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The Yankees entered the 1979 off-season clearly wishing to put the events that transpired the previous year behind them.  Not only had they failed to advance to the postseason for the first time in four years, but they tragically lost their captain and spiritual leader, Thurman Munson in a plane crash. 

New York’s front office set about trying to move forward by filling some of the team’s greatest needs.  A new starting catcher and centerfielder needed to be acquired.  Furthermore, the retirement of Catfish Hunter, and the uncertainty surrounding the futures of the injured Ed Figueroa and Don Gullett made it necessary for the team to pursue additional starting pitching.

The Yankees didn’t wait long to begin their off-season face-lift, making two significant trades on November 1st that went a long way towards altering the configuration of the team.  First, the club worked out a deal with the Mariners that sent a package of four young players to Seattle for 25-year-old centerfielder Ruppert Jones.  Upon making the trade, the Yankees immediately penciled in Jones to be their starting centerfielder for the next 10 years.  The left-handed hitting outfielder posted solid numbers for the Mariners the previous season, hitting 21 home runs, driving in 78 runs, scoring 109 others, and stealing 33 bases.  After completing that trade, the Yankees addressed their catching and starting pitching situation by sending Chris Chambliss and two lesser players to the Toronto Blue Jays for catcher Rick Cerone, pitcher Tom Underwood, and utility infielder Ted Wilborn. 

Having traded away Chambliss, the front office signed veteran first baseman Bob Watson as a free agent just one week later.  The team made its final move of the off-season the very same day, signing pitcher Rudy May to a free agent contract as well.

Having completed their off-season wheeling and dealing, the Yankees chose to entrust their squad to Dick Howser, who they promoted from third base coach to manager.  The front office originally planned to retain Billy Martin as skipper, but the negative publicity Martin received after he was arrested for assaulting a marshmallow salesman forced the Yankees to alter their plans. 

As it turned out, Howser turned out to be the perfect man for the job.  He led the Yankees to the A.L. East title with a major-league best 103-59 record.  The Baltimore Orioles finished second in the division, just three games back.  Easily the most well-balanced team in the junior circuit, New York finished second in the league in both runs scored (820) and team ERA (3.58).

Tommy John led the pitching staff with 22 victories, 16 complete games, and 265 innings pitched.  Ron Guidry finished second on the team with 17 wins.  Tom Underwood chipped in with 13 victories.  Meanwhile, working both as a starter and as a reliever, Rudy May finished 15-5, with a league-leading 2.46 ERA.  Fully recovered from the hand injury he suffered during his altercation with Cliff Johnson the previous season, Goose Gossage won six games and tied for the league lead with 33 saves, en route to earning a third-place finish in the MVP voting.

Bob Watson provided the club with veteran leadership and a consistent bat in the middle of the lineup, leading the team with a .307 batting average.  Willie Randolph batted .294, scored 99 runs, stole 30 bases, finished second in the league with a .429 on-base percentage, and topped the circuit with 119 bases on balls.  Rick Cerone had a terrific year behind the plate, hitting 14 homers, driving in 85 runs, and batting .277.  He finished seventh in the A.L. MVP voting.  Placing second in the balloting to Kansas City’s George Brett was Reggie Jackson, who had his best year in pinstripes.  Jackson led the league with 41 home runs, finished second with a .597 slugging percentage, knocked in 111 runs, scored 94 others, and batted a career-high .300.  He earned a spot on the A.L. All-Star Team, being joined on the squad by teammates Randolph, Nettles, Dent, Gossage, and John.  Jackson, Randolph, Cerone, and John also were named to The Sporting News All-Star Team.  Only Ruppert Jones proved to be a major disappointment, batting just .223 in 83 games, before losing his starting centerfield job to Bobby Brown.

The Yankees subsequently faced the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS for the fourth time in five seasons.  However, the Royals finally prevailed over their old nemesis by sweeping the Yankees in three straight games.  George Brett provided the big blow with a three-run, game-winning home run off Goose Gossage into Yankee Stadium’s upper right-field deck in Game Three.

By Bob_Cohen
 

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Tagged:
1980 ALCS, Billy Martin, Bob Watson, Bobby Brown, Chris Chambliss, Dick Howser, George Brett, Graig Nettles, Kansas City Royals, New York Yankees, Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Rick Cerone, Ron Guidry, Rudy May, Ruppert Jones, Tommy John, Willie Randolph

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