Joel Skinner came to the Yankees in a trade with the White Sox during the 1986 season. New York was hoping he could take over the starting catcher slot from a disappointing Butch Wynegar, who was hitting in the low .200s at the time. Skinner did OK for Manager Lou Piniella’s team the rest of that season but not good enough to stop New York from re-acquiring Rick Cerone in 1988 and then Don Slaught from Texas in 1989. Skinner remained in pinstripes both years as the backup catcher, hitting just .214 as a Yankee. He was born in La Jolla, CA on this date in 1961. After his playing days were through in 1991, Skinner got into coaching and managing and in 2002, he was hired to replace Charley Manuel as the Indians’ field boss for the second half of that season. Skinner shares his February 21st birthday with this starting left-fielder for the 1990 Yankees and the first 34th round draft pick in Yankee history.
Can anybody out there tell me what the following Yankee lineup has in common?
Here are Joel Skinner’s Yankee regular season and MLB career stats:
|CHW (4 yrs)||131||311||284||32||65||11||2||5||29||2||21||76||.229||.282||.335||.617|
|CLE (3 yrs)||227||640||601||49||145||28||1||4||53||1||30||153||.241||.279||.311||.590|
|NYY (3 yrs)||206||600||556||38||119||23||0||8||54||0||29||158||.214||.253||.299||.551|
I’m getting close to posting my 800th Pinstripe Birthday Blog post highlighting the birthday of a member of the New York Yankees’ all-time roster. I’m not sure how many total players, coaches and managers have worn the franchise’s uniform, but my master spread sheet of birthdays still has plenty of names left to write about in the upcoming weeks and months. But I’m definitely getting to a point where even though I clearly remember the Yankee career of the guy I’m writing about, I’m not sure if the readers of my blog will. I know I’ll keep writing about these not-famous members of baseball’s most famous all-time roster for two reasons. I love learning about and sharing Yankee history and I have a huge amount of respect for any human being who was good enough to see or throw a single pitch as a professional baseball player at any level much less the Major Leagues.
I tried playing this game as a kid. I made my Little League’s All-Star team and played a pretty mean first base. But the next step up on my long path to a career with the Yankees was the local Babe Ruth League. In my first game at that level, I sat the bench till the last inning and was sent up to pinch hit. I forget what the score was but we were either way ahead or way behind and there was absolutely no pressure on me. But the kid I was facing on the pitcher’s mound was about three years-older than me and he could throw a really moving curve ball. The first pitch seemed to be coming right at my head and I bet you I jumped about four feet back out of that batter’s box only to watch and listen in shock as the ball swerved downward and crossed the inside of the plate and the umpire raised his right hand and called “strike one.” The opposing pitcher naturally took note of my startled, near infantile reaction to what I’m now sure was not that great of a curve ball and proceeded to throw six more to me. I did get better. By the sixth pitch of that at bat I was only jumping a few inches back from the plate and I actually ended up walking. But the thought of swinging my bat at any of those seven spinning spheres had never even occurred to me. In my very next at bat the following game, I faced the hardest throwing pitcher I’d ever seen up to that point in my playing career. I remember keeping my eye on his pitching hand throughout his first delivery and just when I thought I saw him releasing the ball, I heard the ump already yelling “strike one.”
It has been said that hitting a well-pitched moving baseball with a bat is the hardest thing to do in sports. It is why any human being who even reaches the lowest rung of any Major League team’s minor league organization has my deepest and eternal respect and deserves some recognition. So let’s learn something about the one-time Yankee outfielder, Tom Shopay.
I clearly remember owning the Shopay Topps baseball card I’ve included with this post. Even though it identifies him as a Baltimore Oriole, the photograph of Shopay used on the Card shows him when he was still a Yankee. Notice the pinstriped jersey. You can also see how a not-too-skilled member of the Topps art department blacked out the NY insignia on the baseball cap he was wearing.
This Bristol, Connecticut native was the Yankees 34th-round pick (633rd player overall) chosen in MLB’s very first amateur draft back in 1965. Of the 40 players chosen by New York in that historic draft, only eight ended up playing in at least one big league game and just three, Bill Burbach (the Yankees top pick that year) Stan Bahnsen (4th round) and Shopay, got to play for the Yankees.
Shopay’s turn came in September of 1967. By then he had reached the Triple A level of the minors and just completed a successful first season with the Yankees’ Syracuse farm team. At just 5’9″ tall and weighing only 160 pounds, the left-hand-hitting outfielder would never be a home run hitter but he hit the ball hard, had great speed and hustled every second he was on the field. He was hitting .277 for Syracuse at the time of his call-up, with 13 triples and 24 stolen bases. The Yankee team he was joining was among the worst in the fabled franchise’s history, about to finish in ninth place in the 1967 AL standings.
His first big league appearance came against Cleveland when Yankee manager, Ralph Houk started him in right field. In an October 2011 interview with the baseball Website Seamheads.com, Shopay recalled warming up in the outfield before that first game and hearing Mickey Mantle, who was starting in center that day, calling out his name and motioning that he wanted to talk to the young outfielder. Mantle had been Shopay’s favorite Yankee as a kid and now he found himself playing alongside him in the same outfield. When he jogged over to the aging, by then close-to-crippled outfielder he recalled Mickey telling him. ‘Hey Tom, take everything that you can get. Anything close to me that you can get, take it.’
Shopay got his first big league hit in his third at-bat, a bunt single against the great Luis Tiant. Six days later, he hit his first big league home run against the Twins, off a very good right-hander named Dave Boswell. He also stole his first two big league bases in that same game. A week later he homered again, this time against Kansas City. Despite an 0-4 final game, he ended his first cup-of-coffee Yankee trial with a .296 average, those two home runs and 6 RBIs.
He started the following season back in Syracuse but unfortunately, he did not have a good offensive season. His average fell into the .240s and he was not one of the Yankee’s September call-ups that year. He rebounded a bit in 1969 and in June of that season he was called back up to New York, where according to Shopay in that same 2011 Seamheads.com interview, Ralph Houk promised him he would start against all right handed pitching. But instead, he hardly ever started, serving primarily as a defensive replacement and pinch-hitter the rest of that year. The experience soured the youngster’s feelings for Houk, and he regrets to this day not approaching the Yankee skipper during that season to remind him of his promise and demand to be played more.
His final numbers from that 1969 season were ugly. He averaged just .083 with 4 hits in 48 at bats. It made the Yankee front-office decision to expose him to that December’s Rule 5 Draft a no-brainer and Shopay was selected by Baltimore. He ended up playing for the Orioles’ organization for the next seven years, including five with the parent club as a spare outfielder and pinch hitter. He loved playing for Baltimore manager Earl Weaver. His biggest thrill as a professional was getting five pinch-hit appearances in the 1971 World Series. He went hitless and the Orioles lost that Fall Classic to the Pirates, but they were all good at bats and included a successful sacrifice bunt in the seventh game.
After his final big league game in 1977, Shopay got into the nursery school business in his native Connecticut and eventually became partners with his brother in a successful Florida-based security company. He shares his February 21st birthday with this former Yankee catcher and this one-time Yankee outfielder.
|BAL (5 yrs)||217||262||234||36||50||6||0||1||14||9||23||36||.214||.284||.252||.536|
|NYY (2 yrs)||36||79||75||4||12||1||1||2||6||2||3||15||.160||.190||.280||.470|
You have to be a pretty good Yankee fan to remember Oscar Azocar. Originally signed by the Yankees as a pitcher, this left-hander from Venezuela put together a 14-5 record in the minors with four shutouts and an ERA of 2.31. Evidently, that was not good enough to keep him in the organization because he was about to be released when a coach suggested he try the outfield. During batting practice, the team’s pitchers would play the outfield and according to the coach, it seemed as if Oscar could chase down anything hit out there. He made the move during the 1987 season and impressed everyone by hitting .359 that year. It took him five years after making the switch to make it to the Bronx for his first big league action. One of those years was spent playing for the Albany-Colonie Yankees, New York’s old AA Eastern League affiliate who’s home park was just a 30-minute drive from my house. His Manager at the time, a guy named Tommy Jones, remembered Azocar as a hitter who “doesn’t get cheated,” referring to Oscar’s tendency to be way too aggressive at the plate. Jones once told a reporter that Azocar’s strike zone extended from “his shoes to his hat.”
The Yankees called him up from Columbus in July of the 1990 season and benched football star Deion Sanders who was hitting .158 at the time as the Yankees primary utility outfielder. Azocar got off to a perfect start in his big league debut when Stump Merrill inserted him as a pinch-hitter for Alvaro Espinosa in the eighth inning of a game against the Royals and Oscar singled off future Yankee closer, Steve Farr. In his second game in pinstripes, he finished just a triple short of a cycle, hitting his first-ever big league home run off another future Yankee reliever, Tom Gordon. After his first twenty games, the free-swinging rookie was hitting .350 and starting for New York in left field. Azocar would not be able to keep up that torrid pace. When the season was over, his average had fallen to .248 and he had walked just 2 time in 218 at bats. Since he had minimum power, his inability to walk killed his run-scoring potential and the Yankees gave up on him after that single season and traded him to the Padres in December of 1990 for a young outfielder named Mike Humphreys. The Yankees also released Deion Sanders that September.
Oscar would spend just three seasons in the big leagues and then continue to play both in his native Venezuela and Mexico. On June 14, 2010, Azocar suffered a heart attack in Venezuela and died at the age of 45.
|SDP (2 yrs)||137||242||225||20||46||8||0||0||17||3||10||21||.204||.239||.240||.479|
|NYY (1 yr)||65||218||214||18||53||8||0||5||19||7||2||15||.248||.257||.355||.612|