Yankees Faces in Strange Places
By Mike Whiteman November 5, 2023 The Yankees of the 1990s were my favorite sports team of all-time. I followed them with an emotional attachment I haven’t had with any club or sport since, including Penn State sports (and I really enjoy Penn State sports). My favorite players were everyone’s favorites – Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill – what a great group of Yankees. It's rare to see that type of cohesive group, focused only on winning, in modern sporting culture.
If I absolutely had to choose a favorite player during that era, Pettite may have been it. I admired his soft spoken yet intensely competitive nature, that he was clutch, and I respected that he was open about being a person of faith. I knew that he wasn’t necessarily a favorite of George Steinbrenner, and that rumor had it that the Boss had to be talked out of dealing Pettite in 1999. By 2003 though, especially after a 21-8 regular season record and three postseason wins, I figured the big lefty was established as a Yankee for life, and would eventually break Whitey Ford's franchise record for most lifetime wins. I guessed that with his contract expiring George might make us sweat a bit like he did with Bernie Williams in 1998, but in the end a new contract would happen and Andy would be suited up in Pinstripes on Opening Day 2004.
Instead, this happened.
Shocking. This was probably when the emotional fandom I had for the team started to wane. Since that time, I've really never lived and died with the team like I used to. Of course, things like work, marriage, and fatherhood also have competed for the emotional energy I used to expend on the Yankees. This was big though. Thankfully, the Yanks came to their senses and brought Pettite back into the fold in 2007. He was able to complete his career in Pinstripes, and it felt right. Now, this wasn't the first time I had dealt with a shock like this. Reggie Jackson was my first favorite Yankee player, and I recall closely following his 1980 season in which he had 41 home runs to lead the American League and batted .300. After a poor 1981 season, Steinbrenner let Reggie walk to the California Angels, where he got his form back and again led the AL in homers in 1982 with 39.
I actually got used to seeing Reggie in California pretty quickly, and followed the Angels closely during the 1980s. There are other instances of Yankee standouts who wore other uniforms that even in hindsight don’t look right. Yogi Berra with the Houston Astros Yogi Berra was Mr. Yankee, becoming an icon during an eighteen year playing career in which he collected ten world series rings and easily secured a place in Cooperstown. Berra did spend time in a Mets uniform after being fired from his Yankee managerial role in 1964, but that was before my time, so it didn't impact me that much. Berra came back to where he belonged, the Bronx, in 1976 as a coach on Billy Martin's staff and took over as manager again in 1984. After being fired sixteen games into the 1985 season, a hurt and bitter Berra swore he would never show up at Yankee Stadium again. He sure looked like he had moved on, sporting this uniform in 1986.
What? I remember going to a Phillies-Astros game at Veteran's Stadium during the 1986 season, watching Berra hit fungoes before the game. What a thrill it was to see this legend, but it was odd in those crazy Astros uniforms. David Cone with the Boston Red Sox David Cone had made multiple stops before becoming a Yankee in 1995. He became a free agent after the season but stayed in the Bronx, becoming a fan favorite due in a big part to his clutch postseason performances and 1999 perfect game. Things unraveled pretty suddenly for Cone in 2000, when he was 4-14, 6.91 and this time was allowed by the Yanks to walk away as a free agent. After all of his heroics in Pinstripes, it was a bit unsettling to see him settle in his new threads:
Coney improved to 9-7, 4.31 for the Bosox in 2001, including his memorable September 2nd outing when he locked up with Mike Mussina, basically his replacement in the Yankee rotation. That game was when Mussina was perfect for 26 batters until Carl Everett's pinch single broke up the perfecto. Cone hung in there against his ex-teammates, allowing only an unearned run in eight plus innings.
Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles with the San Diego Padres Chaos and drama was all over the early 1980s Yankees, with Steinbrenner at odds with many of his premium players. In a stunning development that took almost three months Gossage and Nettles, both longtime key pieces, left for San Diego. Gossage departed as a free agent, leaving no doubt about his feelings, tired of being part of the Yankee circus. Nettles wrote a book that was released in Spring Training 1984, and it wasn't complimentary of the Yankee owner. At the end of March, he was dealt to the Padres and the former Yankee duo played significant roles on the team that won the 1984 National League pennant.
Aside from these more modern-day instances, I'll touch on a couple of significant historical cases of the right player in the wrong uniforms. Joe DiMaggio with the Oakland A's The Yankee Clipper, one of the iconic players in franchise history, spent his entire 13-year career with the Yanks. The California Bay Area native was lured out of his retirement in 1968 by Charlie Finley to serve in a front office position for his Athletics, who had just moved from Kansas City to Oakland. Shortly after starting his new job, DiMaggio also took on a more hands-on role of a coach.
DiMaggio only spent one season in the dugout, but had an impact on folks like Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, and Reggie Jackson, who all played prominent roles in the A's 1970s dynasty. Babe Ruth with the Boston Braves Most baseball fans have heard this one. Driven by his desire to be a manager, Babe Ruth signed with the Boston Braves in 1935 after fifteen seasons, 659 home runs, four world championships, and forever changing the game in New York. His contract with the Braves included being "assistant manager", a vice-presidential role, and an occasional player. The enduring image of that season was an old, out of shape Ruth struggling to a .181 batting average in 28 games over that 1935 season while wearing another strange uniform. He left the Braves after less than one season, and never managed in the big leagues.
Through my time of the fan, the Yankees have had plenty of one-team icons (Jeter, Posada, Rivera, Williams, Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry) that seemed to spoil me just a bit. Why doesn't more players stay with their teams for long tenures? Change of course does happen occasionally. There seemed to be a reasonable chance that Aaron Judge was heading to another team after the 2022 season. Disturbing web-created images of Judge in a Giants or Dodgers uniform kept popping up before the Yankee star and Hal Steinbrenner came together on a deal which should keep Judge a Yankee the rest of his career. These aren't the only notable Yankee players to show up elsewhere, but the one most meaningful to me. Do YOU have memories of iconic players who inexplicably went to other teams?