Urinating cougar cubs, Deion Sanders drama: These Yankees didn’t look like a dynasty

A new series by Joel Sherman chronicles how the Yankees’ fiasco of 1990 laid the groundwork for a dynasty.

Look hard. You will have to really examine it. Only with 20-20 hindsight and 30 years of knowledge will you begin to see what was possible amid the rubble.

The 1990 Yankees were terrible. No, terrible does not sum it up. A worst team emerges annually in every sport. This was a disaster. A humiliation. A fiasco. The 1990 Yankees were both a laughingstock and a horror show, something hard to watch and impossible to avert your eyes from. A 10-vehicle pileup exclusively of clown cars.

They were the kind of debacle in which:

Bucky Dent could be fired as manager a couple of hundred yards from the site of his greatest achievement after being promised a full year of security, no matter what.

Andy Hawkins could throw a no-hitter. And lose. Decisively.

Mel Hall, the original Tiger King, could bring two illegally purchased cougar cubs to the Yankee Stadium clubhouse. In a symbolic moment, the cougars urinated on the carpeting. And because these were the 1990 Yankees, Claudell Washington brought one of the cougars into the team sauna.

Pascual Perez, shunned pretty much by the rest of the sport, could be the biggest free agent signed by the team, then not show up for the first week of spring training and not before being found by his agency playing dominoes and drinking Presidentes with friends in the Dominican.

George Steinbrenner, his lease a dozen years from concluding, could attempt to strongarm the city into building him a new stadium, preferably on the west side of Manhattan, or else he would take the Bronx Bombers to the Meadowlands.

Two overmatched executives, one who had been out of baseball for four years, could be installed to run the team, from different cities, often at cross purposes and with little communication. At the same time vice president of scouting and player development George Bradley in Tampa was telling reporters a trade was near, general manager Pete Peterson in New York was saying no trade talks were ongoing. As he had done the year before with Syd Thrift and Bob Quinn, Steinbrenner had set up an untenable co-GM situation — then frequently listened to neither party.

This was a season in which one ordinary player (or worse) after another ripped teammates, demanded trades and insisted on contract extensions. Deion Sanders held the organization hostage by yo-yoing between insisting he wanted to be a full-time Yankees outfielder or a Falcons cornerback. Perhaps the distance between here and there — excrement and excellence — was best expressed by the 1990 Yankees’ failure to win a game against an opponent, losing all 12 contests versus the defending-champion A’s, while being outscored 62-12. And, really, the competition was not even that close.

Oakland was led by Rickey Henderson, named AL MVP that year. The Yanks had traded him in June 1989 thinking the two relievers they were getting from the A’s, Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk, would emerge as quality starters in 1990. They didn’t. The third piece of the return, Luis Polonia, was traded to the Angels a month into the 1990 campaign. By then, in his brief Yankee tenure, Polonia had been arrested for having sex with an underaged girl and served jail time for it.

But those A’s did not win the 1990 World Series. They were swept by the Nasty Boy Reds managed by Lou Piniella, who had finally escaped Steinbrenner and the Yankees after the 1989 season. The Reds had advanced to face the A’s by beating the Pirates and the 1990 NL Cy Young Award winner, Doug Drabek, a symbol of faulty Yankee management in the 1980s when young talent often was traded in favor of older players in decline.

The Yankees had the best record overall in the majors in the 1980s, as a defensive Steinbrenner reiterated whenever it was brought up that decade was the first since the 1910s that the organization had failed to win a World Series. But the decline through the 1980s was obvious as Steinbrenner tried to recreate his success of the 1970s by throwing money at problems. By the end of the decade, Steinbrenner’s Yankees were James Dolan’s Knicks of today — shunned by the best free agents who, if anything, would merely coax the Yanks into the derby to drive up prices elsewhere.

The two most recognizable playing faces and symbols of the 1980s Yankees were Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield. And in 1990, Mattingly broke down and Winfield was shipped out.

But by the time Winfield was sent to the Angels in a saga of its own — dealt without his permission even though he had 10-and-5 rights — Steinbrenner already was being investigated for making a $40,000 payment to a self-described gambler named Howie Spira for dirt on Winfield. The incident would lead to then-commissioner Fay Vincent issuing a lifetime banishment of the owner that would begin that August.

Just how despised Steinbrenner was then is lost to time and by being cleansed to some degree by the late-’90s dynasty. But in 1990, HBO briefly considered putting Steinbrenner on mock trial for crimes committed against a proud franchise, modeling it after a drama the network had aired two years earlier. That was a mock trial of Kurt Waldheim, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, on Nazi war crime charges. The president/GM of WABC radio — the flagship station of the network that actually broadcast Yankee games — wrote an op-ed stating Steinbrenner was ruining the value of the team and must sell. And on the night that news broke Vincent had suspended Steinbrenner for life, a spontaneous 90-second standing ovation broke out at Yankee Stadium, so overjoyed was the fan base that The Boss would be booted.

Yet, look closer at that suspension. It is a place to begin to understand revival and a climb toward dynasty.

Without Steinbrenner’s daily interference, impetuousness and threats, the Yankees could more patiently work young players onto the roster. Endure some growing pains.

That was most evident initially in Bernie Williams, who did not play for the 1990 Yankees, but in the course of that season rose to No. 11 in the majors in Baseball America’s prospect rankings. He was viewed with the kind of patience that was not afforded the Drabeks, Willie McGees, Fred McGriffs and Jay Buhners.

In his final act before exile, Steinbrenner turned away from Bradley and Peterson to one of the few people for whom he actually had respect, naming Gene Michael the GM. The architect of the dynasty was in place.

In his 18th managerial change in 18 years, dismissing Dent less than a mile from the Green Monster, Steinbrenner not only named Stump Merrill the manager, but elevated Buck Showalter onto the major league staff as the third-base coach. Merrill is a footnote to the folly; Showalter a cornerstone to turning the roster serious and excellent.

“The 1990 Yankees were both a laughingstock and a horror show” — Joel Sherman

In February 1990, the Yankees signed an unheralded, skinny Panamanian, already 20 years old, named Mariano Rivera for $2,000. Four months later they drafted two more pieces of the Core Four in Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, plus Ricky Ledee and Shane Spencer.

On the eve of the season, Mattingly would sign what at the time was the largest contract in MLB history — a five-year, $19.3 million pact. And though he never played to the heights of his greatness again, Mattingly was in place as a vital leader/role model, notably for players such as Paul O’Neill and Derek Jeter.

Kevin Maas would set records for hitting 10, 13 and 15 homers in fewer at-bats at the start of a career than anyone in major league history. His early promise would prove an aberration. But his flash of success so excited the downtrodden Yankee fan base that it — as much as Steinbrenner’s disappearance — would allow more tolerance for working young players onto the roster.

The 1990 campaign began with the owners locking out the players for 32 days before a new collective bargaining agreement was negotiated and ended with the Yankees owning the AL’s worst record for the first time since 1966. On that squad were the flickering embers of a dynasty — Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Elston Howard.

In 1990 you could not see the next dynasty coming. Only with time and retrospect can you appreciate what rose from the comedy, tragedy and drama that was the 1990 squad.

By the time 1990 was done, Gerrit Cole had been born, Sammy Davis Jr. had died and the Berlin Wall had begun to fall. And with nobody fully aware yet, a dynasty was in motion.

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