The Very Bad Summer of 1990
The 1990 season was bad for the Yankees. Really bad. Historically bad. For only the fourth time in team history, including the years they were known as the Highlanders, the team finished in last place.
They teased us overly optimistic fans at first, winning four of their first five games of the season. The wheels fell off though, and they were in sixth place by the end of the April, and firmly entrenched in last place by the end of May, never to rise out of the cellar the rest of the season. Along the way, Manager Bucky Dent was fired – the third season in a row the Yankees fired a manager during the season – and replaced by Stump Merrill.
1990 was also the season that George Steinbrenner was permanently banned (“permanent” ended in 1993) from his management of the Yankees for paying a gambler, Howard Spira, to dig up dirt on star player Dave Winfield.
Yes, Steinbrenner paid someone to dig up dirt on his own player. One he was paying.
The fans suffered. Really suffered. The team couldn’t score runs, finishing last in the AL, and couldn’t prevent them either, finishing 12th (of 14 teams) in team ERA. Just a miserable team to watch.
The disastrous season was a culmination of many factors
Bad Free Agent Signings
The team that gave baseball the Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson free agent signings could do no better in 1990 than Pascual Perez, who was given a three year, $5.7 million contract – pretty good money in 1990 – for a career 64-62 record. He actually didn’t start off too bad, with a 1.29 ERA after three starts, but injuries ended his season in April.
Other signees included journeyman catcher Rick Cerone who caught in 42 games in 1990 and outfielder Mel Hall, acquired in a 1989 trade and resigned over the winter. He would slug .433 in a semi-regular role.
During the 1989 season, the Yanks traded perennial All-Star outfielder Rickey Henderson to Oakland for relief pitchers Greg Cadaret, Eric Plunk and outfielder Luis Polonia. Henderson helped the A’s win the World Series in 1989, then took the AL MVP in 1990. Cadaret, Plunk and Polonia were sometimes useful players, but all went on to nondescript careers.
In the 1989-1990 off-season the Yankees traded prospect Hal Morris to Cincinnati for veteran Tim Leary. Morris went on to bat .340 for the World Champion Reds; Leary was 9-19, 4.11 for the Yanks, leading the AL in losses.
After the season started, the Yanks traded twelve-time All-Star outfielder Winfield, coming back from missing the entire 1989 season with injuries, to California for Mike Witt. Winfield went on to continue his Hall of Fame career with a solid season with the Angels while Witt was 5-6 with a 4.47 ERA for New York.
The previous years’ track record wasn’t any better either. One time Yankee farmhands were making their marks all across MLB. Willie McGee won the NL batting crown for St. Louis. Doug Drabek won the NL Cy Young Award for Pittsburgh. Fred McGriff starred for Toronto, batting .300 with 35 home runs. Greg Gagne was a 3.2 WAR shortstop for Minnesota. Outfielder Jay Buhner was starting to establish himself in Seattle. All had been traded by the Yankees for next to nothing, or for players long gone by 1990.
In addition to the premature end to Perez’s season, injuries held star first baseman Don Mattingly to only six home runs and a .254/.308/335 performance in 102 games.
Not Quite Ready Prospects
When the Yanks went to Columbus (AAA) for help, they came up with outfielders Oscar Azocar (.248) and Dion Sanders (.158), pitchers Alan Mills (1-5, 4.10) and Jimmy Jones (6.30), and third basemen Jim Leyritz (.255) and Mike Blowers (.188). Some of those players later became serviceable major leaguers, but they sure weren’t in 1990.
There were some bright spots though, and the first was the only Columbus import who provided a boost. First baseman Kevin Maas made his MLB debut on June 29th, and went on to hit 21 home runs in a little more than a half a season. In his second season, Center fielder Roberto Kelly had a WAR of 5.5 and looked like a building block for the future.
Closer Dave Righetti saved 36 games in his last season in Pinstripes before leaving via Free Agency.
Perhaps nothing epitomized the Yankees season though like the July 1, 1989 game against Chicago. Starting pitcher Andy Hawkins (5-12, 5.37 ERA in 1990) hurled a no-hitter and lost 4-0! With the game locked in a 0-0 tie in the seventh inning, two walks and three Yankee errors led to four unearned White Sox runs. Leave it to the 1990 Yankees to have a season highlight be a lowlight!
As bad as things were, in retrospect 1990 turned out to be the very beginning of a good thing. Before leaving the team in July, Steinbrenner gave the reins to Gene Michael, who over the next few years righted the ship. In March the Yankees signed a 20 year old pitcher from Panama named Mariano Rivera. In the June amateur draft, they drafted pitcher Andy Pettitte in the 22nd round and infielder Jorge Posada in the 24th round. All would go on to be a part of the celebrated “Core Four”, leading the team through an era of great success. .
The Yankees don’t win the World Series every year, and we’ve seen some disappointments over the past decade, but thankfully Yankee fans haven’t experienced anything like 1990 since that brutal summer.