The first step in Yankees’ rebirth

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A series by Joel Sherman chronicles how the Yankees’ fiasco of 1990 laid the groundwork for a dynasty.

The Yankees won fewer games every year from their 97 in 1985 to 85 in 1988. But if you wanted to believe there was still a strong contender assembled, sure, you could believe that.

Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield led the offense. Henderson stole 93 bases in ’88, Mattingly topped a .300 average for a fifth straight year and Winfield finished fourth in the AL MVP voting. Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph lingered from the late-1970 champion Yankees. Jack Clark was among the most feared designated hitters in the sport and Claudell Washington hit .308. John Candelaria and Rick Rhoden fronted the rotation, Dave Righetti was a proven closer and Cecilio Guante was among the majors’ top setup men.

But that offseason Randolph, Washington, Candelaria, Rhoden and Guante left for free agency. Clark was traded for two nondescript pitchers and a spare outfielder, the same return the Yanks would receive in June 1989 for Henderson. Winfield would hurt his back, never play in 1989 and be traded in May 1990. Guidry’s frayed arm did not allow him to make it back to the majors in 1989. As with the Clark and Henderson trades, the Yanks did poorly in adding talent and/or character with their respective replacements. They became an island of misfit toys.

George Steinbrenner liked to point out that despite it being a decade without a title, the Yankees won the most games in the majors in the 1980s. But from 1989-92, only the Indians lost more than the Yankees. It cratered in 1990, when the Yankees produced their worst winning percentage (.414) since 1913 (.377). That was the first year that they were the Yankees after being known as the Highlanders.

“We unloaded so many guys from 1988, Pags [Mike Pagliarulo], Rickey, Willie,” Mattingly recalls. “And it didn’t work in ’89 and it just got worse after that. You don’t want to give into it. When you are dealing with Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, [Graig] Nettles, guys that were there when I came up, they had a mentality different than other guys. That is who I learned from. Time changed. Different levels of players came in. We just didn’t have the same team any more.”

Don Mattingly and Kevin Maas
Don Mattingly and Kevin MaasGetty Images (2)

The trade was done. This is the recollection of an involved person who asked not to be identified. It was October 1988. What is lost to time and memories is whether the deal was called off because a mass was found in Dave Dravecky’s arm and he couldn’t be in the package or because the mass turned out to be cancer and the Giants couldn’t give up more pitching with Dravecky’s suddenly uncertain status. But before the revelation, Mattingly was being dealt to San Francisco with Rhoden for Will Clark and two pitchers.

This was George Steinbrenner at his most vindictive. He had been taking potshots at his most popular players for years. At the 1988 All-Star break, for example, The Boss described Mattingly as “the most unproductive .300 hitter in baseball.” A month later, Mattingly for the first time in his career fired back, stating, “You come here and play, and they give you money but no respect.” He said without the respect he didn’t want to play there and that the atmosphere was joyless.

“If you embarrassed him in some way, he was going to get you,” Mattingly recalls. “He doesn’t care about the consequences, he is going to move you. It is different from owners today. If he didn’t want you there, you were gone.”

But once the Giants deal fell apart, Steinbrenner and Mattingly slowly thawed their relationship. Mattingly stayed, and in another lost Yankee season in 1989, drove in 113 runs — 50 more than anyone on the team.

On Jan. 22, 1990 — the same day Milli Vanilli won three American Music Awards — Clark signed a four-year, $15 million pact to stay in San Francisco. The $3.75 million average was a record and moved Steinbrenner to complain, “How can you pay a ballplayer 3, 3 ½ million a year when the chief of staff is making just $77,000?”

He had his agenda with his own first baseman. Mattingly was about to enter his walk year and had made Opening Day a deadline to do a deal or else he would not sign before free agency. Steinbrenner relented on a no-trade provision, but delayed enough to announce the signing of his star to try to overshadow Mets’ Opening Day and Game 3 of an Islanders-Rangers playoff series. Mattingly was bestowed five years at $19.3 million — trading not teams, but places atop the highest-paid player ever chart with Clark.

“I figured if I took care of business on the field, everything else would work out,” Mattingly recalls. “It was stress-free for me.”

Except it would never work out on the field like before for Mattingly, ever again.


Mattingly had a bad back and great work ethic, a combination that veered him away from Cooperstown. He had a degenerative disk problem and a mentality that the answer to any problem — from pain to a slump — was more work. He had managed through the discomfort of previous years, but not in 1990. His hand-eye coordination was as special as ever, however the ferocious torque from his swing was gone and so was his power. His back just would not allow him freeness or ferocity.

“The Kevin Maas thing was pretty special. We didn’t have a very good team, but we had a very good player.” — Dave LaPoint, one of the Yankee starters in 1990

“You keep bouncing back because you are young,” Mattingly says now. “But this one just wouldn’t go away.”

Mattingly tried familiar stoicism and new techniques, but the career .323 hitter was at just .262 with five homers through 70 games on June 28.

That day, the A’s signed Jose Canseco to a five-year, $23.5 million contract, eclipsing Mattingly’s for the largest ever. And the Yankees demoted Deion Sanders and brought up a lefty hitter with matinee-idol looks who for a few weeks looked as if he might eclipse Mattingly.


“The Kevin Maas thing was pretty special,” Dave LaPoint, one of the Yankee starters in 1990, remembers. “We didn’t have a very good team, but we had a very good player.”

And no one saw it coming.

Maas was a 22nd-round pick in 1986 who had a steady, successful rise through the organization and actually might have reached the majors in 1989, but in July, rounding first base while hitting .320 at Triple-A, he heard his right knee pop. Lying on the ground, waiting for the trainer, he began wondering what he could do with a Cal-Berkeley engineering degree.

Maas actually went back to finish school after surgery, was taken off the 40-man roster and in spring training 1990 did not leave a calling card with coaches or players — Jim Leyritz was the first hitter the Yanks called up trying to revive the offense that season. While in Triple-A early in 1990, Maas visited the Louisville Slugger plant in need of bats. They didn’t have any of his. But they had his specs — 34 inches, 33 ounces — and gave him the model of a player beginning his first full season with the Cubs. They were Joe Girardi’s bats.

Once in the majors, though, everyone quickly became aware of Maas’ bat — and appearance. Maas was the slugger out of central casting. He had broad shoulders, a chiseled jaw, a head of parted black hair that didn’t come out of place in the wind. He not only had a lefty launch swing, but had decided to move up on the plate and concentrate on pulling the ball more, a combination that allowed him to pull even outside pitches. He also had plate discipline. Kevin Maas had soap opera looks and a Yankee Stadium swing.

By early July, Mattingly finally conceded his back was no good and didn’t play the final seven games before the break, then missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 1983. On July 4 — Steinbrenner’s 60th birthday — Maas played first base for the second time in the majors and hit his first homer, off Kansas City’s Bret Saberhagen. By the end of July, Maas had eight homers, one in Texas off Nolan Ryan to help keep the future Hall of Famer from winning his 300th game. (Ryan was allowed to throw 139 pitches despite permitting seven runs as his manager tried to get him the milestone. That manager was Bobby Valentine.)

Former Yankee Kevin Maas takes a swing during the 2017 Old Timers' Day game.
Former Yankee Kevin Maas takes a swing during the 2017 Old Timers’ Day game.Paul J. Bereswill

By late July, Mattingly was in the midst of an eight-week disabled list stint. By Aug. 11, Maas had set the major league record for fewest at-bats to reach 10, 13 and 15 homers. The Yankees were suggesting a Wally Pipp situation might be taking place and Mattingly when healthy might have to move to the outfield. Mattingly didn’t blink. He liked Maas, thought he was a humble kid and could help the Yankees win. Mattingly was tired and frustrated with losing and would do what was necessary for that to stop.

But Mattingly would not have to move off first base. As it turns out, the most important service that Mattingly and Maas would perform after 1990 had nothing to do with lefty power in the middle of the lineup.


It may be lost to time, but Mattingly’s popularity was Jeter-esque before Derek Jeter. LaPoint remembers having to essentially smuggle Mattingly out of team hotels on the road just so he could avoid fans and join teammates for beers, darts, pool “to just be one of the guys.” And he was one of the guys, good at dishing it out and taking it. That helped make him a beloved teammate, along with his work ethic, professionalism and humility.

So his back pain was felt by the entire team. So was his career-long absence from the playoffs. Players who would come along in subsequent years — perhaps none more than Jeter and especially Paul O’Neill — looked to Mattingly as a wiseman on how to be a Yankee.

“I was trying to be the best player I could possibly be and working hard,” Mattingly recalls. “I still wanted to be great. I was taking it seriously. Who knows what effect it had?”

Plenty. The Yanks kept getting better in Mattingly’s waning, less effective seasons and rallied to get him to October in 1995, the first Yankees playoff team since 1981.

“Don would not scream or yell, but there was no question who was the leader,” remembers Steve Sax, the Yankees’ second baseman in 1990. “When he spoke, when he whispered, people listened. Rightfully so. He carried the clout. Talk about someone who gave their heart and soul to the game.”

Maas, who finished second for the 1990 AL Rookie of the Year, opened 1991 as the DH. There were 23 homers, but just a .220 average. He lost his grip on the full-time DH role by the following year, and soon was asking to escape the Yankees. Theories? He was too robotic and did not adapt as well as pitchers adapted to him. Bill Livesey, who drafted Maas for the Yankees, says now that Maas reacted poorly to being criticized for being selective and suddenly lost his plate discipline.

In many ways, Maas was a player ahead of his time. “He was a Moneyball player,” Bob Geren says now. He hit homers, walked and struck out. Squint and you could see a lot of Kyle Schwarber in him.

But what Maas did for the Yankees that outlived his effectiveness was remind the organization that players could come from the system and have success and excite the home fans. So when Bernie Williams arrived in 1991, touted but not fully formed, there was a little more patience to see if homegrown could work. As Livesey says now, “Before Kevin we were reluctant to do that.”

Mattingly was done after 1995. Maas, after tours with the Reds, Padres and Twins organizations, returned to Columbus in 1995 to play with Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Maas, at 31, tried to make the Yankees again in 1996, but was released on March 22 and never played in the majors again.

The 1996 Yankees of Jeter, O’Neill and Williams won the World Series.

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