Despite winning 87 games in 1984, the Yankees found themselves plagued by many of the same maladies that preyed upon them one year earlier. They again performed erratically on defense, posting the fourth-highest error total in the American League. New York was also victimized by inconsistent starting pitching, players who underachieved, a lack of team speed, and poor play in centerfield. With Ron Guidry troubled by a sore arm much of the year, he finished the 1984 campaign with a record of only 10-11 and an ERA of 4.51. Fortunately, free-agent acquisition Phil Niekro stepped up to win 16 games. However, no one else on the staff won more than nine games.
Toby Harrah and Steve Kemp joined Guidry on the list of underachievers. Harrah, who at different times spent the year platooning at third base with Roy Smalley and Mike Pagliarulo, managed just one home run and 26 runs batted in, and batted only .217 in 253 at-bats. Kemp fell far short of expectations for the second consecutive season, hitting only seven home runs and driving in just 41 runs in 313 at-bats, despite posting a .291 batting average.
Perhaps the Yankees’ greatest weakness, though, was their lack of overall team speed and the inability of their centerfielders to contribute much to the offense. New York’s 62 stolen bases placed them 10th in the American League in 1984, putting them a mere 131 thefts behind the Toronto Blue Jays, who swiped a league-leading 193 bags. Centerfielder Omar Moreno led the Yankees with 20 steals. However, Moreno brought little else to the offense, knocking in only 38 runs in 355 at-bats, scoring just 37 times, batting only .259, and compiling an on-base percentage of just .294. The Yankees knew they needed to get greater offensive production from the centerfield position if they had any hopes of seriously contending for the A.L. East title in 1985.
The front office addressed the team’s most glaring weakness on December 5th, when it completed a blockbuster deal with the Oakland A’s that brought star outfielder Rickey Henderson to New York for a package of five young players that included outfielder Stan Javier and pitchers Jay Howell and Jose Rijo. The Yankees expected Henderson – arguably the game’s most dynamic player – to reenergize their offense.
Having acquired Henderson, the front office set about trying to solidify the team’s pitching staff, signing right-handed starter Ed Whitson to a free-agent contract on December 27th. The Yankees also completed several less significant trades that greatly reshaped the configuration of the team’s roster. Amidst all the wheeling and dealing, George Steinbrenner decided to give his manager an early vote of confidence, announcing he planned to retain the services of Yogi Berra as the team’s skipper the entire year, regardless of how the club performed.
Displaying little patience and a very short memory, Steinbrenner elected to replace Berra at the helm with Billy Martin after the Yankees got off to a 6-10 start. Martin, who began his fourth tour of duty with the club, replaced Berra after the Yankees lost their third straight game to the White Sox in Chicago on April 28th. However, instead of informing Berra of his decision himself, Steinbrenner assigned pitching coach Clyde King the unpleasant task. The Yankee owner’s callous handling of the situation prompted an irate Berra to vow never to set foot in Yankee Stadium again as long as Steinbrenner remained the owner of the team (a vow he eventually recanted some 15 years later).
New York’s slow start could be attributed to a number of things, not the least of which was the fact that Rickey Henderson missed the first 15 games with a sprained ankle. However, after gradually working himself into shape, Henderson lived up to his reputation as the game’s most exciting player, providing the Yankees with a dynamic offensive presence at the top of their batting order. Henderson helped the Yankees score a major-league-leading 839 runs and steal an A.L. leading 155 bases.
New York’s pitching staff also performed surprisingly well, compiling a team ERA of 3.69 – the third lowest in the American League. The combination of a potent offense and a solid pitching staff enabled the Yankees to post a record of 97-64. Unfortunately, the Toronto Blue Jays finished two games ahead of them in the A.L. East, with a record of 99-62.
Yet, despite failing to advance to the postseason, the Yankees experienced a great deal of excitement over the final two weeks of the campaign. The tumultuous procession of events began in the bar of the team’s Baltimore hotel on the night of September 22nd. Just one night after scuffling with a patron in the very same bar, Billy Martin had one of his arms and two of his ribs broken by Ed Whitson in an early-morning brawl, after Martin sucker-punched him, according to a witness. Martin, a reputed bar-room fighter from earlier in his playing days, later said that Whitson started the altercation. But an unnamed Yankee source later told The New York Times that an official investigation revealed "Billy pursued Whitson to the lobby, then to the front door, and then in the hall on the third floor. And then Billy tried to get Willie Horton (one of his former players) to beat up on Whitson."
Whether or not the incident had any emotional impact on the team is debatable, but the Yankees subsequently won seven of their next nine contests to close to within three games of the first-place Blue Jays. With only three games remaining in the regular season, the Yankees needed to sweep their weekend series against the Blue Jays in Toronto to force a one-game playoff for the A.L. East title. New York won the first contest, but Toronto clinched the division with a victory in game two. As a result, Phil Niekro’s 8-0 shutout of the Blue Jays the following day had little meaning, except for the fact that it represented the 300th victory of his career.
Although the Yankees fell just short of making the playoffs, their 97 victories were nothing to scoff at. Nor were some of the individual performances turned in by various members of the team. Ron Guidry returned to top form, leading the league with a record of 22-6, and placing among the leaders with a 3.27 ERA and 259 innings pitched, en route to earning a second-place finish in the Cy Young balloting. He also won his fourth straight Gold Glove.
Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, and Don Mattingly also had exceptional years. Winfield hit 26 homers, knocked in 114 runs, scored 105 others, batted .275, and stole 19 bases. He also collected 13 assists from his post in right field, en route to winning his fourth consecutive Gold Glove Award. Henderson hit 24 home runs, drove in 72 runs, batted .314, led the team with 99 walks and a .419 on-base percentage, and finished first in the American League with 80 stolen bases and 146 runs scored. Those figures were good enough to earn him a third-place finish in the league MVP voting. Mattingly captured A.L. MVP honors by hitting 35 homers, knocking in a league-leading 145 runs, scoring 107 others, batting .324, placing second in the league with 211 hits, and topping the circuit with 48 doubles and 370 total bases. In addition to being named league MVP, he earned his first Gold Glove and spots on both the A.L. All-Star Team and The Sporting News All-Star Team. Henderson and Winfield joined him on the A.L. squad, while Henderson, Guidry, and Baylor also earned spots on The Sporting News team.
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- Billy Martin, Clyde King, Dave Righetti, Dave Winfield, Don Baylor, Don Mattingly, Ed Whitson, George Steinbrenner, Jay Howell, Jose Rijo, Ken Griffey, Sr., Mike Pagliarulo, New York Yankees, Omar Moreno, Phil Niekro, Rickey Henderson, Ron Guidry, Roy Smalley, Stan Javier, Steve Kemp, Toby Harrah, Willie Randolph, Yogi Berra