“I love the smell of cheap champagne in the morning. It smells like . . . victory.” No, George Steinbrenner probably never said it. But he’s certainly thought it. Except, of course, when the aroma of Cuban cigars and celebratory bubbly is wafting from the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. Then it’s the stench of defeat. And there’s something about that smell, coupled with the sight of the infidels partying in the House That Rupe Built, that drives the man crazy.
Remember the last time it happened? It was 1981, Ronald Reagan could still remember his own name, Bill Gates was just a computer geek, and the Yankees worked their way through the strike-addled playoff system to yet another World Series. George’s boys took a two-games-to-love lead out to L.A. and promptly lost three straight one-run contests—blowing leads of 4-3, 4-0, and 1-0. After one of those debacles, George broke his hand punching (a) a wall, or (b) two Dodger fans who called the Yankees “chokers.” (“There are two guys in this town looking for their teeth and two guys who will probably sue me,” George said at the time, but, of course, they never did.)
The Bombers headed back to New York for Game 6. Their ace lefty, Tommy John, was locked in a 1-1 duel with Burt Hooton until he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the fourth, and the Dodgers scored seven runs in the next two innings off George Frazier, Ron Davis, and Rick Reuschel on their way to a 9-2 clincher. Sound familiar?
Then things turned really ugly. Steinbrenner, a football guy at heart who seems to really believe this “not in our house” horse hockey, went on a rampage. He took out a full-page ad apologizing for the fact that the Yankees lost the World Series. (Could you even conceive of the Cubs doing the same?)
And then he turned his anger inward. He let the team’s best hitter, Reggie Jackson, walk away as a free agent. He traded Bill Caudill, who would save 88 games over the next three seasons, for Shane Rawley.
And he decided that the Yanks had the need for speed. He signed Ken Griffey Sr., who would hit exactly one more homer in four full seasons with the Yankees than the 39 Reggie hit in his first year in Anaheim. Then he made what might be the worst move in the history of the franchise. He signed speedy Dave Collins to a top-of-the-market three-year $2.25 million deal. Collins went on to hit .253 and stole an unlucky 13 bases, while being caught eight times. He lasted a single summer in the Bronx before being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, with Mike Morgan and $400,000, for Dale Murray, who would go 3-6 with one save. The Yankees also threw in a young first baseman named Fred McGriff, who would become an All-Star for the division rival Jays. And to replace Collins, the Yankees signed, yes, Steve Kemp.
And it all worked just about as well on the field as it did on paper. In spring training, Steinbrenner hired Olympic sprinter Harrison Dillard as a “running consultant,” and when Dave Collins outsprinted Dave “Mr. May” Winfield, the off-season moves were deemed a success. The Yanks stumbled to a 6-8 start, and Steinbrenner fired Bob Lemon, despite this earlier avowal: “I swear on my heart, he’ll be my manager all season.” Lemon’s replacement, Gene Michael, actually had a winning record (44-42), but after George Frazier got pummeled for 10 runs in an inning and a third by the White Sox in the second game of a midsummer doubleheader, Steinbrenner realized that having Bob Sheppard offer the fans “rain checks” for free admission to another game wasn’t atonement enough. He fired Michael the next day. Clyde King played out the string, going 29-33 before being replaced by, you guessed it, Billy Martin.
Overall, the Yankees went 79-83, their first losing season since 1973.
That 1982 season marked the beginning of the end. Instead of post-season baseball, Yankee fans would get the Pine Tar Game, dead seagulls, and Billy Martin breaking his arm by punching pitcher Ed Whitson in the ribs. And then there were the bad things. Doug Drabek for Rick Rhoden. Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps. Dale Berra. Dave LaPoint. Andy Hawkins. Steve Trout. Dallas Green. Bucky Dent. Howie Spira. Mercy compels me to stop now. It would be 13 very long years until the Yankees made it back to the playoffs.
In the Bronx right now, it smells a lot like it did 21 years ago. George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees lost to the Florida Marlins. You can bet that Don Zimmer and Jeff Weaver won’t be this season’s only sacrificial lambs. Be afraid, Yankee fans. Be very afraid.