The 1985 Yankees and one of the craziest plays of all-time: An oral history - The Buffalo News
print logo

The 1985 Yankees and one of the craziest plays of all-time: An oral history

The 1985 Yankees: One crazy play just part of a season full of baseball history.

This began as a story about one baseball play.

An examination of the box score expanded the lens to one series.

An examination of the series expanded the lens to an entire season.

The 1985 Yankees were one of the best teams not to reach the postseason. George Steinbrenner's puppeteering and Billy Martin's volatility multiplied the entertainment.

Martin oversaw an offense that garroted defenses with aggressive running, murderous hitting and frustrating bunts.

Buffalo Bisons manager Bobby Meacham was a Martin favorite who'd chug bleach if the fiery manager told Meacham it would make him a better shortstop.

Meacham's most memorable play, also the second-most famous play of catcher Carlton Fisk's Hall of Fame career, was the inspiration for this feature.

The rosters and coaching staffs from that August 1985 game were laden with historical markers. The Yankees and Chicago White Sox fielded lineups that would total 51 All-Star selections and 19 Gold Gloves. Another 27 All-Star Games and 10 Gold Gloves were in the dugout.

That Yankees season was loaded with too many unbelievable anecdotes to omit.

Firey New York Yankees manager Billy Martin was never shy about arguing with umpires. Here, he yells at Vic Voltaggio at Yankee Stadium in 1983. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

The Yankees won five American League East pennants and went to the World Series four times from 1976 to 1981. But Steinbrenner's club entered 1985 having missed the playoffs three straight seasons.

Bobby Meacham, shortstop: George was used to winning. When it got to '85 without the playoffs, there was a problem. This wasn't the Yankee Way.

Don Mattingly, first baseman and 1985 American League MVP: In New York, you're thinking, "We have a good team. We'll have a shot every year to get there and eventually we'll get in the playoffs and win it."

Phil Niekro, pitcher: The 1985 Yankees were one of the best I ever played on. No question.

Willie Randolph, second baseman: In the '80s we won more games than anybody. We were consistent, but other teams would edge us out.

Dennis Rasmussen, pitcher: The AL East was stacked. We're basically beating up each other, and if you couldn't beat the AL West, you would lose ground on everybody.

Meacham: In the AL East in '80s, you had to bring an edge. Every game meant something.

Butch Wynegar, catcher: The biggest thing people need to realize about Mr. Steinbrenner is he wanted to win. The other thing was he loved the Yankees, and he wanted everybody to know the Yankees were the greatest organization ever in sports.

Meacham: George started pushing buttons, really, in '84. We had to get it done.

In the offseason, the Yankees traded for Oakland A's star Rickey Henderson to a lineup that finished second in batting and fifth in runs the year before.

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, left, and manager Yogi Berra, flank the newest New York Yankee, Rickey Henderson in New York, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 1984. Outfielder Henderson came to New York in a trade from the Oakland Athletics. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)

Bill Pennington, former Yankees beat writer: The guys loved playing with Rickey because of this: He scared the s--- out of opposing pitchers.

Art Kusnyer, White Sox bullpen coach: He had that cockiness that he knew he was Rickey Henderson, and he wanted you to know he was Rickey Henderson. It was a lot of fun watching him play.

Zak Basch, A's media relations director: Rickey does not do interviews unless he gets paid. I'm sorry we couldn't be more helpful.

Meacham: That's so Rickey.

Tony La Russa, White Sox manager: The first four guys in the Yankees lineup were Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield and Don Baylor. That's as good as it gets. Then you have Willie Randolph in there.

Pennington: The other teams' pitchers were terrorized. They were really afraid of the top of that lineup. They were going to come up four times, and usually five times.

Randolph: I heard Derek Jeter say recently that with all the championships and winning, you really don't have time to smell the roses until later. You look at it now and say, "Wow, we had a lot of great players on the field, all those Hall of Famers I played with, all those All-Stars."

But Henderson and Winfield were hurt to start the season. The Yankees started 6-10 and lost an exhibition against the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Steinbrenner fired manager Yogi Berra.

Pennington: It's used as the ultimate example of George Steinbrenner's impatience with managers. He got rid of a beloved Hall of Famer 16 games after guaranteeing in spring training he would manage the whole year.

Randolph: George wanted Yogi to resign, but Yogi was not doing that. So it got a little heated the night before. When you throw a pack of cigarettes across the room at your boss, that would impact your status, I think.

Wynegar: We all loved Yogi. I walked into Comiskey Park that Sunday morning, and when I went into the clubhouse I saw a garbage can turned over. I'm going, "What the heck happened here?" Somebody told me Billy Martin was coming back.

Rasmussen: We knew New York was a volatile place to play, and Mr. Steinbrenner wanted to win. Very badly. If he thought he could win with somebody else, then he obviously pulled the trigger.

Meacham: I remember Ken Griffey constantly being anxious about what George was going to do next. A lot of guys were under pressure.

Mattingly, today the Florida Marlins' manager, wears No. 8 to honor Berra: Firing a guy like Yogi? He didn't do anything wrong. Why would you start the season and then do that? It just didn't make any sense.

Wynegar: He was a guy that just wrote your name in the lineup and said, "Go get 'em." We respected him for that.

Randolph: Out of all the firings – even Billy got fired all those times – nobody really shed much of a tear. But when Yogi got fired, the veterans on the team were really, really upset and affected.

Rasmussen: Yogi was a comforting support, and we considered him a father figure.

After 24-year ump career, Lockport native John Shulock mostly mum

Berra's son, infielder Dale Berra, was on the Yankees' roster all season and into 1986.

Randolph: I'm sure it stung him. Listen, it made the players uncomfortable and made us pause. We were upset. So you can imagine how his son would feel.

Wynegar: It was tough on Dale. He was a great teammate, and knowing his dad had been fired, there was extra pressure on him. There's no doubt.

Berra's dismissal sparked the Yankees' most infamous grudge. Yogi Berra refused involvement with the Yankees for 14 years.

Mattingly: Yogi's a prideful man and said he would never go back. You'd like to have seen him let go and come back to the family, but I understood. He took it personally.

Pennington: All of Yankee fans at that time were torn with some of the successes, but at what cost?

Mattingly: When they retired my number in 1997, I asked Yogi to come back. At that point he wasn't ready.

Wynegar: I felt bad because of what I knew of Yogi. As a baseball fan, as an ex-Yankee, as a human being, I thought, "Yogi must really be hurt." He was such a forgiving man.

Mattingly: It was a grudge both sides didn't need to hold onto. After five or 10 years, what are you doing? That hurts nobody but yourself.

Martin's infamous reputation preceded him. The former Yankees infielder and notorious carouser had been their manager twice before.

Pennington, author of "Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius": Yogi probably would have done well in '85. I don't know that he'd have done as well because Billy was the perfect guy for that team.

Randolph: Back then, managers had the hammer. Billy was in charge, and you had to be on board with his team concept. I swear by him, but there were a lot of guys that didn't enjoy playing for him.

Billy Martin was the central figure for the 1985 Yankees. He took over for the fired Yogi Berra early in what would be a very eventful season. (Getty Images)

Wynegar: It was aggravating, knowing that Billy was coming back. He was a tough man to get along with.

Mattingly: Those were some crazy times. There was always something. Mr. Steinbrenner liked to have a little friction going on.

Meacham: To me, Billy Martin was a genius. I told Billy Sample once that I loved playing for [Martin], and he said, "Oh, so you were the one!"

La Russa: He should be in the Hall of Fame.

Pennington: La Russa is quoted in my book as saying that when he went against Billy he didn't think he was Billy's peer. La Russa didn't think he could be up to Billy's level, that Billy was the best manager that ever was.

Meacham: He said, "Listen to me. I'm going to teach you everything I know." I said, "Yes, sir!"

Gene "Stick" Michael, third-base coach and future Yankees general manager: Billy was a good manager on the field. He had his troubles off the field and sometimes communicating with the players. But Billy was a heads-up manager on the field.

Pennington: One of the things Stick did was entice Billy to play golf in the morning. Stick's line of thinking was if he could get Billy to play golf every morning, Billy would go to bed earlier and wouldn't drink as much.

Randolph: You didn't want to be on Billy's bad side. He had a huge doghouse, and if you got in his doghouse, then it was no fun.

Meacham: Catchers, man, had no chance. Don Slaught joined us, and I said, "I'm telling you right now: You can't win. Pitcher balks? Your fault. Pitcher gives up a home run? Your fault. Stolen base? Your fault. If you don't block the plate? Your fault." He blamed catchers for everything.

Wynegar: I loved his managing style and how he ran the game. I loved the unpredictability of what he might do. I just wish he would have learned to manage personalities instead of screaming, yelling, F-bombs, intimidation toward everybody.

The team developed respect for the way "Billy Ball" unleashed the Yankees' offense.

Pennington: That was Billy's style. The Yankees wanted to intimidate people, to let you know it's not going to be an easy night. Rickey's going to steal second and maybe third on consecutive pitches. And we might bunt with Randolph or Meacham. And then Winfield might hit the ball so hard it knocks your glove off.

Wynegar: Billy would do anything at any time. He would bunt. He would hit and run on any count.

Pennington: The top of the order scared pitchers to death. They ran. They slashed. I can't tell you how many times the game felt two minutes old and the Yankees were up, 1-0.

Mike Pagliarulo, third baseman: It was aggressive defense, too, believe it or not. We were always on top of things. He liked me when I decoyed guys. He liked taking away the bunt. It was strategic defense.

Pennington: Rickey always played better for Billy. Billy loved to run, and he had the guys. That included Meacham, who stole 25 bases, the second-most on that team.

Wynegar: When I got into managing, I took some Billy Ball with me. There was aggressiveness and just taking it to the other team. It was fun.

Martin's arrival cemented Meacham's role on the team. Trade rumors vanished, and there wasn't any more uncertainty about splitting time with Andre Robertson.

Michael: Andre was outstanding. Andre had great hands, and he made himself a hitter. Meacham had to scuffle more. He was athletic, but he worked at the game. I could see him becoming a manager because of it.

Q&A: Bobby Meacham takes the reins as manager for the Buffalo Bisons

Mattingly: I remember his range and how athletic he was, but I knew I had to be on my toes because his throws were erratic.

Pennington: He got along with Randolph, which was important because Randolph had a slew of shortstops.

Pagliarulo: He was all in. Every day.

Niekro: A lot of pitchers really got into that comfort zone with Bobby. I figured every ground ball would be handled by my infield. That's a great feeling to have.

Meacham: I got a sense not only Billy liked me, but the pitchers seemed to. I went to Willie and it felt weird asking, "Why do they like me so much?" Willie said, "You have to realize who was there before you."

Meacham batted .218 that year, playing the last two months with an injured left wrist. But he stole 25 bases and had 23 sacrifice bunts, most in the majors. He turned 103 double plays, fourth-most among AL shortstops.

Meacham: Billy believed in me to move runners around. He expected me to make productive outs, and don't make the same defensive mistake twice.

Pennington: Billy loved him because he could do all the little things.

Meacham: One number I can be proud of is 156 games played. The manager only puts your name in there if he thinks he can't win without you. If I played 156 with my .218 batting average and one wrist, that means a lot.

Meacham also seemed to be unfazed by playing in a spotlight that could make others wither.

Pagliarulo: Some guys get uptight being in New York. That was never the case with Meach, and New York fans appreciate that and see it clearly, better than any other fans.

Meacham: I played every pitch like it was going to be hit to me because of the enormous stakes, and it's not like that anywhere else.

Rasmussen: I regretted that anywhere else I went, nothing ever lived up to playing in New York. The stage was totally different. The pressure was different.

Meacham: Even now I feel like I need more. I need pressure. Maybe I don't, but it feels like to be at my best, I need to be locked in every day and be the best I could be that day.

Meacham looks to inspire the 2017 Buffalo Bisons

While collars were getting tight in the Bronx, the New York Mets were surging in popularity behind Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez.

Pennington: The rivalry was very pitched. I know the Yankee players were very much aware. Some of them kind of liked it, and some resented it.

Wynegar: We tried to ignore it, but we knew it was there.

Pagliarulo: I liked the fact there were two good teams in one city. Any time there's competition, it brings out the best in guys. It's like facing the best pitcher. You have to get up for the game and be at your best when you wake up that morning, let alone step in the box.

Pennington: The Mets drove Steinbrenner nuts. The stress came from the top down.

Wynegar: The Daily News and the Post were always digging for dirt, and Mr. Steinbrenner wanted the back pages very badly. If he could create something to get us on the back page, he would.

Pennington: The Yankees didn't like any notion they were going to lose the city. New York's a great baseball city. Some of them were upset with the idea they wouldn't be No. 1 anymore.

Pagliarulo: We wanted to be the best team.

Pennington: We used to travel with the teams back then on the planes and buses. We were getting on the bus at Yankee Stadium to go to the airport, and the driver had a Mets game on. A player says, "Turn that f------ game off! I don't want to hear the Mets on our bus!"

On the road, the Yankees bound together, but not like the Yankees you read about in "Ball Four." One group consisted of Meacham, Rasmussen, Wynegar and rookie outfielder Dan Pasqua.

Wynegar: We would go back to one of our hotel rooms and play cards and order pizza. It was a great clique we had. If I told some people that, they would say, "That doesn't meet Yankee standards." But that was our fun.

Meacham: Early in the year, [Mattingly] says, "I'm going to hang with you guys." After about two road trips, he was, like, "So that's it, huh?"

Rasmussen: Overall, we were a pretty tight-knit team because you had to be. We were all under the microscope. We were under a lot of pressure from the owner and the fans and the media.

Meacham injured his wrist July 28 at Texas. Before the game, the Rangers team doctor gave Martin an injection for back spasms but punctured Martin's lung.

Meacham: When they took me out of the game, they sent me to the hospital for X-rays and talked Billy into going with me to the hospital. He could barely breathe. But he's in the back of the ambulance, hitting on one of the paramedics.

Wynegar: Billy couldn't make the trip with us to Cleveland.

Meacham: Lou Piniella becomes the manager for those three games. Billy decides he's going to call into the dugout during the games.

Wynegar: I'm informed Billy wants to call the dugout every inning from the hospital, and he needs somebody to talk to. I'm on the DL, so guess what.

Meacham: Butch says, "You're not going to believe this. The switchboard is putting Billy through to the dugout, and when he calls, I have to answer and tell Lou what to do."

Wynegar: Why me? So Billy calls and I tell him what's happening, and he says, "Tell Lou to bunt." I relayed the instructions to Lou. The look on Lou's face was priceless.

Meacham: Lou's just livid. At some point, Billy's drunk. So nothing's making any sense. I was dying.

Wynegar: Billy's speech is now slurred. [Yankees coach] Jeff Torborg is sitting next to me. All the sudden Billy goes, "Butch, why don't you like me too much?" I said, "Oh, no, no, Billy. I like you a lot." Torborg is laughing so hard he almost falls off the dugout steps.

The Yankees all-stars in 1987, from left, Dave Winfield, Willie Randolph, Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson and Dave Righetti. All but Righetti are in the starting lineup. (Larry C. Morris/The New York Times)

The next series began Aug. 2 against the White Sox at Yankee Stadium. A look back at the rosters reveals an incredible slice of baseball history. A rundown of the names and accomplishments elicited surprise from those in uniform that night.

Mattingly: Wow. I absolutely did not think of all the history in that.

Six players or coaches (Baylor, Piniella, Torborg, La Russa, Jim Leyland, Ozzie Guillen) who would go on to win Manager of the Year Awards and several others such as Mattingly, Randolph and Dave Righetti who managed or coached at a high level.

La Russa: I'd only be guessing, but I really do believe that was an excessive amount of guys who not only were smart, but loved the game and wanted to stay in it and contribute.

Six future Hall of Famers (Henderson, Winfield, Niekro, Carlton Fisk, Tom Seaver, La Russa).

Pennington: Among Mattingly, Henderson and Winfield, at that time, people would have said Mattingly was a surefire Hall of Famer ahead of them. He was king of the world.

Six Rookies of the Year (Piniella, Righetti, Fisk, Seaver, Guillen, Ron Kittle), plus John Montefusco on the disabled list.

Rasmussen: That's amazing.

Three MVPs (Baylor, Mattingly, Henderson).

Pennington: And Winfield was a freak, too. There was nothing he couldn't do out there. He scared people.

Two pitchers (Niekro, Seaver) who win 300 games in 1985 and two Cy Young winners (Ron Guidry, Seaver).

Randolph: Damn.

Six pitchers (Niekro, Righetti, Joe Cowley, Bill Monbouquette, Seaver, Montefusco) who threw no-hitters.

Wynegar: The rundown just keeps coming, doesn't it?

Four catchers (Wynegar, Ron Hassey, Torborg, Kusnyer) who caught seven no-hitters or perfect games. Fisk never caught one.

Pagliarulo: As you're reading off all those names and all the things associated with the people in it, that's helped me so much as a person, as a player, as a coach. I played with great veterans, Hall of Famers, champions, some of the greatest people that ever put a uniform on. How lucky was I?

In that White Sox-Yankees series opener, seventh inning of a tie game, one of the wildest plays in baseball history takes place.

Michael, who spent four decades in pro baseball: I'll never forget it.

La Russa, who managed 33 years in the majors: We could have been playing in a ballpark with no fans in the middle of the week on getaway day and you'd never forget that play.

John Shulock, third-base umpire and Lockport native who worked 3,050 major-league games: I can see it in my mind.

Chicago White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk pulls back after tagging a diving Bobby Meacham at Yankee Stadium, Friday, Aug. 3, 1985. (AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine)

Wynegar, in pro baseball as a player or coach since 1976: That's the only time I've seen anything like that.

Joe Brinkman, home-plate umpire who worked 4,505 major-league games: I hadn't seen that before. There's no doubt about that.

Niekro, who pitched until he was 48: I never have seen – and I probably never will see it again – a catcher make two putouts at home plate within a two-second period.

The game was shown nationally on NBC's "Game of the Week," one of two Friday night telecasts that year for Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola.

Rusmussen: You know what the players called it? It was the "Game of the World." It was The Game.

Wynegar: I grew up watching the "Game of the Week." You knew there were more cameras, but if you paid too much attention to that, you weren't focusing on what you're supposed to be doing.

Rasmussen: It would show the highlights from around the league. It was the marquee game. It was a huge, huge deal. For anybody back home, your family and friends, that was their chance to watch you.

With the score tied at 3, Andre Robertson singled off White Sox starter Britt Burns to lead off the bottom of the seventh. Meacham pinch ran. Dale Berra reached on a Tim Hulett error to put runners at first and second with nobody out and Henderson at bat.

La Russa: As soon as Rickey hit that ball, I thought we were in big trouble. It was to win the game.

Luis Salazar, White Sox center fielder: He hit the ball into left-center field. I had a chance to catch it in the alley.

Meacham: We have 437 feet or whatever to left-center. I go halfway, and I see it looks like Salazar might catch it.

La Russa: You see the ball hit in the gap and see our outfielders closing on it. You think, "Catch it!" But even if Salazar catches it, there was nobody out, and the guys are going to advance at least one base.

Meacham: Ball hit in the air, if it's in the gap and maybe a catch/maybe not, I've got to be able to tag and go to third with nobody out.

La Russa: In the seventh inning of a tied game, they're going to be second and third with one out and Mattingly and Winfield coming up. You're looking at a crooked number, probably. Then we only have six outs against Dave Righetti until we lose the game.

Meacham: I got back closer to the bag, maybe six feet from second base. I see Salazar reach and think he caught the ball. So I take another step back toward second ...

Salazar: I almost got to it, but the ball dropped.

Meacham: ... and see the ball fall. I went to push off toward third and slipped down to one knee.

Pennington, in the Yankee Stadium press box: That's what starts the whole thing going wrong. That's what gets Dale right on top of him.

Salazar: Right before the ball hit, I could see out of the corner of my eye two runners right next to each other at second base.

Mattingly, in the on-deck circle: Maybe he got a bad read on the fly ball, but Dale was right up his back.

Rasmussen: Dale was a loose cannon on the bases, so it wasn't surprising.

Salazar: When I picked up the ball I thought "Well, there's only one thing I can do."

Salazar threw a strike to shortstop Ozzie Guillen, who relayed to Carlton Fisk.

Meacham: When I make the turn, the ball's still not there. So I'm shocked.

Salazar: I tried to throw all the way to home plate to get one out, and it was a perfect throw.

Kusnyer, in the bullpen: I said, "They're going to get this guy at home." And then I yelled, "Look at Berra!"

Mattingly: "What is Dale doing?"

Rasmussen: "Oh, God, he's going to try to score! Oh, God, Dale's right behind him!"

Meacham: As I'm hauling toward third, the ball's on its way in. I'm thinking if I go home, I'm going to be out. But I see Stick waving me home, and then in my mind it clicks: "Dale followed me to third."

Pennington: Gene Michael was a great third-base coach and is a smart and crafty guy. He's waving Meacham in, but because Dale is so close, Dale thinks he's waving him in, too.

Wynegar: Stick had to try to score Bobby and try to hold up Dale, but he couldn't stop Dale at third. I don't know who was in the wrong, but it's just one of those freak plays.

Pennington: As Berra continues to go, Gene throws up his hands as if to say, "What are you doing?"

Brinkman: I thought, "They are awful close to each other. Hang in there." I just wondered if Fisk could get back and tag the second guy.

La Russa: I'm thinking, "Is this possible? Is this possible?"

Shulock: Anything but a decent throw and they both score. It's a gamble. That just goes to show when you hit the cutoff man ...

Meacham: My only shot is to knock the ball loose, but I didn't.

Wynegar: Bobby tried to knock Fisk out of the way so Dale could score, but Bobby wasn't as big as Fisk was. Fisk just kind of flicked him aside.

La Russa: Fisk was as tough in terms of guts and perseverance and competitiveness as there ever has been behind the plate. He wasn't worried about body counts. He actually was probably looking forward to it.

Meacham: I hear the crowd react. As I'm laying on the ground, I hear the crowd again! Oh, my gosh. He followed me home, too!

La Russa: "Hallelujah!"

Salazar: Carlton Fisk made a hell of a play. He had to be shocked both runners came right to him.

Kusnyer: Boom-boom, he got 'em both. I thought, "You've got to be hosing me!" We all started laughing and thought, "Thank you very much."

Brinkman: You would think the first guy would just take him out, and that would be it; the second guy would slide in safely. Fisky tagged and pushed [Meacham] off. I didn't think he could get back to the second guy. Of course, Fisk did spin around and tag the second guy.

La Russa: Our expression when somebody did something good, we would yell out, "Hap. Pi. NESS!" Actually, on that one we yelled, "Hap. Pi. F------. NESS!"

Pennington: Phil Rizzuto was calling the game for the Yankees, and I've heard the call from it being replayed all the time. Rizzuto goes, "And here's the throw! And he's out! And he's out!"

La Russa: You mention Scully and Garagiola. Well, if you watch the play on YouTube, it's our team's broadcast, and the guy on the microphone is Don Drysdale.

After the game, Martin told reporters, ''I've never seen a play like that in grammar school, let alone the major leagues."

Meacham: As I walk to the dugout, you hear all the boos. Guys are shaking their heads. Some are laughing, but it's mostly disgust.

Pennington: Billy was livid but didn't know what to do about it. Did Dale do anything wrong? The third-base coach was waving his arms. And he wasn't going to yell at Stick because they were friends and he loved Meacham, who didn't do anything wrong anyway.

Meacham: Billy's ranting. I sit down and think, "Here it comes." He walked right by me and went to Dale and started screaming. He walked past again and never said a word to me.

Pennington: He couldn't figure out anybody to yell at, which was unusual for him.

Niekro: That's baseball history. That was such a bizarre play. I don't recall who won the ballgame, but that play I'll never forget.

Chicago won the game, 6-5, in 11 innings. Two days later, the Yankees retired Rizzuto's No. 10 and former Mets superstar Tom Seaver would try for his 300th win.

La Russa: You go into old Yankee Stadium and there was always something special, historic. But we went into that series, and we were all jazzed up about Seaver going for 300 on Sunday.

Kusnyer: He knew at the end he didn't have the stuff he had before. He went out and pitched. He would look down at the lineup and say, "I'll just walk this guy and then get this guy out." He didn't dominate.

Seaver allowed six hits in a complete game, 4-1, victory.

Salazar: He did it so long for the Mets, and to get it in New York – even in a different uniform – was an honor. We celebrated in a big way. That was an unforgettable night for Tom Seaver and landed him in the Hall of Fame.

Kusnyer: He battled through those games. But he was another special guy. One of those guys that had the makeup where it was balls out.

La Russa: What we did that weekend, winning Friday and Sunday, that kind of jump-started some positive vibes because of the unusual play and the energy of the Seaver win.

Salazar: We had a talented team, a good pitching staff. Ozzie Guillen won Rookie of the Year as a shortstop out of nowhere. Today, that team competes for the playoffs.

La Russa: The 1985 club is as near and dear to me than a lot of the championship clubs because it just refused to give in. We were not a perfect club, but we ended up with 85 wins, more wins than the club that won the 2006 World Series.

The loss dropped the Yankees 9.5 games behind the Blue Jays, who were emerging as an AL East force.

Pagliarulo: The Blue Jays were young. They had speed and power, and they had some good, young starters who were coming on: Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, Jimmy Key. They had Tom Henke closing out of the pen. They played defense really well.

As if the players weren't under enough strain from Steinbrenner, Martin and the Bronx crucible, a strike loomed Aug. 6.

La Russa: We'd had one in 1981 when play was interrupted for two months. You take it seriously. You have no crystal ball. You know if it starts you don't know whether it'll be a couple days, couple weeks, couple months.

Brinkman: It seemed like we were about to go on strike or the players were about to go on strike every year for about 15 years.

La Russa: A potential strike, whenever that was a reality, is a huge distraction. You and members of your staff have to dig deep to try and keep your attention focused on the game you're playing that day.

Meacham, playing with an injured left wrist and unable to bat right-handed anymore, thought the strike could help him heal.

Meacham: The doctor said, "You know, if you go on strike tomorrow I can't touch you." He said we could put a cast on it and, if you go on strike for a week, you'll be immobilized and it'll help you heal better.

Pagliarulo: He just wanted to play and leave everything out on the field.

Meacham: I wanted to keep playing because I thought we were going to win the thing. I wanted to be a part of it all. Well, we had a one-day strike.

Meacham's left arm still was in a hard cast when he arrived at Yankee Stadium the next day and began to prepare for a doubleheader.

Meacham: Billy walks around the corner and yells, "What the 'F' is that?!" He stopped me in mid-stutter and said, "You want to play or not?" I said, "Yeah!' So he said, "Then cut that s--- off, and let's go!"

Pagliarulo: Billy liked those kinds of guys who would do anything to play and win. That's all it took for Billy.

Meacham: We didn't have a saw and didn't have time to get through mid-town traffic to get it cut off at the doctor's office. So we spent about an hour with a hacksaw, the trainer, Pagliarulo, whoever was around, sawing and sawing.

Pagliarulo: I don't know if that was the best idea we had, but in that era it was always about wanting to play and being ready to play.

Meacham: We finally cracked it, peeled it off, and I played the rest of the season with a sore wrist.

After Seaver's 300th win, the Yankees won 30 of their next 36 games. But then they faltered. They lost eight straight, including three to the Blue Jays, entering a Sept. 21 game at Baltimore.

Brinkman: Ask Meacham about the time I ejected him for smiling at me. You talk about stories ...

Meacham: It was a bad call at second. Rex Hudler stole second, but Brinkman calls him out. We're all thinking, "This guy just wants to get the game over." We go out into the field to take our positions and are throwing the ball across the infield.

Brinkman, laughing: He kept smiling at me. I asked him what he was smiling at.

Meacham: I look at Pags, and he shakes his head. I look behind me at Brinkman in shallow center field and just nodded. All the sudden, I hear Brinkman screaming, "What are you laughing at?"

Brinkman: I said, "I don't think you should be smiling at me." He smiled again.

Meacham: I'm trying not to pay attention, and Donnie stops throwing balls to me. So I turn around, and Brinkman is right next to me. He yells again, "Who are you laughing at?" And I said, "You."

Brinkman, laughing harder: So I ejected him. Martin came out and, of course, asked, "What happened?" I said, "I ejected him for smiling at me." Martin said, "You've got to be kidding me!"

Meacham: Afterward I told our GM what happened and he called the league president. I got an apology from the league and wasn't fined. That was my only ejection, but I've made up for it as a manager.

Meacham gets tossed after one batter in Bisons' loss

Brinkman: That was a Saturday afternoon. That night, Martin got into a fight with Whitson and ended up breaking his arm.

On the night of Sept. 21, many of the Yankees and the reporters who traveled with them dispersed to various bars to watch Michael Spinks upset undefeated heavyweight champ Larry Holmes. When they returned to the team's hotel, they got to see a fight in person.

Pennington: Billy scratched Ed Whitson from a start, and he called him "Whatchamacallit." He said, "Whatchamacallit has a problem with his arm." We asked Whitson, and he said his arm was fine.

Wynegar: Whit had struggles pitching at Yankee Stadium. So he absolutely wanted to pitch in Baltimore that night. He was fuming.

Pennington: He was really pissed with Billy. Eddie had a short fuse.

Affidavits from patrons in the Cross Keys Hotel bar stated Whitson was getting heated with a fan, when Martin came over to diffuse the situation.

Pennington: Almost nobody saw the flashpoint except for some fans. I witnessed all the rest of it. It wasn't just a little fight. It went on for, like, more than 20 minutes – out into the lobby and then out into the parking lot.

Randolph: Whitson was almost slamming Billy's head off the curb.

Pennington: It even goes up to the third floor. They both – by accident – get off adjacent elevators.

Randolph: We thought we had separated them and got them in different elevators to get them away each other, but when the elevator doors opened, there was Whitson, standing right there.

Pennington: They went at it again. You couldn't believe this was going on, Billy and one of his pitchers just going at it.

Randolph: It was wild.

Pitcher Ed Whitson left the Yankees for San Diego during the 1986 season. But he outlasted Billy Martin, right, who was replaced by Lou Piniella before the 1986 season. (Getty Images)

Rasmussen: I unfortunately missed all that. There were rumblings the next day because we didn't have texting or all that.

Wynegar: I woke up the next morning at the hotel and went to pick up the newspaper they put at your door, and as I did the door across the hall opened. A little kid recognized me and said, "Mr. Wynegar, did you hear what happened last night? Whitson and Martin got into a brawl!" My head went back and I thought, "You've got to be kidding me."

Rasmussen: I went to the game on the team bus, and Billy got on in a sling and dark sunglasses that covered his whole face. You could hardly see anything.

Wynegar: When I got to the park later, I saw Whit, and he gave me the story. It shocked me. Even after I heard the story I couldn't believe it.

Brinkman: Martin showed up with his arm in a sling and said, "Joe, it's your goddamn fault. If you hadn't run Bobby yesterday I wouldn't have gotten all upset and got into the fight with Whitson!"

Wynegar: He comes walking into the clubhouse. He just looked like death warmed over.

Meacham: Billy had makeup on his face. He walks up to Baylor and says, "Where were you when I needed you last night?" Baylor goes, "Looks like you needed more help than me!"

The Yankees composed themselves and climbed back into striking distance of the Blue Jays, three games back entering a season-ending three-game series in Toronto.

Niekro: We were hot.

Pennington: The story line going into that last weekend was Toronto is really good, but they're young and they've never won a pennant. And here's Billy Martin's team, the big bad Yankees.

The Yankees trailed the series opener, 3-2, in the ninth inning with two outs. Wynegar was up and had two strikes.

Pennington: I was in the back of the press box, ready to go downstairs and write the obit for this team.

Meacham: We were mad Billy didn't pinch hit Hassey for Wynegar. Hassey was more of our home run guy, and Wynegar was our line-drive guy.

Niekro: Butch hits a homer off Tom Henke. It was like we were meant to pull it off.

Meacham: I get a hit, Rickey gets a walk. Donnie hits a pop up to center field. I'm hauling ass, and I look up to see [Toronto center fielder] Lloyd Moseby drop the ball. I scored the go-ahead run.

Wynegar: Billy Martin was telling the media after the game, "This is fate. This is an omen. We're going to win this thing. We're going back to New York for a one-game playoff."

Meacham: Righetti offered to start Game Two because – and this is almost unbelievable, and I didn't know it until years later – Joe Cowley was so nervous he did not want to pitch. Righetti knew and offered to do it, but he was our closer.

Wynegar: Then Doyle Alexander beat us the next day. We had our chance. We just came up short. That's the closest year I've ever gotten to the playoffs, too.

Pennington: That's the moment the Blue Jays announced they were for real and stayed that way for the next several years.

Eliminated from the postseason, the Yankees still had some unfinished business in the finale. Niekro had been stuck on 299 wins for a month. He was the scheduled starter for the finale.

Niekro: That last day was the end of my two-year contract. I did not know if I was going to get signed after that. So if I didn't win that game, I was going to have to wait until next April, and I didn't know with who.

Pagliarulo: Everyone was trying hard for him. He had four opportunities before that, but he also had a worry the rest of us didn't have.

Niekro: My dad was very, very ill. It was not so much of a physical game, but a mental game. That might have been the most important game I ever thought about, going into it. My father just hanging on.

Phil Niekro of New York Yankees pitches in the first inning against Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, Oct. 6, 1985 in Toronto, trying for his 300th win. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

The Yankees traded for Phil's brother, Joe Niekro, on Sept. 15 in hopes of solidifying their rotation.

Phil Niekro: When I won my 299th, my mother called me and said, "Your dad's here in the hospital, and the priest has given him his last rites. The nuns are here. You guys better come home and bring your black suits." He was comatose. I stayed with him for four days and flew back for my first try at 300, flew back to be with him in the hospital, stayed with him four more days with him and lost my next try at 300 ...

Rasmussen: We were all pulling for him because he was the leader of our pitching staff and in the clubhouse.

Niekro: Before the last game in Toronto, my brother and I stayed up just about the whole night, talking about how important this game was for my father.

Rasmussen: It was tremendous stress, but Joe diffused most of that. They were incredibly tight and two unbelievable teammates. For them to play together and be a part of our staff and of that special moment is something I'll never forget.

Niekro: Not knowing, Steinbrenner had set up some kind of relay from Phil Rizzuto and Bill White calling the game in Toronto through the phone back to my mother in the hospital room. She was telling my dad what was going on, but he still didn't blink, couldn't talk, nothing. When the game was over, Joe came up to me and said, "I have to tell you something about dad." My heart sank. But as it turned out, around the seventh inning, he woke up and said, "Boy, he's pitching one hell of a game, isn't he?"

Wynegar: One of the strangest things, I knew Phil always had a fantasy to pitch a game without his knuckleball.

Niekro: I was getting beaten around a little in the first four [attempts to win No. 300]. Jeff Torborg told me, "You have good enough stuff to go out and win without the knuckleball." I said, "Boy, I think you better get some more sleep."

Wynegar: When I walked into the clubhouse, he calls me over to his locker and says, "Butch, today's the day. I'm going to pitch without my knuckleball." You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Rasmussen: They had a bunch of young hitters who kept looking for the knuckleball, and he'd sneak another fastball and pop it up or hit a weak grounder.

Wynegar: I thought at some point this would be abandoned. His fastball was upper 70s. Maybe it touched 80, but I doubt it. He had a slow curveball, a small little slider. He would turn over a changeup.

Niekro: The Blue Jays had won the pennant the night before, so I think they were so champagned up they didn't know who they were hitting against.

Wynegar: Everything he threw was below the speed limit.

Pagliarulo: I don't know how that happens.

Rasmussen: To watch him negotiate through their lineup, it was astonishing.

Niekro: We kept scoring runs and got two outs in the ninth inning and two strikes on Jeff Burroughs. I remember my dad teaching me that knuckleball in the back yard. I called timeout.

Wynegar: Phil calls me out to the mound and says, "I got 299 major league wins because of my knuckleball. Let's finish this off with the knuckleball."

Niekro: I struck out Burroughs.

Rasmussen: I grabbed one of the balls out of the game-ball bag and got him to sign it, one of my prized possessions.

Niekro's feat is celebrated in the 1986 Topps card set.

Niekro, at 46, became the oldest pitcher in major-league history to throw a shutout and the only to win his 300th game with a shutout. He allowed four hits.

Niekro: The next day we flew back and I gave my dad the hat and the ball from the game and told him, "This is yours as much as it's mine." About a week later, he was home. I pitched two more years. Joe got into a World Series with Minnesota. He saw his only two boys total 539 wins, the all-time record for brothers. I pitched my last game in 1987. Joe pitched his last game in April 1988. We buried my dad July 4, 1988. He saw what he needed to see, hung on that long to see both of his boys do what no other father will ever have a chance to do.

The Yankees finished 97-64, the fourth-best record in baseball but out of the playoffs. Under Martin, they had a .628 winning percentage.

Mattingly: We won 97 games, but with the way baseball was set up then ... You look back at not having a shot, that's one of those years ...

Pennington: Once the wild card was implemented, now their perspective is, "Man, we would have done some damage. That was a crazy year, but if the rules were what they are now, that could have been a championship team."

Rasmussen: We just never could get over the hump. And with no wild card at that time, second place was out of luck.

Mattingly, who finally reached the postseason as a wild card in 1995, his final season: You can't look back and say it haunts you, but that was the best chance.

Pennington: When the season ended, they were disappointed, but I think they also thought, "Wow, this was a crazy, long, nutty season that started with the firing of a popular manager, but by the end that was just a footnote. Did all of this just happen?" They staggered out of it glassy-eyed.

The Yankees breakdown in the 1986 Topps card set.

Meacham: Everybody was just worn out. I was young and felt like I was establishing myself as a starting shortstop. I felt good about my game. But the guys were getting worn out about George being on us all the time. It felt like we were competing against more than just our opponents.

Rasmussen: We had to concern ourselves with so much off the field, but we were young and dumb and kind of oblivious to a lot of the stuff. What made it tolerable we were such a close group. We went to war together as a team, not as individuals.

Meacham: That was a great team. I loved playing for Billy Martin. We had a lot of energy and won a lot of games. We almost pulled it out in the end.

Story topics: / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

There are no comments - be the first to comment