In case you missed it, some former Yankees cult heroes are back in baseball.
Here in the city, former speedy second baseman Homer Bush is the new manager of the former Staten Island Yankees, now the FerryHawks. A two-hour drive down I-80, Shelley Duncan and his giant forearms are set to manage the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
The kind of love fans have for former players like Bush and Duncan is unique. Underdogs, cult heroes, whatever we call them, don’t enjoy the same automatic support as their superstar counterparts. For Bush, it was his lights-out speed despite a light bat. Duncan was a streaky power hitter, but one capable of tearing covers off of baseballs. More importantly, his endless enthusiasm was fun to have around.
The truth is the Yankees (and every team, for that matter) have had these players pass through Yankee Stadium’s hallowed halls for years. Some only had one moment in the sun, some had several. Let’s honor them properly today.
C Jim Leyritz. Whether it’s for his game-winning home run in Game 2 of the ’95 ALDS or his game-tying blast in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series, every Yankees fans loves Leyritz. He was just someone who played the game with enthusiasm that screamed “I’m a baseball player,” even if his batting stance was painful to watch. A young Jorge Posada’s emergence saw Leyritz traded away, and his San Diego Padres played the Yankees in the 1998 World Series. But it didn’t matter. One year later, Leyritz was back with the Yankees and hit the last home run of the 1990s in Game 4 of the 1999 Fall Classic.
1B Greg Bird. We’ll never know just what Bird could have been thanks to his never-ending foot injuries. As of this writing, the 30-year-old is a free agent and bounced around various minor league systems since 2020. Quite a fall from grace for someone who slugged 11 home runs in seven weeks in 2015. But for one night in October 2017, Bird was the King of the Bronx. His home run off of Andrew Miller broke a scoreless tie and fueled the first of three straight Yankees wins to clinch the ALDS.
2B Homer Bush. Bush wasn’t a Yankee long, but made his mark in a short amount of time. He hit .380 in 45 games as a reserve second baseman and found his way into playoff games as a pinch runner. It’s a shame Bush was so quickly traded to the Blue Jays for Roger Clemens that offseason. Who knows what could have been had he been there when Chuck Knoblauch’s glove started declining?
SS Brendan Ryan. Most will remember Ryan for his years as a glove-first infielder with the Cardinals. He’s a .233 lifetime hitter who only hit .201 in two-and-a-half years with the Yankees. However, having sported a truly epic mustache in pinstripes, Ryan deserves his spot here.
3B Scott Brosius. How can anyone dislike Brosius? He was traded to the Yankees before the 1998 season, hit .300 batting mostly eighth or ninth in a stacked lineup, and capped it by being named World Series MVP. Brosius only hit .254 over the final three years of his career, but still did good work with the bat. He was a career .340 hitter in high-leverage situations and was no stranger to being clutch as a Yankee. He found a way to star in his role despite playing during the Core Four’s prime years.
LF Ricky Ledee. His power never fully followed him from the minors, but Ledee was no stranger to big moments in the Bronx. His home run opened the scoring in David Cone’s perfect game in 1999 and he also made a clutch catch in the ninth inning. Ledee was also hit .295 in the playoffs before the Yankees shipped him to Cleveland for David Justice. He ultimately played for five more teams and never played in the postseason again.
CF Gerald Williams. At no point in his baseball career was the late Williams a star, not even in the minors. What he was, however, was a phenomenal teammate through and through. He was ready to play any of the three outfield positions, pinch-hit, steal a base, anything. Having been one of Derek Jeter’s closest confidants also helps.
RF Shane Spencer. Fourteen games to close the 1998 season, eight home runs, three of which were grand slams. This was enough for Yankees fans to get excited about Spencer. His power explosion definitely meant he was the next homegrown prospect, right? Spencer would add two home runs in the postseason, but otherwise only hit 49 more home runs in five years. Fans still look back fondly on his hot streak, and he also made the throw from the outfield that set up Derek Jeter’s infamous flip.
DH Shelley Duncan. Duncan debuted with the Yankees at a strange time. There was a surprising lack of outfield power aside from Hideki Matsui and Duncan was launching balls left and right in the minors. Duncan proved streaky and never quite caught on as an MLB regular, but still went viral in his own way. He offered teammates forearm bashes instead of high-fives. The fans loved it but teammates of the 6-foot-5, 220 pound Duncan? Not so much.
UT Randy Velarde. Before Ben Zobrist and DJ LeMahieu, there was Randy Velarde. An infielder by trade, he played every position except pitcher and catcher in two stints with the Yankees. Velarde only drew regular starts in five of 16 regular seasons, but definitely set the trend we see today with everyday utility players.
PH Ruben Sierra: Sierra had two stints with the Yankees, one as a starter and one as a pinch-hitter. His second is definitely the more memorable, as he was already in his late thirties and worked his way back to MLB after spending a year in the minors. Best of all was when Sierra came in to pinch-hit in Game 4 of the ALDS in 2004 and tied the eventual series-clinching game with a home run.
SP Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. Nestor Cortes wasn’t the first Cuban ace who won the fans’ hearts. Hernandez and his signature high leg kick debuted in 1998 and it wasn’t long before everyone looked forward to his turn in the rotation. El Duque also lived for the playoffs, posting a 2.55 ERA in October. He won three World Series rings with the Yankees and then a fourth with the White Sox in 2005.
CL Sparky Lyle. It’s rare when a closer wins the Cy Young Award. It was special when Sparky Lyle won it in 1977. His 26 saves didn’t lead the majors, but his 72 appearances and 60 games finished did. Lyle also tossed 137 innings that season without making a single start. In fact, Lyle pitched 100 innings or more six times in 16 years, including five as a Yankee. What’s more, he was a career reliever who never started a single game. No disrespect to Mariano Rivera, but he could never dream of matching Lyle’s endurance and stamina.
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