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The Empire Strikes Out

May 27, 1991
May 27, 1991

Table of Contents
May 27, 1991

First Person
Spotlight
North Stars
The Pistons
The New York Yankees
Dave Foreman
Monica Seles
Golf
Inside/Baseball
Television
Point After

The Empire Strikes Out

On the 30th anniversary of perhaps the greatest season of their long reign, the New York Yankees' once-proud dynasty has become a travesty

My uncle Danny lived to be 77 years old, and he had an opinion for every minute of those 77 years. And though he spent half his life in the Bronx, his opinion of the New York Yankees remained unchanged: He didn't care for them. Particularly the 1961 team. "They're Roman Yankee imperialists," Uncle Danny complained. "They only have three honorable men." He refused to reveal their names, possibly to protect them from the dishonorable ones.

This is an article from the May 27, 1991 issue Original Layout

But to my nine-year-old eyes, the Roman Yanks of '61 seemed to have descended from the gods. And I worshiped them accordingly: Mars Maris, Mercury Mantle, Bacchus Berra, Somnus Skowron, Apollo Arroyo. I'd listen raptly to victory after glorious victory issuing from my radio, like news from some ancient oracle. I composed a paean called Mick and Maris, to be sung to the tune of Love and Marriage. I wore my hair in a Roger Maris-like butch, bandaged my knees in tribute to Mickey Mantle and erected an altar to them on my desk next to my Clete Boyer autographed baseball. Along about September I offered up a mason jar filled with lightning bugs, adding a new firefly every time an M&M boy hit one out. By Oct. 1, when Maris took Boston's Tracy Stallard deep for No. 61 (to go with Mantle's 54), that jar glowed and shimmered.

Those Roman Yankees were triumphal, imperial in a way no team may ever be again. Eight were All-Stars. Six hit more than 20 homers. So murderous was this Murderers Row that first baseman Moose Skowron (28 dingers) batted seventh. Whitey Ford went 25-4; Ralph Terry, 16-3; Luis Arroyo, 15-5 with 29 saves. New York amassed 240 home runs and 109 victories and sacked the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. "Some say the Yanks of 30 years ago were the greatest team ever," says Ralph Houk, who was their manager.

This Yankee juggernaut had not one but two Babe Ruths, and the drama of the home run derby staged by Maris and Mantle held the entire nation in sway. Stadiums were jammed wherever they played. Film crews tracked them. Newspapers trumpeted their feats. Magazines heralded their heroics. The Game of the Week, NBC's Saturday showcase, became, in effect, the Yankee Game of the Week. The Yanks' domain extended beyond the Empire State to the far corners of the Empire. Factory workers in Japan made book on them. Israeli newscasters ran nightly updates. Yet, through it all, Uncle Danny remained unswayed. "Remember the Roman Empire," he intoned darkly. "Remember its decline and fall."

Uncle Danny was right, of course. Within a few years the Yankee Empire had collapsed. The Yanks limped on like defeated centurions through Mesopotamia. Their collection of fading stars and failed journeymen (see Tresh, T. and Womack, D.) sank dismally into last place in 1966. Two years later they batted a collective .214 (see Clarke, H. and Kosco, A.). Management, grown fat and arrogant from winning so long, fiddled while every team that came into the Bronx burned them. It was only after a Visigoth from Cleveland seized control (see Steinbrenner, G.) and started enlisting legionnaires from the outer provinces that the Yanks rose anew.

George Steinbrenner's hire-and-fire tactics afforded him early victories. But eventually Yankee Stadium became the House That Ruthlessness Tore Down, and Steinbrenner was driven into exile last year, retaining his ownership but being excluded from baseball operations. His 1990 Yanks were the worst team in the American League, and this season New York is battling the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Indians for last place in the AL East. Last week the Yankees went 32 innings without a run, their worst string of futility in 22 years.

Even confirmed Yankee haters sympathize. "The current team is not even worthy of my contempt," laments Jeff Wernick, a Los Angeles businessman who has detested the Yankees since he was born, in Brooklyn, when there was still an Ebbets Field. "With Steinbrenner gone, there's nothing left to despise."

Whom can we compare Emperor Steinbrenner to? Maybe Nero. Or maybe Caligula, whose reign began peacefully enough but became increasingly despotic, grotesque in its excesses. Caligula, too, spent money extravagantly, banished many of his subjects, became convinced he was a god and demanded to be worshiped that way. And just as Steinbrenner once claimed to have punched out a fan in an elevator, Caligula insisted he had defeated Neptune one-on-one.

But Steinbrenner may be closer to Diocletian, the fourth-century general who briefly restored the empire to preeminence. Diocletian proclaimed himself Jupiter on earth and took the title Jovius, which is Latin for "the Boss." His reign was one of intense persecution: He expected total obedience under penalty of death. When he finally abdicated, Rome was in even worse shape than before.

"George's legacy is not the World Series winners of '77 and '78 or having the best record of any team in the '80s," says Tony Kubek, the noble shortstop of that 1961 team and a linchpin of that Yankee era, who speaks his mind even though he's now a broadcaster for the team. "His legacy is these past five seasons—teams with worse and worse records culminating in last year's last-place finish."

In the lost golden age of Yankees past—from 1926 to '64—New York never had a losing record and won 26 American League pennants and 19 world championships. "Winning breeds tradition," says another Yankee announcer, Phil Rizzuto, who played in nine World Series during his 13 years in pinstripes. Under Steinbrenner, the only tradition has been turmoil and turnover. "George talked a lot about tradition, but it was all phony," says Kubek. "It was just him trying to be part of the tradition. You can't manufacture tradition in a plastic way. You have to have a certain class to go with it."

Tradition alone used to be good for 10 wins a year. The crowd and the stadium, the ghosts and the legends inspired uncertainty in the opposition and game-winning hits from the Yankees. "When we crossed the white line, we didn't think anyone could beat us," says Bill Stafford, who won 14 games for New York in 1961.

Though the Yankees still drew more than two million at home last year, New Yorkers have come to view the team the way they view their city—with a sort of morbid fascination with its decomposition. "As far as Yankee pride goes, I haven't felt a whole lot of it," says rightfielder Jesse Barfield, a Yank since 1989. "I think you're only going to feel that when you win."

Steinbrenner's successor as managing general partner of these damned Yankees comes, appropriately enough, from the Broadway stage: Robert Nederlander is a theater impresario. The casting almost guarantees a flop. The Yankee lineup is short on lefthanded power in a ballpark where the rightfield porch has immortalized those who hit lefty and long. New York's pitching consists mostly of memories, the most recent being that of Dave Righetti, who saved 36 games last season and then escaped to San Francisco. The Yanks' best third baseman may still be Graig Nettles, their 46-year-old first base coach. The four guys who have hung out at third this year had totaled, through Sunday, one home run, four RBIs and a .152 batting average.

Hampered by a chronically bad back, Don Mattingly, who used to hit about .340 every year, now hovers around .280. He used to poke 30 homers; if he keeps up his present pace, he'll hit 10 this season. Mattingly at least still plays a creditable first base, Roberto Kelly flashes brilliant in center, and Kevin Maas is an acceptable designated hitter. Maas averages better than a walk a game. If he continues his pace, he'll break Babe Ruth's single-season major league record of 170. That passes for big excitement in the Bronx these days, considering that last year's Yankee record-breaker was Barfield, who set the club strikeout mark of 150.

In an off-season move, second baseman Steve Sax—the Yankees' best trade bait—was signed to a four-year, $12.4 million contract extension despite the fact that New York's top young prospect, Pat Kelly, plays the same position. Kelly was called up from the minors on Sunday; now Sax will take a fling at playing third.

Back in 1961, the defense was nearly as good as the offense. The '91 infield is anchored by Alvaro Espinoza, a ukulele-hitting shortstop with quicksilver hands and lead feet. "What other shortstop in the majors gets pinch-run for in the seventh inning?" asks Kubek, who never was.

Does Espinoza compare favorably to Joe DeMaestri, Kubek's 1961 backup?

"Not really," says Kubek. "DeMaestri was a better fielder."

Kubek, in fact, contends that not a single 1991 Yankee would have cracked the '61 starting lineup, with the possible exception of the Mattingly of a few years ago. In his current condition, though, Mattingly "would have been a late-inning defensive replacement" for Skowron, Kubek says.

"Do you see a Mantle on this team?" Kubek asks. "Or a Maris? Or an Elston Howard? I don't see a Boyer. I don't see a Bobby Richardson, although the catcher, Matt Nokes, reminds me a little of Johnny Blanchard." Blanchard, you'll recall, was the 1961 Yanks' second-string catcher.

Maas and leftfielder Hensley Meulens, who some have tried to tag as the contemporary M&M boys, are a thin candy shell of the originals. "We don't have any true Yankee sluggers anymore who people will come out to see," says Rizzuto. "Reggie Jackson played in New York for five years, but even he wasn't a true Yankee. They'll retire his number in Oakland, not in New York."

"Mantle was the last true Yankee slugger," insists New Jersey bartender Bob Pezzuti, a true Yankee fan. "When he retired in 1968, Yankee tradition became frozen in time."

Time literally stopped at Yankee Stadium during the fourth inning on May 15. The scoreboard clock stuck at 8:53 with New York trailing the California Angels 6-2. During the time warp, two innings passed, and four more Angel runners crossed the plate. In that game, Yankee starter Chuck Cary was relieved—if that's the word—by Eric Plunk, who finished the week with a 9.90 ERA. Plunk's most notable pitch last Thursday was a fastball that went behind a batter. Poor Plunk may be the only '91 Yankee with a '61 counterpart: He pitches like Ryne Duren without glasses.

And whatever happened to good old Yankee spirit? "The team I played for knew how to root," says 1961 alumnus Hector Lopez. "Every inning we'd be up on the dugout steps, hollering, shouting, slapping each other on the backs. Very seldom do you see today's Yankees pulling for their teammates. They just sit on the bench watching the game as if it was on TV."

Complacency had no place in Yankeedom in 1961. "I never felt secure," says Skowron. "I remember checking out the minor league statistics to see who was after my job." Says Kubek, "I get the feeling now that some guys [free agents] join the Yankees because it's easy to play for them. You're not expected to win anymore. They think, 'Hey, the Yanks lost 95 games last year. What the hell, I'll take the money and put up with everything.' So much for Yankee tradition."

In recent years, pinstripe tradition came to be worth exactly zero to a free agent confronted by the specter of Steinbrenner and offered $17 million by someone else. "Most quality free agents haven't wanted to sign with the Yankees," says agent Arn Tellem, whose most prominent client, pitcher Mark Langston, spurned Steinbrenner in 1989. "They were scared off by the pressure of having to perform for George. They feared his capriciousness. After leaving the Yankees, players are so mentally drained that they have to go through a kind of detoxification. But that's not the main reason the better free agents have stayed away. It's that the Yankees just aren't competitive anymore."

Could New York's free-agent fortunes improve? Among the premier players who will enter the free-agent pool at the end of this season are three who grew up within a short train ride of Yankee Stadium: the New York Mets' Frank Viola, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Bobby Bonilla and the Chicago Cubs' Shawon Dunston. "The Yankees need every one of them," says Tellem. "I'd bet they'll all be offered mammoth contracts. It wouldn't surprise me if all three wound up Yankees."

Still, the Yankee future is not in the pool, but on the farm. The Diocletian Yanks traditionally sacrificed their young (see McGee, W.; Drabek, D.; Rijo, J.) for seasoned gladiators. They tried to dump Roberto Kelly on Atlanta two years ago, but the Braves—not noted for talent judgment themselves—turned down the offer. Now the Yankee bushes are flowering again: Besides Pat Kelly, watch for outfielders Bernie Williams and Gerald Williams and pitchers Wade Taylor and Jeff Johnson. "The Yankees' bright spot is on the horizon," Rizzuto says. "They just can't trade any of the kids."

Yankee fans react to this with mild diffidence. "If Roberto Kelly continues to develop, if Mattingly gets his power back, if Maas hits homers, if Pat Kelly stays up, if Steinbrenner stays away—if all that happens, the Yanks might have a bit of a nucleus," says Manhattan lawyer Joe Villella, a Yankee diehard. "It's not much, but you've got to start somewhere."

Even Rome wasn't rebuilt in a day.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWhere Maris (top) mesmerized a nation, Nokes (opposite) is mesmerized by a curveball. Kubek (left) finds little to grin about as he watches Espinoza (above) and his mates bobble the '91 season.PHOTOHERB SCHARFMAN[See caption above.]PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN G. ZIMMERMAN[See caption above.]PHOTOARTHUR DALEYUnlike Mantle (above), who feasted on a steady diet of triumph, Mattingly has mostly gone hungry.PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.]PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONReminders of the glory years mock Meulens and the current Yanks.