HomeLifestyleMisunderstood Deion Sanders had starring role in Yankees’ clown show
Misunderstood Deion Sanders had starring role in Yankees’ clown show
The final installment in a series by Joel Sherman chronicles how the Yankees’ fiasco of 1990 laid the groundwork for a dynasty.
Deion Sanders wheeled into the parking lot at the Yankees’ minor league complex driving a $100,000-plus Mercedes. Across the street was Tampa Stadium, where the Buccaneers played. That felt right on March 14, 1990, since Sanders was between two worlds.
The previous Sept. 6, Sanders had struck out in the sixth inning for the Yankees at the Kingdome, then began shaking hands in the dugout and left to join the Falcons, having agreed to a four-year, $4.5 million contract. That helped explain the car from which Sanders regaled reporters at both open windows while using a remote to change stations, though the radio was a foot from his hands.
MLB was in the midst of its seventh work stoppage since 1982, a lockout that would last 32 days as the players revolted against the owners’ request for revenue sharing and a salary cap. When the lockout ended, a belated season began with an average player salary of $578,930 and the largest payroll belonging to the Royals at $22.2 million, followed by the Mets, Red Sox and Yankees.
Sanders would have his own financial skirmishes loom over his entertaining 1990 baseball season, as his two worlds battled for one of the most distinct athletic talents ever.
The Yankees had drafted Sanders in the 30th round in 1988 because their minor league leadership loved athletes and George Steinbrenner loved football players. He hardly had any baseball experience and his rawness showed. But so did his amazing tools. But beyond speed — breathtaking speed — Sanders belied the expectations about Neon Deion or Prime Time by wowing team officials and ultimately teammates with substance: work ethic, aptitude and hunger to succeed.
When Sanders first took batting practice as a pro, then Yankee minor league head Bill Livesey recalled he could only beat the ball into the ground. A week later, Livesey got a call informing him that for fun the Gulf Coast League team had staged its own home run derby. “Guess who won?” Livesey was asked. He responded, “No” before ever hearing the answer. “It was Deion. There was nothing he couldn’t do.”
So the Yanks put him on the fast track largely to begin the process of convincing him to become a full-time major leaguer. He reached Triple-A that first year and the majors briefly in 1989. But the special treatment and speed with which he was brought to the majors and the money that he was going to be offered to forgo football hurt his development and did not help his status in some corners of his own clubhouse.
On May 22, 1990, Sanders led off against the White Sox and as was his habit drew a dollar sign in the dirt with his bat. Carlton Fisk, 42 years old and 21 years catching in the bigs, looked down in disgust. So when Sanders popped high to shortstop Ozzie Guillen in the third and gave a half-hearted jog before stopping and turning to the dugout, Fisk yelled, “Run the [bleeping] ball out, you piece of [bleep]!”
Sanders did not acknowledge the admonishment. Instead, in his next at-bat, Sanders drew another dollar sign and said something under his breath. Asked to repeat what he said by the now-heated catcher, Sanders loudly replied, “Hey, man, the days of slavery are over.”
Fisk retorted he didn’t care about color, only about playing the game right, and if Sanders didn’t want to do that he would kick his butt. That triggered a benches-clearing incident. But Sanders defused the situation when the teams played the following week in Chicago. Before leading off, he stuck his hand out. And Fisk shook back.
Sanders returned from Triple-A after the All-Star break, a last-ditch Yankee effort to keep him from joining the Falcons in training camp. The second series of the second half featured the Royals at Yankee Stadium and was hailed as a clash of two-sport stars, Bo Jackson versus Sanders — an oasis when Yankee Stadium mattered in 1990.
The middle game did not disappoint. Jackson homered his first three times up. All came off Andy Hawkins. Manager Stump Merrill let Hawkins face Jackson a third time, though first base was open with runners on second and third, southpaw Greg Cadaret was warming and lefty-hitting Gerald Perry was on deck. Through five innings Jackson was the story of the game, winner of the football/baseball showdown.
In the sixth Sanders lashed a sinking liner to center off Mel Stottlemyre Jr., making his major league debut. Jackson unleashed a full Superman dive and had the ball rocket by him. He landed so hard he dislocated his left shoulder, missed six weeks and years later would say the shoulder replacement surgery he needed was because of that play.
The third base coach for the Yankees had managed Sanders the previous year at Double-A. He was Sanders’ biggest backer and kept urging those who were judging the book by the brash cover to ignore it. Buck Showalter often said Sanders would have been a great major leaguer if he stuck with the sport because he had a terrific work ethic, strong arm, deceptive pop and fantastic bat speed. But when it came to foot speed, Showalter said, “He could outrun the ball. They say a guy can really run, but no one could really run like Deion. It was just a different level.”
So even though Sanders was hardly cutting the bases in a manner to make this trip easy, Showalter was fervently waving him home. The ball arrived first and Mike Macfarlane had the plate blocked. The ball, though, trickled away as Sanders hurdled the catcher, got flipped and missed home plate. As Stottlemyre retrieved the ball and tossed it back to Macfarlane, Sanders scrambled with first a deke and then a lunge over the catcher to touch home plate before Macfarlane applied a tag. Jackson had hit three homers and somehow Sanders won the night with a 15-second demonstration of skill and will.
“That was one of my top three moments for my career,” Showalter says now.
It was the highlight of Sanders’ Yankee days, which were going to end the same day as another famous Yankee.
Barry Axelrod represented Sanders as a baseball player, having been connected to Sanders through his former law partner Marvin Demoff, who among others represented former Yankee farmhand John Elway. So he assumed Demoff would rep Sanders in football and the two would strategize for the best end result for the client. Instead, Sanders picked Steve Zucker as his football agent and often during the 1990 season the two agents would provide contradictory responses for Sanders’ plans, creating a swirl of controversy around the two-sport phenom.
The Falcons were fining Sanders for every day he missed at training camp. But behind the scenes, Yankee executives George Bradley and Brian Sabean had worked out a two-year, $2.5 million deal — a key attraction being that it was more than the Royals had given Jackson — for Sanders to play baseball as his primary sport.
“I was so excited about it, I was shaking,” Axelrod recalls. “This was going to be huge news and a big deal.”
But as word of a potential deal leaked, other owners contacted Steinbrenner to complain he couldn’t give an unproven player that much, and a few veteran Yankees voiced the same sentiment. It was strange because Sanders was well-liked in the clubhouse. Most agreed with Showalter — to not judge the cornerback by his brash cover.
Pitcher Dave LaPoint remembers Sanders would write thank you notes to those who helped him each time he got sent down and called him “maybe the most misread player ever.” Steve Sax, the second basemen for those Yanks, says now, “I had a preconceived notion of Deion and I will say this: he completely changed the way I thought about him. He was a great teammate. He worked hard, was humble and respectful.” Nevertheless, Steinbrenner heard from a few players who thought Sanders had yet to pay his dues, so didn’t deserve that pay.
Through a spokesman, Sanders declined an interview for this series, but he recently told the YES Network, “There was a little jealousy, a little tension.”
On the same day Steinbrenner was banned for life by Fay Vincent, he pulled the offer to Sanders. Axelrod says he called Bradley to inform him that Sanders would never play for the Yankees again. On Sept. 24 — five days after “Goodfellas” opened in the United States — saying the Yankees did not want to be part of this kind of drama any longer, new GM Gene Michael announced Sanders had been released.
A good deal of the tension surrounding Sanders in the Yankee clubhouse was created by his close relationship with Mel Hall, who no one on the team thought worked hard, was humble or respectful.
Overall, the professionalism of the 1990 team was poor. Alvaro Espinoza threw a bat and helmet at Merrill’s feet when he used a pinch hitter for the shortstop who hit .224 that year. Randy Velarde went off on the organization when Mike Blowers was recalled because it would cut further into his playing time. Jesse Barfield demanded a trade — and not just once. Andy Hawkins and LaPoint expressed furor at being removed from the rotation.
One of the pitchers who displaced the veterans, Steve Adkins, walked eight of the 11 batters he faced in his debut. The other, Dave Eiland, ripped Matt Nokes’ pitch-calling after a poor performance, in part because the catcher did not know Eiland had a sinker, which was his best pitch. The traveling secretary, Bill Emslie, was arrested in Seattle after getting into a fight with the team bus driver who couldn’t find the right gate. Darrell Evans, on the job as hitting coach not even two months, told reporters — but not the manager Merrill — that he had an itch to try to play again.
Where there weren’t bad acts there was low comedy. For example, pitcher Chuck Cary knocked himself out cold and suffered a concussion chasing a pop-up near the Tigers dugout when he tripped and went headfirst into burly first baseman Steve Balboni’s knee.
There was more. Yet you could gather it all together and no one was like Hall. He just didn’t show up for a game in Toronto, then called to say he had personal business. He regularly demanded to be traded — as if there was a market for him. In late August, he raged in front of the media in the clubhouse when he was left out of the lineup in Baltimore, stormed into the manager’s office to berate Merrill, slammed the door on the way out and broke the handle, then got eyeball to eyeball with a reporter and threatened his life.
Hall could hit a fastball, really hit a fastball, and that was sustaining him at a time when he was inappropriate and unprofessional.
“Mel, with the zoo animals and the ever-changing $300,000 cars, I can honestly say I couldn’t wait for him to get to the ballpark just to see what he would do that day,” LaPoint recalls. “I mean the day I go to use the StairMaster and I am told I can’t because there are two cougars in there, well, that was Mel.”
The catcher Bob Geren says Hall “brought all kinds of crazy animals” to the stadium. Most famously, he brought two cougars that urinated on the clubhouse carpet, sending clubhouse manager Nick Priore into a fury.
“With Mel, there was a ‘here we go again’ with something bizarre,” remembers Jeff Idelson, the Yankees’ media relations director in 1990. “Nick was really upset, in addition to being dangerous and endangered species, they weren’t toilet trained.”
Hall was arrested after the season in his Fairfield, Conn., home and charged with two counts each of possessing potentially dangerous animals and importing wild animals without a permit.
With Hall having beaten “Tiger King” by three decades, an Environmental Protection Agency sergeant said at the time: “It is one of those things where if you have a few dollars you can get one of these things if you want them. We are trying to dry up the market for all exotic pets.”
When Michael became GM and later Showalter became manager, they saw their first job as fumigating the clubhouse. Mel Exotic represented what needed to go if the Yankees were going to get better.
“Getting Mel Hall out of there was big in a lot of ways,” Showalter says now.
Players like Hall found refuge with the Yankees. The sport had initially feared that the Yanks would just purchase all the best players when Steinbrenner made a precedent-setting 12-year, $500 million deal with the MSG Network in December 1988. But the best free agents were now shunning the Yankees; no star with options would choose a place that Hall was literally turning into the Bronx Zoo. The Yanks had targeted starter Mark Langston and closer Mark Davis in the 1989-90 free-agent class. Neither wanted anything to do with Steinbrenner or the Yankees, beyond using them to increase offers elsewhere.
So the Yankees ended up as a home of last resort for players such as Hall. And Pascual Perez, whom they gave three years at $5.7 million despite a career of bizarre behavior and troubles with alcohol and cocaine. His previous manager, Montreal’s Buck Rodgers, said at the time, “He’s a sick man [due to addiction]. He’s a timebomb.”
True to form, Perez did not show up for the first eight days of spring training, having to be tracked down by his own agency in his native Dominican. Perez arrived to Fort Lauderdale Stadium in a two-car caravan on March 27, 1990 — the day Madonna released “Vogue” — at 6:41 p.m. The lights were turned on in an otherwise empty stadium. The Yanks found a minor league catcher and pitching coach Billy Connors and forced Perez to throw a bullpen with an entire group of reporters watching. Yankee officials would wonder later if Perez hurt his arm that night of forced punishment.
It turned out that the Yanks had not requested a shoulder exam before signing him and Perez would make just three starts before needing shoulder surgery, then 14 more the next year, then be suspended for all of 1992 for violating MLB’s drug policy. Before his shoulder broke down in 1990, Perez — of all people — added to the comedy of the season by criticizing the Yankees’ readiness and lack of seriousness. He told reporters, “When you go to a chicken fight, before you put your chicken into the ring, you have to make sure your chicken’s OK.”
Yep, to make a point, Perez was using cockfighting as a metaphor.
Perez’s brother, Melido, would throw a six-inning rain-shortened no-hitter for the White Sox to open the season’s second half. The following year, Perez’s no-hitter was stripped from the record books when a rule went into place that a no-hitter had to be a completed game of at least nine innings.
Turns out that wasn’t even the most interesting no-hitter thrown that July thanks to a Yankees-White Sox game that also would eventually be stripped from the record books.
Andy Hawkins was only a Yankee in July because — on the June day the team was going to release him (he literally had packed his bags) — Mike Witt came up lame and Hawkins had to return to the rotation. He had a five-start revival in which he pitched to a 1.83 ERA and in one game pitched 11 shutout innings and lost in the 12th to the Twins. It was his previous start, though, that was the most famous of his career and in many ways embodied the 1990 Yankees.
Sax remembers July 1 in Chicago as maybe “the windiest game I ever played in.” It was the kind of game you don’t use catcher/infielder Jim Leyritz to start in left for just the third time ever, as Merrill did. Or start Mike Blowers, a defensive mess, at third for the first time in eight days. In a May game, Blowers committed four errors, and LaPoint, who was pitching that day, tried to cut the anguish after error No. 3 by turning to the rookie and joking, “Look at it this way, at least everyone knows your name now.”
Geren, who was catching on July 1, recalls it was a Sunday getaway matinee and that home plate ump Dale Scott had quite a wide strike zone. Both starters capitalized. Greg Hibbard held the horrible Yankee offense hitless into the sixth, and with the help of reliever Barry Jones, scoreless through eight. Hawkins had a no-hitter with two outs in the eighth when the White Sox’s skinny right fielder in his first full season, Sammy Sosa, grounded to third for what should have been the third out. But Blowers threw it away.
Hawkins walked the next two hitters to load the bases before getting Robin Ventura to fly to left. Into the wind. Toward Leyritz, who in the memory of Sax “looked like a grizzly bear on ice skates” tracking the ball this way and that before flubbing it for a three-run error. Barfield then lost a flyball in the sun that could have been called a hit, but was ruled the third error of the inning, producing the fourth unearned run. Hawkins never gave up a hit in an eight-inning complete game and lost 4-0.
“It’s hard to throw a no-hitter and lose,” Geren says now.
But these were the 1990 Yankees. Until the bitter end. On the final day of the season, in Yankee Stadium, the crowd cheered for a visiting player as Cecil Fielder became the first American Leaguer since Roger Maris in 1961 to reach 50 homers by hitting two to finish at 51. No. 50 came off Adkins, who the Yanks had hoped was part of the future but was pitching the last game of his career. A sense of hopelessness pervaded the organization.
In a year when “Cheers” was the top show on TV, “Ghost” the top grossing picture and Milli Vanilli was stripped of its Grammy award for best new artists after revelations the duo did not sing on the “Girl You Know It’s True” album, the Yankees endured a season in which one of their most promising young players became a cornerback, they were humiliated by both Tigers and cougars, and they failed to hit and lost a no-hitter.
The season, though, ended with Gene Michael as GM, Buck Showalter on the major league coaching staff and lots of special stuff percolating down below the surface. Because of that, a decade that began in despair would end in dynasty.