Miserable '90 made it hard to damn Yankees Things can't get much worse for team


They were so pitiful, they were even difficult to despise.

The New York Yankees, the most storied franchise in sports, sank into near-oblivion last season, and the most devout of Yankee-haters had to feel a little sorry for them.

Matters turned so bad at Yankee Stadium last season, the front office did something drastic: It turned to a youth movement.

The Yankees called up 13 players from the Class AAA Columbus Clippers and finally discarded the wild-spending, patchwork-trade approach that had long ceased being successful.

The franchise that made folk heroes of the Babe, Mickey and Joltin' Joe has not won a World Series since 1978, nor a division title since 1981, that a tainted one caused by the players' strike and subsequent split season.

Now, with impetuous and blustery owner George Steinbrenner banished by commissioner Fay Vincent into a peripheral role for consorting with a gambler, a re-tooling is under way with names like Kevin Maas, Hensley Meulens, Roberto Kelly and Dave Eiland in the forefront.

It is hard to imagine anything worse happening to this team. The star, Don Mattingly, was limited to 102 games last season by a bad back. The hitting was the poorest in the league, finishing last in average, runs, extra-base hits and on-base percentage. The pitching staff had no ace and threw an astonishing 83 wild pitches.

Disorder reigned. It was time for extreme action.

One thing is certain about the 1991 Yankees. There will be less turmoil and confusion with Robert Nederlander instead of Steinbrenner at the top and career baseball men running the show.

"All the distractions hurt us," said outfielder Jesse Barfield. "The team wasn't able to focus."

But it is too early for that settling effect to translate into many more victories. The climb back will be slow and painful.

There are some positive signs for manager Stump Merrill, who replaced Bucky Dent on June 6, 1990, after 14 years in the Yankees organization. Mattingly appears healthy again. The team has power. The defense isn't all that bad.

But, oh that pitching?

Dave Righetti, No. 2 on the career save list, fled via free agency, so the Yankees opened their wallet for Steve Farr, who is fresh from his best season (13-7, 1.98 ERA with the Kansas City Royals).

If Farr and left-hander Lee Guetterman, who has flourished as a Yankee, can ease some of the strain from the starting staff, Merrill's job will be considerably easier.

Consider the rotation. Tim Leary would have lost 20 games had he not been pulled late in the season. Mike Witt, who is already hurting, had a 4.47 ERA as a starter. Scott Sanderson will be paid $2.5 million this year for winning 17 games with league champion Oakland, a little different than winning 17 with poor offensive support. Chuck Cary has won 12 big-league games since first arriving six years ago.

They are not the potential salvation of this team.

That lies in the promise of more offense with Mattingly back, All-Star Steve Sax figuring to better his numbers and Maas and Meulens on the verge of stardom.

"Don't forget Roberto [Kelly]," said Mattingly. "That guy is a pretty good secret."

Merrill's No. 1 priority is to upgrade the attack. "The one thing I'd like to do different is score more runs," he said.

The Yankees have solid defenders in catcher Bob Geren, second baseman Sax, shortstop Alvaro Espinosa, centerfielder Kelly, rightfielder Jesse Barfield and Mattingly. How Meulens, a former third baseman, responds to a full season in the outfield and the hole at third base are the big questions.

And can Merrill do enough juggling to get the left-handed hitting Maas into the lineup to counteract the 39-68 record the Yanks had against right-handed starters?

With Mattingly, designated hitter Maas and Matt Nokes together in the order, that shouldn't be as much of a detriment to run production.

"We'll take care of those problems as we meet them," said the manager. "I'm not really worried about that."

Frank Howard is the new hitting coach. The Yankees will have to hit a lot of Howard-like home runs to launch their return to respectability.

Yankees stats and facts


Carl "Stump" Merrill (49-64 after being named manager June 6, 1990).

1990 record

67-95, 7th place, 21 games behind.

1990 offensive leaders

BA: Roberto Kelly .285

HR: Jesse Barfield 25

RBI: Jesse Barfield 78

SB: Steve Sax 43

@1990 pitching leaders

Wins: Lee Guetterman 11

ERA: Lee Guetterman 3.39

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