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George Steinbrenner unveiled a new game show last week: It's called Stump Merrill. Ask a question and try to Stump Merrill. Are the 1990 New York Yankees a bad team? Yes! Is there immediate help available in the minor leagues? No! Is there hope of real improvement via trades? None! Will free agents be interested in joining the Yankees after this year? No way! Who's in charge of this floundering franchise? George! And if the Yankees continue to lose, who will take the blame? Stump Merrill!
Carl (Stump) Merrill, the new Yankee manager, deserves better than this. He has put in 14 dedicated years in the Yankee organization, during which he had a .590 winning percentage in 11 seasons as a minor league manager. Last Wednesday, after Bucky Dent was fired as New York's skipper, Merrill got the job, thus becoming Steinbrenner's 12th different manager—and 18th change of manager—in 18 years as owner. Merrill, 46, is a feisty fireplug from Maine who played six seasons as a minor league catcher in the Philadelphia Phillies' system and celebrated the first of his two career home runs by sliding into home plate. It will take all of his exuberance, and much more, to revive the Yankees, who are at one of the gloomiest points in the club's storied history.
Merrill inherited a lifeless, last-place, 18-31 team and then lost his first four games as manager—running the Yankees' losing streak to eight, their longest since September 1985. In Merrill's first two games, in Boston on June 6 and 7, the Yanks put runners on base in only two of 18 innings and fell to the Red Sox 4-1 and 3-0. On June 8, the Yankees lost 5-4 in Baltimore on a 10th-inning throwing error by third baseman Jim Leyritz, a former catcher making his major league debut.
Last Saturday night in Baltimore, the Yankees reached a new low. The Orioles torched Yankee starter Chuck Cary for six runs in the first inning en route to a 10-1 bashing. The Orioles had more extra-base hits (eight) in the first two innings than the Yankees had in the first six games of their road trip (seven). Through four innings, Oriole first baseman Randy Milligan had more homers (three) than the Yankees had base runners (one). The Yankees finished with four hits to lower their four-game batting average under Merrill to .134. It also solidified their standing as the worst team in the American League in hitting, slugging, runs scored and on-base percentage.
After that game, Merrill looked like a man who had managed four losing years, not four losing games. He ran his hands over his balding head and rubbed his eyes. "If anyone thinks I'm going to quit after four games, you're talking to the wrong cat," he said. "We're as frustrated and embarrassed about that showing tonight as anyone. But good things will happen. This game is full of peaks and valleys. We're in a valley."
More like a bottomless pit, into which the Yankees have made an accelerated descent. As baseball's winningest team in the 1980s, the Yanks won 91, 87, 97, 90, 89 and 85 games in the seasons from '83 to '88. As recently as '88 they had a batting order, one through five, that read: Rickey Henderson, Willie Randolph, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield and Jack Clark. Their current top of the lineup bears little resemblance: Steve Sax, Roberto Kelly, Mattingly, Mel Hall (or Steve Balboni), Jesse Barfield. Through Sunday the current Yankees had scored three or fewer runs in 25 of their 54 games.
"I don't know what happened," said veteran reliever Dave Righetti, shaking his head more in sadness than disgust. "We made some moves that backfired."
We? It was chivalrous of Righetti to seek to share the blame, but everybody in the baseball world knows that the only constant throughout the demise of this franchise has been the Boss. Among the worst of Steinbrenner's many recent bad trades was the one made on June 21, 1989, when Henderson—one of the top five players in the game—was sent to the Oakland Athletics for relievers Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret and outfielder Luis Polonia. Plunk and Cadaret are ordinary middle relievers, and Polonia was traded to the California Angels in April for outfielder Claudell Washington, who may soon be released.
Clark, who drove in 93 runs for New York in 1988, went to the San Diego Padres in a five-player swap Oct. 24, 1988, in which the Yankees received pitchers Jimmy Jones and Lance McCullers and outfielder Stan Jefferson. Only Jones, recently recalled from Triple A, is still with the club.
Last month Steinbrenner traded his long-standing nemesis, outfielder Winfield, to the Angels for pitcher Mike Witt. "Just standing in the on-deck circle, [ Winfield] was a presence," says Mattingly, who has struggled (.268, five homers this year) without Winfield hitting behind him. "He drove in big runs." Witt, who is 0-1 for the Yankees, "heard something pop" in his right elbow last Friday and went on the disabled list. And so it goes.