Saturday, December 31, 2005

Christmas Present Redux

Yesterday, I mentioned my Notebook piece on the Yankees and Boss George Steinbrenner's gifts to the Pinstriped Faithful over the years. There's one big pile of Christmas presents that I didn't include in the list, because I was focusing on the last decade. Here that is, in the format I used earlier:

The Gifts: Wade Boggs, Jimmy Key
Cash or Charge: three years, about $11 million for Boggs, four years, approximately $17 million for Key
Naughty or Nice: This was a God-Bless-Us-Every-One type event. The Boss celebrated his impending reinstatement from suspension by gobbling up a couple of veteran free agents. The signings follow Big Stein's M.O. of vampirically signing away players from division rivals--strengthening the team and weakening the enemy simultaneously. I'll admit that initially I didn't like the Key signing. Key was then a finesse lefty over the age of 30 with a 13-13 record the season before. Exactly the kind of guy the Yanks had been burned on in the past. The World Champion Blue Jays considered him expendable.

Ah, back in the days when I still thought won-loss record meant something...

Key joined the rotation and was key in swinging the Yanks' record by twelve games, bringing them back above .500 and to second place (to the aforementioned Blue Jays, who won the World title again). By BP's support-neutral measures, Key was the second-best starter in the AL that season (behind the Royals' Kevin Appier, and ahead of Cy Young winner Jack McDowell and runner-up Randy Johnson). In 1994, with the Yankees in first place at the time of the players' strike, and the subsequent cancellation of the season, Key was somewhat over-hyped, finishing second in the Cy Young voting (to David Cone) despite being "only" the fifth-best starter in the AL. We'll never know exactly how much the 1994 strike cost Key, but when the 1995 season opened, Key had a couple of good starts against Boston and Milwakee, then a couple of bad starts against Toronto and Cleveland, and then his season was over, lost to rotator cuff surgery. Key wasn't really his old self after returning from surgery, but he gutted through the season well enough to make 30 starts, have a 4.2 SNLVAR, and win a couple of playoff games, including Game 6 of the World Series.

Boggs was just as big a contributor, and a little more topical, because of the parallels with 2005's Christmas present, Johnny Damon. Both were Boston leadoff men (primarily--in an ill-advised move, the Sox gave Wade more time in the #3 hole than leading off in 1992) both fit in the pesky/annoying category, with their penchant for fouling the ball off (no stat for this, so I could be wrong) and both were despised by Yankee fans. From the mid-80's until Boggs' arrival in 1993, my favorite highlight from the between-innings highlight reel the Yankees played each game (sadly, I can't remember which inning it happened) wasn't Reggie's three homers in the 1977 World Serious, or Ron Guidry's 18K game against the Angels in ' was Dave Righetti's Independence Day no-hitter--because the last out was Wade Boggs, little Mr. Never-Strikes-Out, swinging helplessly over Rags' slider to end the game.

I hated ol' Chicken Breath, with his stupid supersticions and his dinky singles, with his cheap doubles up against the Green Monster and the prissy way he looked at every ball out of the strike zone (little "good boy!" nod to the umpire if he called a ball, a small chastening look if he called a strike, one that said "I understand, that one got by ya. We'll do better next time, right?"). I detested Wade Boggs's World-Series-weepy, adulterous, end-of-season-sittin'-out-so-I-can-win-the-batting-title ass.

Here's where Boggs and Damon diverge: by the time Boggs left Boston, the world of baseball generally agreed with me. I lived in Beantown in the Fall of '92, at the end of Boggs' worst season ever. At the age of 34, he hit .259, and Boston had really turned on him. He was savaged on talk radio, New Englanders sick of Boggs' perceived selfishness, his preoccupation with stats. Like Ichiro Suzuki a decade or so later, many were obsessed with Boggs' batting practice displays of home run power, and upset that he didn't hit for power in non-batting practice situations. Some sportswriter, probably the Curly-Haired Boyfriend, had surgically attached the phrase "25 guys, 25 cabs" to Wade Boggs' name, creating the perception that he was a clubhouse cancer. His indiscretions with an on-the-road girlfriend (and her subsequent yapping about it to every news outlet that would give her a couple of bucks) had embarassed his teammates as well as the city itself (showing its Calvinist/Puritan side again).

Judging from my humble perceptions that winter, folks in New England just weren't all that broken up when Wade went away. They had Scott Cooper and Tim Naehring, each of whom was supposed to be the best thing since sliced toast. No one was burning Boggs's jersey in effigy.

Back to the Yankees, however. In December, 1992, the Yankees hadn't been able to get league-average production out of third base since Mike Pagliarulo in 1987. Boggs gave the Yanks a good glove at the hot corner (according to BP's defensive stats, Boggs was average or better every year he was in pinstripes) and badly-needed OBP at the top of the lineup (Boggs spent most of his Yanks' career batting first or second) for the five years he was a Yankee. Even though he was protected by platoon partners during his years with the Yanks (Randy Velarde, Russ Davis, and Charlie Hayes came out to play against tough lefties) Boggs' performance in pinstripes was greatly diminished from what he'd done as a Red Sock. This was reasonable, both give Boggs age (mid-30s) and the fact that he moved from a park he exploited to the hilt, to a somewhat more diffcult hitting environment in the Bronx.

On the other hand, Boggs was able to rehabilitate his reputation as a human being in the Bronx--he was widely regarded as a good teammate, he did "cluhouse leader" stuff like running the Yanks' Kangaroo Court, he even provided a touching moment with his horseback victory lap around the Stadium after the 1996 World Series.

So, to sum up, I think that there are three lessons from Wade Boggs, that we should keep in mind while welcoming Johnny Damon to the Bronx:

1. Win, and We Will Welcome You: Every Yankee fan who hated Damon as a Sock will come around--so long as he performs and the team wins. If either of those things fall short, we've got no guarantees.

2. Don't Expect the Same Performance: It's almost guaranteed that Damon's numbers will drop off from what he's done the past four years. First, Fenway is simply a better hitter's park for a lefty hitter whose value depends on singles and doubles. Second, although Damon's younger than Boggs was when he came to New York, just like Wade, we're not getting Damon's prime years. The Royals, A's, and Red Sox got those, and there's no use complaining about it.

3. The Intangibles Are Unreliables: One of the touted pluses in a Damon acquisition, is Johnny's "leadership" ability. If there's one thing that history teaches us, it's that the intangibles aren't guaranteed. Boggs was a crumb before he joined the Yanks, and became a solid citizen after. Damon's acquired a great reputation in Beantown (I don't recall him being hailed as a leader in Kansas City or Oakland) but the slate is cleaned with his move to New York. A couple of incidents with reporters, or a bad reaction to early struggles in pinstripes, and Damon could go the reverse route from Boggs, from beloved "idiot" to clubhouse cancer, in the blink of an eye. Once upon a time Bobby Bonilla was hailed as a clubhouse leader. He came to the Mets, got off on the wrong foot in an early press conference, and things went downhill from there--boos, earplugs, and "I'll show you the Bronx." Just months after starting his tour of duty in Flushing, Bonilla's rep was permanently ruined. Here's hoping Damon meets a better fate.

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