For his sake, I hope Chuck Knoblauch leads the Yankees to the
world championship. Because if he doesn't, some chowderhead like
me will be writing 20 years from now about how the Knoblauch
trade was the broken elevator cable that sent the Yankees
crashing into the basement for the first decade of the 21st
century. Lost in New York's elation over the acquisition of
Knoblauch is the fact, now undeniable, that George Steinbrenner
has entered into another era of mortgaging the future for an
uncertain present. Since the trade for Cecil Fielder on July 31,
1996, Steinbrenner has been raiding the pumpkin patch, trading
seven guys who were, or had been, on his list of top 10 prospects.
He dealt pitcher Matt Drews to the Tigers for Fielder. Less than
a year later it was Ruben Rivera and pitcher Rafael Medina to
the Padres for the rights to Hideki Irabu and two minor
leaguers. Four months after that, pitcher Tony Armas Jr. went to
the Red Sox for Mike Stanley and Randy Brown, and now lefthander
Eric Milton and other potential paradises lost to the Twins for
Knoblauch. These weren't even the best deals out there. Armas
and Medina might have brought the Yankees Pedro Martinez (Armas
and Carl Pavano got him for Boston); Armas, Medina and Rivera
undoubtedly would have. Instead, they brought New York eight
weeks of Stanley, too many weeks of Irabu and the Homer Bush
Even the skills of Knoblauch shouldn't make Yankees fans forget
that for all his heavy-handedness during the '70s and '80s, it
was Steinbrenner's willingness to listen to the siren's call of
today-for-tomorrow that sent the team into the wilderness.
Steinbrenner dealt arguably 25 of the top 30 prospects produced
by his system in the decade ending in '85, and in retrospect
these swaps induce a horror similar to watching a string of
hit-and-run accidents: Willie McGee for Bob Sykes, Fred McGriff
for Dale Murray, Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps (at week's end
McGriff and Buhner had hit 592 homers as former Yankees).
But this is just the anecdotal stuff; the cumulative numbers are
even worse. Beginning on May 16, 1976, when Billy Martin
demanded the unloading of spot starter Larry Gura to the Royals
for backup catcher Fran Healy, Steinbrenner made 22 deals in
which 27 young major leaguers or farmhands were swapped for
26...well, 26 Doyle Alexanders. Gura went on to win 111 games
for Kansas City; Healy went on to get 188 at bats for New York.
Then came the nine-player deal in June that cost the Yankees
Scott McGregor and Tippy Martinez (190 wins, 110 saves between
them) but netted them Alexander (10-5, left by free agency,
returned six years later to log as many broken hands as
victories--one) and Ken Holtzman (12-10). Steinbrenner would
repeat the volume concept eight years later when Jay Howell,
Stan Javier, Eric Plunk and Jose Rijo went to Oakland for Rickey
Henderson. Henderson hit .288 in New York with 78 homers, 255
RBIs and 326 steals as the Yankees won nothing; Howell, Plunk
and Rijo went on to a combined 217 wins and 183 saves, and--with
Javier--made it to seven World Series.
April 12, 1998
Good luck, Chuck. Good luck, George.
Keith Olbermann, the former ESPN broadcaster, is now the host of
The Big Show on MSNBC.