Days of Yankees Past: Jimmy Key
By Joe Vitulli
Jimmy Key‘s Yankee career has been overshadowed by some of the big name pitchers who played with the Bombers after him such as Dwight Gooden, Andy Pettitte David Cone, David Wells and Roger Clemens. However, without Key’s free agent signing with the Yankees before the 1993 season, it is likely that none of those pitchers ever take the mound in pinstripes and possibly also likely that the dynasty of the late 90’s and early 00’s never happens.
The Yankees of the early nineties were some of the worst teams in franchise history. They couldn’t hit, pitch or field. George Steinbrenner had been banned from baseball for his role in spying on Dave Winfield and things looked about as bleak as it possibly could for the Bombers. No one wanted to play in the Bronx.
The same offseason that the Yankees signed Key, they swung and missed on several other free agents that they wanted over Key. They made a serious run at the reigning NL MVP, Barry Bonds, only to be turned down when they wouldn’t offer a sixth year on the contract.
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The Yankees were also going hard after a young Chicago Cub who had just won his first Cy Young award named Greg Maddux. Maddux, however, spurned the Yankees money and took less dollars to go to the Braves. Future Yankee David Cone even opted for Kansas City over the Bronx. The Yankees also watched the likes of Doug Drabek and Jose Guzman sign with other teams after receiving an offer from them. Players were avoiding the Yankees like the plague. There was a belief time that the Yankees were a mess where it had become impossible to win and impossible to play.
Things started to change, however, when Key bolted the World Champion Blue Jays to try on Yankee pinstripes. He was undeterred by the challenge of playing in New York. Key’s agent (and wife!) was able to negotiate a four year deal for Key with the Yankees following his 1992 World Series win, in which he won Game 4 with a 7 2/3 inning, 1 run, 5 hit performance and worked out of the bullpen in the clinching Game 6.
Key was a two time All Star who finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1987. Roger Clemens won the award that season despite Key leading the AL with a 2.76 ERA, 164 ERA+, and 1.057 WHIP. He was able to compile a career high 7.4 WAR that season. But Key was not a one shot wonder. He won between 12 and 17 games every season, except for his rookie year when he was used mainly as a reliever.
Key pitched like an ace his first two years in the Bronx making the 1993 and 1994 All Star teams. He would finish fourth for the Cy Young in 1993 and second to Cone in the strike shortened 1994 season. He led the AL in wins with 17 in 1994 as well.
And as Key and other major contributors like Don Mattingly, Paul O’Neill, Wade Boggs, and Bernie Williams all came together so did the wins. The front office headed by Gene Michael was given full control and manager Buck Showalter cleaned up the clubhouse, ridding the Yankees of several negative influences. The Yankees had the best record in the American League when the strike ended the 1994 season. Key and the Yankees had shown that winning in New York was once again possible.
Key blew out his arm in 1995, needing season ending rotator cuff surgery after just five starts. He came back to the Bronx the following season and struggled through an injury plagued season that saw multiple DL stints and required a lot of painful pitching on the part of Key. However, the 1996 Yankees were a team of destiny and made it to the Fall Classic against Maddux and the Braves.
Key was outdueled by Maddux in the second game of the Series, but New York would not go quietly winning all three games in Atlanta to return to the Bronx with a 3-2 Series lead. Key started the decisive Game 6 and pitched well, earning the victory in his definitive moment as a Yankee. He had proved once and for all that New York was a place that players could once again come to and win.
Key left the Yankees after the 1996 season, once again changing teams in the AL East after winning the World Series. This time he went to Baltimore. He had a good season in 1997 going 16-10 with a 3.43 ERA before retiring the following season after once again battling arm injuries.
The former Clemson Tiger complied a 186-117 record in 15 major league seasons to go along with a 3.51 career ERA and 1538 strikeouts. His career WAR was 49.4, better than Ron Guidry (48.1), Sandy Koufax (49.0) and Catfish Hunter (41.4). He was a four time All Star and finished in the top five for the Cy Young three times although he never won the award. He received 0.6% of the vote in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2004. He would be a terrific candidate for the “Hall of Very Good”, although a lackluster one for a Hall of Fame that has not enshrined the likes of Mike Mussina, Clemens, Jack Morris or Curt Schilling.
However, his biggest achievement is taking a chance on New York when the Yankees were experiencing some of their lowest points in history. It would have been easier to play somewhere else. He would have been just another player shunning the House that Ruth Built. However, Key took the challenge that Bonds, Maddux, Cone and others opted out of and the Yankees were better for it. He was the right player at the right time for the Yankees.