When Dallas Green took over as Yankee manager after the 1988 season he told New York’s front office that the Yankee pitching staff had grown ancient and he wanted some good young arms added to the roster. Bob Quinn, the Yankee GM complied by sending slugger Jack Clark to San Diego for a promising young starting pitcher named Jimmy Jones and a hard-throwing right-handed reliever named Lance McCullers. Mission accomplished, right?
Nope. Ten months later, New York was about to disappear from the AL East Division race, Jones was pitching in Columbus, today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant had an ERA over five and Green, who knew he was about to be fired, was probably wishing he still had Clark who was well on his way to a 26 HR, 94 RBI first-year performance with the Padres.
McCullers was a native of Tampa, Florida who had been a second-round draft pick of the Phillies in 1982. The Padres got him in a multi-player deal in 1984 and brought him right up to the big leagues in ’85. He had pitched impressively during his four years in San Diego for some pretty mediocre Padre teams and since he was only 25-years-old when the Yankees got him, it really did look like he’d be a valuable asset in New York’s bullpen for a long time to come.
But according to Green, McCullers still hadn’t learned how to pitch. The Yankee skipper told the media his new reliever depended to heavily on his fastball and unless he started throwing his slider and change up more, Green insisted his reliever would never be a successful big league pitcher. McCullers did at least outlast Green as a Yankee.
He went 4-3 during his one and only full season in pinstripes. He also earned 3 saves and had an ERA of 4.57. Things were definitely looking better for McCullers as he approached his second year in the Big Apple. Green had been replaced by Bucky Dent as Yankee skipper and during the 1989 offseason, the Yankees signed Lance to a new contract and gave him a $170,000 raise. But almost as soon as the 1990 regular season began, McCullers name was being bandied about in all kinds of trade rumors. Those rumors became true in early June, when the reliever was traded to the Tigers for catcher Matt Nokes. He would end that year pitching in the minors and after one more five-game stint with the Texas Rangers in 1992, McCullers big league career was over at the age of 28. His son Lance was the Houston Astros first round pick in the 2012 MLB amateur draft.
I’ve never read Ball Four. That surprises me because I’ve been reading about two books per month for the past forty years of my life and that includes just about every commercially successful piece of baseball non-fiction published during that time. For some reason, however, I’ve yet to read Jim Bouton’s classic about his life in baseball.
The Bulldog made a lot of money from that book, much more than he ever made on a pitching mound, but the experience has also cost him dearly. He was immediately ostracized by his former Yankee teammates for breaking the old cardinal rule of keeping what happens in the locker room inside the locker room. In Ball Four, Bouton evidently confirms that some pro ballplayers cheat on their wives, gamble too much, have huge egos, and serious substance abuse problems. The truth was that you could substitute just about any other occupation on earth for the word “ballplayers” in the previous sentence and write a book about it and no one would be shocked.
I may not have read Bouton’s book but I did see him pitch for the Yankees. He put absolutely every ounce of strength he had into every pitch he threw. In 1963, he was one of the best pitchers in either league. He won 21 games, threw six shutouts and had an ERA of 2.53. He then pitched brilliantly in game 3 of the that year’s World Series against Los Angeles, giving up just one run in the first inning, but the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale was even more brilliant that day.
By 1964 the strain on Bouton’s right arm was beginning to take its toll but he still won 18 times during the regular season and two more times against the Cardinals as the Yankees dropped their second straight World Series. The problem with Bouton’s delivery was that he threw as hard as he could across his body which put a tremendous amount of stress on his arm. After throwing 520 innings the previous two seasons, Bouton’s arm broke down in 1965 and he was never again the same pitcher.
No Yankee pitcher has had a more impressive rookie season than the one Bob Grim put together in 1954. Not only did he win 20 games in his debut year, he did it while pitching just 199.0 innings, which is the fewest of any 20-game winner in history. Seven of those victories came in relief roles, which helps explain the low number of total innings. For his effort, Grim won that year’s Rookie of the Year Award and led New York to a 103 victory season, the most wins in the six seasons Casey Stengel had been managing the club. Ironically, that Yankee team failed to win the AL Pennant for the first time since Stengel was hired, finishing eight games behind Cleveland. Still, all of Yankeedom was thrilled to have this new young right-hander and Big Apple native on a Yankee starting staff that was then transitioning from the Reynolds, Raschi, Lopat era to a new rotation generation led by Whitey Ford and Grim.
What might have contributed most to the end of Grim’s career in pinstripes was his failure to pitch well in October. In both the World Series he appeared in, 1955 and ’57, Grim pitched poorly in key situations contributing to New York’s disappointing losses in these two seven-game Fall Classics. In June of 1958, Grim was traded to Kansas City. After two decent seasons of relief pitching for a very bad A’s ballclub, he faded quickly. His big league career ended in 1962 with a 61-41 record and 37 career saves. Born on March 8, 1930, Grim passed away in 1996.