The Yankees are in the midst of their annual trip out West, and it’s not going very well. Historically, the team has never fared very well on the West Coast, but nothing will ever quite approach what happened in 1995.
A Yankees story about the team’s West Coast nine-game road trip begins with the goatee. That’s right, a goatee.
By now most Yankees fans are familiar with the their “no facial hair” policy. And many will remember the battle between Don Mattingly and the front office that eventually led to a one-game suspension about the length of his hair.
But few will remember that, in the Spring of 1995, the Yankees altered their policy to accommodate their star right-hander, Jack McDowell, who came over from the White Sox with a strong right arm and his goatee.
Seeing their brand threatened, manager Buck Showalter announced that the ban was reinstated, explaining that it was an organizational decision. And needless to say, Captain Mattingly could not let it go by without telling the New York Times:
"“It’s like a slap on the wrist,” Mattingly said of the restored policy. “They shouldn’t have changed it in the first place if they were going to take it away.”"
To make matters worse, the Yankees were in the midst of a stretch where they would lose 13 of 16 games. Their record for the West Coast trip was a dismal 1-8. And it got even worse when they dropped their first game at home after the journey, losing to the California Angels by a score of 3-2 on a bad base-running decision by Luis Polonia late in the game.
Yankees history tells us that the team ultimately uprighted itself in time to make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, only to get beat by the Seattle Mariners and ending Mattingly’s dream of playing in a World Series.
Making lemonade from lemons
Quietly though, there was another event that took place on that West Coast trip that would have far-reaching consequences for the franchise, as well as fans of the Yankees.
The team that is struggling now is still, by and large, the same team that has been winning over the first 60 or so games
Because it was on that road trip that three-fourths of the Core Four made their debut in a Yankees uniform. Mariano Rivera was promoted to take his place as the set-up man for Wetteland, and a young shortstop named Derek Jeter took a position he would hold for the next 20 years.
And a 6’5″ rangy left-hander, Andy Pettitte would make his first start for the team on May 27, 1995. The box score for the game shows that Pettitte went 5.1 innings surrendering only one run on three hits, only to take the loss as A’s pitcher Steve Ontiveros tossed a complete game one-hitter at the struggling Bombers.
Bringing it all back home
To state the obvious, a baseball season is long and arduous. There are highs like the nine-game win streak the Yankees had back in April. And there are the lows of a four-game losing streak and a rash of injuries like the one the team is working its way through now.
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And as we learned in 1995, this team of Yankees may not have seen how low it can go and how bad it can get. Buy anyone in baseball will tell you that you learn more from losing than you do from winning.
And that’s especially true in a sport where the best hitters, the ones who reside in Cooperstown, get there by failing seven out of every ten at-bats over the course of their careers.
Derek Jeter, Captain Derek Jeter, taught his team how to come back every day after every night determined to play at your highest level and to win.
The Yankees of 2017 have their unofficial captains in line to do the same. And that doesn’t mean jumping up and down with the rah-rah go-team-go stuff. It says Matt Holliday leading by example for the position players and CC Sabathia, even while on the DL, leading the pitchers to simply settle down and play baseball.
The team that is struggling now is still, by and large, the same team that has been winning over the first 60 or so games. Aaron Judge is still hitting home runs, Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius are still have monster breakout seasons, and the pitching staff is still delivering six or more innings of quality work.
The Yankees have been through this many times before on the West Coast. They stink out there. But the team doesn't belong in the ICU. Hardly.
All of it, though, hasn’t been enough since the team landed in Los Angeles fresh off a five-game win streak. It’s not likely that the Yankees will match the dreaded 1-8 record of the 1995 team over the rest of the trip.
But even if that does happen, so what? These are still the first-place New York Yankees.