The 1983 New York Yankees were in an unusual position. They were coming off a losing season. After the great Renaissance Era of 1976-81 when the Yanks won four American League pennants and a pair of World Series titles, they suffered through their first sub-.500 season since 1967.
That wasn’t going to sit well with owner George Steinbrenner and significant changes were made. The ’82 Yanks had tried to revamp themselves based on speed. That hadn’t worked, so one of the fast outfielders, Dave Collins, was shipped to Toronto in a five-player deal. Losing Collins didn’t hurt, but parting with a young first baseman named Fred McGriff did end up haunting New York. And they got no one of consequence back in return.
The Yankees also dealt reliable veteran starting pitcher Tommy John to the California Angels and got Dennis Rasmussen back in return. That didn’t work out either—Rasmussen was traded before the 1983 season was done. Another acquisition that failed was free-agent rightfielder Steve Kemp. A lefthanded bat, Kemp was seemingly a good fit for Yankee Stadium and its short right-field porch, but Kemp’s numbers just weren’t there in ’83.
So was there any good offseason news? Yes. Another free-agent pickup, veteran DH Don Baylor, worked out better. Baylor batted over .300 and hit 21 home runs. And it would not have been the Steinbrenner Yankees of this era if there wasn’t a managerial change—Billy Martin was back in the dugout. And Billy brought winning baseball back to New York with him.
Dave Winfield’s tenure in New York was mostly tumultuous, but Winfield had his best season as a Yankee in 1983. The leftfielder hit 32 home runs, drove in 99 runs and scored 116. Veteran third baseman Graig Nettles popped 20 homers. Willie Randolph posted a .361 on-base percentage at second base.
A pair of former Minnesota Twins also made a positive impact. Butch Wynegar split time at catcher with Rick Cerone and Wynegar was clearly the more productive of the two, finishing with a .399 OBP. Roy Smalley was a solid shortstop, with a stat line of .357 OBP/.452 slugging percentage. All in all, it was enough for the Yankees to finish fifth in the American League in runs scored.
Ron Guidry continued to lead the pitching rotation and the lefty had a vintage year in 1983. He won 21 games, posted a 3.42 ERA and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting. Another hard-throwing lefty, young Dave Righetti, won 14 games and finished with a 3.44 ERA. Shane Rawley added 14 wins of his own with a respectable 3.78 ERA.
These three arms formed the core of Martin’s rotation. Goose Gossage continued to be a reliable closer, saving 22 games with a 2.27 ERA. George Frazier pitched effectively out of the bullpen, rolling up 115 innings with a 3.43 ERA.
Where the Yankees had problems came in the area of depth, both in the rotation and the bullpen and that went to the failed trades of the offseason. Martin tried Rasmussen, Bob Shirley, Ray Fontenot and Matt Keough at the back end of the rotation, but only Fontenot provided any decent work. Dale Murray, the focal point of the Collins trade, struggled to a 4.48 ERA out of the bullpen. The Yankee staff was still good—fifth in the American League in ERA—but they could have been better.
The alignment of the major leagues prior to 1994 had each league split into just an East and a West division with only the first-place team moving on to postseason play. That meant the Yanks not only dealt with current AL East members in Boston, Toronto and Baltimore, but also had Milwaukee, Detroit and Cleveland to contend with. The Brewers and Orioles had battle to the final day of the season in 1982 and were considered the teams to beat. The Tigers were an up-and-comer.
New York played mostly pedestrian baseball for the first couple of months. The good news was that the schedule was heavy on AL West teams and no one else in the AL East really jumped strong out of the gate. The Yankees reached Memorial Day with a record of 23-21, but they were only two games off the pace in a division where all seven teams were within six games of each other.
The early portion of summer saw a gradual pickup of the pace, but nothing dramatic. The high point of June was home sweeps of Milwaukee and Baltimore. The low point was getting swept at home by Seattle. The AL East was staying packed, with only Cleveland falling by the wayside.
July 4th would be the final game of the first half in what was a relatively early All-Star break. The Yanks were wrapping up a four-game series with the Red Sox and had lost two of the first three. Righetti took the ball to try and ensure New York wouldn’t go into the break on a dour note. He did more than that—a no-hitter electrified Yankee Stadium and sent the Yanks into the break at 41-35, still within two games of the lead.
New York carried that momentum into the second half. They went 15-8 the rest of July. That included taking six of seven from the Texas Rangers, who were in first place at the time, but the losses to the Yanks sent the Rangers spiraling to a sub-.500 finish.
July also included a legendary game with the Kansas City Royals. The Yanks were holding a 4-3 lead at home on July 24. Royal third baseman George Brett hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth. Martin had been watching Brett and was aware that the pine tar on his bat slightly exceeded the legal limit. The manager chose now to play his ace in the hole and challenged the home run.
Umpires measured the pine tar and ruled that Brett was out and the game was over. The imagery of a furious Brett storming from the dugout remains an iconic baseball moment. So does how the incident resolved itself. Kansas City protested. The American League office would rule that while the pine tar was illegal, the punishment did not fit the crime. His home run was restored. The teams had to reconvene on a mutual off-day in August to play the final inning-plus and the Yanks lost 5-4.
The rest of August and the first few days of September were generally pretty good. New York won four of seven games with Detroit. The Yanks went 7-2 on a West Coast road trip. The one downside was losing six of seven to the Chicago White Sox, who were taking control of the AL West race.
By Labor Day, the Yanks’ record was up to 76-58. Separation was slowly happening in the AL East. New York and Detroit were tied for second, each 4 ½ games back of Baltimore, who was gaining steam. Milwaukee was five out. The Yankees had eight games remaining against the Orioles and those battles would start with a four-game set on the weekend after Labor Day.
Guidry took the ball for Friday night’s opener and matched up in a good duel with Baltimore lefty Scott McGregor. The game was tied 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth when Nettles hit a two-run blast. The weekend was off to a good start.
But Saturday’s twi-night doubleheader was not as kind. A 2-2 tie in the ninth was broken up when Baltimore lit up Rawley and Gossage for six runs and pulled away. The Yankee bats went quiet in the nightcap, a 3-1 loss.
New York now desperately needed Sunday’s game to keep on Baltimore’s heels. Righetti took the mound with a chance to stop the bleeding. This one didn’t go as well as the Fourth of July outing. He gave up five early runs and didn’t make it out of the second inning. Roger Erickson provided some terrific relief, pitching the remainder of the game, allowing just three hits and keeping the Orioles at five runs. But the Yankee offense, even though they had eleven hits, couldn’t string enough of them together and they lost 5-3.
At seven games behind, the Yankees were reeling. But they could still point to a season-ending four-game set in Baltimore and try and position themselves for that. New York swept Milwaukee and helped send the reeling Brewers out of the race. But a road trip to Cleveland and Boston, seemingly tailor-made to pick up some wins, ended with four losses in six games. In the meantime, Baltimore was barreling down the stretch and pulled away with ease.
The Yankees still finished the season at 91-71. It might have been seven games behind the Orioles, but it was also tied for the fourth-best record in all of baseball. By the standards of today, it was easily a playoff season.
For better or for worse, this comeback season of 1983 set the tone for the next several years in the Bronx. They had a winning season each year through 1988 and were a serious AL East contender in most of those years. But they never won the division and by 1989 there was no denying a serious rebuild needed to happen.