• Sal Maiorana

Once Ruben Sierra called Joe Torre a liar, his Yankee days were numbered

OAKLAND (May 31, 1996) – The post-game discussion between Joe Torre and the New York media contingent following a 4-1 victory over the A’s should have centered on Jimmy Key’s strong return from the disabled list, and how efficiently Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland locked it down over the last three innings.

Instead, Torre spent more time talking about Ruben Sierra, who had taken to the press to call Torre a liar regarding his season-long lack of use in the outfield.

No wonder Torre wrote in his autobiography Chasing The Dream – written with Tom Verducci and published after the 1996 season – that Sierra, “was the toughest guy I ever had to manage.”

Sierra had been Torre’s main designated hitter, but Sierra believed he belonged in the outfield and he claimed Torre had said in the spring that he’d get that chance. Instead, in the 47 games he appeared in before the Oakland series, he’d started in the field just five times.

“I don’t know what’s going on and I don’t have to talk to him because he lied to me about playing the outfield,” Sierra said. “He said that in spring training. I lost 18 pounds to play the outfield and I haven’t seen that yet. I don’t like people lying to me. I don’t like this garbage. I think I should play every day.”

Torre was asked about being called a liar and he said, “It’s a strong word and I don’t think I lied to him. I don’t think I ever guaranteed to Ruben how much he would play in the outfield.”

In fact, the plan all along had been to play Tim Raines in left, Bernie Williams in center and Paul O’Neill in right, with Gerald Williams as the primary backup because he was a better fielder than Sierra. Sierra was clearly the better hitter, though, so the DH role was perfect.

Except Sierra didn’t see it that way, and when Raines spent most of the first two months on the disabled list and Torre repeatedly penciled in Sierra’s name as the DH, he took his case to the media and that was the beginning of the end of his time with the Yankees.

Torre and Sierra spoke privately before the Yankees beat Oakland 6-3 on June 1 – Sierra went 1-for-5 with three strikeouts as the DH – and Sierra told reporters, “Everything is fine between me and him. I just let him know I want to play every day. All he had to do was talk to me. I appreciate that he talked to me, that’s all.”

Sierra would get more chances to play the field in the next two months, but at the trade deadline Torre had grown tired of him and he actually asked general manager Bob Watson to pursue a trade. Watson did, and the return from Detroit was Cecil Fielder.

When he joined the Tigers, Sierra thought he was taking a shot at Torre and the Yankees, famously saying, “All they care about over there is winning.”

In his book, Torre wrote, “That told you everything you needed to know about Ruben Sierra.

As for the game, it played out just the way Torre had hoped. Key for six innings, Rivera for two, Wetteland for one, chalk it up in the ‘W’ column.

It became known in Yankee lore as “the formula”, the numerical sequence 6-2-1. Night after night Torre was looking for six innings from his starting pitcher and, if the Yankees had the lead, he would hand the ball to Rivera for the seventh and eighth, and then to Wetteland for the ninth.

By the end of the season 6-2-1 resonated as melodically at Yankee Stadium as Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York.

Of moving Rivera into the set-up role back in April, Torre wrote, “All of a sudden my job was a hell of a lot easier. The formula was born. With Rivera for two innings and Wetteland for one, I knew we could shut down teams after the sixth inning.”

Case in point came at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum when the Yankees pulled in for the final stop on a three-city West Coast trip that had seen them lose four of the first six games to the Angels and Mariners, dropping them into a tie with Baltimore atop the AL East.

The Yankees had been scuffling since Dwight Gooden’s no-hitter and had gone 6-7 in that time. In the previous two games in Anaheim they’d been shutout 1-0 by Jason Grimsley and 4-0 by Chuck Finley and Troy Percival, managing just 13 hits total.

Heading into the opener against the A’s, Torre was longing for an opportunity to get back to the formula, and Key made it happen.

Fresh off the disabled list after he’d suffered a minor setback following his offseason shoulder surgery, Key delivered six stellar innings, limiting Oakland to a run on three hits and two walks while whiffing seven.

And when the Yankees snapped a 1-1 tie in the top of the seventh when Ruben Rivera hit his first major-league home run, Ruben’s cousin, Mariano, was warming up even before Torre had called down to the bullpen.

Mariano proceeded to pitch two scoreless innings – sandwiched around a two-run eighth when the Yankees stretched their lead to 4-1 on a Paul O’Neill home run and Mariano Duncan sacrifice fly – before Wetteland closed it out with a perfect ninth.

The formula working to perfection, 6-2-1, and the result was a victory which, coupled with Baltimore’s loss to the Angels, put New York back into sole possession of first place and it was never headed again.

It was a big night for Key because in his first eight starts prior to the DL stint he’d pitched terribly, a 1-5 record with a 7.14 ERA and a 1.612 WHIP, ugliness of the highest order and keenly problematic given David Cone’s unavailability and Dwight Gooden’s struggles prior to his no-hitter.

The Yankees needed Key to get it turned around sooner rather than later, and that began in this game. “I wasn’t feeling any pressure,” said Key. “I was feeling dejected because I hadn’t helped the team. It was disappointing, but now I feel like I have a fresh start.”

NEXT post on April 24: Joe Torre's brother Rocco passes away.