One of the things that always confused me is how guys who could not hit well at the big league level somehow become highly respected hitting coaches for Major League teams. Remember Charley Lau? Here’s a former player who couldn’t crack a starting lineup during the eleven years he played in the bigs because he averaged in the two-fifties, yet if you ask George Brett who it was that made him one of baseball’s great hitters, he credits Lau. The same mystery applies to bad pitchers who become great pitching coaches. Leo Mazzone was considered one of the game’s great ones during his tenure in that role with Bobby Cox’s Braves yet he wasn’t good enough to pitch even to a single batter at the Major League level.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was considered a top Yankee pitching prospect in the late 1980’s, when the team was in desperate need of starting pitchers. Drafted by New York out of the University of South Florida in the seventh round of the 1987 draft, Dave Eiland was being pegged as the next great Yankee right-hander after he was named the International League’s Pitcher of the Year in 1990. But he was a bust for the Yanks and the two other teams he pitched for at the big league level between 1988 and 2000, finishing his playing career with a 12-27 record and a career ERA of 5.74.
That’s when he turned to coaching. The Yankees hired him as a minor league pitching coach and he immediately impressed the organization with his ability to effectively work with young pitchers. He quickly worked his way up the New York farm chain, establishing an excellent rapport with prospects like Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain along the way. That’s why it seemed to make sense when the Yankees announced Eiland would replace Ron Guidry as the Yankee pitching coach in 2008. Brian Cashman was betting the team’s postseason chances on the young arms of Hughes, Kennedy and Chamberlain that year and he felt Eiland was the guy who could successfully transition them from minor to major league pitchers. That did not happen.
Eiland however, escaped front office wrath for the failed experiment and when the Yanks won the World Series in 2009, the young pitching coach was credited for helping AJ Burnett overcome the inconsistencies in his delivery to finish wit a 13-9 record and a huge win in Game 2 of that year’s Fall Classic.
It all unraveled for Eiland in June of the 2010 season when Eiland took a mysterious leave of absence from his Yankee coaching responsibilities for most of the month of June, citing personal family issues as the reason. During his leave, AJ Burnett literally fell apart, going 0-5 and never again reaching the comfort or performance level in Pinstripes he had enjoyed during his first season in the Bronx. Though it wasn’t officially given as the reason, most Yankee fans and pundits suspect it was Eiland’s leave that caused the team to dismiss him after the 2010 season and bring in current pitching coach, Larry Rothschilds. Eiland has since landed on his feet, getting the pitching coach position for the Kansas City Royals in 2012.
|NYY (5 yrs)||6||10||.375||5.23||36||28||5||0||0||0||160.0||193||109||93||24||48||58||1.506|
|TBD (3 yrs)||6||12||.333||6.54||39||26||1||0||0||0||137.2||181||111||100||16||48||71||1.663|
|SDP (2 yrs)||0||5||.000||5.38||17||16||0||0||0||0||75.1||91||54||45||6||22||24||1.500|
My first encounter with Art Fowler was his 1962 Topps baseball card pictured here. He was a member of the first Los Angeles Angels baseball team and according to Bill Rigney, the skipper of that ball club, when Fowler got hit in the head by a batting practice line drive and was lost for the rest of the infant team’s second season, it destroyed any chance the Angels had of shocking the world and winning the 1962 AL Pennant.
The more I learned about Fowler, the more he sort of grew on me. For example, he didn’t just have an older brother who had pitched in the big leagues, he had a much much older brother. His name was Jesse and he made his big league debut in 1924, when his younger sibling was just one year old. Art himself didn’t get to pitch in the big leagues until 30 years later, in 1954, when he was a 31-year-old rookie member of the Reds starting rotation. He went 12-10 that season and then won 11 games in each of the next two years with Cincinnati. But by 1957, he had been converted into a full-time reliever with the Reds and when his ERA climbed above six in that role he was traded to the Dodgers. He spent the ’58 season in the minors and then got into 36 games for the Los Angeles team that ended up winning the ’59 World Series. He then went back to the minors until May of 1961, when his contract was purchased by the newly formed Angels.
One of the things Fowler enjoyed more than pitching was drinking and when he joined the Halos, he was entering the big league heaven for booze. That Angel team featured an All Star line-up of imbibers that included Ryne Duren, Bo Belinski, Eli Grba, Dan Osinski, Ken Hunt and of course Fowler. With their better than expected pitching and a potent lineup that included Leon Wagner, Lee Thomas and Albie Piersall, the second-year Angels were in first place as late as August 12th, finally finishing in third place behind New York and the Minnesota Twins. Fowler spent the rest of his big league playing career pitching out of the LA bullpen until he was released in May of 1964.
Instead of quitting, he signed on to continue pitching for the Denver Bears, the Twins triple A franchise in the Pacific Coast League. Billy Martin was the manager of that club and he took enough of a liking to his new 42-year-old right-hander to make him the Bears player/pitching coach. It was rumored that Fowler got the job because he happened to be Martin’s best drinking buddy. Whatever the reason, it was the beginning of a partnership that would continue off and on for over the next two decades in five different big league cities.
It started when Martin was named manager of Minnesota in 1969 and continued in Detroit from 1971 through ’73 and then in Texas for two more seasons. When George Steinbrenner hired Martin to manage the Yankees late in the second half of the 1975 season however, his baseball people had told him that his new manager had a serious drinking problem that needed to be controlled and they warned the Boss that Fowler was Billy’s best drinking buddy. The Yankee owner thought hiring Martin but not Fowler would somehow reduce Billy’s taste for booze. When that didn’t turn out to be the case, Steinbrenner finally relented to Billy’s request and Fowler was hired as Yankee pitching coach in 1977.
The Yankee pitching staff got along fine with their new mentor. Ron Guidry still claims to this day that Fowler was the best pitching coach he ever had. The fact of the matter was that Fowler’s coaching philosophy was pretty simple, throw strikes and stay in the game. Fowler expected his starters to give him lots of innings and he expected his relievers to warm up and appear in games as often as necessary. One of the other reasons Martin loved Fowler was because he would do whatever the manager wanted. That included answering “yes” whenever Martin asked if so and so could pitch tonight.
Martin was famous for blaming his pitchers for Yankee losses. If one of the team’s hurlers was struggling on the mound, an irate Martin would tell Fowler to go out there and give the guy hell. Instead, when he got to the mound, the portly coach would often explain to whoever was on the mound how angry Martin was back in the dugout and then plead with the pitcher to please start getting the ball over the plate or Billy was going to get even madder.
Though Steinbrenner and many sportswriters considered Fowler something of a joke, he did obtaint some impressive results. During his tenure in the big leagues, he mentored 18 twenty-game winners, a record for pitching coaches.
Still, the relationship between the Boss and Martin was too rocky to enable smooth pinstriped sailing for Fowler. Every time the manager angered the owner, Steinbrenner would threaten to fire Fowler. Finally in 1983, during Martin’s fourth tour of duty as the team’s skipper, he carried through on that threat and dismissed Fowler in June over Billy’s strenuous objections. He tempered the harshness of his actions by giving Fowler his full salary plus a $20,000 bonus. When the press asked the terminated coach if he had been unfairly treated, Fowler told them he thought the Yankee owner was a great guy but that he didn’t know nothing about baseball. He publicly urged Steinbrenner to listen to what Billy Martin tells him to do and the Yankees would get back to the World Series. He then went home to South Carolina and waited for Billy to call.
The phone rang again in 1988, when Billy was hired for his last tour of duty in the Bronx. That job lasted just half a season and when they were again fired, Martin’s managing career was over which meant Fowler’s was as well. Billy didn’t last too long after that, getting killed in his pickup the following year. Fowler lived in his Spartanburg, SC home until 2007, when he died at the age of 84.
He shares his birthday with this Yankee GM.
If you weren’t around during the 1960’s when the great New York teams led by Mantle and Maris were doing their thing, you missed a great era of the Yankee dynasty. Fortunately, you also missed the second-half of that decade as well, which means you didn’t see that dynasty crumble, as the players who comprised it grew old or got hurt seemingly all at once. What was left were a bunch of prospects who would never become good big league players along with a few who weren’t yet ready to do so. That forced the Yankees to fill in the holes and gaps with acquisitions from other teams and one of those deals was for a switch-hitting Dodger shortstop named Gene Michael.
The resident of Akron, Ohio had only been in the big leagues for a couple of seasons when the Yanks purchased his contract from Los Angeles, yet Michael was already 30 years old. He was considered a decent fielding shortstop but what had kept him in the minor leagues for so long was his inability to hit. He might have been a switch-hitter but the problem was he really couldn’t swing the bat very well from either side of the plate. In fact, after he averaged just .202 trying to replace Maury Wills as the Dodger shortstop in 1967, Michael spent the following winter in the Florida Instructional League, determined to become a pitcher. That’s when his phone rang and it was Yankee GM Larry MacPhail telling him he was coming to New York where Ralph Houk hoped to make him his starting shortstop. That plan looked like it had flopped decisively after Michael played 61 games at short during the ’68 season and hit just .198. That forced Houk to bring Tom Tresh back in from the outfield to once again play the position at which he had won the 1962 Rookie of the Year Award.
When the 1969 spring training season rolled around, Houk had penciled in Tresh to remain at short but was also hoping Bobby Murcer or Jerry Kenney might win the job in camp. Both players were returning from military service that spring but neither could handle the position and when Tresh started the regular season in a horrible slump, Houk again turned to Michael.
Even though this all happened over 45 years ago, I can remember feeling not-to-thrilled when I heard that Michael was being given the job again. If he had been with the Yankees just a half dozen seasons earlier and hit .198, he’d have been released or buried so deeply in the Yankee farm system his family would have needed a backhoe to find him. So what’s Michael do? He goes out and hits, 272 and fields the position close to brilliantly. Could I have been wrong? Was the player sarcastically nicknamed “Stick” actually evolving into a good stick? Unfortunately no. Houk and Yankee fans like me spent the next four years waiting for Michael to replicate the offense he generated during that 1969 season and he never did.
When Steinbrenner took over the team, Houk left to manage in Detroit and when the Yankees released Michael in January of 1975, he joined the Major in Mo-Town for his final season as a big league player. Steinbrenner may have not respected the Stick as a player but he valued his baseball smarts so he kept giving Michael jobs in the Yankee organization. In 1981, Steinbrenner made him Yankee manager and he had the Yankees in first place when baseball went on strike that June. When play resumed that August, Michael grew so sick of Steinbrenner’s meddling with his handling of the team that he told the Boss to either fire him or shut up. Steinbrenner felt he had no choice but the latter and replaced him with Bob Lemon. The following April, when Lemon’s decision making irked the Boss, he fired him too and replaced him with the Stick.
He would eventually ask Steinbrenner to relieve him as manager because the two argued too much when Michael was in that job. He wanted to work in the Yankee front office and fortunately for the Boss, he gave Michael his wish. So when Faye Vincent suspended the Yankee owner for his roll in the Dave Winfield-Howie Spira episode in 1990, Michael took over control of the organization and is credited with building the team that won four World Series between 1996 and 2000. So the shortstop who signified the end of one Yankee dynasty became the architect of another.
Michael’s Yankee playing record:
|NYY (7 yrs)||789||2656||2405||205||561||79||10||12||204||21||215||356||.233||.296||.289||.585|
|PIT (1 yr)||30||33||33||9||5||2||1||0||2||0||0||7||.152||.152||.273||.424|
|LAD (1 yr)||98||245||223||20||45||3||1||0||7||1||11||30||.202||.246||.224||.470|
|DET (1 yr)||56||158||145||15||31||2||0||3||13||0||8||28||.214||.253||.290||.543|
Michael’s Yankee managing record:
|1||1981||43||New York Yankees||AL||1st of 2||56||34||22||.607||1||First half of season|
|2||1981||43||New York Yankees||AL||1st of 2||26||14||12||.538||6||Second half of season|
|3||1982||44||New York Yankees||AL||2nd of 3||86||44||42||.512||5|
|New York Yankees||2 years||168||92||76||.548||4.0|
|Chicago Cubs||2 years||238||114||124||.479||5.5|
Shortly after Joe McCarthy took over as Yankee manager following the 1930 season, the Philadelphia A’s put their long-time catcher, Cy Perkins on waivers. Seeing an opportunity to take ownership of Perkins’ years of experience as one of the American League’s best defensive catchers, Marse Joe told the Yankee front office to claim the native of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Perkins had been the A’s starting catcher for six seasons, from 1919 until 1924, which included some of the worst teams in the franchise’s history. In 1925, Mickey Cochrane took over as Philadelphia’s starter behind the plate and Perkins became his backup for the next six seasons, during which Philadelphia developed into the best team in the American League. Cochrane was born a great hitter but when he made his debut with Philadelphia, he was a horrible defensive catcher. It was Perkins who taught the future Hall-of-Famer how to catch and he proved to be an excellent teacher.
His real name was Ralph Foster Perkins which makes me wonder how in the hell he came to be known as “Cy.” He was a pretty good hitter himself, averaging right around .270 during his starting days with the A’s and usually driving in between 60 and 70 runs a year. When he got to the Yankees in 1931, Bill Dickey was firmly ensconced as the team’s number one catcher but just as McCarthy had hoped, Perkins became a huge asset on the Yankee bench. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of every hitter in the league and Dickey and the entire Yankee pitching staff took full advantage of his expert advice. New York’s staff gave gave up 138 fewer runs than they surrendered in 1930 and some of the credit for that improvement had to go to their new third-string catcher.
With both Dickey and Arndt Jorgens in front of him on the depth chart, Perkins didn’t get much of a chance to actually catch during his only season as a Yankee player. He appeared in just 16 games during the ’31 season, collecting 12 hits with 7 RBIs and a .255 batting average. He then spent the next two seasons as a Yankee coach, joining the legendary Art Fletcher to provide McCarthy with a dynamic duo of baseball brainpower that would help him direct New York to a World Championship in 1932. After two seasons of coaching for the Yankees, he rejoined his former student Cochrane, who had become the player-manager of the Detroit Tigers. That Tiger ball club then went to two straight World Series and won the 1935 Fall Classic. Perkins died in 1963 at the age of 67.
|PHA (15 yrs)||1154||3972||3556||326||921||174||35||30||402||18||300||217||.259||.319||.353||.672|
|NYY (1 yr)||16||49||47||3||12||1||0||0||7||0||1||4||.255||.286||.277||.562|
|DET (1 yr)||1||1||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.000||.000||.000||.000|
One of the last things George Steinbrenner did as the active owner of the New York Yankees to upset me was harping and complaining about Mel Stottlemyre’s coaching style just enough to cause one of my all-time favorite Yankees to resign as the team’s pitching coach. I always thought Stottlemyre was one of the best pitching mentors in the game and his work with the Mets’ staffs of the mid eighties and the Yankee pitchers in the nineties produced outstanding results. Nevertheless, the Boss had a long history of blaming his team’s coaches for the players’ failures and Stottlemyre became part of that history after the 2005 season. The Yankees had hired today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant as a scout that same season.
Joe Kerrigan had an unspectacular three-plus season big-league career as a reliever during the late 1970s and than became the Expos bullpen coach in 1983. After four seasons in that position he became a pitching coach in the Expos farm system and after completing that three-year apprenticeship, he was promoted to the same position with the parent club. He did great work with that Montreal pitching staff for the next few seasons and is credited with helping a young Pedro Martinez become a premier pitcher.
In 1997, Kerrigan was hired as the Red Sox pitching coach and one year later, he was reunited with Martinez, when Boston traded Carl Pavano to the Expos for the ace right-hander. During the next three seasons the two helped Boston’s staff evolve into one of the best in the game and in August of 2001, Kerrigan was rewarded for his good work, when Red Sox GM Dan Duquette hired him as the team’s new Manager and gave him a multi-year contract. In a shocking development, Kerrigan lost the job after his team finished the 2001 season with a lackluster 17-26 record. Larry Lucchino, Tom Werner and John Henry had purchased the franchise during the offseason and wanted to move in a different direction, so they lowered the boom on the just-hired skipper and replaced him with Grady Little.
So when Brian Cashman found himself without a pitching coach after Stottlemyre quit in 2005, the Yankee GM immediately considered his new scout Kerrigan, as the leading candidate to replace him. Instead, the Yanks hired Ron Guidry to fill the slot but did make Kerrigan the Yankee’s new bullpen coach. Gator was counting on Kerrigan to help him communicate with the ornery Yankee ace, Randy Johnson. Steinbrenner had blamed Stottlemyre for not being able to get Johnson pitching better during his first season in pinstripes and the departing coach agreed that he had a tough time communicating with the multiple Cy Young Award winner. Kerrigan had spent three seasons working with the Big Unit back in the late eighties when Johnson was an Expos’ minor league prospect and the two had a good relationship.
Instead of improving however, Johnson got worse in 2006 and his ERA ballooned to a career-worst 5.00. Both Guidry and Kerrigan were replaced after the 2007 season, as was Torre. Kerrigan became the Pirates’ pitching coach the following year. In February of 2009, Torre’s book, “The Yankee Years” was released. In it he cited the hiring of Kerrigan as one of the examples of Brian Cashman trying to undercut his authority as Yankee Manager. It seems Cashman really wanted Kerrigan and not Guidry to get that pitching coach job in 2006, while Torre insisted on Guidry. According to the former skipper, Cashman made it a point to criticize Guidry’s methods during his entire tenure in the job. Joe Kerrigan had landed himself right in the middle of the famous Bronx Zoo.
Kerrigan shares his birthday with this former Yankee reliever.
I’m writing this post about a month before pitchers and catchers will be reporting to Tampa for the start of the Yankees’ 2013 spring training camp. You’d think at this time of year the only number New York’s front office would be concerned with would be “28,” because that’s the number of World Championships the franchise would have if they can get to and win the 2013 World Series. But instead of “28,” Yankee fans have been reading a whole lot about the number “189,” as in $189,000,000, the amount of money Major League Baseball has established as each team’s salary cap for the 2014 season. If the Yanks can get their payroll down to that level, the team will save millions in penalties. The question is however, can a team that has always spent its way to the top of the standings get there on a reduced budget?
Money has not been the object in Yankee Universe since two filthy-rich Colonels, Rupert and Huston, purchased the franchise in 1915. They immediately began spending their way to the top of the AL standings by looking for, trading for and paying for the best talent money could buy. And it wasn’t just talented proven big league players they coveted, they wanted the best minor league prospects, the best managers and yes even the best coaches. Which brings me finally to today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
Art Fletcher had been the outstanding starting shortstop for the New York Giants, during most of that team’s John McGraw-led golden era, from 1909 until 1920. He was a scrappy, singles-hitting, .277 lifetime hitter who knew every trick in the book when it came to winning a baseball game. McGraw traded him to the Phillies in the middle of the 1920 season when Fletcher was 35-years-old. Two years later, he was made manager of that team and he remained in that job for four seasons. In 1926, Miller Huggins approached him with a job offer to become a coach for the Yankees. Fletcher had figured out he was too high strung and aggressive to enjoy the manager’s role, especially for a losing team like the Phillies, so he accepted Hug’s offer. He remained on the New York staff until he suffered a heart attack during the 1945 season and was forced to retire.
During his nineteen seasons in pinstripes, Fletcher became a legend in the coaching box. He was a master at learning and playing the strengths of each Yankee player against the specific weaknesses of each of their opponents. Huggins loved the guy and when the diminutive Yankee skipper died tragically during the 1929 season, it was Fletcher the Yankees turned to as his interim replacement. During his tenure in New York, Fletcher turned down numerous offers to manage other teams and the Yankees made it worth his while to stay in pinstripes. His annual salary rose to $10,000, an unheard of sum for a coach at the time.
Fletcher willingly returned to a coaching role when the Yankees hired Bob Shawkey to manage the club in 1930. But when Shawkey’s team failed to win the Pennant that year, Rupert hired the former Cubs’ skipper, Joe McCarthy to take his place. Since there had been bad blood between McCarthy and Fletcher dating back to the time when they were opposing managers in the senior circuit, the rumor mill was rampant that Marse Joe would fire the coach when he took control of his new team. That didn’t happen. McCarthy recognized Fletcher’s sky-high baseball IQ and the two worked brilliantly together. So brilliantly in fact that by the end of Fletcher’s career with New York, he had cashed $75,000 worth of World Series checks. (The Yankees won ten AL Pennants and nine World Series during Fletcher’s Yankee coaching career.)
Larry Bowa was not blessed with a huge amount of natural ability. The reasons why he was able to play shortstop in the big leagues for sixteen seasons, win two Gold Gloves and become a five-time All Star were an incredible work ethic and a tremendous amount of passion for the game. He was also a quick study. He realized early on that knowledge was power on a baseball field so he learned everything he possibly could by observing the opposition in every aspect of every game. In 2006, he brought this same work ethic, passion and hunger for knowledge to the Yankees when he accepted an offer to coach third base and infield defense for Joe Torre.
The thing I loved most about Bowa during his two seasons in New York’s third base coaching box, was his loyalty to Torre and the Yankee players and his obvious intensity. He refused to permit Yankee runners to lose their focus on the base paths. Pity the poor pinstriper who ignored or missed a Bowa delivered signal of any kind. Its been well established that it was Bowa who got a young Robbie Cano to improve his level of concentration whenever he was on the field. The naturally gifted second baseman flourished offensively and defensively under Bowa’s strict tutelage. Alex Rodriguez told reporters that Bowa was the best in the business and I’ve read that Jeter loved this guy too.
One of the reasons I hated to see Joe Torre leave as Yankee manager after the 2007 season was that he took Bowa with him to Los Angeles. Bowa admired the way Torre managed a ball club and handled players. Once a manager himself, Bowa had a tough time controlling his intensity and some of his players rebelled against his high pressure approach. Torre’s calm demeanor as skipper complemented Bowa’s brash coaching style and made the relationship tick. When he left for the Dodger job, the Yankee players instantly missed his motivational mentoring and though I respect Robbie Thompson, I wish Bowa was still stationed in New York’s third base coaching box. Bowa shares his December 6th birthday with this Hall-of-Fame Yankee second baseman, this Cuban defector who became a Yankee starting pitcher, this former Yankee catcher and this former Yankee DH.