On July 18, another too-hot night in the Bronx, pitcher Jack
McDowell waved a magic finger in the air and changed the
fortunes of the New York Yankees. The team was on its way to
dropping a doubleheader to the struggling Chicago White Sox when
McDowell was dispatched to the showers, marking one more
dreadful performance in a broken-down season for a ball club
that a year ago had achieved the best record in the American
As he stalked off the field, McDowell was serenaded with boos
and insults from fans who had grown tired of waiting for their
team to snap out of a three-month funk. He had lasted just 4-2/3
innings and allowed 13 hits and three home runs. With the
eventual 11-4 loss, the team would plunge to 33-40 and fourth
place in the American League East, 7-1/2 games behind the
first-place Boston Red Sox. The fuse finally burned down, and
the Bronx bomb exploded. JACK THE FLIPPER, as he was later
dubbed in one tabloid headline, raised his middle finger to the
heavens and pointed the Pinstripes in a new direction. Nothing
has been the same since.
Most winning streaks in professional sports are born of a big
trade or a clutch performance or an inspirational talk by a
teary-eyed coach. The Yankees' surge was ignited by an obscene
gesture, a uniquely New York moment that seems to fit perfectly
into this season, a bizarre one even by Steinbrenneran
standards. Through Sunday, the Yanks had won 14 of 18 games
since L'Affaire Finger, pulling to within 5-1/2 games of
the Red Sox and moving to the top in the race for the American
League's wild-card playoff spot. Naturally, they had done it
about as quietly as a used-car commercial, capturing the back
pages of the tabloids as if they were enemy beachheads and
refusing to let go. To the dismay of many in New York,
including some in the Yankee clubhouse, they have turned the
season around in classic Steinbrenner-era style. Consider what
happened in just the last three weeks on the Yankee beat.
Darryl Strawberry took the stage. The Yankees signed Strawberry
on June 19, but he played in Columbus, Ohio, while his agent,
Bill Goodstein, and Yankee boss George Steinbrenner slugged it
out over various contract provisions. Among other requests,
Steinbrenner wanted Strawberry to donate $200,000 of his
$675,000 salary to drug-abuse prevention charities. According to
one report, Steinbrenner actually demanded that Strawberry's
children be tested for drugs. Darryl Jr. is 10 years old and his
sister, Diamond, is seven. Presumably, Flintstones chewables
would not have been on the list of banned substances.
August 13, 1995
When he finally joined the team in Detroit last Friday,
Strawberry stood before the media and said, "Thank you, Mr.
Steinberg." That afternoon Strawberry indicated he would not be
speaking to the media the rest of the weekend.
In a swap of unhappy, unproductive and unloved outfielders,
Danny Tartabull was traded to the Oakland A's for Ruben Sierra.
Only six days after the deal was consummated, there was no doubt
who got the better of it: Tartabull went on the disabled list
with a rib injury (the same ailment that Steinbrenner had
accused him of faking). The Yanks, meanwhile, won six of their
first eight games with Sierra in rightfield. "I think Ruben came
in here with something to prove," said Yankee manager Buck
Showalter. "And I think Darryl did, too."
David Cone returned to where he belongs. Namely, the middle of
the action. While a number of contenders acquired reliable
veterans for the stretch run, the Yankees got the premier hired
gun. "I've stayed out of the headlines for a few years," said
Cone, who once was accused of fondling himself across town in
the bullpen at Shea Stadium. "Maybe it's time to get back in."
Is this a Steinbrenner guy or what? Cone is cool, clutch and
just crazy enough to welcome a crunch-time transfer to the Bronx
Zoo. Since coming from Toronto in exchange for three minor
league pitchers on July 28, Cone was 2-0 with a 2.81 ERA through
Sunday. The Yankees, at last, have the ace they lost when Jimmy
Key went on the disabled list May 17 with a torn rotator cuff.
"There are a lot of distractions and all that," said Cone,
standing in the Yankee clubhouse. "But I look around this room
and see a lot of guys who can handle them."
For 12 years no one handled New York better than Don Mattingly,
but even the Yankee captain may have been pushed too far. A
column in the New York Daily News in June suggested Mattingly
should consider retirement. DONE DON, read the headline.
Mattingly believes Steinbrenner was behind the story and
promises to test the market when he becomes a free agent at the
end of the season.
But Mattingly also responded to the insult with his bat, hitting
in 22 of the next 27 games. When he clubbed his second home run
in 11 at bats on July 23 at Yankee Stadium, many of the fans
tossed their new souvenirs on the field. "I don't write, and I'm
not a great speaker," said Mattingly. "There was only one way I
could put my point across." Of course, when he exacts his
revenge on the field, he can also make Steinbrenner look like an
underhanded genius. Thank you, Mr. Steinberg.
For the Boss, it was the stuff that dreams are made of: The
Yankees were winning, Mattingly was hitting and the owner was
getting the credit. "He got what he wanted," Tartabull said
before being shipped out. "The back page."
There was juicy reading on the inside pages, too. Relief pitcher
Steve Howe, a seven-time drug offender, accused unnamed members
of the organization of spreading rumors that he was passing out
amphetamines in the clubhouse. Utilityman Jim Leyritz accused
Showalter of holding a grudge against him. And pitching coach
Billy Connors was replaced by Nardi Contreras, the 36th time the
post has changed hands in the Steinbrenner era.
And all that was during a winning stretch. Who says baseball is
dead? In the Bronx these days, it is just a little unstable, and
the only escape for the players is on the field. "Once we cross
the white line, there are no distractions," said third baseman
Wade Boggs. "That's where we can go to get away from it all."
"When all this stuff happens off the field," said Mattingly,
"there's always the chance we'll band together and win games."
The Yankees certainly showed no signs of unraveling once
Strawberry showed up. But for weeks, while the Straw stirred in
Triple A, there were rumblings of a clubhouse revolt as the
players wondered at whose expense Darryl's at bats would come.
Outfielder Luis Polonia complained the loudest, and when
Strawberry reported, Polonia was designated for assignment,
which meant he would become a free agent if the team didn't
trade him in 10 days.
Polonia's former teammates grumbled about the move, but only
until Strawberry started launching rockets all over Tiger
Stadium in batting practice. Strawberry appears to be in superb
condition, and Cone said his former New York Met teammate
"looked like Mike Tyson." As far as we know, no one ever said
that about Polonia.
When he entered the clubhouse, Strawberry was greeted warmly.
Mattingly strolled into the trainer's room while Strawberry's
ankles were being taped, and the two embraced. Mattingly said he
has felt a bond with Strawberry and Strawberry's then Met
teammate Dwight Gooden since the three owned New York in the
mid-'80s. "I don't know Darryl that well, and I don't know Doc,
either," said Mattingly. "But I've always felt like there was
something between us because we were young guys who came up
together. I know Darryl has had problems, but I think he's a
good person. A lot of good people have problems."
The Mattingly seal of approval meant that Strawberry was
officially part of the club, but it will be a while before he
can run with the boys on the road. His probation for a
tax-evasion conviction stipulates that he can go only four
places while traveling with the team: church, drug-counseling
meetings, his hotel room and the ballpark. With nothing else to
do, he showed up five hours before Saturday night's game and
launched 16 home runs in early batting practice, including a
dozen to the opposite field. The Yankees are paying James
Williams, a former official with the Drug Enforcement
Administration, to keep an eye on Strawberry. "That's a good
addition for us," Showalter actually said of Williams. "He'll
help us out on the road and in the hotel lobbies."
For now, the manager plans to use Strawberry as a DH against
righthanders, but he may soon slug his way into the every-day
lineup. Strawberry singled in his first Yankee at bat, then went
3 for 5 with two RBIs in his second game and appeared every bit
as quick and powerful as he did in his prime with the Mets.
While he may not be a great role model, a strong candidate for
the cast of Up with People or even a decent outfielder,
Strawberry brings something to the ballpark that the Yankees
sorely lacked. Before he joined them, the Yankees had just 79
homers in 88 games, 11th in the American League. One reason
Steinbrenner had turned on Mattingly is the lack of power
production from his two legends on the corners: Through Sunday,
Mattingly and Boggs had combined for eight home runs and 72
RBIs. "I'll tell you what [Strawberry] does: He gives this
lineup some presence," said Cone. "He's a rare talent, the kind
of guy who makes you show up at five o'clock just so you can see
him take batting practice. During a game, you don't want to
leave your seat. You might boo him, but you watch him."
At week's end Strawberry, 33, had 294 career home runs, but 280
of them came before his 30th birthday. So what remains to be
seen is whether he can regain his old form. He hasn't had a
productive season since 1991, when he batted .265 with 28 home
runs and 99 RBIs.
That, coupled with the belief among some that the Yankees had
more pressing concerns, is why when Steinbrenner signed him, it
was viewed as a publicity stunt. Even the Clinton
Administration voiced disapproval: Drug czar Lee Brown thought
the signing set a bad example for the nation's youth. But if
Strawberry can supply some pop, the Yankees have a shot at their
first postseason appearance since 1981.
Polonia was a nice player, but he was hitting .261, with two
homers and 15 RBIs. Steinbrenner can be called cynical and
insensitive for making a deal with another pitiful drug abuser,
but Polonia, like many of the underachieving Yankees, didn't
have much right to complain. If the team had performed as it did
last season, Strawberry would not be in pinstripes. And unlike
the price division rival Baltimore paid to acquire Bobby
Bonilla--the Orioles sent blue-chip prospect Alex Ochoa and
fellow minor-league outfielder Damon Buford to the Mets--
Steinbrenner gave up nothing to sign Strawberry.
"This is a great opportunity for me to be back in the big
leagues," said Strawberry. "I want to come to the New York
Yankees and not be a distraction and help the team be
successful. It has been a very difficult road for me lifewise."
Lifewise, the Yankees have put together a team that has been
there and done that. There are no bug-eyed kids in the
clubhouse, in awe of the overwhelming attention that comes with
the Yankee uniform. As Mattingly says, "Even our young guys have
gotten used to this." Many of the faces will change at the end
of the season, but until then, the present crew will keep the
team in the pennant race and on the all-important back page.
So, thank you, Mr. Steinberg.