Yankees keep on role-ing
If the Yankees go on to win their 27th world championship this year, could Melky Cabrera, Andy Phillips and Craig Wilson be viewed equally as important as Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada?
Since role players do not have the opportunity to play every day, the answer is clearly no. But it is impossible to deny that the success enjoyed by the Yanks over the past decade has been shaped by those who exceeded expectations, performing above and beyond what was thought to be their limits. Whether they were aging veterans in the twilight of their careers or marginal talents who sought a place to fit in, the Bronx welcomed them with open arms.
Dating back to the season that ended an 18-year title drought, here's a year-by-year look back at some of the most notable position players that served as "glue guys" for the most storied franchise in baseball.
As one of the longest tenured Yankees on the club, Jim Leyritz deserved all the success he had following years of futility. "The King" served mostly as the backup to Joe Girardi and the personal catcher to rookie left hander Andy Pettitte, batting .264 over 88 regular season games. His game-tying three-run homer off Atlanta's Mark Wohlers in Game 4 of the World Series is one of the most memorable hits in franchise history, as it is considered by many to have been the turning point of the Series.
Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry also deserve mention. Raines began a three-year tenure with the Yankees in 96, playing 59 games in a left-field platoon with Strawberry en route to his only World Series title. Strawberry joined the team in July after already having a cameo appearance with the Yankees in 1995. With 11 home runs in 63 games, Strawberry made it clear that he still had effective baseball ahead of him.
Raines was in a left-field platoon again, this time with Chad Curtis, who hit just .202 in 22 games with Cleveland that year before the Yankees acquired him for David Weathers. Curtis hit .291 as a Yankee while his violent, tumbling style of throwing made him popular among fans. The position of flux, however, was second base. Luis Sojo was splitting time with Pat Kelly, but due to Kelly's ineffectiveness and his injury prone nature, the Yanks traded a minor leaguer to the Cubs for Rey Sánchez. He helped stabilize the position, playing solid defense and batting .312, 50 points higher than his career average. Sánchez was not re-signed that offseason, and the Yankees obtained four-time All-Star Chuck Knoblauch that winter.
With Knoblauch on board, there was not much playing time for whomever served as his backup, but Homer Bush made the most of his time on the field. Included as part of the Hideki Irabu trade, Bush hit a lofty .380 in 45 games, and he also served a job that cannot be overlooked in importance late game pinch runner. While he was originally part of the San Diego organization, the Yankees also got a jolt from one of their own, outfielder Shane Spencer. A September call-up, Spencer had one of the most incredible month-long power surges on record, blasting ten home runs and three grand slams while posting a .373 average.
Ricky Ledée was the most noteable producer in a year where not many prominent faces emerged from the shadows. He figured into the left-field mix along with Curtis and Spencer after being one of the most ballyhooed Yankee prospects of the late 90s, hyped almost to Ruben Rivera-style proportions. The 26-year-old performed well, hitting .276 in 88 games, but his total of nine home runs was not what you'd expect out of a top young corner outfielder. Ledée would wind up traded the following year as part of the David Justice deal.
Justice stepped right in as a corner outfielder and one of his backups was Glenallen Hill, who saw more time as a Yankee in the DH slot. The Cubs traded Hill to the Yankees for a pair of pitchers, and he thrived during his brief tenure in pinstripes, batting .333 with 29 RBI in 40 games. Even more important was infielder José Vizcaíno, acquired by the Yankees from the Dodgers about a month before Hill was.
In 40 games with L.A., Vizcaíno average was .204. He went on to bat .276 in 73 games back on the East Coast, and his game winning single in Game 1 of the World Series off Turk Wendell in the bottom of the 12th inning stands as one of the more underrated postseason moments of that Yankee era.
Another nondescript year for the backups. However, it was also the capper to a magical four-year run for third baseman Scott Brosius, who called it a career after the Yanks were beaten in the World Series by Arizona. After his brilliant season in 1998, Brosius' offensive production dipped sharply to his pre-pinstripe levels in '99 and '00, as he hit .247 and .230 respectively. Before he rode off into the sunset however, the former World Series MVP went out with his numbers up by batting .287, the second highest total of his career behind only his .300 total in '98, when he drove in 98 runs mostly as the No. 9 hitter. He also recorded four hits in the Fall Classic, finishing his career with a .314 lifetime Series average.
Many in the baseball world had legitimate reasons to believe that Robin Ventura was finished by the time the Mets included him in a three-way trade that sent him to the Yankees. He was coming off back-to-back years of sub-.240 batting, his bat speed had noticeably diminished, and his run production was in serious decline. Ventura remained an everyday player, and even though he only hit .247, his totals of 27 home runs and 93 RBIs represented his best numbers in those categories since 1999. He also batted .286 in the New York's loss to the Angels in the ALDS, but even though he was sent away at the trading deadline the following year, his impact on the Yankees is still being felt he was dealt to the Dodgers in exchange for Bubba Crosby and Scott Proctor.
No matter what struggles Aaron Boone had during the regular season and most of the postseason after he was obtained from Cincinnati, his walk-off home run in game 7 of the '03 ALCS will never be forgotten. The hit briefly stood as one of the defining moments of the Yankees-Red Sox feud.
Ruben Sierra was also brought in by the Yankees, and while some people now claim that the price they paid was too steep (Marcus Thames), he had an immediate effect on the team upon beginning his second stint in pinstripes. Sierra was red-hot in the weeks that following his return, and at season's end, he finished with a .276 average and 31 RBIs in 63 games, mostly as a DH. Sierra was a valuable bat off the bench in both that season and 2004, when he provided numerous clutch hits. Sierra was finally let go after last season, but the offense he gave the Yankees in those two-plus seasons alone justified the trade to being him back.
Concerns regarding Jason Giambi over the winter prompted the Yankees to import one of baseball's true good guys, Tony Clark. Those thoughts were well-founded, as Clark wound up playing the bulk of the time at first base up until the end of July. He did hit close to .280 with runners in scoring position for the year, but with the Yanks worried about his propensity to strike out, they signed John Olerud in early August when he was cut loose by the Mariners.
Olerud assumed the everyday first base position as soon as he arrived, and at age 36, he looked rejuvenated. His short, sweet swing returned, and Johnny O hit .280 over the course of 49 games in the regular season. Despite struggling in the playoffs, he provided an unforgettable moment at Yankee Stadium in Game 2 of the ALCS against Boston. It was his go-ahead two-run homer off Pedro Martínez that prompted the sold-out crowd at the Stadium to shower Pedro with chants of "Who's Your Daddy?" Alas, an injury proved just how valuable Olerud was after leaving Game 3 of that series with a bruised left instep, the rusty Clark went 3-for-21 in his place.
Unlike Olerud, Miguel Cairo had been with the Yankees for the entire season. Originally brought in to be a "super utility" player, Cairo replaced the light-hitting Enrique Wilson as the everyday second baseman and wound up hitting .292 for the season, just three points shy of his career high. Like Sierra, Cairo also had a penchant for coming up with big hits like his game-tying double in the bottom of the 13th inning against Boston on July 1.
In his second year with the Yankees, veteran backup catcher John Flaherty played a more important role than he did in '04. He's probably best remembered for the game-winning single he hit in that marathon versus Boston the previous July. But the following season, Flaherty's on-field relationship with Randy Johnson helped get the Big Unit back on track following a poor first half. Johnson went 8-2 with a 3.31 ERA after the All-Star break; his former personal catcher gets a lot of the credit for that, and rightfully so.
Meanwhile, Bubba Crosby made the most of his first extended run of playing time in the majors. Not only was he an effective outfielder, mostly in place of Bernie Williams in center, but Crosby hit .321 in September during the thick of a pennant race. During that time, Bubba hit his only home run of the year a game-winning solo blast into the right field bleachers against the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 19. Boston won on that same night, so take away that victory and the Yankees would have failed to win their eighth straight division title by a half game.
Going back to the current squad, while guys like Nick Green and Sal Fasano will not be mistaken for their high-profile teammates anytime soon, do not scoff at their light résumés. All it takes is one hit, one catch, one play and like some of the players mentioned above, they could find themselves forever linked with championship glory.