By Sweeny Murti
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My least favorite refrain from Yankee fans begins with the words, "If George were alive…." With all due respect to the late Mr. Steinbrenner and his family, the statements that follow those four words are a waste of time because the premise can never be true.
I did, however, find myself curious recently about what happened when George was alive and the Mets owned the city.
Because, let's face it, the Mets owned this past October in New York. The staggering defeat by the Royals should not change the fact that the boys in Queens played exciting baseball as summer turned into fall and the ride was fun to watch.
The last time the Mets were in the World Series prior to this was 2000, when they ran up against the Yankees and lost in five games. The Yankees won bragging rights, not to mention their third straight World Series championship.
But what about 1986? That was the last time the Yankees had to sit home and watch the Mets plow through October with no competition for local attention. And because it was the 1980s when George ran wild, I suspected it was something that drove The Boss absolutely nuts. And to some degree it did, but the fallout from win-at-all-costs-Steinbrenner was not what you would have expected.
The 1986 Yankees went 90-72. They finished with the third-best record in the American League, but ended up 5 1/2 games behind Boston in the AL East and with no wildcard around for almost a decade the Yankees went home while the Mets and Red Sox pulled off thrilling playoff victories and met in the World Series.
"That was like the worst of all worlds because those were the two teams (George) hated the most in terms of competition," Harvey Greene, the Yankees' director of media relations in 1986, said recently. "He wasn't much fun to be around."
Greene also noted how The Boss hated being off the back pages and out of the spotlight in New York, so Steinbrenner ended up penning a daily column in The New York Post during The Fall Classic "to try and at least remain relevant" as Greene put it. Steinbrenner quoted everyone from Napoleon to Nick the bartender at Gallagher's in columns that flipped back and forth just as the series itself did.
"Welcome to the American League East," he wrote as the Red Sox took a 2-0 series lead. "I've said all year to anyone who'd listen that the American League East was by far the toughest division in baseball."
However, he didn't think much of Fenway Park, "a sports edifice with so much history and that ridiculous green wall. How can you call this a legitimate ballpark? You really can't."
After the Mets evened the Series two games apiece, The Boss led his column with, "Welcome to the National League East, fellas." Of course, he did. Steinbrenner beamed about Ray Knight and Ron Darling, and when the Series ended with the Mets winning in seven games The Boss wrote flatly, "Plain and simple, the Red Sox didn't deserve to be World Champions and the Amazin's did."
But what happened next? I recall how Steinbrenner screamed at Brian Cashman that they were done doing it "your way" after the Yankees' so-called failure to win their fourth straight World Series in 2001. It would stand to reason that as the huffing and puffing big bad wolf of baseball watched his most hated on-field rival win the pennant and his most-hated off-field rival treated to a champion's victory parade in his own city that The Boss would go all out to make sure he was the one soaked in champagne and ticker tape a year later.
Willie Randolph had been a Yankee for a decade by 1986, and was a co-captain with Ron Guidry, the team's best pitcher over the same period of time. It had been five years since the Yankees were in the postseason and eight since they won the World Series. Managers and General Managers came and went and many times came back and went again. The players, especially Randolph who had seen it all, knew the pressure that was going to be on everyone.
"Players, we talked amongst ourselves," Randolph reflected recently. "It wasn't a personal thing with (the Mets), but you sensed that it was real. You want to be the top dog in town, no doubt about that. With the Yankees (that feeling) was extra because of George.
"It's a subtle thing, especially with me growing up in New York and (living) in New York and with some of the veterans that were there, we didn't really talk about it…it was an unspoken kind of thing," Randolph added.
Brian Sabean, architect of three world champions in San Francisco this decade, was the Yankees' director of scouting in 1986.
"I do remember it was an exciting time for the city, much like what's going on this year because New York is a rabid baseball town and when one of the teams does get in its just a huge event," Sabean said recently.
"I remember the pressure (on the front office). It was obvious. Not to be naive, you knew what the upper management was going through. It wasn't a secret—we fought for the back page and I think that probably still holds true today."
Sabean was somewhat immune from the pressure because of his role in scouting (he would soon put his imprint on the Yankees' future as part of the braintrust that brought the Core Four into the organization). The brunt of the pressure fell on newly minted GM Woody Woodward, who had been with the organization a few years and was promoted to GM right in the middle of the Mets' October run in 1986. He lasted only a year in the job, and that wasn't unusual back then.
Building the 1987 Yankees should have required only a few moves to improve their rotation. The Yankees of the 1980s were known for their offense, anchored by Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, with Rickey Henderson arriving in 1985 in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. What they lacked was pitching. Guidry was the ace, had been since his Cy Young season in 1978. He won 20 again in 1985. But the depth behind him was always in question.
"George was always trying to go out and get that extra piece," Randolph said. "We always had a good lineup but we never really had top-notch pitching ... there was always a lot of talk that we had to get some solid starting pitching. We always had a great lineup, we could score runs, but our Achilles' heel was always (our pitching)."
The pitching Steinbrenner got in the '80s never was good enough.
"The manager asks for pitching help and the owner gives him the likes of Steve Trout and Al Holland," Mike Lupica wrote in the Daily News in 1987. Add Britt Burns, Ed Whitson, and a host of others to that list.
Steinbrenner had a chance to change that in the winter of 1986/87. Jack Morris was a free agent, and so was Guidry. Morris, the ace of the Detroit Tigers, was hitting the free agent market at age 31 after a four-year stretch in which he went 76-43, 3.38 ERA and averaging 264 innings per season. He won 20 games twice and led the Tigers to the 1984 World Series title.
Guidry and Morris at the top of the rotation and that high-powered offense dripping with Hall of Fame talent would easily be enough to make the Yankees the AL favorites in 1987. Stealing a rival's ace and grabbing headlines with the biggest free agent splash was a page right out of the Steinbrenner playbook. Everything we know about Steinbrenner and his desire to win and spend money in order to win tells us he would lock up both pitchers and bully his way into favorite status heading into the 1987 season. Should have been a no-brainer.
Not only did it not happen, but the Yankees opened the '87 season without either pitcher and the top of their rotation anchored by Dennis Rasmussen (a surprise 18-game winner in '86 who would be traded by August '87), 44-year-old Tommy John, and veteran Rick Rhoden (acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh that cost the Yankees future Cy Young winner Doug Drabek). How is it possible the Yankees blew a chance to flex their financial might and blow away the competition in the one area they always excelled? The answer in one word: collusion.
Baseball owners were in the middle of a period in which they conspired together to keep free agent salaries down and in many cases from players leaving their original teams. In the long term it cost the owners as a whole hundreds of millions of dollars after grievances were filed by the players' union (owners gave that money back to themselves with expansion fees in the 1990s), but in the short term it might have cost Steinbrenner a chance to put the Yankees back on top in the '80s.
In early December of '86 Morris took his résumé on the road and was turned down flatly by the Yankees, Angels, Twins, and Phillies. Never mind a multi year deal -- the Yankees rejected Morris' proposed one-year deal with a salary determined through arbitration (with a likely comparison being Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela who made just under $2 million per year).
"If I were a Yankee fan this would be a sad day for me," Dick Moss, Morris's agent, said after Morris was essentially forced to re-sign with the Tigers.
"I think we can win the division anyway," Steinbrenner said to Newsday, adding "I swear on my mother's head that no one has told me what to do. There was no collusion."
The legal process proved otherwise further down the road. Morris told reporters in March of '87 he believed collusion was real. And being left at the altar by the Yankees left him with no choice but to return to Detroit, where he won his arbitration case to earn $1.85 million for one year.
"When I have a guy with George Steinbrenner's reputation say no to my offer of one year, nonguaranteed, with the salary determined by an arbitrator, then I know there's no sense going on," Morris said. "The strange thing is that I knew just from talking to him that George wanted me but that this was one time he was taking orders from someone else. I mean at one point I mentioned the fact that Lance Parrish (who would sign with Philadelphia) was also available and he lit up and said 'Wouldn't it be something if the Yankees opened the season with a battery of Morris and Parrish?' The way he said it, you knew he could really envision it."
Instead, the Yankees opened the season with a battery of Rasmussen and Joel Skinner. Where was Guidry? Home in Lafayette, Louisiana -- because what happened with him was even more stunning.
Guidry and his agent, Reggie Ringuet, declined arbitration in December of '86, so under terms of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement they had until Jan. 8 to reach terms with the Yankees or he could not re-sign with them until May 1.
Negotiations went down to the last minute on Jan. 8. According to New York Times reports, Guidry lowered his initial proposal from two years, $2.5 million to two years, $1.7 million. When the Yankees refused to go higher than two years, $1.65 million, Guidry walked out on principle and left the Yankees behind over a difference of $50,000.
"They didn't try; they didn't give one inch," Ringuet told the Times in 1987. "We gave until we couldn't give any more. It was embarrassing and humiliating, All Ron wanted was to be treated with respect, and he didn't get it."
Did Ringuet suspect collusion like so many other did at that time?
"I don't know if I knew it that night," Ringuet says now. "But I sure as hell knew it shortly thereafter when nobody would talk to me."
Guidry became free to sign with any team except the Yankees at that point. And you know how many teams made an offer to one of the top AL pitchers of the last decade? None.
"I never got another offer," Ringuet said. "I went to Baltimore. I had conversations with the Dodgers, Minnesota. I tried. I was reaching out and they were talking to me. They were feigning interest is what they were doing. But it became apparent pretty quickly that nobody was going to make an offer. And as it turned out I didn't receive a single offer, not even for the major league minimum for Ron Guidry. Not one offer."
Ringuet said he went back to the Yankees and worked out a deal in the early hours of May 1. It was for two years, $1.675 million, halfway between the $50,000 difference they couldn't resolve four months earlier. Guidry was in Fort Lauderdale working out hours after agreeing to the deal. He returned to the Yankees May 24 and made five relief appearances before making his first start on June 9. Guidry didn't earn his first win of 1987 until June 30 and finished with a record of 5-8 with a 3.67 ERA.
The '87 Yankees were actually in first place when Guidry got his first win, had a five-game lead in early July and a three-game lead at the All-Star break. They faded away, however, winning only 23 of their last 51 games and finished in fourth place, 9 games behind the AL East Champion, who was --wait for it -- the Tigers, who were led by 18-game winner -- wait for it -- Morris.
It took the Yankees eight more years to make the postseason. The Mets were the "it" team in New York for several more years, although that group never won another pennant and they haven't won another World Series since. Steinbrenner went back to his free-spending ways, although that isn't the sole reason they have put five more championships in their ledger, beginning in 1996. Morris won two more World Series rings himself, as part of the 1991 Twins and 1992 Blue Jays.
Time will tell if this really does become a Mets town again, if they really do own the city. Hal Steinbrenner is not his father, so the reaction on the other side of town won't be quite the same. But in this one case, I do indeed find myself wondering what would happen "if George were alive." Because what happened after 1986 was not indicative of what Yankees players, fans, and employees expected out of their fire-breathing owner. The big free agent additions that winter were Gary Ward and Lenn Sakata.
Almost 30 years later it's still hard to believe Steinbrenner stood alongside his fellow owners rather than trying to bury them with his bank account. Ringuet, who no longer represents baseball players but does still practice law in Lafayette, put it best this week.
"How do you not make an offer for Jack Morris or Ron Guidry? I don't mean just the Yankees, I mean anybody."
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