A few of us in the Bleacher Brawls crew recently had a conversation about players from our youth. It’s interesting how those players you watched when you were first falling in love with the game of baseball can stick with you as some of your favorite players throughout your life, even if they don’t reach the same heights of players from your older years.
I think most of us have played the “Do you remember…?” game where you bring up players from your childhood that may be somewhat obscure today. I look forward to writing about Forgotten Yankees of the 80s and 90s, I feel like there are a few players from that era that don’t get their due recognition for what they brought to the team leading up to the glory years of 1996 – 2000. There is no better player for me personally to start with than Steve Sax.
I am a Don Mattingly guy. He is, unquestionably, my all time favorite player. However, in 1989, when I was really falling in love with baseball at the age of seven, my number 2 guy was the Yankees’ newest addition, second baseman Steve Sax.
Steve Sax coming to the Yankees was a big deal. Sax had previously spent 8 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning a Rookie of the Year, playing in three All Star Games, and hitting .300 in the last real World Series that the Dodgers won.
However, there was a bit of controversy with regards to Steve Sax coming to the Yankees as their new second baseman. The controversy was that Willie Randolph, a player my Dad really loved, left the Yankees for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Willie Randolph is one of the best second basemen to ever play for the Yankees. Fans like my Dad, who watched him win World Series in the 70s and be an integral part and clubhouse leader of the teams through the 80s, were sad to see him leave. Especially when his replacement was a guy that “can’t field for s–t.”
Seven-year-old John didn’t fully grasp the concept of free agency quite yet. To add to my Dad’s frustration of Willie Randolph leaving the Yankees, he had to explain over and over again how this wasn’t a trade, even though the two players simply switched teams. As I write this, being a father of my own seven-year-old, I can only imagine my old man’s frustration during that offseason.
Attitudes changed once the season started. Steve Sax had an electric 1989 season, forever cementing him in my memory.
Steve Sax was a spark plug at the top of the lineup, the type of hitter the Yankees could use at leadoff today. Sax was a contact hitter who put the ball in play and rarely struck out.
Historically, it takes time for new additions to adjust to playing in New York. Not Sax.
He fit in perfectly with a debut Yankee season that we don’t often see. Steve Sax had 205 hits in 1989, resulting in a .315 batting average. These are numbers that are forever etched in my mind. I didn’t even need to check Sax’s baseball-reference page in order to quote them. Besides having the second most hits in the American League and the seventh overall American League batting average, he also tacked on 43 stolen bases, which was good enough for fourth in the AL. Sax was a speedster. I can still vividly remember him motoring around the bases. Sax on the bases was Brett Gardner on the bases long before Brett Gardner ever ran the bases.
As a seven-year-old, I was enthralled by the playing style of Steve Sax. He was our leadoff hitter, batting before Alvaro Espinoza and Don Mattingly. As a little leaguer, I would mimic the stretching routines of Steve Sax and Alvaro Espinoza before I stepped up to bat. He left that level of impression on me.
Not only did I learn to stretch like Steve Sax, I learned to hit like Steve Sax. Sax wasn’t a power hitter, swinging late on the ball and driving it to right field to tally up singles and rely on his speed to get himself around the bases. When Derek Jeter first joined the Yankees in 1996, with a hitting style of driving the ball the opposite way and using speed and instincts to get around the bases to score, my first thought was “this guy reminds me of Steve Sax.” Through Steve Sax, I learned what it meant to swing late and drive the ball the other way, which would often result in base hits. I hated making outs. While other kids swung for the fences, I wanted a base hit every time I stepped to the plate. Mimicking Sax was the best way for me to accomplish that.
I didn’t even realize the impression Steve Sax made on me until I began writing this column. You learn something new about yourself every day.
It wasn’t just me that was impressed by Steve Sax. His popularity led to two television appearances. Steve Sax made an appearance on the sitcom Who’s the Boss? Tony Danza’s character was a former baseball player, making this must-watch tv in my household. A much, much more memorable appearance occurred on the Simpsons, in probably their greatest episode of all time, “Homer at the Bat.” Steve Sax was a legit star in MLB.
To be fair, it wasn’t all roses and rainbows with Steve Sax. Sax is often remembered for his fielding woes with the Yankees. His throwing errors got so bad, that they even moved him to 3B for a few games before moving him back to second when that experiment didn’t work (we’ll get to Pat Kelly another day).
I was quite disappointed when the Yankees moved on from Steve Sax, trading him to the Chicago White Sox for a haul that included starting pitcher Melido Perez, a young Bob Wickman, and Domingo Jean, who has probably the oddest Yankee Stadium debut story of any Yankee ever. This was a trade that eventually had a ripple effect that led to the 1996 – 2000 dynasty years.
Steve Sax was a beloved Yankee for a few years, often forgotten because of the dynasty that followed shortly after his departure. But he was a major piece to the Yankees for a few years and a player that left a huge impression on me as I learned the game of baseball and fell in love with the Yankees.
One final note, if the Bleacher Brawls crew ever needs a motivational speaker, I know the first guy we are going to call!
I unfortunately have to end this story on a sad note. Here at Bleacher Brawls, we are supporters of the US Armed Forces. Huge supporters of the US Armed Forces. Steve Sax and his family recently suffered a tragedy. Our hearts go out to the Sax family (not only the hearts of the Yankees fans but the Red Sox fans too).
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[…] couple of weeks ago I wrote a column on one of my favorite “forgotten” Yankees, Steve Sax. Using the term “forgotten” may be a bit of an overstatement, as Sax played 3 years with the […]