1985 New York Yankees: A Pennant Drive Just Misses

Billy Martin made one of his many famous returns to the 1985 New York Yankees, trying to rediscover the organization’s disappearing championship mojo. Billy led the Yanks on an up-and-down ride through the 1985 season and nearly caught the Toronto Blue Jays, but came up a bit short in the end.

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The Yankees were starting to slip after their 1976-81 run where they won four American League pennants and two World Series titles, half of each under Martin. The team slipped under .500 in 1982 when Billy returned in 1983 and oversaw a third-place finish in the AL East. Yogi Berra took over in 1984 and again finished third. Berra was still the manager when the 1985 season opened, but back in those days, that was never a job to get comfortable in under owner George Steinbrenner.

New York made a series of moves in the offseason, mostly around the periphery of the roster, but one move did have impact—positive in the short-term, but negative in the long-term. They acquired centerfielder Rickey Henderson from the Oakland A’s. Known for his speed, Henderson stole 80 bases in 1985. But he also hit 24 home runs, and finished with a .419 on-base percentage and .516 slugging percentage.

Henderson was added to an attack that was anchored by first baseman Don Mattingly, who finished with numbers of .371/.567 and finished with 145 RBIs as he won the MVP award. Veteran second baseman Willie Randolph posted a .382 OBP and rightfielder Dave Winfield finished with 114 RBI. Don Baylor, the 36-year-old designated hitter, hit 23 home runs and drove in 91 runs. The lineup as a whole scored more runs than anyone in the American League.

The pitching was pretty good too, with the league’s third-best ERA. Ron Guidry was the ace, and with 22 wins and a 3.27 ERA, he finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. The old knuckleballer, 46-year-old Phil Niekro managed to win 16 games and worked 220 innings. Joe Cowley quietly won 12 games in 26 starts and finished with a 3.95 ERA.

Depth was a problem in the rotation—Ed Whitson was unreliable—but it was made up for with depth in the bullpen. Bob Shirley, Brian Fisher and Rich Bordi all worked close to 100 innings and finished with ERAs ranging from 2.38 to 3.21. Dave Righetti was at the back end, saving 29 games, winning 12 more and finishing with a 2.78 ERA.

When the Yankees started slowly, losing 10 of their first 16, Steinbrenner lost patience and fired Berra. Billy was back again.

The team lost their first two games under Martin in Texas, but then won the finale and came home to sweep the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals. The Yanks won two of three on the return trip to KC, part of an 8-1 stretch that got them over .500. By Memorial Day, New York was 21-19 and six games back of AL East leading Toronto, with the Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles—the last two World Series champions—also in the race.

Early June wasn’t as kind, and the Yankees fell as many as nine games back, losing series at home to Toronto and Detroit and another on the road to the Tigers. But games with the Orioles proved to be the tonic the Pinstripes needed. They swept Baltimore both at home and on the road, starting the Birds’ permanent fade from the race. New York cut their AL East deficit to 5 ½ games, then ripped off a 10-1 stretch against AL West teams—including more wins over Kansas City—and 2 ½ back of the Jays at the All-Star break.

It was time for another slump when the second half began, and this time the Royals took some revenge, sweeping the Yankees in Kansas City. New York lost 11 of 18 out of the break and were back to 9 ½ out in early August. Then it was time for a hot streak—from August 5 to August 25, the Yankees went on a torrid 17-2 pace, including seven straight wins over the Boston Red Sox and closed back to within three games of Toronto.

By the team Labor Day arrived, New York was the only challenger to Toronto still standing, as Detroit had faded. The Yankees were four games out, and they promptly won nine of ten to set up a big four-game series with the Blue Jays in Yankee Stadium that began on September 12.

Guidry started the Thursday night opener and faced fellow staff ace Dave Stieb. The Yanks trailed 4-1 in the seventh. Then they started a rally with two walks and an error and tied the game. They finished the rally with a three-run blast by catcher Ron Hassey and had a 7-4 win that cut the Blue Jay lead to a game and a half.

It seemed like magic was in the year—baseball’s most storied franchise was chasing one that had never been to the postseason and based on the first big September game, Toronto was shrinking. Then everything changed over the next three days.

Niekro gave a complete-game effort on Friday night, but the Yanks couldn’t hit the Toronto bullpen over the last four innings and New York lost 3-2. On Saturday, Martin went to Righetti early, in the fifth inning, and the lefty didn’t have it—four runs without getting an out and the Yankees lost 7-4. Whitson was rocked off the mound in the third and the 8-5 final was deceptively close, as New York didn’t score until the eighth inning.

New York was licking their wounds at 4 ½ games out and a week later, Whitson and Martin got into a brawl at a hotel bar. The manager took the worst of it, and his team continued to lose, dropping five straight after the Toronto series. They were seven games out with less than two weeks left and the race looked over.

There was no quit though, and the Yankees made one final push. They won seven of eight and cut the lead back to three games in time for the final weekend and their trip to Toronto. It was an uphill climb—Guidry pitched the must-win game prior to the series and wouldn’t be available and New York would have to sweep the series and then win a one-game playoff—but they were still breathing.

On Friday night, old Exhibition Stadium in Toronto was ready to party, as the Yankees trailed 3-2 with two outs in the ninth. Whitson had pitched reasonably well, but it didn’t look like enough. Then, light-hitting catcher Butch Wynegar hit a home run to tie it. Another light-hitter, Bobby Meacham singled. Henderson drew a walk and an error in centerfield brought home the winning run.

Again, the pieces were in place for a legendary Yankee comeback. And once again, Toronto had an answer. Cowley took the mound on Saturday and gave up three solo home runs by the third inning. The Blue Jays were able to stabilize and won the game 5-1. The AL East race was over.

Martin guided the team to a 91-54 record under his leadership. But the off-field incidents and the failure to ultimately win the AL East, resulted in another firing. Billy made yet another Bronx return in 1988, but only lasted half the season. 1985 was his last full year with the Yankees. New York would continue to struggle, not reaching the October stage until the Joe Torre/Derek Jeter era began in 1996.