Yankees Team Ever

What do John Mayberry, Dave Collins, Lee Mazzilli and Butch Hobson have in common? Some middle-aged Yankees fans may vaguely remember that all four were somewhere between journeymen and good ballplayers in the late 1970s and early 1980s who briefly played with the Yankees. Fewer would remember that they all played first base for the Yankees in 1982. The other players who got some time at first base for that Yankees team were Steve Balboni, Bob Watson and Dave Revering. None of those players were particularly good in 1982. Balboni, Revering and Hobson all had OPS+ of less than 50 during their time with the Yankees that year, while only Watson (111) and Mazzilli (112) even exceeded 100.

“For the Yankees, 1982 was one of those years, like 1965, when the bottom fell out. ”

For the Yankees, 1982 was one of those years, like 1965, when the bottom fell out. From 1976-1981 they won their division five times, the American League pennant four times and the World Series once, but the team that dropped the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers in six games, after winning the first two games, was old and changes to be made. The early 1980s was also when George Steinbrenner was at the height of his erratic, bullying and intimidating behavior that had produced some very good Yankees teams, but had made Steinbrenner one of the most reviled people in sports. Yankees fans knew that Steinbrenner would not sit idly by and do nothing during the World Series, but they could not have known just how incomprehensible Steinbrenner’s moves would be.

A few days after the World Series concluded, the Yankees made their first move of the off-season sending two minor prospects to the Reds for Ken Griffey Sr. This was, at first glance, a good trade. The Yankees surrendered no top prospects and acquired a 31 year old outfielder with a career .307/.375/.437 slash line. Griffey had never been a power hitter, but in 1981 he had hit .311/.370/.409 so he was still a valuable player. Griffey was going to be the starting right-fielder moving Reggie Jackson into a full time DH role. It was a modest improvement, but not much more.

On December 15th, the Yankees resigned their ace Ron Guidry who had briefly tested the free agent waters, but then eight days later made one of those moves that captured-and contributed to-the problems of the next decade. Dave Collins was a speedy outfielder who had stolen 26 bases and posted a .355 OBP in 1981 while hitting for almost no power, but the Yankees gave him a three year $2.5 million contract. Signing Collins made no sense because with the speedy Griffey, centerfielder Jerry Mumphrey and second baseman Willie Randolph the Yankees had enough speed. However, the real reason the signing was a mistake was that it meant that there was no longer any room for Reggie Jackson. Jackson was a legendary slugger coming off a strike shortened sub-par season who still had plenty of pop left in his bat, but the Yankees were pivoting to a team based on speed and almost a decade and a half of vacation time in October. 1982 was the height of the base stealing craze. Players like Omar Moreno, Ron Leflore, Tim Raines and most of all Rickey Henderson were changing the game and the Yankees wanted in on the action. Jackson soon signed with the Angels.

Other than those moves, the Yankees went into spring training with essentially the same team that had played poorly in the second half of the 1981 season and lost the World Series. However, In the last weeks of spring training the Yankees made another flurry of moves sending away many top prospects at the time including Pat Tabler, Gene Nelson, Andy McGaffigan and Ted Wilborn, while acquiring a veteran players who were generally past their prime including Butch Hobson, Doyle Alexander and Shane Rawley as well one time Yankee great Bobby Murcer.

“ It wasn’t so much that these were all bad moves. Many, on their own merits were good trades, but they made the Yankees feel more like a 12 year old with a bunch of baseball cards than an actual big league team.”

This set off a revolving door that lasted all season long. Once the season started Ron Davis, Greg Gagne, Bob Watson, Dave Revering, Larry Milbourne, Bucky Dent and Tommy John were all sent to other teams. Midseason acquisitions included Dave LaRoche, Roy Smalley, John Mayberry, Roger Erickson, Butch Wynegar, Bobby Bonds (who never got into a game), Lynn McGlothen, Rodney Scott and Lee Mazzilli. It wasn’t so much that these were all bad moves. Many, on their own merits were good trades, but they made the Yankees feel more like a 12 year old with a bunch of baseball cards than an actual big league team. New players rarely had any sense of where they would fit on the roster and often pushed established veterans out of roles. Roy Smalley was a valuable shortstop, but the Yankees already had Bucky Dent. They then sent Dent to Texas for Mazzilli, but there was no clear role for Mazzilli with so many players crowing the outfield, first base and DH. These kinds of logjams and confusion accompanied almost every transaction.

The Yankees started the season slowly, dropping eight of their first fourteen games before Steinbrenner fired Bob Lemon, the manager who had led the team to its great 1978 comeback and returned to almost win the World Series in 1981. Lemon was replaced by Gene Michael who made it as far as August 3rd before being fired and replaced by Clyde King. Michael was the only one of the three Yankee managers with a .500 record that year going 44-42. The Yankees ended up with a 79-82 record finishing in fifth place and 16 games behind the division winning Brewers. It was their first sub .500 season since 1973 and their first time finishing in lower than fourth place since 1969.

The 1982 Yankees were a bad team, but what made them such a strange team was the amount of turnover and the number of veterans on the downside of their career that the Yankees used that year. Graig Nettles, Dave Winfield, Jerry Mumphrey and Willie Randolph all had very good years and brought some stability to the team. Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry and Tommy John-until he was traded at the end of August-played a similar role on the pitching staff, but other than that core, the team seemed to make transactions almost daily.

Among the veteran players the Yankees turned to at one time or another were Mayberry, Griffey, Oscar Gamble, Collins, Lou Piniella, Murcer, Mazzilli Hobson, Revering, Rodney Scott, Milbourne and Bob Watson. Two Yankees first base prospects, Steve Balboni and Don Mattingly, failed to impress in brief trials with the team. In Piniella, Randolph and Nettles, the Yankees had holdovers from their three consecutive pennants in the late 1970s. Murcer was a reminder of an even earlier era in team history. Mattingly and Righetti would go on to be among the best players of the middle part of the 1980s. Winfield and Gossage were future Hall of Famers who were still at the top of their game.

“Most of the players were too old-Alexander, Watson, Mayberry, too young-Balboni, Mattingly, Righetti or were given no clear idea what their role was-Griffey, Collins, Mazzilli, Gamble, Righetti, Dent, Smalley and Rawley.”

There was a lot of talent on that team, but the whole was a lot less, than the sum of its parts. Most of the players were too old-Alexander, Watson, Mayberry, too young-Balboni, Mattingly, Righetti or were given no clear idea what their role was-Griffey, Collins, Mazzilli, Gamble, Righetti, Dent, Smalley and Rawley. For fans this was extremely frustrating each trade brought some excitement. Mazzilli had once been a big star with the Mets; Mayberry a fearsome slugger for the Royals teams the Yankees played in the ALCS in the 1970s, but these players rarely were positioned to contribute in a helpful way. The two big off-season acquisitions were disappointments. Griffey slumped to .277/.329/407 as the more or less full time right fielder and, while continuing to play through 1989, only had one more good year. On balance, Griffey did not really help the team and essentially just made a crowded and confusing and outfield situation even more crowded and confusing.

While Griffey was adequate with no defined role, Collins was much worse. The Yankees had intended to move him to first because that was the only place for the speedy outfielder. Learning the new position was tough for the veteran who ended up starting at first 34 times while starting 42 games in the outfield. It had been a bad idea to begin with because Collins best asset, his speed, would be wasted at first base. Ultimately, it didn’t really matter what position Collins played because he contributed almost nothing on offense hitting .215/.313/.330. For good measure he stole 13 bases but was caught eight times. Collins was sent to Toronto in an offseason trade for pitcher Dale Murray. One of the other players the Yankees sent to Toronto was Fred McGriff. It was a fitting epitaph to a terrible Yankees season.

Oh, and the guy who they let get away to make room for Collins, he went to the Angels where he finished 7th in the league in slugging, 6th in OPS, 10th in walks and tied for the lead in home runs. In 1982, Reggie also finished 6th in the MVP balloting, made the All Star Team and led the Angels to a division title. The Yankees experiment with a speed based offense was mercifully short lived, but their habit of shuffling in past their prime veterans with no apparent or well defined roles, which was perfected in 1982, continued until the early 1990s.

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