The year was 1991. Our country went to war with Iraq and was victorious in fairly short order. I graduated high school, ready to move on to bigger and better things. It was also 25 years ago that the New York Yankees had one of the worst seasons of my lifetime. In fact, their record of 71-91 was the second-poorest, outdone only by the sad-sack 1990 squad that finished in last place with a record of 67-95. Yet, there is something about that team that brings a smile not only to my face but also my friends who are around my age who are also fans of the Bronx Bombers.
Perhaps it is because that in five short years after 1991, the Yanks went on to win the Worlds Series and begin to add another dynasty chapter to their long and illustrious history. It is easy to laugh now when they won so much a short time later. Some of the names on that roster bring back memories of days gone by. Mind you, these weren’t bad players. It’s just that as a group, it wasn’t a very good team, which obviously was reflected in their final record. Don Mattingly‘s power was all but gone thanks to his back but he still pounded out 35 doubles and hit .288. Steve Sax led the Bombers in batting at .304 and stole 31 bases. Roberto Kelly looked as though he was going to be a star with 20 home runs and 32 stolen bases. Catcher Matt Nokes, the 1987 American League Rookie of the Year, led the club with 24 home runs. We didn’t get to see the best of former home run champion Jesse Barfield but it sure was a lot of fun watching him throw out runners with that cannon of his. There was also the 23 dingers from Kevin Maas, the year after he became a folk hero for swatting home runs at a record pace. Perhaps most importantly, a young center fielder named Bernie Williams got his first taste of Major League life.
It was the pitching that did in the Yanks, particularly the starting rotation. Three members had ERA’s of over 5.50: Jeff Johnson (5.95), Wade Taylor (6.27) and Tim Leary (6.49) were the guilty parties. Chuck Cary made nine starts to the tune of a 5.91 mark. It is a wonder where this crew would have been without veteran right-hander Scott Sanderson who went 16-10 with a 3.81 ERA and two shutouts. Also making starts for this squad included men such as Andy Hawkins, Pascual Perez, Dave Eiland, Mike Witt and another rookie named Scott Kamieniecki, or Slamieniecki if you will. Not surprisingly, the team finished near the bottom of the ranks in most pitching categories. Life for manager was not good for manager Stump Merrill.
It was the bullpen that, dare I say it, shined throughout the course of the 1991 season. Closer Steve Farr had 23 saves and a 2.19 ERA as the leader of the relief corps. Steve Howe, suspended seven times for drug violations and whose signing generated a lot of controversy, pitched to a 1.68 ERA in 48 1/3 innings. John Habyan was phenomenal, throwing a bullpen-high 90 innings over 66 games to a 2.30 ERA. Greg Cadaret made all but five of his 68 appearances out of the ‘pen chewing up valuable innings. Then there was Eric (Ker) Plunk, hard thrower-extraordinaire, who even started some games but walked 62 batters in 111 2/3 innings.
Overshadowing everything that season were two things. The first was that George Steinbrenner was sidelined the entire season because of his suspension from baseball. He was found of guilty by the powers that be of conspiring with a known gambler named Howie Spira for the purposes of digging up dirt on the Dave Winfield Foundation. For more on this, read this account by New York Times writer George Vecsey. There was also the embarrassing flap about Mattingly needing to get his hair trimmed. For more details, here is Jack Curry’s article from the Times. Although it was a long and rough season for those New York Yankees, they still bring back fond memories 25 years later.
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