COMMENTARY | Major League Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline is Wednesday, July 31, a day when contenders have one more shot to add an arm or a bat in order to make a run for a postseason bid, or a day when also-rans have a chance to move a big salary or a pending free agent in order to load up on prospects.
The New York Yankees have historically been more active as buyers than sellers at the deadline, and 1988 was no exception.
The Yankees got out of bed on Thursday, July 21 trailing the Detroit Tigers by 1.5 games in the American League East. Less than a month after manager Billy Martin was fired for the fifth and final time and general manager Lou Piniella went down to the dugout for his second stint as the skipper of the Bronx Bombers, there was a belief in the front office -- read owner George Steinbrenner -- that the Yankees needed one more bat to make a run at the division crown.
The Yankees hadn't made the playoffs since the strike-shortened 1981 season, six years and counting, and The Boss was getting impatient.
He set his sights on Seattle Mariners designated hitter-first baseman Ken Phelps. Phelps was the classic late-bloomer, a guy who had kicked around baseball since 1976 but never got regular at-bats at the big-league level until 1984 with the Mariners, after bouncing around the organizations of the Kansas City Royals and Montreal Expos without ever catching on.
Phelps came out of nowhere in 1984, slugging 24 home runs, all but one of them against right-handed pitching, and driving in 51 runs in 360 plate appearances. He slumped in 1985 but came back in 1986-87 with 51 homers, 132 RBIs and a .945 OPS for the M's. He walked a lot, struck out a lot and when he made contact, the ball went far.
Never mind that the Yankees had perennial All-Star Don Mattingly entrenched at first base and had veteran slugger Jack Clark to DH on a regular basis -- Steinbrenner wanted Ken Phelps.
At the time, Phelps was having his best year ever. His batting average was at a career-best .284 and his OPS stood at .982. He had 14 home runs and 32 RBIs in 244 plate appearances for a Mariner club that was going nowhere.
So Steinbrenner did what he did, gave away a young player (in this case three young players, minor-leaguers Rich Balabon and Troy Evers also went to the Mariners in the deal) to bring in a one-dimensional veteran who didn't have a spot in the lineup.
It was, in short, a disaster.
Not only did Phelps wilt under the spotlight in Yankee Stadium, hitting .224/.339/.551 with 10 homers and just 22 RBIs in 127 plate appearances, but the Yankees stumbled to the finish line. New York was just 32-38 after making the deal and finished in fifth place in a weak, weak American League East. The Boston Red Sox wound up winning the thing at 89-73, a game better than the Tigers, two ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers and Toronto Blue Jays and 3.5 up on the Yanks.
Boston's reward was to be the bug to the Oakland Athletics' windshield in the American League Championship Series, as Oakland won its first pennant in 14 years in a 4-0 sweep.
In fairness to the boss, it wasn't as if the 23-year-old Buhner had made anyone making plans to build a new monument for him behind the center-field wall. At the time he was dealt, he was played in 25 games, made 76 plate appearances and was hitting .188/.250/.319 with 3 homers, 13 RBIs and 25 strikeouts.
Phelps hung around in the Bronx until the following August, when he was swapped to the Oakland Athletics for minor-leaguer Scott Holcomb. His Yankee totals were uninspiring: .240/.339/.442 with 17 homers, 51 RBIs, with 70 hits and 73 strikeouts.
Buhner, on the other hand? He was an All-Star in Seattle, won a Gold Glove and was part of Seattle's first three playoff teams in 1995, 1997 and 2000.
He would go on to slug 307 home runs in 14 years for the Mariners, driving in 951, and was inducted into the Mariners' Hall of Fame in 2004, highlighted by a three-year stretch from 1995-97 when he hit 124 home runs and posted 368 RBIs.
Yes, the Yankees turned out OK, acquiring Paul O'Neill from the Cincinnati Reds in November 1992 to play right field.
But still ... Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?
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