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Although the Yankees won 91 games the previous year, the team’s front office knew that certain areas of concern needed to be addressed during the off-season if the ball club had any hopes of seriously contending for the A.L. East title in 1984.  The Yankees received little in the way of offensive production from two of their three outfielders, the defense performed erratically at times, and the starting rotation lacked depth. 

Still, New York boasted one of the league’s finest all-around players in Dave Winfield, one of the circuit’s top starting pitchers in Ron Guidry, and one of its premier relievers in Goose Gossage. 

However, New York’s front office grew increasingly worried when Gossage announced shortly after he became a free agent on November 7th that he did not intend to re-sign with the team.  While many within the organization believed Gossage's statement to be nothing more than a negotiation ploy, the thought of heading into the regular season without a top closer for the first time in more than a decade created a feeling of angst among management. 

The team’s greatest fears were realized on January 6, 1984, when Gossage signed a free-agent contract with the San Diego Padres.  With no suitable replacement available to the team in the bullpen, the Yankees elected to take Dave Righetti out of the starting rotation and convert him into a reliever.  Righetti’s conversion became possible when New York immediately signed 45-year-old knuckle-balling right-hander Phil Niekro to a two-year free-agent deal.  

As the team’s pitching plans began to take shape for the upcoming campaign, the Yankees surprisingly announced the firing of Billy Martin as manager.  Ownership elected to replace him at the helm with Yogi Berra.  Meanwhile, Martin remained in the organization as a front-office executive.

A considerable amount of speculation subsequently arose as to the reason why the Yankees chose to fire Martin, especially since he helped them improve their record by 12 games the previous year.  Although the front office never fully explained its decision, rumors abounded that Martin’s dismissal resulted from his erratic behavior, both on and off the field.  Twice during the 1983 season, American League President Lee MacPhail suspended Martin for repeatedly abusing umpires.  Furthermore, members of the organization feared that Martin’s frequent drinking might eventually cause him to conduct himself in a manner considered detrimental to the team. 

Having addressed their pitching needs and managerial situation, the Yankees turned their attentions towards their infield, acquiring third baseman Toby Harrah from the Cleveland Indians for pitcher George Frazier and speedy young outfielder Otis Nixon on Februay 5th.  New York initially intended to platoon the right-handed hitting Harrah with 38-year-old Graig Nettles at third base.  However, upon hearing of the deal, the disgruntled Nettles requested a trade.  The front office granted Nettles’ request shortly thereafter, dealing him to the San Diego Padres for left-handed pitcher Dennis Rasmussen.

New York’s numerous machinations made virtually no impact on the divisional race.  The Detroit Tigers got off to an unprecedented 35-5 start, leaving the Yankees and everyone else in the A.L. East in their rear-view mirror.  New York finished the year 17 games behind Detroit, in third place in the division, with a record of 87-75.  Still, a few players on the team performed well enough over the course of the season to keep Yankee fans coming out to the ballpark.

Phil Niekro led the staff with 16 victories, 216 innings pitched, and a 3.09 ERA.  Dave Righetti made a successful conversion to the bullpen, posting a 2.34 ERA and placing among the league leaders with 31 saves.  Jay Howell established himself as an outstanding set-up man for Righetti, going 9-4 with a 2.69 ERA, picking up seven saves himself, and striking out 109 batters in 104 innings of work.

On offense, Willie Randolph batted .287, compiled a .377 on-base percentage, and scored 86 runs.  Don Baylor led the team with 27 home runs, knocked in 89 runs, and scored 84 others. 

However, with the pennant race all but over by the end of May, Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield generated most of the excitement around Yankee Stadium over the course of the season.  Having distanced themselves from every other player in the league by early September in the pursuit of the A.L. batting title, the two men engaged one another in a friendly competition reminiscent of the one that developed between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris some two decades earlier.  The individual rivalry lasted until the very end of the season, with Mattingly and Winfield entering the final game against Detroit separated by mere percentage points.  Winfield managed only one hit in four at-bats during New York’s 9-2 victory over the eventual world champions, to finish the year with a .340 batting average.  Meanwhile, Mattingly raised his batting average to .343 by going 4-for-5.  In so doing, he became the first Yankee to win the batting title since Mickey Mantle in 1956.  Mattingly also finished the year with 23 home runs, 110 runs batted in, 91 runs scored, and a league-leading 207 hits and 44 doubles, en route to earning a fifth-place finish in the A.L. MVP voting.  Winfield hit 19 home runs, knocked in 100 runs, and scored 106 others, earning in the process an eighth-place finish in the MVP balloting.  Both men were named to the A.L. All-Star Team, being joined on the squad by teammate Niekro.  Winfield and Ron Guidry also collected Gold Gloves, while Mattingly was the only Yankee player named to The Sporting News All-Star Team.    

By Bob_Cohen
 

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Tagged:
Billy Martin, Dave Righetti, Dave Winfield, Dennis Rasmussen, Don Baylor, Don Mattingly, George Steinbrenner, Graig Nettles, New York Yankees, Phil Niekro, Rich Gossage, Ron Guidry, Toby Harrah, Willie Randolph, Yogi Berra

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