Long before Mariano Rivera set the bar at unattainable levels, the New York Yankees had some key players coming out of the bullpen.
There will never be another Mariano Rivera.
Sorry, folks, but it’s true. Great closers come and go. Just look at Rivera’s fellow Hall of Fame closers, Dennis Eckersley and Rollie Fingers. Both were excellent in their time, but not as transcendent as Rivera.
And the New York Yankees know this all too well. For almost 20 years, Rivera’s dominance spoiled fans, teammates, and even team management itself. Thirteen All-Star appearances, five World Series rings, and 652 career saves. No reliever on the Yankees or any other team will ever come close to these numbers again.
But Rivera only played for 19 years. In fact, it wasn’t until his third MLB season that he became New York’s closer. Long before his debut in 1995, and even during his career, the Yankees employed a plethora of relievers who left their mark in the Bronx.
With the Yankees back in camp ahead of the season starting later this month, let’s take one last trip down memory lane. Here are five relievers New York fans sometimes forget.
Honorable mention: Mike Stanton (Yankees tenure: 1997-2002, 2005)
Mike Stanton was a reliable reliever for the Yankees, albeit a streaky one. He signed a three-year deal with the team after the 1996 season and immediately posted a 2.57 ERA in 1997. Stanton then struggled with inherited runners the following year but righted the ship well enough to earn yet another three-year contract.
And even though Stanton’s 3.77 ERA in pinstripes seems high, he made up for it with his postseason performances. He posted a 3.51 ERA in the playoffs with the Yanks and a 1.54 ERA in the Fall Classic for his entire career. Stanton additionally won two games in the 2000 World Series, including the decisive Game 5.
Stanton even made his lone career start while a Yankee, tossing four shutout innings against the Seattle Mariners on May 9, 1999. Even as a middle reliever, and putting aside his forgettable return in 2005, Stanton did just enough in New York to earn some recognition here.
No. 5: Lindy McDaniel (Yankees tenure: 1968-73)
Lindy McDaniel is one of baseball’s folk heroes in that he played for five teams in 21 years, yet everyone seems to forget him. Then, his name is dropped, and he’s suddenly fondly remembered.
And why wouldn’t he be? McDaniel twice led the majors in saves, was a two-time All-Star, and finished fourth in MLB Cy Young voting in 1960. McDaniel also finished fifth in National League MVP voting that same season.
And when the Yankees acquired him from the San Francisco Giants in 1968, not much was expected. McDaniel was 32 and well past the glory days of which Springsteen would sing over a decade later. But in an unexpected twist, the veteran righty exceeded expectations in the Big Apple.
First, McDaniel put up a 1.75 ERA for the Yankees in 24 appearances after the trade. Two years later, he posted a 2.01 ERA with 29 saves at 34 years old.
And though McDaniel would post a 2.89 ERA during his time in New York, he was still increasing in age on a team that needed youth. After the 1973 season, he was traded to the Kansas City Royals for Lou Piniella and played two more years.
Was he an all-time greatest Yankee? No, not even close. But like so many we’ve covered during this forgotten players series, McDaniel was a bright spot on a few bad teams. That means more than some fans realize.
No. 4: Steve Farr (Yankees tenure: 1991-93)
Even for a short stretch, Steve Farr made the most of his Yankees tenure. He was already 34 years old when he signed with the team as a free agent shortly after the 1990 season, but was effective nonetheless. Farr won a World Series with the Kansas City Royals in 1985 and proved to be effective out of the bullpen as a closer and in other roles.
His time in New York was short, but Farr was like McDaniel in that he made the most of being on a bad team. The veteran righty notched 78 of his 132 career saves in pinstripes to go with a 2.56 ERA. Farr would then spend 1994 with the Red Sox and Indians before retiring.
Farr wasn’t with the Yankees for a long time, but easily experienced the best years of his career in the Bronx.
No. 3: Steve Howe (Yankees tenure: 1991-96)
Steve Howe’s path to the Yankees was a weird one. The lefty debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers at 22 years old in 1980 and was later named the National League Rookie of the Year. Next season, Howe was on the mound for the final out of the 1981 World Series as his Dodgers were crowned champions.
And after Howe made his first All-Star team in 1982, the wheels fell off. The former Michigan Wolverine fell into addiction and was suspended several times. The Yankees picked him up in free agency in 1991, four years after his previous appearance in the major leagues. Howe would then go on to post a 1.68 ERA in 37 appearances.
But it wasn’t an easy road back. In December 1991, he was arrested on drug charges and banned from baseball for life. Nonetheless, he was later reinstated and posted a 2.45 ERA in 1992. Howe was also New York’s closer in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, posting 15 saves and a 1.80 ERA.
Age then caught up with Howe, whose MLB career ended when the Yankees released him in 1996. He put up a 3.57 ERA in pinstripes, which is the best he could’ve asked for under the circumstances.
No. 2: Bob Wickman (Yankees tenure: 1992-96)
Bob Wickman was part of one of the many moves general manager Gene “Stick” Michael made to bring the Yankees back from the dead. Ahead of the 1992 season, Michael acquired Wickman and pitchers Domingo Jean and Melido Perez from the Chicago White Sox for second baseman Steve Sax.
Wickman, 23 years old at the time, debuted as a starter in August and went 6-1 with a 4.11 ERA. He moved between the rotation and bullpen in 1993 but managed to pitch his one and only shutout. Wickman then became a full-time reliever and finished with a 4.21 ERA in pinstripes.
The burly righty from Green Bay became a middle reliever but didn’t earn the opportunity to experience a Yankees championship. One day before the four-year anniversary of his MLB debut, Wickman and outfielder Gerald Williams were traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for Graeme Lloyd.
This trade proved to be a blessing in disguise for Wickman though. He went on to become an All-Star closer and also saw time with the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and Arizona Diamondbacks. He retired in 2007 with 267 saves to his name.
And it all began in New York.
No. 1: Dave Righetti (Yankees tenure: 1979, 1981-90)
Those reading are probably giving me a funny look right now. Dave Righetti? Forgotten? The man pitched a no-hitter against the hated Boston Red Sox on the Fourth of July in 1983. How can he be considered forgotten at all?
Those are all valid points. But before I’m carted off to Arkham Asylum to be the Joker’s new roommate, let’s take a deeper look.
Righetti made three starts as a call-up in 1979 and then spent 1980 in the minors before returning in 1981. In a strike-shortened season, he posted a 2.05 ERA in 15 starts to be named the American League Rookie of the Year at just 22 years of age.
It was a great year for the man they called “Rags.” He led the American League in ERA+, FIP, H/9, K/9, and even HR/9. In 105.1 innings, he allowed just one home run. Righetti would then continue to start for two more seasons, though he struggled mightily with walks in 1982. After the no-hitter in 1983, it seemed certain he would start for years to come.
But there was one problem: the Yankees had more young pitching than they could handle in 1984, and the departure of star closer Goose Gossage left a void. Righetti drew the short straw and moved to the bullpen despite fans’ protests.
Needless to say, it all worked out in the end. Righetti posted a 3.11 ERA and notched 224 of his 252 career saves in pinstripes. He only made 13 starts for the rest of his career, and they were all after he left New York in free agency following 1990.
Righetti retired after the 1995 season and spent 2000-17 as the Giants pitching coach, winning three World Series rings. But in his playing days, Rags is a Yankee through and through.