Thursday, August 23, 2018

Epic Yankees Flameout Seasons! Episode Six!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water!

Yes, it’s Epic Yankees Flameout Season, Episode Six!!

The year?  1973.  The Watergate hearings were heating up, Israel would soon be at war with half the Middle East again, and a young, prematurely balding Englishman was teaching us all how to dance to the Crocodile Rock!

Yankees 80-82, 4th in a six-team division.

For the first time since the end of the Seventh Dynasty after 1964, the Yankees had actually contended into September, in 1972.  After making a few, key improvements, Las Vegas actually had them as the favorite to win the American League East, something Sports Illustrated called one of the silliest betting lines out there.  And…it turned out that SI was right.

Background:

The Yanks’ starting pitching had been five-deep down the stretch in 1972, with all five starters—Mel Stottlemyre, Fritz Peterson, Steve Kline, Mike Kekich, and Rob Gardner—all 30 or younger. 

So, with 23-year-old George “Doc” Medich looking ready for the majors, the Yanks swapped Gardner, a one-time Mets phenom who had bounced back to have a terrific half-season for the Bombers, to Oakland for Matty Alou, a 34-year-old, one-time batting champion who hit .307 in 1972.  The move not only filled what had become a perpetual hole in right field, but gave the Yankees, who already had Felipe, two of the three Alou brothers, which should have settled all pennant talk right then and there.

But as has often been said, you can have all the Alous you want, but if you don't have Jesus, you're missing something.

Expectations were running amok.  The infield consisted of Felipe and fielding-challenged Ron Blomberg at first, the veterans Horace Clarke and Gene Michael up the middle, and a promising newcomer, one Graig Nettles, acquired to play third in exchange for John Ellis, Jerry Kenney, Charlie Spikes, Rusty Torres, and any other broken old tools the Yanks happened to have lying around.

In the outfield with Matty were Bobby Murcer, who had emerged as a genuine star over the past two seasons, and Old Reliable Roy White, with vets Johnny Callison and Ron Swoboda to back them up.  Behind the plate was Thurman Munson, who was hoping to return to his rookie form, after a couple of slightly disappointing seasons.  Along with all those starters, there was a deep bullpen headed by 1972 sensation Sparky Lyle and Lindy McDaniel, and including Ron Klimkowski and Fred Beene, acquired from the Orioles, where Earl Weaver always swore Beene could be his No. 4 starter.

What’s more, it was the last year in the Grand Old Cathedral itself, the Real Original Ray's Yankee Stadium, before the Yanks moved over to Shea for two seasons while the city demolished, uh, renovated their park and provided a flimsy, plastic replacement.

Hopes were high that the team could bring back a flag for it’s last year in The House That Ruth Really Built—and nowhere were they higher than in the office of the young, turtleneck-clad man from Cleveland, one George Steinbrenner, who had acquired control of the team in offseason from CBS by putting up all of $800,000 of his own money.

Steinbrenner quickly assured the New York media, though, that he would let all the baseball decisions be made by the Yanks’ crack(ed) triumvirate of Manager Ralph Houk, GM Lee MacPhail, and President Michael Burke.

What happened:

What didn’t happen?

Before the team was even out of spring training, it had been engulfed in the notorious, Fritz Peterson-Mike Kekich wife-swapping episode.  This did inspire one of the all-time great cracks from a new Yankees executive, one Gabe Paul, brought over from Cleveland by the Yanks’ new owner: 

“Well, I guess we’ll have to cancel Family Day.”

Before the end of April, Paul was actually the new president of the club, as Steinbrenner utzed out Mike “the Dashing Boob” Burke, the man he had sworn he would let run the club about ten minutes before. 

The team, meanwhile, got off to a hideous start, being beaten on Opening Day at Fenway, 15-5.  The only highlight was that Ron Blomberg, the man born to be a designated hitter, drawing a bases-loaded walk off Luis Tiant, in the first at-bat by a major-league DH, ever.

Things went quickly downhill from there, and the Yanks lost the next day, too, 10-5, before Boston completed the sweep when its new DH, future Hall-of-Famer Orlando Cepeda, belted a walk-off home run off Sparky Lyle.  Still, after yet another loss against Cleveland in the last ever, Real Yankee Stadium home opener that especially infuriated You-Know-Who, the Yanks slowly began to right themselves.

By May 1st, they were 10-10, and in second place, and by May 23rd they were tied for first in a sluggish, AL East.  A walk-off homer by Nettles capped a June 24th doubleheader sweep of the Tigers and an eight-game win streak that left the Yanks at 40-30, and two games up on the division. 

The Yankees under Gabe Paul were beginning to wheel-and-deal like the pinstripers of old with a pennant in the balance.  Kekich was quietly palmed off on Cleveland, but Paul picked up Pat Dobson from Atlanta and Sudden Sam McDowell for cash, two veteran stars who—much like Happ and Hapless—looked like they still had plenty left. 

Jim Ray Hart, a righty third baseman for the outstanding Giants teams of the 1960s, was brought over to platoon at DH with Blomberg, and while Jim Ray couldn’t move much in the field anymore, he was still a pretty good hitter.  Blomberg, meanwhile, batting mostly against righties, was hitting .397 on July 1st, flirting constantly with both the .400 mark and enough at-bats to lead for the batting title.

After sweeping another doubleheader that same day, the Yanks were 45-34, in first by 4 games and ready to start a five-game series, at home, versus the Red Sox, then mired in fourth place.

Disaster.  On the opening, Thursday night game, Fritz Peterson pitched a two-hit, complete game—and lost, 1-0, on a homer run by Dewey Evans.  The Yanks left 8 men on base and loaded the bases with two out in the ninth, but the great John Curtis got Felipe Alou to pop to second.

The next night, the Yanks rallied to win, 3-1, behind McDowell and Lyle.  Then came a Saturday-afternoon doubleheader on the Fourth of July, the biggest date in Yankee Stadium in nine years, with almost 42,000 in attendance.  Mel Stottlemyre carried a 1-0 lead on a Murcer home run into the ninth, but when he gave up a leadoff single to Reggie Smith, Houk pulled him for Lyle. 

It seemed like a good idea.  Lyle gave up another single to Yaz, then booted a sacrifice bunt by Cepeda to load the bases.  But this was vintage, heart-stopping Sparky, and he struck out Rico Petrocelli, and induced Carlton Fisk to hit an easy bouncing ball to Nettles at third.

Many Indians fans would never forgive Gabe Paul for the Nettles deal, believing that he already knew he was going to the Yankees.  But Nettles was far from a finished product in 1973.  He hit only .234 with 18 homers that year, and he made 26 errors at third.  

Now, instead of taking the sure out at home and hoping Munson could get the plodding Fisk at first, Puff tried for a difficult, round-the-horn double-play.  He got one out at second, but the relay was too late to nip Fisk.

The tying run was in, but the good news was that Yaz, running head down as usual, was a dead duck at home.  The bad news was that, inexplicably, Ron Blomberg was still in the game at first.  He threw wildly to home.  Yaz scored.  In the bottom of the ninth, after a leadoff single by Hoss, Houk sent up Felipe Alou, who should have been in at first already, to pinch-hit—and bunt.  He bunted into a forceout.  Murcer singled him to third but, with two outs, Houk pulled Blomberg—still hitting .388, albeit against righties—for back-up infielder Celerino Sanchez, hitting .222.  He grounded back to the pitcher.

In the nightcap, Doc Medich pitched a complete-game, five-hit shutout—and lost, 1-0.  Nettles flied out with the bases loaded and two out in the first, and the Yanks left nine men on base.  In the Monday afternoon finale, before fewer than 13,000 fans now, the Sox pounded the Bombers, 9-4. 

The team never really recovered.  They managed to hang onto some part of first until August 2nd, when they took another belting from Boston, 10-0, this time in Fenway, but Baltimore was already racing by both clubs.  The Yanks collapsed after that, going 21-38 down the stretch, to finish with their first losing record since 1969.

The hitting, as the Boston series suggests, was generally dreadful.  Blomberg dropped all the way down to .322, even as a platoon player.  Both Alous were gone before the end of the season.  Matty somehow managed the seemingly impossible mathematical feat of batting third, hitting .296, and driving in just 28 runs in 123 games.  Roy White had probably his worst season ever as a Yankee, and the bench was almost uniformly terrible.

The pitching, though, was the major disappointment.  After their bright early showings, Dobson and McDowell stank up the joint.  Dobson would rebound, but McDowell would end his alcohol-troubled career in 1974.  Peterson was awful—no doubt distracted by this and that—and Steve Kline’s arm, which had looked weary at the end of 1972, gave out altogether.  He would never be the same pitcher.

Bright spots:

There were a number.  Stottlemyre had his last good year with the Yankees, whil Doc Medich proved he belonged in the majors, and the bullpen was generally excellent.  Munson hit .301 with a career-high 20 homers, threw out nearly half of everybody who ran on him, and won the Gold Glove.  Murcer had another excellent season.

What happened next:

Well, George exploded, of course, and launched a general housecleaning.  Houk was fired on the last day of the season.  Steinbrenner would almost never again show such restraint; later managers would have gone between games of that July 4th doubleheader.

MacPhail jumped before he was pushed, becoming president of the American League.  That left Gabe Paul to do pretty much what he pleased—particularly once George was “suspended from baseball” for his illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. 

Paul would move out Clarke and Stick—clearly at the end of the line—deal Lindy MacDaniel (38 in 1974) for a certain outfielder I like to call Lou Piniella, ship Peterson, Kline, Beene, and Tom Buskey to his old team for Chris Chambliss and Dick Tidrow; and scoop up such highly useful lugnuts as Elliott Maddox, Chicken Stanley, Jim Mason, Sandy Alomar, Rudy May, and Larry Gura, for next to nothing.

That is, he put together the first building blocks of the Yankees’ 1970s dynasty.  Destiny awaited, at the end of the two-year exodus in the wilderness of Flushing. 

3 comments:

Publius said...

Bravo! Great read.

KD said...

Thank you!

HoraceClarke66 said...

Thanks, folks!

Ah, that was a pineapply year! Four straight, fantastically well-pitched games against Boston...and we lost three of them. Thank goodness I was still young enough to stand the strain. Today, it would drive me to drink, for sure.

Hmm, speaking of which...