1984 New York Yankees: Finishing Strong After A Slow Start
The 1984 New York Yankees were a team going through some big transitions. After the renaissance era of 1976-81—a period where the proud franchise won five AL East titles, four American League pennants and two World Series titles—the Yankees were slipping behind other contenders in their rigorous division. And a difficult offseason would make ’84 an even bigger challenge.
Billy Martin had managed the team to a 91-win campaign in 1983, but Martin’s off-the-field problems led to one of his many firings. Owner George Steinbrenner tapped another legend of Pinstripe Past—the great Yogi Berra—to be the new skipper.
The on-field changes were an even bigger problem. Hall of Fame closer Goose Gossage was clashing with Steinbrenner and left via free agency. Graig Nettles, the third baseman with the power bat and excellent glove, was having his own problems with the front office and he was traded. Both players ended up in San Diego—and by October, both were in the World Series.
Meanwhile, New York tried to fill their third-base void with a deal to get veteran Toby Harrah from Cleveland. Harrah had a nice career, but at age 35, he proved to be at the end of the line in 1984. Harrah was one part of a disastrous left side of the infield. Young Bobby Meacham and veteran Tim Foli shared the shortstop spot. Roy Smalley played both third and short. None of the four players produced.
Neither did centerfielder Omar Moreno or left fielder Steve Kemp, both of whom had been productive with other teams. But what kept the Yankee offense afloat was the emergence of a 23-year-old first baseman. A guy by the name of Don Mattingly.
Mattingly stepped into an everyday role for the first time and posted a stat line of .381 on-base percentage/.537 slugging percentage. His .343 batting average led the league, as did his 44 doubles and 207 hits. Mattingly finished fifth in the MVP voting and began an era where he would define Yankee baseball.
Dave Winfield had a big year of his own in rightfield, with a stat line of .393/.515. Winfield’s batting average of .340 finished second to Mattingly, and Winfield also drove in 100 runs. Don Baylor held down the DH role and hit 27 home runs.
The big years enjoyed by Mattingly, Winfield and Baylor—combined with a solid OBPs from second baseman Willie Randolph (.377) and catcher Butch Wynegar (.360) were enough to overcome the myriad of problems elsewhere and keep the New York offense fourth in the American League for runs scored.
Berra had no clear ace to rely on for his pitching rotation. Normally that #1 role was reliably filled by Ron Guidry. But the lefty had a bad year in 1984—a 10-11 record and 4.51 ERA in 28 starts. That made the performance of Phil Niekro all the more important.
A 45-year-old knuckleballer, Niekro dug in and had one more good season in the majors leagues. He made 31 starts, won 16 games and posted a 3.09 ERA. Combined with a respectable year from unknown lefty Ray Fontenot and Dave Righetti stepping into the closer’s role vacated by Gossage, the Yankee staff still finished third in the American League in ERA.
Expectations, at least by Yankee standards, were not high coming into the season and for the first part of the season, New York played down to the expectations. They did not win a series until sweeping lowly Cleveland in early May. By Memorial Day, even though the schedule did not include the American League’s three best teams—Detroit, Toronto and Baltimore—the Yankees were 19-25 and 16 ½ games out of first place.
The alignment of the era split each league into just two divisions, an East and a West and only the first-place finisher went to the postseason. The AL East included not only the current members in the Yanks, Orioles, Red Sox and Blue Jays, but centrally-located teams from Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee (an American League city prior to 1998).
With Detroit getting out to a historic 35-5 start, the Yankees had a long road back. In a normal year, one without the Tigers dominating the sport, the Blue Jays’ strong start would have marked them a team to beat. At the very least, a home series with Toronto in June offered New York a chance to get their season on track.
The Blue Jays were right in between two head-to-head series with the Tigers, and the Yankees took advantage of the ideal schedule spot. Friday night’s opener was tied 3-3 into the 11th inning. With two outs, Winfield doubled and Kemp drove him in with a single to win it.
The same combo worked on Saturday night. Guidry dueled his way to a 1-1 tie going into the ninth. With two outs, Winfield singled and Kemp doubled him home. On Sunday, Mattingly’s two hits, including a home run, keyed a 5-3 win that completed the sweep. Even though the Blue Jays played well in their games against the Tigers, this lost weekend in the Big Apple prevented them from gaining ground.
But playing spoiler wasn’t what Yankee fans were used to and the record was still 36-46 by the All-Star break, now twenty games off the pace. There was no hope of catching the Tigers. But what New York could do was use the balance of this season to turn some momentum around. And they did.
Kansas City had been New York’s ALCS sparring partner four times during the Renaissance Era. The Royals were only 39-43, but in a more forgiving division were actually still in a pennant race. KC came to New York for five games to open the second half of the season.
Niekro opened the series with seven strong innings to lead a 5-2 win on Thursday night. Friday saw a twilight doubleheader—a common scheduling occurrence in the era where the first game began around 5:30 PM and there was just a twenty-minute break between games. The Yankees won both games by a combined score of 15-2.
Saturday night saw Righetti pitch three scoreless innings to close out a 4-1 win. And on Sunday, Moreno drove in a couple runs, Fontenot pitched well and another 4-1 victory completed New York’s five-game sweep.
The Yanks were off and running. By August, they got back to the .500 mark. By Labor Day, their record was a solid 72-63, even if it was still fifteen games behind the Tigers. And New York played well in September. They took five of seven from the defending World Series champion Orioles and four of seven from the Blue Jays.
By season’s end, the Yankees were 87-75. They had moved their way into third place in the AL East. It was three games better than Kansas City, who actually won the AL West with an 84-78 record. And it was the sixth-best record in all of baseball. By the standards of today, the 1984 New York Yankees would have been going into the playoffs as the hot team no one wanted to tussle with. The strong finish foreshadowed a return to real pennant contention in 1985.