The Frustrating Fade Of The 1987 New York Yankees

Baseball fans in the Bronx experienced a lot of frustration in a short historical period that started in 1983. The Yankees were never bad—indeed, the typical high expectations that come with Pinstripes were in place every spring. But through most of the 1980s, the Yanks were just good enough to tease and then come up short. The 1987 New York Yankees exemplified all of that, with key injuries and a difficult division derailing what might have been a special season.

After consecutive second-place finishes in the AL East, owner George Steinbrenner was making moves. The Boss acquired veteran starting pitcher Rick Rhoden in a six-player deal with the Pirates. Rhoden was good, winning 16 games with a 3.86 ERA for the Yanks. But it came at the cost of a young pitcher named Doug Drabek who eventually become a Cy Young Award winner.

Steinbrenner moved Mike Easler, a lefthanded bat that was in career decline, to Philadelphia and got pitcher Charles Hudson back. Hudson turned into a versatile arm who started, relieved and finished with a 3.61 ERA.

Rhoden and Hudson joined a staff that was led by 44-year-old Tommy John. The lefty sinkerballer made 33 starts, won 13 games and posted a 4.03 ERA. The bullpen was anchored by Dave Righetti, who saved 31 games with a 3.51 ERA.

By rights, the pitching staff should have been pretty good. But with lefty Ron Guidry, historically the team’s ace, going through an injury-riddled campaign and only making 17 starts, the Yankees didn’t have the depth. The staff as a whole was respectable, finishing sixth in the American League in ERA. But in a rugged AL East, they really needed a healthy Guidry.

And the offense was mediocre. A big trade with the Chicago White Sox to bring in power-hitting DH Ron Kittle and shortstop Wayne Tolleson didn’t work out. Kittle got off to a nice start and was slugging .535, but injuries drastically limited his time in the season’s second half. Tolleson was an offensive black hole. Similar lack of production bedeviled the Yanks at catcher, left field and centerfield.

Fortunately, New York had star power that could keep this lineup afloat. Don Mattingly, the first baseman who won the MVP as recently as 1985, had a big year. Mattingly hit .327, popped 30 homers and drove in 115 runs. Dave Winfield provided more muscle in right field, with 27 homers and a .358 on-base percentage. Willie Randolph, the second baseman who had been here for the most recent World Series titles in 1977 and 1978, hit .305 and posted a .411 on-base percentage.

When he was healthy, Rickey Henderson was better than all of them. The future Hall of Famer had a .423 on-base percentage and .497 slugging percentage. But Henderson only played 95 games and was out much of August—not coincidentally, the point in the schedule when the Yankee season went off the rails.

So even with the star power, even with Dan Pasqua coming off the bench to hit 17 homers, even with infielder Bobby Meacham chipping in with a .349 on-base percentage, the Yankee lineup had to settle for being seventh in the American League in runs scored.

Lou Piniella was in his second year as manager and with the pressure to win building, Sweet Lou’s Yanks came firing out of the gate with 12 wins in their first 15 games. They won five of six in big early series against the Detroit Tigers.

Prior to the realignment of 1994, the Tigers were an AL East rival of the Yanks. So were the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers (an American League team prior to 1998). Each league had just an East and a West division and only the first-place finisher could go to the playoffs. So there were more teams per division, you had to win that division, and on top of everything else, the AL East was baseball’s best division through most of the 1980s.

New York was meeting the challenge in the early going. They went west and won seven of ten games. By Memorial Day, the Yankees had the best record in baseball at 28-15. They were three games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays and plus-four on Milwaukee, even though the Brewers had started the year 13-0. The Tigers had not yet caught fire.

The Yanks had their first run of sluggish play coming out of the holiday weekend. They went 6-6 over the next twelve games. This was a stretch that included Toronto coming into the Bronx and hanging a three-game sweep on New York. Yankee bats mustered must three runs combined in the entire series. But New York bounced back, went 11-5 against other AL East competition, and rolled into Toronto for a return visit on June 29.

Monday night’s opening game was a wild one. Perhaps determined to prove they could hit Blue Jay pitching, Winfield and Mattingly both went off. They combined for three home runs and 11 RBIs. The Yanks needed every one of them, because they had to escape with a 15-14 win.

Guidry took the ball on Tuesday and restored some normalcy, working into the eighth inning with a shutout. Randolph’s two-out, two-run double in the second inning gave New York a lead they never relinquished, winning 4-0. More great pitching followed in Wednesday afternoon’s getaway finale. Tommy John tossed seven shutout innings and handed a 1-0 lead to the bullpen. Even though the Jays tied it up, the Yankee bats erupted for five runs in the 12th.

The 6-1 win completed the revenge sweep. New York was still soaring at the All-Star break, sitting on a record of 55-34. Their three-game margin on Toronto was holding firm. Detroit had crept to within five games and was in third.

Kansas City was contending in the AL West, conjuring up the possibility of renewing the great Yankees-Royals ALCS rivalry of the late 1970s. KC came to the Bronx for a three-game series near the end of July. And New York pitching was ready.

Rhoden threw a complete game in Tuesday’s night opener, winning 2-1. Steve Trout, an inconsistent lefthander, was on his game on Wednesday. Trout, Tim Stoddard and Righetti combined on a 4-0 shutout. Stoddard came through out of the bullpen again on Thursday. He tossed three innings of shutout relief. Some big nights came from unexpected places—three-hit games for Rick Cerone and Juan Bonilla. And the Yanks completed another big sweep with a 6-3 win.

But August is the month that separates the men from the boys in pennant race baseball. It was a lesson that New York had hammered home to many a hopeful over the years. In 1987, they served as the nail, with Detroit and Toronto being the hammer.

The Yankees lost 17 of 28 games in August. They lost three of four in Detroit and dropped three straight on their return trip to Kansas City. The Blue Jays and Tigers moved to the top of the AL East and were neck-and-neck when Labor Day arrived to signal the start of the stretch run. But the Yankees were still 77-59 and still within five games. With a stretch of games against AL East teams in early September, there was the opportunity to make a move.

It didn’t happen. In short order, New York lost series to Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee. The Yanks split four in a rematch with the Blue Jays and dropped another series to the Brewers. Forget chasing down Detroit and Toronto, who battled to the final day with the two best records in the major leagues. New York couldn’t even hold off surging Milwaukee, who passed them for third place. By the time the Yanks won a September series there was a week and a half left, and they were formally eliminated from contention.

The final record was 89-73. It has to be said that this was still better than anyone in the AL West and would have been playoff-worthy by the standards of today. But anyone familiar with the 1980s version of George Steinbrenner knew what was coming. The hammer fell on Piniella. Billy Martin was brought back for his fifth tenure as Yankee skipper. And anyone familiar with the Steinbrenner of this era would not have been surprised to know that midway through 1988, Billy would get canned and Lou would be back. But no matter who was in the dugout, the Yankees of this era could not get over the top.