A Classic Player, a Forgettable Season


NASHVILLE — “Who,” a perplexed Don Mattingly asked, “was Steve Adkins? I don’t remember this guy.” As the Yankees streak into yet another baseball postseason, it’s easy to forget that just a short time ago the organization fielded one of the worst teams in the ball club’s history. Recently, as Mattingly lingered around the dingy press box of the Nashville Sounds, he relived his days as a member of that 1990 edition of the Bronx Bombers. They were the worst Yankee team Mattingly ever suited up for, finishing dead last in the AL East with 95 losses, 21 games behind the BoSox.

Mattingly, now 38, had stopped by Nashville to have his old number retired by the Sounds. He had hit .316 here in 1981, when the Sounds were the Yanks’ Double-A affiliate.

Just hours before the ceremony, Mattingly took time to reflect on that rather forgettable Yankee season, a team that was so dismal that veteran righty Tim Leary went 9-19 before Stump Merrill mercifully yanked him from the rotation. Bucky Dent got his pink slip after 49 games. None of the other starters—who can forget Dave LaPoint, Andy Hawkins, and Mike Witt?—won more than seven games.

Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni, the primary DH, smacked 17 homers but hit just .192. Balboni had a fair amount of company below the Mendoza line: Mike Blowers (.188), Claudell Washington (.163), Deion Sanders (.158), Wayne Tolleson (.149), and Brian Dorsett (.143). Not one position player would start on the current Yankee club. This year’s Bombers blew past 1990’s win total of 67 in early August.

**Mattingly said his back is doing fine, he’s a few pounds under his playing weight of 200, and he’s spending a lot of time on his Indiana horse farm raising his boys (ages 8, 12, and 14). As for the future, the man who gave his name to Donnie Baseball said he might like to manage one day, but not “till the boys are grown up.” He looks the same, minus the eyeblack.

Mattingly, like most pro athletes, started spewing clichés when asked to talk about the awful ’90 Bombers. “We still played hard every day,” he said. But when Mattingly started working his way down the full roster, something sprang to life inside the Yankee legend.

The indomitable No. 23—the greatest and grittiest Yankee since Mantle—said his best friends on the team were Balboni, Dave Righetti (36 saves), and Tolleson. “Bonsey was a great teammate. That was Rags’s last year with us, and he put up some numbers. Tolley was tough as nails.” The guys who kept the clubhouse loose, said Mattingly, were LaPoint and Steve Sax. “Saxy was just hilarious. And LaPoint was a very funny guy.”

What blueblood Yankee fan can forget the starting team of men in pinstripes a scant nine seasons ago? Bob Geren (.213) was the right-handed half of the catching platoon with Matt Nokes (8HR, .238). Mattingly, who had a bad back, played only 89 games at first base (5 HR, 42 RBI, .256). Second-sacker Sax (.260, 43 steals) also had an off year,

after hitting .315 in 1989, his first season in the Bronx. The shortstop was Alvaro Espinoza, who finished the season with 2 HR and 20 ribbies—stats that Jeter might put up in a good homestand.

Randy Velarde (.210) ended up getting the bulk of the playing time at the hot corner. “They gave the third-base job to Blowers starting out in spring training, and it was a classic case of it being too much for a young guy,” recalled Mattingly. “But I see Mike became a solid player.”

Another guy who got a shot at third and couldn’t handle it was 23-year-old Hensley Meulens (3 HR, 10 RBI). Recalled Mattingly, “Bam-Bam could speak about five languages. I remember laughing one day when his dad was on the field before a game and they were jabbering in Aruban or wherever it was he was from.” (Actually Meulens grew up in Curacao.)

That was the same time cover boy Kevin Maas exploded onto the New York sports scene, stoking 21 round-trippers in 254 at-bats. An excited New York press corps—desperate to find positives in a bleak season—churned out dozens of articles about the rookie first baseman’s brilliant future in pinstripes. After all, he had a sweet lefty swing, tailor-made for the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium. Maas, as we all know, soon fizzled.

The starting outfield, left to right, was Indian castoff Mel Hall (12 HR, 46 RBI), team batting champ Roberto Kelly (.285, 42 stolen bases), and Jesse Barfield (.246, 25 HR). “Roberto had a great year and I was sorry to see him leave New York,” said Mattingly. Also seeing some time was free-swinging

Oscar Azocar (214 at-bats, 2 walks), who Mattingly recalled “could hit a bit.” Then there was rookie utility man Jimmy Leyritz (.257, 5 HR). Mattingly smiled when he recalled young Leyritz. He started to say something about the brash youngster, but moved on.

Turning to the Yanks’ two-sport wunderkind, Mattingly said he enjoyed playing with Deion Sanders. “He was totally different from what you would think, on and off the field. In the clubhouse, Deion was quiet and respectful; he had a real work ethic and tried to blend in.”

Mattingly, who grew up in Evansville, Indiana, said he knew backup catcher Dorsett (5 hits in 35 ABs) long before they both joined the Yankee organization. “We were in the same high school class, ’79, and played ball against each other in Indiana.” Dorsett hails from nearby Terre Haute. Mattingly said part-timer Luis Polonia (.318) was a “great player, could hit and run, though his outfield was shaky at times.”

Nineteen-game loser Leary (208 innings, 4.11 ERA) actually had a “good year” and would have won “16 to 18 games on a decent team,” said Mattingly. LaPoint, whom Mattingly termed “the master of the change-up,” finished 7-10. Sadly, Mattingly said Hawkins (5-12, 5.37 ERA) “never got on track in New York after coming over from San Diego.”

Witt (5-6, 4.47) had arm problems, while Pascal Perez (1-2 in three starts) battled more serious demons. Imposing southpaw Lee Guetterman (11-7, 3.39) and another lefty, Greg Cadaret (5-4, 4.15), chewed up a fair amount of innings out of the bullpen. Then there was Eric Plunk (6-3, 2.72) who Mattingly said had “big gas, a good curve, and was just coming into his own.”

How often does Mattingly hang with his former teammates? The former Yankee captain said he sees buddies like “Tolley and Rags maybe once a year. You know how it is when you have kids. You always talk about getting together, but you’re lucky if you’ve got time to do your laundry.”

For the record, Donnie, Steve Adkins was a 25-year-old rookie who went 1-2 with a 6.38 ERA in five starts in 1990. He never pitched in the Majors again. By any baseball standard, a forgettable guy.