• Sal Maiorana

In the dog days of August, the Bronx was burning

SEATTLE (Aug. 28, 1996) – As the losses piled up almost as quickly as Yankees general manager Bob Watson was altering the roster, it was only a matter of time before George Steinbrenner was to be heard.

King George had been unusually quiet for most of the season because he was serving on the U.S. Olympic Committee for the Summer Games in Atlanta. But now the torch had been extinguished, it was back to his day job lording over the Yankees, and the bluster began to blow in the wake of a demoralizing three-game sweep at the hands of the Mariners in what had become the Yankees’ personal house of horrors, the Kingdome.

In the same place where they’d lost three straight games to blow the 1995 AL Division Series, the Yankees’ horrid August came to a boiling head in that dark, dank mausoleum of a venue which, interestingly, mirrored the mood of the team.

There was newly-acquired Graeme Lloyd throwing gasoline onto the fire as he had been doing since the moment he arrived in a trade on Aug. 23, giving up the deciding run in the eighth inning of a 2-1 loss in the opener.

The next night Lloyd was at it again, turning a 4-0 lead into a 5-4 deficit when he got tagged for a go-ahead three-run bomb by Jeff Manto in the sixth, and then walked three men in the seventh which resulted in two insurance runs in a 7-4 defeat.

And then in the finale, Lloyd had nothing to do with it as Dwight Gooden was lit up for eight runs in five-plus innings of a 10-2 abomination that featured a bench-clearing brawl started by Paul O’Neill after he’d gotten plunked by a pitch.

Contacted at his office in Tampa via phone by Jack Curry, then of the New York Times, Steinbrenner opened up about the month-plus slump his team was in which had turned a runaway in the AL East into a sprint to the finish.

“I really don’t know what is wrong with this team,” he said. “This team is going through a bad period, one of the longest I can remember. We’ll find out in September. I want to see what they’re made of.”

When he was asked if he believed his Yankees could get it turned around and possibly win the American League pennant and/or the World Series, the Boss said, “I’ll be honest; I don’t know. I’ve got to believe because I helped get most of these guys. I have to have confidence in them and their ability to prevail.”

Referring to “most of these guys” Steinbrenner was speaking of the new batch of Yankees that had joined the team since the trading deadline, a flurry of moves that to this point hadn’t exactly worked out. And while Steinbrenner had the final say on everything, it was Watson who had negotiated the deals and rumors began flying that he’d get the axe if the Yankees completed an epic collapse and missed the playoffs.

“That’s out of my hands,” Watson said. “If I’m good enough, fine. If not … my kids are grown, my wife hasn’t divorced me – although she’s thought about it lately. But my feeling hasn’t changed since the day I took this job. I’m a positive guy. And say what you want about Mr. Steinbrenner, he wants to win. The thing that has been difficult to watch is a team that we feel is a very good team do this badly.”

The Lloyd trade was looking like an unmitigated disaster. He was supposed to be the lefty specialist the Yankees had lacked since the release of Steve Howe in June. Lloyd had a 2.82 ERA in 52 games with the Brewers, but in his first five appearances in pinstripes he allowed six hits, five walks, and eight earned runs across just 1.2 innings and his ERA soared to 4.44.

Utility infielder Pat Listach also came from Milwaukee, with reliever Bob Wickman and outfielder Gerald Williams going to the Brewers, but Listach never even got on the field. He had fouled a ball off his foot two days before the trade and it was revealed he had a season-ending fracture, an injury the Yankees somehow missed.

The Brewers knew about it and they compensated the Yankees by covering the remainder of Listach’s salary and sending them pitcher Ricky Bones whose contribution to the cause would be four disastrous September appearances when he gave up 11 earned runs in seven innings.

On the same day Watson traded Ruben Sierra for Cecil Fielder, a move that ultimately panned out, he also dealt spare part reliever Mark Hutton to the Marlins for reliever David Weathers. In four August starts as the Yankees waited for the return of David Cone, Weathers went 0-2, never recorded more than 13 outs, and he gave up 17 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings, a robust 14.85 ERA.

Finally, on Aug. 30, two days after the sweep in Seattle, third baseman Charlie Hayes was brought in from the Pirates for a minor-leaguer in what played in the clubhouse as a lack of faith in Wade Boggs.

Boggs had struggled against left-handed pitching, batting just .268 with a .319 slugging percentage by season’s end. Joe Torre had remarked that Boggs looked tired and his bat was “slow at times” and he and Watson concluded it would be best to use a platoon at third base for the rest of the year. Boggs, a proud veteran and future Hall of Famer, was not happy.

Approached by reporters, his first response upon learning of the acquisition of Hayes was, “Hey, can you get somebody to carry my bats onto the field? I’m a little tired.” He then added, “I expressed to (Torre) that I’m not tired and there’s nothing wrong with me. He told me he’s going to use Hayes on my rest days, whatever that means.”

Boggs wasn’t the only player tweaked by the move to get Hayes. Jim Leyritz pointed out that if Boggs needed to be platooned, righty swingers such as himself, Mariano Duncan and Luis Sojo (who had just been claimed on waivers Aug. 22) could play third.

“I think it’s a slap in the face to a lot of people,” Leyritz said. “We’ve got three players who can play third. If that’s their reason, it’s not a good reason. We’ve been struggling with our arms. If you’re going to make some moves, do it there. There are other areas that need more improvement than this one. They have to live with it. Sometimes you have to wonder.”

Things were crumbling in the Bronx, and not just the surrounding neighborhood around Yankee Stadium. The fabric of the team was fraying, and a once-promising season seemed to be circling the drain.

“I’m always concerned with chemistry,” said Watson of his transaction frenzy. “I’m more concerned with winning ball games.”

Watson was clearly feeling the heat. But what about Torre? Steinbrenner, who had the fastest trigger in major-league history when it came to managerial changes, said when asked about Torre’s status, “He’s my manager. I have confidence in him. Whether or not we make it is up to him. We’ve got to get through this period. We’re still four games ahead. I’ll accept that. I’ll accept five or six, too.”

Torre, standing up to the pressure, displayed the calm demeanor that would ultimately result in a magnificent 12-year run with the Yankees. As the month came to an end with desperately-needed back-to-back victories over the Angels, Torre’s message to the team was clear.

“We can’t continue to try to climb Mount Everest,” he said. “Everyone’s trying too hard. I think that’s where the frustration comes in. It’s a frustrating existence. The important thing is how many games we have left. We still have the hammer. We still have to win the fewest games in our division because of the four-game lead.”

NEXT post on May 17: David Cone to the rescue with brilliant return.