The Deal That Broke Frank Costanza’s Heart (and mine too)

The post below was an excerpt from a post I was writing that would act as my “submission” for the Hall of Nearly Great project. While I wasn’t actually asked to write for it, I thought Jay Buhner would be ideal for it, and I couldn’t think of anyone better to write it. The Hall of Nearly Great e-book came out this past summer and is great, even without me in it – click on the link to check it out.

As for this excerpt, it got a little long and didn’t flow the way I wanted the rest of my “submission” to go, but I liked it on its own and wanted to save it in some way before I edited the hell out of it. It sounds more like something you’d find in a biography than an essay. Hey – there isn’t a Bone biography yet, right? Someone call my agent! Better yet, someone get me an agent!

Oh, right – the post. Enjoy.

The Yankees were Jay Campbell Buhner’s second organization. Originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in January of 1984, Buhner was sent to the Yankees in a trade whose initial purpose was to dump failed free agent signee Steve Kemp on another team while picking up the manager’s much less talented son. Building off a .323/.427/.537 his first professional season, Buhner hit .296/.392/.469 in A-ball for the Yankees in 1985 and after missing a good chunk of the ’86 season due to injury (a future reoccurring theme), Buhner bounced back at Triple-A, leading the International League with 31 home runs and putting up a .279/.351/.514 line while leading the Columbus Clippers to a league championship. Baseball America ranked Buhner as the Yankees’ #2 prospect in 1986 (behind Brad Arnsberg – remember that name), #1 in 1987 (flip-flopping with Arnsberg), and #4 in 1988 (behind Roberto Kelly, Al Leiter, and – of course – Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens). But as any Yankee fan during the 80s remembers, prospects were nothing more than currency to get the veteran players that the team wanted – those final pieces that would bring the team that elusive World Series trophy.

The 1988 New York Yankees offered a lineup full of veterans, however there was an opportunity to break into the lineup. The Yanks had a bunch of corner outfielders, but center field was a wasteland. The position once manned by Yankee legends such as Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio had been home to the likes of Jerry Mumphrey and Omar Moreno in recent years. Rickey Henderson, who himself played center for the Yankees originally, was back at his more comfortable left field role, while Dave Winfield patrolled right. Claudell Washington, who started the most games for the Yankees in center the previous season, was 33 and a temporary solution. So the window was wide open for a rookie to start in center field when the 1988 New York Yankees took the field.

And there was. Except it was Roberto Kelly, not Buhner. Buhner was sent back to Columbus while Kelly and Washington platooned in center. Kelly was more of the prototype center fielder that Steinbrenner had been looking for – a leadoff hitter who could steal bases and cover a lot of ground in center field, while Washington provided some veteran stability to a team that was expected to contend for a pennant. Kelly struggled however, and Buhner was eventually called up to back up Washington in center.

Opportunity struck for Buhner when Henderson began to struggle to stay in the lineup due to injuries. Washington shifted over to left, and Buhner began a run as starting center fielder for the Yankees. Buhner proved to be the offensive spark the team needed initially, going 7-19 with two home runs and nine RBI over his first five starts. But a hitless streak would follow, as would a managerial change. With new manager Lou Piniella in and renewed pressure to “win now”, Buhner found himself at the end of the bench, losing time to “established veteran” Gary Ward, who would put up a .225/.302/.312 line for the Yankees that season. Once Henderson was healthy enough to start regularly, Buhner was shipped back down to Columbus, essentially writing off any belief that he could contribute to the 1988 Yankees. Backing up Winfield, Henderson, and Washington in the outfield would be Ward and 40-year-old Jose Cruz, who had played the outfield three times that season at the time Piniella took over.

Now, one could see sending down Buhner to get regular playing time, especially if Piniella wasn’t going to give him a shot. But what the Yankees did next wasn’t just short-sighted; it just didn’t make any sense, and foreshadowed the bottoming out of the Yankees organization in the seasons to follow.

July 21st, 1988. The Yankees, in Kansas City, had just blown a 5-3 lead to the Royals in the 9th inning, putting them two games behind the American League East-leading Detroit Tigers. Cecilio Guante (closing after longtime Yankee closer Dave Righetti had been moved to a setup role) took the loss, thanks to an error by Claudell Washington in center field. An overworked bullpen caused by a questionable rotation with no clear closer. The Yanks, desperate, needed to make a move.

They decided they needed… a left-handed bat.

Bob Quinn, who took over for Piniella as Yankee GM after Piniella stepped down a few months into his tenure (and would later replace Billy Martin as Yanks manager because Steinbrenners gotta Steinbrenner), had concerns that the Yankee roster lacked a left-handed threat outside of Don Mattingly. The only lefty bats the Yankees had outside of their All-Star first baseman were Washington (already starting nearly every day), Mike Pagliarulo (who sported a sub .300 on-base percentage), and Cruz (fork stuck in him). Switch-hitting middle infielders Wayne Tolleson and Bobby Meacham weren’t scaring anyone. Quinn saw the solution to his problems in Ken Phelps from the Seattle Mariners. Phelps, who didn’t get a regular starting job until he was 31, was exactly what Quinn was looking for on paper – a left-handed bat that crushed right-handed pitching. Indeed, Phelps had an OPS over .900 the last two seasons, and a .982 OPS on July 21st. The slugger, two weeks from his 34th birthday, had worn out his welcome in Seattle, despite the good numbers, becoming disgruntled with the team’s lack of success. For Quinn, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Seattle wanted Buhner, whom they’d immediately start in right field in place of Glenn Wilson, who the Mariners had acquired in the offseason from Philadelphia and was struggling. Quinn pulled the trigger, getting his left-handed threat for Buhner, former 1st round pick and struggling A-ball pitcher Rich Balabon, and a player to be named later (Troy Evers, in case you cared.)

The problem with acquiring Phelps – and the reason why the deal was so puzzling – was that Phelps’ only skill was being a left-handed hitter. Phelps couldn’t hit left-handed pitching (a career .700 OPS vs LHP, 173 points lower than vs. RHP), and would only make 30 career starts against lefties. Phelps couldn’t play the field, either. Phelps was a DH for most of his tenure with the Mariners, and the one season he played some first base (1986), he performed poorly in the field. Plus, the Yankees already had this Mattingly guy playing first. Clearly, if Phelps was to get on the field, it would be as a DH for the Yankees.

Yeah, about that.

During the 1987-88 offseason, the Yankees signed Jack Clark to a two-year free agent deal. Clark, who had put up tremendous numbers for the Cardinals the season before was known to be an excellent hitter – when healthy. Originally an outfielder, the Cardinals moved him to first base, and the Yankees planned to DH Clark to keep him healthy. In fact, when Mattingly got hurt in late May, the team elected to field Gary Ward at first base instead of Clark for ten games before realizing that having someone in your starting lineup with a .244 slugging percentage is probably a bad idea, especially if he’s your starting first baseman. Clark would play first until Mattingly came back, then went back to his DH role, wrapped gently in bubble wrap between games.

This left Pinella with a problem. If Phelps was going to start against right-handers, he had to find a spot for Clark. The three positions Clark could play – first base and the corner outfield positions – were manned by the three best hitters in the Yankees lineup in Mattingly, Henderson, and Winfield, so that wasn’t happening. Leaving him on the bench meant making your #1 free agent acquisition during the offseason a platoon DH. But if you weren’t going to start Phelps regularly, then why trade a nearly ready young major league outfielder for him?

The move was typical for the Yankees at that time – mortgage the future to win right now. The Yankees put Phelps into the starting lineup on the 22nd, batting cleanup (Clark’s usual lineup slot) at DH, against right-handed starter Ted Power for Kansas City. Outside of swapping out Clark for Phelps, the lineup was identical to the lineup the Yankees used the night before.

In his first Yankee at-bat, Phelps walked and would eventually be left on base. In the top of the third, down 4-1, the Yankees began the inning with a double from leadoff man Henderson. Henderson stole third, and Power would eventually walk #2 batter Willie Randolph. With runners on first and third, Power threw a wild pitch to #3 hitter Mattingly, allowing Henderson to score and Randolph to advance to second, making it 4-2 Royals. Mattingly would stroke a base hit to left field, putting runners on the corners again, this time for Phelps. Royals manager John Wathan had seen enough of Power, and pulled his starting pitcher for left-handed reliever Israel Sanchez. In turn, Pinella pinch-hit Clark for Phelps.

That’s right – in Ken Phelps’ grand debut with the Yankees, he was pulled in the third inning for a pinch hitter. Not because he was hurt, but because he couldn’t hit left-handed pitching.

The juggling act became a mess. The following game was easy – the Royals put up a left-handed starter, so Phelps was on the bench. However, the series finale against Kansas City had a right-handed starter, leading Piniella to start Phelps at DH, Clark at first, Mattingly in left field, and Henderson in center. This experiment would last five innings, with Ward subbing in for Clark (who had gone 3-3 with a double and the go-ahead three-run home run at the top of the inning) in the bottom of the sixth, moving to center so Henderson and Mattingly could return to their regular positions. In the games to come, Clark would play some left field, some right field, and some DH. Clark’s numbers started dropping (perhaps due to the uncertainty of his role, perhaps due to the added strain of playing the field), and soon Clark was back to the DH role a majority of the time. Phelps went 2-17 as a pinch hitter that season (although with 11 walks), so his usefulness suffered as a result as well. The Yankees as a whole suffered, going 32-37 after the Buhner trade. While the Yankees scored 303 runs during that time, tying them for fourth best in the American League, they gave up 374 – almost 50 more than any other team in baseball during that span, and finished in 5th place, just 3.5 games out of first.

Could things have been different? Reportedly, Buhner was also on the radar of Baltimore, who was shopping starting pitcher Mike Boddicker at the time. Quinn and Piniella made it publicly known that they had no interest in Boddicker, however, and the Orioles ended up trading him to Boston, where he would go 7-3 with a 2.63 ERA for the Red Sox the remainder of the season. The WAR statistic (Wins Above Replacement) puts Boddicker’s ’88 Red Sox run at 2.4 WAR. The Yankees finished 3.5 games behind those Red Sox that season. Take away those wins from Boston and put them on the Yankees, and that could have been the boost the Yankees were looking for.

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