On July 18, another too-hot night in the Bronx, pitcher Jack McDowell waved a magic finger in the air and changed the fortunes of the New York Yankees. The team was on its way to dropping a doubleheader to the struggling Chicago White Sox when McDowell was dispatched to the showers, marking one more dreadful performance in a broken-down season for a ball club that a year ago had achieved the best record in the American League.
As he stalked off the field, McDowell was serenaded with boos and insults from fans who had grown tired of waiting for their team to snap out of a three-month funk. He had lasted just 4⅔ innings and allowed 13 hits and three home runs. With the eventual 11-4 loss, the team would plunge to 33-40 and fourth place in the American League East, 7½ games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. The fuse finally burned down, and the Bronx bomb exploded, JACK THE FLIPPER, as he was later dubbed in one tabloid headline, raised his middle finger to the heavens and pointed the Pinstripes in a new direction. Nothing has been the same since.
Most winning streaks in professional sports are born of a big trade or a clutch performance or an inspirational talk by a teary-eyed coach. The Yankees' surge was ignited by an obscene gesture, a uniquely New York moment that seems to fit perfectly into this season, a bizarre one even by Steinbrenneran standards. Through Sunday, the Yanks had won 14 of 18 games since L'Affaire Finger, pulling to within 5½ games of the Red Sox and moving to the top in the race for the American League's wild-card playoff spot. Naturally, they had done it about as quietly as a used-car commercial, capturing the back pages of the tabloids as if they were enemy beachheads and refusing to let go. To the dismay of many in New York, including some in the Yankee clubhouse, they have turned the season around in classic Steinbrenner-era style. Consider what happened in just the last three weeks on the Yankee beat.
Darryl Strawberry took the stage. The Yankees signed Strawberry on June 19, but he played in Columbus, Ohio, while his agent, Bill Goodstein, and Yankee boss George Steinbrenner slugged it out over various contract provisions. Among other requests, Steinbrenner wanted Strawberry to donate $200,000 of his $675,000 salary to drug-abuse prevention charities. According to one report, Steinbrenner actually demanded that Strawberry's children be tested for drugs. Darryl Jr. is 10 years old and his sister, Diamond, is seven. Presumably, Flintstones chewables would not have been on the list of banned substances.
When he finally joined the team in Detroit last Friday, Strawberry stood before the media and said, "Thank you, Mr. Steinberg." That afternoon Strawberry indicated he would not be speaking to the media the rest of the weekend.
In a swap of unhappy, unproductive and unloved outfielders, Danny Tartabull was traded to the Oakland A's for Ruben Sierra. Only six days after the deal was consummated, there was no doubt who got the better of it: Tartabull went on the disabled list with a rib injury (the same ailment that Steinbrenner had accused him of faking). The Yanks, meanwhile, won six of their first eight games with Sierra in rightfield. "I think Ruben came in here with something to prove," said Yankee manager Buck Showalter. "And I think Darryl did, too."
David Cone returned to where he belongs. Namely, the middle of the action. While a number of contenders acquired reliable veterans for the stretch run, the Yankees got the premier hired gun. "I've stayed out of the headlines for a few years," said Cone, who once was accused of fondling himself across town in the bullpen at Shea Stadium. "Maybe it's time to get back in." Is this a Steinbrenner guy or what? Cone is cool, clutch and just crazy enough to welcome a crunch-time transfer to the Bronx Zoo. Since coming from Toronto in exchange for three minor league pitchers on July 28, Cone was 2-0 with a 2.81 ERA through Sunday. The Yankees, at last, have the ace they lost when Jimmy Key went on the disabled list May 17 with a torn rotator cuff. "There are a lot of distractions and all that," said Cone, standing in the Yankee clubhouse. "But I look around this room and see a lot of guys who can handle them."
For 12 years no one handled New York better than Don Mattingly, but even the Yankee captain may have been pushed too far. A column in the New York Daily News in June suggested Mattingly should consider retirement, DONE DON, read the headline. Mattingly believes Steinbrenner was behind the story and promises to test the market when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.
But Mattingly also responded to the insult with his bat, hitting in 22 of the next 27 games. When he clubbed his second home run in 11 at bats on July 23 at Yankee Stadium, many of the fans tossed their new souvenirs on the field. "I don't write, and I'm not a great speaker," said Mattingly. "There was only one way I could put my point across." Of course, when he exacts his revenge on the field, he can also make Steinbrenner look like an underhanded genius. Thank you, Mr. Steinberg.
For the Boss, it was the stuff that dreams are made of: The Yankees were winning, Mattingly was hitting and the owner was getting the credit. "He got what he wanted," Tartabull said before being shipped out. "The back page."