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Deja vu all over again

It feels a lot like 1982 in the Bronx these days

Posted: Tuesday July 3, 2007 4:35PM; Updated: Thursday July 5, 2007 12:44PM
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Like many current Yankees, Dave Winfield arrived in a blizzard of bucks and ballyhoo, but met with scant postseason success.
Like many current Yankees, Dave Winfield arrived in a blizzard of bucks and ballyhoo, but met with scant postseason success.
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Twenty-five years ago, the Yankees hit July 4 at 36-37 on their way to unceremoniously snapping a string of five postseason appearances in six years, including three pennants and two World Series championships. That run could have been six-for-six if not for the demoralizing death of captain Thurman Munson during the 1979 season. The '82 Yankees, who bear a passing resemblance to this year's squad, were a talented bunch (on papyrus) that wheezed in fifth in the A.L. East at 79-83 -- the franchise's first losing record since 1973.

The '82 season was blighted by farcical turmoil (e.g. three managers, five pitching coaches, three hitting instructors, and closer Rich Gossage famously calling George Steinbrenner "The Fat Man") that is blessedly absent now save for A-Rod's tabloid adventures, but it marked the beginning of a 13-year postseason drought that persisted despite the Principal Owner's plump wallet and win-at-all-costs mentality. The current outlook is just as bleak without a significant change of front office philosophy and competence.

Let us recall the old line about those who fail to learn from history. The '82 team set the tone for all the ensuing high-priced futility that demonstrated the maddening folly of patching holes with veteran stars without regard to all-important elements like balance, character, drive and chemistry. The championship teams of '77 and '78 were marked by fire and grit as well as talent. The fire began to dim after Munson died and the Yankees were swept by the Royals in the '80 playoffs. A parade of headline-grabbing signings began with Dave Winfield's 10-year, $21-million contract in '81. Steinbrenner had succeeded that way before (Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter), so if a little checkbook thunder was good, a lot had to be better -- a mentality that often permeates New York teams to their detriment.

Winfield helped the Yankees reach the '81 Series, but earned the derisive moniker Mr. May from Boss George for his failure to produce as expected in the postseason. (Sound like someone on the current team?). When Jackson left after the season, Ken Griffey and Dave Collins were wheeled in from the Reds to an already crowded outfield, the latter ending up as one of eight first basemen the Yankees used in '82. Defensive shortstop Bucky Dent was squeezed out by the arrival of the heavier-hitting Roy Smalley in an April deal. Kids (first baseman Don Mattingly, catcher Juan Espino, pitchers Jay Howell, Stefan Wever, Curt Kaufman) and veterans alike yo-yo'ed between the minors and the Bronx as the frantic search for the right mix continued. Result: the team's worst mark since 1967.

From there on, a succession of ballyhooed acquisitions promised better times that never arrived: Don Baylor, Steve Kemp and Omar Moreno ('83), Rickey Henderson ('85), Jack Clark ('88), and Steve Sax ('89). For all of the perennial firepower, there were was always a glaring hole the sea rushed through to sink George's boat. Then, as in recent years, if it wasn't the leaky defense it was the shaky pitching, which featured the likes of 30- and 40-something starters Phil and Joe Niekro, Tommy John, Doyle Alexander and John Montefusco with petroleum dispensers such as Bob Shirley, Dale Murray, and Al Holland in middle relief. The dwindling mainstays from the glory years -- Gossage, Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Willie Randolph and Ron Guidry -- could only watch in despair and frustration, much the way Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte do now. This is how dynasties die: the framework slowly crumbles and no amount of pricey quick-fix paint can restore it.

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