More times than not, free agent deals rarely ever live up to the years and the money that is so easily handed out to players who enter the open market. As Harold Reynolds put it after Robinson Cano signed his megadeal with the Seattle Mariners last year: “Teams pay for what a player has already done, not what he is going to do.” Today’s Turn Back The Clock was no different, as the New York Yankees were three Octobers removed from making a World Series appearance, and the Bronx Zoo Part II was in full effect. Billy Martin had come and gone multiple times, as had other managers during George Steinbrenner’s first ten years as the principal owner of the Bronx Bombers. Unlike the 1970s, when “The Boss” could literally buy the best talent on the open market, and experience immediate success, things weren’t so clear cut by the mid-1980s.
Ed Whitson the previous October, had just helped lead the upstart San Diego Padres to the National League pennant, where they fell in five games to one of the all-time great teams in the ’84 Tigers. Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, Lou Whitaker, and Jack Morris were the pillars that led the Tigers to their greatest season ever, not to mention Cy Young winner and AL MVP, closer Willie Hernandez.
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For the Yankees, their pitching was showing signs of age, as Ron Guidry remained the ace, but needed some help. The offense was led by American League batting champion Don Mattingly, who just narrowly edged out teammate Dave Winfield. Atop the order, Rickey Henderson and Willie Randolph were as solid as they came, and the Yankees had replaced free agent Graig Nettles with young, power left-handed hitter, Mike Pagliarulo.
The Yankees entered the shopping market, looking for a #2 to go along with Ron Guidry, and they thought they had it in big Ed Whitson. After going 14-8, and posting an ERA of 3.24, the Bombers handed Whitson a five-year, $4.4 million dollar deal. The contract became a nightmare for the Yankees, and an even bigger nightmare for Whitson. He lasted just over 1 1/2 seasons in pinstripes, tallying a record of 15-10, with an ERA of 5.38 in 44 games. For those of you that need a more modern measure of reference, think Carl Pavano.
It wasn’t so much Whitson’s ineffectiveness that became the PR nightmare for the Yankees. No, that came when Whitson had gotten shelled for four earned runs in only two innings of work during a four-game series against the first place Toronto Blue Jays. The loss put the Yankees 4 1/2 games back, and it was most likely the death knell for a 97-win Yankees team that missed the playoffs in 1985. To make matters worse, after manager Billy Martin lifted Whitson from his next start on September 20th, the two men got into a heated verbal exchange that became physical in the parking lot of the Yankees’ hotel in Baltimore, MD. The fight resulted in Martin suffering a broken arm at the hands of the 6’3″ Whitson. Big Ed didn’t go unscathed, as Martin broke several of Whitson’s ribs, and busted his mouth open. Whitson didn’t throw another pitch that season for the Yankees. Martin was fired, with many in the organization citing the Whitson altercation as being the reason why.
Whitson didn’t fair much better in 1986 under skipper Lou Piniella, as he was used both in the rotation and out of the Yankees’ bullpen. Whitson desperately wanted out of New York, and on July 9th, 1986, the Yankees dealt him back to the San Diego Padres in exchange for reliever Tim Stoddard. This ended one of the most unsuccessful free agent signings in Yankees’ history, and made the world fully aware that not everyone could “mentally” handle the pressure of playing in the Bronx.