Category Archives: The Yankees Index

Tommy Henrich was old, reliable and clutch

Yankees outfielder Tommy Henrich was known as Old Reliable, which in my book is about as good a nickname as one could be given. Henrich wasn’t a megastar of the Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or Joe Dimaggio level, but he was quite good, and he was quite good when it mattered.

I connect with Henrich for a couple of reasons. For one, he’s one of the first old-time ballplayers whose autographs I can remember getting in the late 1980s at baseball card shows held in airport hotels in New York. I’m pretty sure the Kodak photo of him that’s somewhere in my parent’s apartment featured him smoking a pipe (I should note – he lived to 96). And he hit the first World Series walk-off home run, beating the Dodgers in Game 1 in 1949.

The 1949 season is a significant one in Yankees history, because it marks the start of one of their great dynasties. The Yankees won five straight World Series from 1949 to 1953.

How did that run begin? With a walk-off, of course.

The Yankees opened on April 19 of that season against the Senators. Opening Day was the first opener for the Yankees since Ruth died and he was paid proper tribute both before the game and by how it ended. The Yankees were also without Joe DiMaggio, who was battling a heel injury.

The Senators were the opposite of the Yankees. They won on their opening day in Washington D.C. (by walk-off, actually) but didn’t win much else. They finished 50-104. Thus what I tell you probably won’t surprise.

The Senators hung gamely with the Yankees, taking a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning. But with two on and two outs, Yogi Berra’s pinch-hit single scored Phil Rizzuto to tie the game (Berra didn’t start because he had the flu).

The Senators went six up and six down in the eighth and ninth innings, giving the Yankees a shot to pull the game out in the ninth. Phil Rizzuto grounded out and Gene Woodling popped out. That brought up Henrich, who was 0-for-4. What was great about Henrich that season was that though he was 36 years old, he could still hit like he was in his 20s. He’d hit .287/.416/.526 and place sixth in the AL MVP voting.

That wasn’t known at the time. What was known was that Henrich was both old and reliable. He hit seven home runs in 63 at-bats in what deems “late and close” situations (this qualified). This would be the first. He set the tone for the Yankees season with a long game-winning home run to right center field.

”It was a perfect ending, one that must have drawn a booming roar from the Babe, away up there in the heavens.”
— Joe Trimble, New York Daily News

Book excerpt: Mariano Rivera’s 42 postseason saves

An excerpt from The Yankees Index, published in 2016. You can buy the book here.

There is only one Babe Ruth, but in terms of domination of a position within a specific era, the closest thing to Babe Ruth is how Mariano Rivera dominated in postseason play.

During one of the most hitter-friendly periods in baseball history under the most pressure-packed of circumstances, Rivera thrived. He was 8-1 with an 0.70 postseason ERA, with 42 saves in 47 chances. The 42 saves is appropriate, as it matched the number on the back of his jersey.

Oh and though we’re focusing on October baseball, let’s not ignore the regular-season work. All that consists of is the most saves all-time (652) and the lowest ERA of any pitcher who worked at least 1,000 innings in the Live-Ball Era (since 1920).

“He is by far the greatest closer of all-time,” said ESPN baseball analyst and historian, Tim Kurkjian.

“As much of a guarantee as anyone who ever played the game,” said an admiring rival, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.

“The ultimate safety net,” said former teammate Mike Stanton.

The path to greatness was a combination of luck, talent and work, beginning with his growing up in Panama with thoughts of being a fisherman. In February, 1990 he signed with the Yankees and perhaps some were lucky enough to see the greatness before the greatness. That season, he pitched for the Yankees Gulf Coast League team in Tampa and allowed one earned run in 52 innings.

This was the pre-Rivera, Rivera. He didn’t have the cutter then. But in some ways, it was the same Mariano. Coaches worked with him to slow his delivery, such that it would take him 1.1 seconds to the plate.

Twenty one years later, I put a stopwatch on his delivery time for three pitches as he approached the all-time saves record. He clocked at 1.1 seconds.

By 1995, Rivera was in the majors and he had his share of ups and downs, primarily as a starting pitcher. But he did enough to earn Buck Showalter’s trust such that Showalter pitched him in two huge situations. Rivera pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief In Game 2 of the ALDS against the Mariners, and got the win when Jim Leyritz hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 15th.

Then, Rivera emerged with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning of a tied Game 5 to blow Mike Blowers away on three straight pitches. The Yankees lost that game, but in that moment they discovered a future star who could stand up to the most stressful situations.

The next year, Rivera was the set-up man to John Wetteland in the greatest one-two reliever combination in Yankees history, if not baseball history. The Yankees got back to the postseason and won it all. Rivera pitched 122 innings in relief to a 1.92 ERA between the regular season and postseason.

That offseason, the Yankees did something they would never regret. They let Wetteland go as a free agent and made Rivera the closer.

“There were questions that spring as to whether he was going to be able to do it,” said his former teammate, Mike Stanton. “I think he answered them pretty well.”

Rivera did with the help of what he called a gift from God, a cut fastball that had a sharp late break against left-handed hitters, neutralizing any advantage they might have over him. It also turned out to work well as a pitch breaking away from right-handed hitters. He first noticed it during an innocent game of catch with Ramiro Mendoza. When he threw it in games, hitters could not make good contact against it.

“His cutter may go down as the greatest weapon in the history of the game,” said ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kevin Connors, who covered Rivera while working in New York.

The turning point in Rivera’s closing career was not a win, but a loss. Every closer has to deal with failure, knowing that you were the one who cost your team the game. In Rivera’s case, he had to live through that all winter after allowing the key hit in the 1997 ALDS- a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. with the Yankees on the verge of clinching.

Again, the Yankees lost the series, but won for the long term.

“It didn’t bother him at all (for the next season),” said former teammate Jeff Nelson. “One of the best assets he has is a short memory.”

The legend of Rivera emerged in the next three seasons, as the Yankees became a baseball dynasty. Not only was he amazing in the regular season, he was dominant come October. In 41 1/3 postseason innings, he allowed three runs and 25 hits, with 30 strikeouts and four walks. That included a major-league record 33 1/3 inning scoreless streak. In 1999, he won World Series MVP honors in a sweep of the Braves.

The Yankees went 27-1 in the 28 games in which he pitched. He was on the mound for eight of the nine series-clinching outs, including the final out of all three World Series.

The Yankees inspired a city with their pursuit of a four-pear in the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Pitching in the shadows of the September 11 tragedy, they came from behind on multiple occasions to get to Game 7.

Rivera had told his teammates before the game “Get me the ball and we will win” and it looked like he’d live up to that promise after blowing the Diamondbacks hitters away in the eighth inning.

But in the ninth inning, he and the Yankees were done in by a little wildness (he hit a batter for only the second time all season), an error (the second one of his career) and some bad luck (a broken-bat bloop over Derek Jeter’s head for the series-winning hit).

It was a crushing defeat, but Rivera was again undaunted. Two years later, he got the ball for a Game 7 and lived up to his promises. With the score tied in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox, Rivera pitched a scoreless ninth, 10th and 11th inning. And then he’d run and kiss the pitcher’s mound when Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run ended the series. Rivera was named series MVP.

“Those three innings- you’re not gonna get that with any other closer, “Nelson said. “He’s the only one (now) who can pitch three innings. He could have gone five.”

The Yankees transitioned into a different team over the next six years, one that blew a 3-0 ALCS lead to the Red Sox, than got knocked out in the ALDS in 2005, 2006 and 2007 before failing to make the playoffs in Joe Girardi’s first year, 2008.

The 2009 Yankees had a new home (the new Yankee Stadium) and several new faces (most notably CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira). But players like Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada remained constants.

That postseason featured Rivera at his very best. He allowed one run in 16 innings as the Yankees beat the Twins, Angels and Phillies for their 27th World Series title.

There was one more tough moment for Rivera to overcome. While shagging fly balls in Kansas City in May, 2012, Rivera tore his ACL, ending his season and potentially his career.

But Rivera would not let his career end that way. Instead, it ended the way it should.

Rivera had a 2.11 ERA and 44 saves at age 43 in 2013. Though he didn’t get another crack at October, he pitched like it was all season. He was dominant to the very end.

There was one last cool moment. In Rivera’s final game, Joe Girardi had Jeter and Andy Pettitte go to the mound to pull Rivera. “It’s time to go,” Jeter said, and the normally unflappable Rivera started to cry as he hugged his teammates.

And then he walked off the mound. The crowd cheered. Just as if it was October.

Most Career Postseason Saves
Mariano Rivera 42
Brad Lidge 18
Dennis Eckersley 15

Book Excerpt: Mike Mussina pitches 8 2/3 perfect innings

Excerpt from The Yankees Index, published by Triumph Books in 2016. Purchase the book here

Mike Stanton was fascinated with teammate Mike Mussina’s control in bullpen sessions in-between starts.

“You could watch him throw and you’d be amazed at his command,” Stanton said. “And at the end of it, he’s ticked off because he missed his spot on two of his pitches. He had that good a stuff and that good a control. He was highly, highly intelligent and the epitome of a perfectionist.”

It is a moment of imperfection for which Mussina is probably best remembered as a Yankee.

That refers to September 2, 2001, in which Mussina and former Yankee turned Red Sox pitcher David Cone locked into one of the greatest pitcher’s duels in Yankees history (or at least Yankees-Red Sox history).

The teams entered the game at Fenway Park in vastly different states. The Yankees were in first place and at the beginning of a stretch in which they won 11 of 12 games. The Red Sox were stumbling, having lost six in a row and held to exactly one run in each of their last four games (including 3-1 and 2-1 losses to the Yankees).

The nationally-televised Sunday Night Baseball game was the perfect stage for the 32-year-old Mussina, who was in the first year of a six-year contract with the Yankees after an illustrious nine seasons with the Baltimore Orioles and a highly successful college career at Stanford.

“Mussina is arguably the greatest free-agent signing the Yankees have ever had,” said YES Network head researcher, Jeff Quagliata, which would mean it ranked ahead of Reggie Jackson and CC Sabathia in terms of overall value..

Mussina entered the day in a groove, with a 1.55 ERA in his previous four starts.

Mussina’s strength was that he got a lot of strikeouts and rarely walked anyone. He currently has the second-best strikeout-to-walk rate in Yankees history, just behind Mariano Rivera.

“Facing Mike Mussina was like battling seasickness,” said former major-leaguer Doug Glanville, who went 4-for-15 against him. “He would go up in the zone then down in the zone and repeat. High fastball, nasty curve, time warp change-up. It was a battle in four dimensions. Up-Down. In-Out. Fast-Slow. Nausea-Headache. The best strategy was Alka-Seltzer.”

Most K per BB – Yankees History
Mariano Rivera 4.1
Mike Mussina 4.02
David Wells 4.01

Added Yankees coach Willie Randolph in Mussina’s Yankeeography “He was everything a pitcher should be.”

Cone, formerly a Yankees star, was a formidable opponent, albeit one whose best days were behind him. He knew the hitters in the Yankees lineup well, having played with them from 1995 to 2000. Cone also had thrown a perfect game for the Yankees two years earlier.

Mussina was throwing hard, often hitting 95 MPH with his fastball, and with a great changeup and nasty knuckle-curve which dropped dirt-bound to elude hitters’ bats. After Cone pitched a scoreless first inning, stranding Derek Jeter on second base, Mussina got the Red Sox on a pair of strikeouts and a lineout to short.

Thus began a pattern that lasted through eight innings. Cone allowed a baserunner in seven of them, but none crossed the plate.

Mussina allowed nothing. No runs, no hits and no errors.

In the top of the ninth inning, the Yankees broke through, thanks to an error by Red Sox second baseman Lou Merloni and Enrique Wilson’s subsequent RBI double. The Yankees went to the bottom of the ninth up 1-0 and with Mussina on the verge of what Yankees play-by-play announcer John Sterling had previously called “baseball immortality.”

The first two hitters in the home ninth went down, albeit with a little stress. Troy O’Leary grounded to first, where Yankees reserve Clay Bellinger preserved the bid with a diving stop. Merloni then struck out.

Then Red Sox manager Joe Kerrigan did something odd. He sent up Carl Everett to pinch-hit for his catcher, Joe Oliver.

Everett was picked 10 spots ahead of Mussina, by the Yankees in the 1990 MLB Amateur Draft. He’d shown great hitting prowess in 1999, when he hit .325 with the Astros and 2000, when he hit .300 with 34 home runs in his first year in Boston.

But in 2001, he was not the same Everett. In 20 games prior to this pinch-hitting appearance, he was hitting .187. Not only that, he was 1-for-9 with seven strikeouts in his career against Mussina (all of which occurred that season).

It looked like Mussina was going to get Everett again. He went ahead 1-2, than made a decision that likely haunts him to this day. He went with a high fastball and Everett got his quick bat around on it and lined a single to left center field.

“I’m going to think about that pitch until I retire,” Mussina said. “It’s probably just not meant to be.”

Mussina said that for good reason. Close but not quite was an important part of who he was as a pitcher.

“That game sums up his career and his Hall of Fame candidacy,” said Patrick Bohn, a Yankees fan from Ithaca New York, who along with his friend Ryan Vooris, has started a website promoting Mussina’s greatness. “It was so close to being there … and then it wasn’t.”

Mussina is one of many great pitchers who never threw a no-hitter or perfect game. He came close … many times. He took a perfect game into the ninth inning against the Indians in 1997, a no-hitter into the eighth inning that same season, and a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Orioles in 1998.

He couldn’t quite close them out. Mussina threw 10 regular-season complete games in which he allowed two hits or fewer , the second-most of anyone since the start of the 1990 season.

Mussina was also an integral part of two of the Yankees best wins of the 21st century. He threw seven scoreless innings in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS against the Athletics, a 1-0 win best remembered for “The Flip” by Derek Jeter that saved the tying run from scoring.

Mussina also pitched three scoreless innings and escaped a first-and-third no-out jam he inherited from Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox in the first relief appearance of his career. The Yankees overcame a four-run deficit to win that game on Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run. They lost the World Series in six games to the Marlins, though Mussina won his only start in that Fall Classic

Mussina never achieved the perfection he was seeking, but he had about as perfect an ending to a career that a pitcher could have, short of winning the World Series.

On the final day of the 2008 season, he pitched six scoreless innings against the Red Sox in Fenway Park to earn his 20th victory. He became the oldest pitcher to reach 20 wins for the first time (age 39).

There was a near-miss aspect to this as well, as the Yankees won the World Series the year after Mussina retired.

He finished his career with a 270-153 record, with 123 of those wins coming for the Yankees. He also won the seventh Gold Glove Award of his career, his third with the Yankees. He was able to retire that offseason with the satisfaction of knowing he’d achieved just about everything he could.

“His career has been overlooked and underappreciated,” Bohn said. “I hope he gets into the Hall of Fame. And I hope that people realize how great he was.”