Monday, November 25, 2019

(Bring 'em) Home for the Holidays

As several of us have remarked, this used to be a magical time of year for Yankees fans, behind only Opening Day and the start of the playoffs.

It all began in the 1974 holiday season.  Rumors had begun to spread ever since Catfish Hunter had been declared a free agent on December 16th.  And sure, the Yanks were supposedly interested in him, but I wasn't having it.  Inured to hope through the years between the Great Collapse and free agency, it seemed impossible that change could come so quickly.

Then, there it was.  While out partying on New Year's Eve—all right, all right, I was actually out raking in the big New Year's Eve babysitting bucks—I got the word:  Catfish was a Yankee.

It stunned me—and probably spoiled me as a fan for all time.  I hadn't been old enough to experience the wonder years of the 1950s and '60s, in the World Series every October.  I had become a Yankees fan when the team was literally in last place for the first time, and was raised on the stiff upper lip, and the hope that someday, some decade, if we built our farm teams right, we too might match the mighty Baltimore Orioles or the Oakland Athletics.

And then...BOOM!  There he was, his appearance as shocking as if I had actually witnessed Santa Claus shimmying down a chimney.  Catfish Hunter.  A major pitcher from the defending world champions.  Coming to the Bronx.

And the best thing was, year after year, they kept coming.  No hesitation, no extended chin scratching, and wondering who other teams had signed, and telling people to talk to us last.

We knew what we wanted, and we went after it.  If you dangled the money, they would come.  And boy did they come, as expected and regular as so many presents under the tree on Christmas morning:

—1976:  November 18, we sign Don Gullett, the ace of the team that had just beat us in the World Series, only 17 days after he was declared a free agent, and despite having to deal with the free agent "draft" that year.  November 29—ONLY 11 DAYS LATER!!!—it was Reggie himself.

"Cut 'em out, ride 'em in
Ride 'em in, cut 'em out..."

—1977:  November 22, it's Goose Gossage.  December 9, Rawly Eastwick.  Two of the best relievers in the NL in just over two weeks!!

Sure, there was a bit of a problem because our psycho manager objected to the Yanks signing Eastwick without consulting him.  And as it turned out, Rawly's arm was largely shot.  Still, he did win two games for us, including a game against Cleveland where he pitched 4 innings of perfect relief.

In a season where you win in a playoff, that counts for something.  And later when Martin forced us to trade him, he went for Jay Johnstone and Bobby Brown, who proved to be useful lug nuts for a time (Those were the days when we also traded players we didn't want for other players, instead of just disdainfully disposing of them like so many used tissues.).

—1978:  November 13:  Luis Tiant.  November 21:  Tommy John.  BAM!  One of the best pitchers on the staff of our leading rival, and the ace of the team we'd just beat in the World Series.

We didn't pretend we weren't playing against certain teams in those days.  We eviscerated the other contenders whenever and wherever we could.

—1980:  December 15:  Dave Winfield!  Just in time for Christmas!  Snap!  The best player in the game, coming to NYC!

It was amazing.  It wasn't just that the Yanks acquired four Hall-of-Famers and several near-HOFers in the space of six years.  They also kept the whole town, the whole sports world buzzing about them for months.

Who would the Yankees get, how would they fit in, shouldn't they be stopped, what will become of us???

In a daze, I would spend the slow winter months jotting down potential lineups.

It all came to an end, of course, when George the Mad King, driven round the bend by the 1981 World Series loss, tried to build the notorious "Speed Team" around Ken Griffey and Dave Collins.

From then on, the free agent pick-ups became more ragged and arbitrary, leading to disasters such as Steve Kemp and Andy Hawkins and Ed Whitson (shudder).  Failure built on itself, as free agents became less and less inclined to sign with a Yankees franchise that seemed so out of control.

Some sanity was restored in the Gene Michael years, but the Mad King and Coops kept making gut-instinct mistakes, signing Sheffield over Vlad, Mussina and Giambi over Manny and Damon (the first time) and Beltran (the first and second time).

A notable success came with the signings of CC, Burnett, and Teixeira that put the team over the top at last in 2009, but that was about it.  Instead of signing A-Rod three years early, in 2001, when we should have, we re-signed him too late.  Then came the calamitous, 2013-14 crop of Ellsbury, McCan't, etc.

HAL had all the ammunition he needed to abandon the market.  The holidays would never be the same.

But boy, it was fun while it lasted.





5 comments:

TheWinWarblist said...

❤️

Anonymous said...

HOSS....

I NEVER FORGOT THE STORY OF GEORGE TELLING LUIS TIANT, "THIS DEAL I'M OFFERING IS A REAL GOOD ONE...BUT IF YOU WALK OUT THAT DOOR, THE DEAL IS OFF."

TIANT SIGNED RIGHT THERE.

GOD HOW WE MISS GEORGE.

HoraceClarke66 said...

At least that side of him, ALL-CAPS. If only we could have bottled it!

Alphonso said...

And then then was GIANCARLO STANTON !

The turkey for endless thanksgivings to come.

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