It’s hard to imagine the New York Yankees playing anything but winning baseball. But from 1989-92, they were a sub-.500 team all four years, the completion of a gradual descent from relevance that took place throughout the 1980s. Under second-year manager Buck Showalter, the 1993 New York Yankees got back on the winning side of the ledger and set the stage for what would be a Dynasty Decade in the Bronx.
New York did it with a group of players who were mostly 30-years of age and older. The American League’ fourth-best offense was keyed by catcher Mike Stanley, who hit .305 with 26 home runs. Third baseman Wade Boggs, a one-time rival in Boston, posted on on-base percentage of .378. A longtime Yankee legend, Don Mattingly, was at first base and had a respectable stat line of .364 on-base percentage/.445 slugging percentage.
General manager Gene Michael traded for rightfielder Paul O’Neill in the offseason and O’Neill finished with a stat line of .367/.504. Designated hitter Danny Tartabull hit 31 home runs and drove in 102 RBI. And leftfielder Dion James, a veteran castoff, was a pleasant surprise, with the stat line coming in at .390/.466. The most notable exception to the veteran cast was a centerfielder named Bernie Williams, who would be a part of this franchise’s great moments in the years ahead.
The pitching was more a problem—ninth in the AL in staff ERA, but it was another veteran that at least made it tolerable. The Yanks signed lefty Jimmy Key on the free agent market and Key won 18 games with a 3.00 ERA, as he carried a staff that was short on depth in both the rotation and bullpen.
New York played steady baseball for the first couple months of the season, reaching Memorial Day with a 28-22 record. They were three games back of the Detroit Tigers (prior to 1994, each league was split into just an East and West division with first-place teams going directly to the League Championship Series) , with the defending World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox also in the mix.
The pitching shortcomings had been revealed most vividly in a four-game series at Detroit. The Yanks got a split, but they were in a position to sweep before losing two games in extra innings—one of them after they’d blown a 6-0 lead.
The early part of the summer was more of the same, both good and bad. At home, New York got series wins over Detroit and Boston. On the road, they lost series in Toronto and Baltimore. By the All-Star break the Yankees were 48-41. No one in the AL East could make any real headway though. The Blue Jays had nudged into a first place, but New York was only a game back. The Red Sox and Tigers were still right there and the Orioles had gotten in the picture to create a five-team logjam.
It was the latter part of the summer when the Yankees started to heat up. They took three of four from Oakland, with the bats producing 32 runs in the three wins. That jump started an 8-3 homestand against AL West opponents. In early August, New York went on the road to get win series in old Tiger Stadium and Fenway Park. They took the first two games of a home series with Baltimore. The Sunday finale was a pitcher’s duel between New York’s Scott Kamieniecki and big Oriole righthander Ben McDonald. Mattingly broke a scoreless tie with an eight-inning home run that completed the sweep.
By Labor Day, the Yankees were 78-60, in a dead heat with the Blue Jays and the Orioles 2 ½ back. The Red Sox and Tigers had fallen by the wayside. New York made a late August trade to shore up the bullpen, acquiring closer Lee Smith from St. Louis. They were in a rare position—fighting underdogs against the heavyweight champ in Toronto.
But the stretch drive was their undoing. A nine-game road trip through Texas, Kansas City and Milwaukee produced a 3-6 record. Six home games against Boston and Minnesota resulted in four more losses. Toronto was opening up cushion in the AL East, with New York now 5 ½ games out and Baltimore six back.
There was a week and a half left and the situation was desperate when the Yanks visited Toronto for a last gasp. Key took the ball against his former team for the Friday night opener, but didn’t have it and lost 7-3. The offense only mustered four hits on Saturday in a 3-1 loss. A win in the Sunday finale kept New York technically alive as the regular season hit the final week, but it was all but over.
The Yankees still closed the season on a nice note, winning four of six against the Orioles and Tigers. It got them second place in the AL East with an 88-74 record. That was the third-best mark in the American League and eighth-best in the majors. In short, it would have been good enough to make the playoffs under the modern alignment that would be implemented just one year later.
In the bigger picture, the more important fact was that New York was back. In 1994, they would have the American League’s best record when an August strike wiped out the rest of the season. They returned to the postseason in 1995. And in 1996, with a new manager in Joe Torre and a rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter, they won the first of what would be four World Series titles in five years. The ascent all started back in 1993.