George Steinbrenner's Yanks sank, so he fired the manager, of course
June 17, 1990

George Steinbrenner unveiled a new game show last week: It's called Stump Merrill. Ask a question and try to Stump Merrill. Are the 1990 New York Yankees a bad team? Yes! Is there immediate help available in the minor leagues? No! Is there hope of real improvement via trades? None! Will free agents be interested in joining the Yankees after this year? No way! Who's in charge of this floundering franchise? George! And if the Yankees continue to lose, who will take the blame? Stump Merrill!

Carl (Stump) Merrill, the new Yankee manager, deserves better than this. He has put in 14 dedicated years in the Yankee organization, during which he had a .590 winning percentage in 11 seasons as a minor league manager. Last Wednesday, after Bucky Dent was fired as New York's skipper, Merrill got the job, thus becoming Steinbrenner's 12th different manager—and 18th change of manager—in 18 years as owner. Merrill, 46, is a feisty fireplug from Maine who played six seasons as a minor league catcher in the Philadelphia Phillies' system and celebrated the first of his two career home runs by sliding into home plate. It will take all of his exuberance, and much more, to revive the Yankees, who are at one of the gloomiest points in the club's storied history.

Merrill inherited a lifeless, last-place, 18-31 team and then lost his first four games as manager—running the Yankees' losing streak to eight, their longest since September 1985. In Merrill's first two games, in Boston on June 6 and 7, the Yanks put runners on base in only two of 18 innings and fell to the Red Sox 4-1 and 3-0. On June 8, the Yankees lost 5-4 in Baltimore on a 10th-inning throwing error by third baseman Jim Leyritz, a former catcher making his major league debut.

Last Saturday night in Baltimore, the Yankees reached a new low. The Orioles torched Yankee starter Chuck Cary for six runs in the first inning en route to a 10-1 bashing. The Orioles had more extra-base hits (eight) in the first two innings than the Yankees had in the first six games of their road trip (seven). Through four innings, Oriole first baseman Randy Milligan had more homers (three) than the Yankees had base runners (one). The Yankees finished with four hits to lower their four-game batting average under Merrill to .134. It also solidified their standing as the worst team in the American League in hitting, slugging, runs scored and on-base percentage.

After that game, Merrill looked like a man who had managed four losing years, not four losing games. He ran his hands over his balding head and rubbed his eyes. "If anyone thinks I'm going to quit after four games, you're talking to the wrong cat," he said. "We're as frustrated and embarrassed about that showing tonight as anyone. But good things will happen. This game is full of peaks and valleys. We're in a valley."

More like a bottomless pit, into which the Yankees have made an accelerated descent. As baseball's winningest team in the 1980s, the Yanks won 91, 87, 97, 90, 89 and 85 games in the seasons from '83 to '88. As recently as '88 they had a batting order, one through five, that read: Rickey Henderson, Willie Randolph, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield and Jack Clark. Their current top of the lineup bears little resemblance: Steve Sax, Roberto Kelly, Mattingly, Mel Hall (or Steve Balboni), Jesse Barfield. Through Sunday the current Yankees had scored three or fewer runs in 25 of their 54 games.

"I don't know what happened," said veteran reliever Dave Righetti, shaking his head more in sadness than disgust. "We made some moves that backfired."

We? It was chivalrous of Righetti to seek to share the blame, but everybody in the baseball world knows that the only constant throughout the demise of this franchise has been the Boss. Among the worst of Steinbrenner's many recent bad trades was the one made on June 21, 1989, when Henderson—one of the top five players in the game—was sent to the Oakland Athletics for relievers Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret and outfielder Luis Polonia. Plunk and Cadaret are ordinary middle relievers, and Polonia was traded to the California Angels in April for outfielder Claudell Washington, who may soon be released.

Clark, who drove in 93 runs for New York in 1988, went to the San Diego Padres in a five-player swap Oct. 24, 1988, in which the Yankees received pitchers Jimmy Jones and Lance McCullers and outfielder Stan Jefferson. Only Jones, recently recalled from Triple A, is still with the club.

Last month Steinbrenner traded his long-standing nemesis, outfielder Winfield, to the Angels for pitcher Mike Witt. "Just standing in the on-deck circle, [Winfield] was a presence," says Mattingly, who has struggled (.268, five homers this year) without Winfield hitting behind him. "He drove in big runs." Witt, who is 0-1 for the Yankees, "heard something pop" in his right elbow last Friday and went on the disabled list. And so it goes.

Besides making poor trades, Steinbrenner and his "baseball people," as he likes to refer to his ever-changing front office staff, have fared poorly in the free-agent market in the last several years. When free agency began in the mid-1970s, Steinbrenner was the first to master it; but more recently most of his free-agent signees—such as outfielders Jose Cruz and Gary Ward and pitchers Dave LaPoint, Andy Hawkins and Pascual Perez—have contributed little. The two free-agent pitchers the Yankees wanted, and needed, to sign this winter, lefthanders Mark Davis and Mark Langston, spurned offers to come to New York partly because of the tense atmosphere that pervades the Yankee domain.

Signing so many free agents has robbed New York of precious draft picks. This year was the first since 1985 that it had a first-round selection. The last Yankee first-rounder to have an impact was catcher Thurman Munson, who was drafted in '68. Among New York's first-pick mistakes in the '80s were Billy Cannon ('80), John Elway ('81) and Bo Jackson ('82). Jackson was one of many picks the Yanks were unable to sign, including Howard Johnson ('78), Glenn Braggs ('80) and Tim Belcher ('84).

The minor league system has been further damaged by Steinbrenner's incessant juggling of farm and scouting directors, as well as general managers. He has made nearly as many changes in general managers as managers. Last October Steinbrenner hired Harding Peterson as vice-president and general manager, but Peterson concedes that he's actually a "co-G.M." with another vice-president, George Bradley, and says the arrangement is "working well." But no other team uses it, of course, and it's not clear with the Yankees who the general manager is from day to day. On May 31, Bradley was in the team offices in Tampa, where Steinbrenner lives, telling reporters by phone that he was close to making a major trade. Peterson was in New York telling writers that all was quiet on the trading front.

Into this confusion walks Merrill, who, at least, is used to it: He had previously replaced fired managers in Class A and Double A and replaced a departed manager in Triple A. Before Saturday night's loss, however, Mattingly was able to count only four members of the current Yankee team who had played for Merrill in the minors (excluding this year's Columbus team). That's an amazing fact considering Merrill's long years of service—and a testament to the turnover in Yankeeland. "A lot of these guys I'm seeing for the first time," said Merrill. "That's not an excuse, but it makes it more difficult."

Look for it to get more difficult in the near future. Steinbrenner has vowed to eat contracts and do whatever it takes to turn the Yankees around. Meet the new Boss, same as the old Boss. Last Friday, Hawkins, whom Steinbrenner signed to a three-year contract on Dec. 8, 1988, was told by management that he must accept an assignment to Triple A Columbus or be released. "Andy told me he thought he was released," said one player, "but the next day, he was back. I don't think anyone here knows what's going on."

But everyone knows there's something missing. "We need a spark," says Righetti. They didn't get it from Dent, who was accused by some players of being uncommunicative. Says one, "Bucky listened to too many people. He didn't do a bad job, but he managed scared. But managing in New York, I couldn't blame him."

When Dent was fired, Peterson, in a neat malapropism, said, "George has been languishing long and hard over this decision." Righetti, a Yankee since 1979, put it this way, "You hope it never gets to the point where you get numb about anything. But to me, after all these years, this isn't even a story."

Try to tell that to the ravenous New York media. A Steinbrenner firing of a Yankee manager is always cause for great outrage and much bluster in the local tabloids, but the axing of the well-liked Dent sparked commentary more venomous than usual. Steinbrenner was variously described as the "scourge of the city," "the Pinstriped monster" and a "miserable slug."

Even the Yankees' flagship radio station, WABC, joined the chorus. The station began an on-air editorial campaign with the slogan "We're Yankee fans. We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore." Fred Weinhaus, the president and general manager of the station, was quoted in USA Today as saying, "I'm paying $50 million over 10 years for the rights fees, and I want my money's worth. I owe it to the city of New York, as a licensed radio station that has civic responsibility, to demand more. We can't demand a pennant winner, but we can demand a team that's competitive."

And Steinbrenner's response? "Anything he says about me is just water off a duck's back. Just keep those checks coming in."

But Weinhaus isn't the only one saying things about Steinbrenner, and the Boss may be a bit less flip when it comes to defending himself in coming weeks. John Dowd, the investigator hired by Major League Baseball to look into Steinbrenner's dealings with gambler Howard Spira, turned over his completed report to commissioner Fay Vincent last Friday. The Spira case is an outgrowth of the long-running battle between Steinbrenner and Winfield and involves an acknowledged payment of $40,000 by Steinbrenner to Spira last January. Spira alleges that the payment was for providing potentially damaging information on Winfield; Steinbrenner disputes Spira's claim. While Dowd's report remains highly confidential, there is speculation that it will lead, at the very least, to a suspension of Steinbrenner by Vincent. There are some—perhaps only wishful thinkers—who have said that Steinbrenner could be booted out of the game for good.

Until then—and the commissioner's office is not expected to act on this case for at least a few weeks—life with the Yankees will be centered on Merrill, who finally won his first game, 5-2, on Sunday in Baltimore. "I still don't think it's a bad club," Merrill said bravely. "I don't discourage easily."

After victory No. 1, Merrill gave the lineup card to a coach. "Put it in a place where it won't get messed up," Merrill said. He plans to have it framed for his memorabilia room. Given the lineup Merrill has to work with, that card is certainly suitable for framing. But given his employer, one has to wonder how long it will be before it is joined by his first major league pink slip.

PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTSBucky Dent is the latest of 18 managerial victims—here in chronological order—in Steinbrenner's 18 years as Yankee owner.
PHOTOKEN REGAN/CAMERA V[See caption above.]
PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.[See caption above.]
PHOTOPETER READ MILLER[See caption above.]
PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTS[See caption above.]
PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTS[See caption above.]
PHOTOANDY HAYT[See caption above.]
PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTS[See caption above.]
PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTS[See caption above.]
PHOTOJERRY WACHTER[See caption above.]
PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.]
PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTS[See caption above.]
PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.[See caption above.]
PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.]
PHOTOLANE STEWART PHOTOC. KRUPA/APMerrill tried to keep a stiff upper lip as he was greeted by anemic bats and four straight losses. TWO PHOTOSJERRY WACHTERCoach Darrell Evans (top, left), Roberto Kelly (center) and Balboni displayed Yankee enthusiasm; Mattingly (bottom) recalled better days.