June 5 - Lemons in the Big Apple
Liza Minnelli sang “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” in the hit title song of the underrated
1977 film New York, New York, later made eternally popular by Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, for a
notable selection of players, the converse doesn’t hold true. For every Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius and
David Cone, guys whose careers are punctuated by successful runs in the Big Apple, there are
players who came to the Bronx or Queens as solid major leaguers and left branded as guys who
couldn’t make it in the bright spotlight – and unforgiving fans – of Gotham. These are their stories…
I’ve put together the top 10 Big Apple Busts of the last 25 years. I’ve eliminated players who were well
past their primes or in steady decline when they arrived in N.Y., like Esteban Loiaza, Jose Canseco
and Mo Vaughn, who missed an entire year with an injury before joining the Mets. I’ve also excluded
players who began their careers inauspiciously in New York and experienced success elsewhere,
like Jason Isringhausen or Ted Lilly. This list is of established players, brought in with a lot of hype
and/or expectation, who failed, often spectacularly, with the interlocking NY or script Mets on their
10 (tie). Gary Ward, Yankees OF-DH, 1987-89 – Coming off a .316 season and averaging 82 RBI for
the previous four years, Ward promptly dropped to .248, then .225 in his first two years in Pinstripes,
then was released eight games into his third. He was a favorite target of me and my college buddies
in our frequent trips to a mostly-empty stadium, in which we taunted Ward with such pointed
comments as “Hey Gary, you s***.” We even once implored Cory Snyder to try to get himself traded to
the Yankees for Ward, adding, “He s***s!”
10 (tie). George Foster, Mets OF, 1982-86 – As the Reds jettisoned several of
their stars prior to the 1982 season, one of the most feared hitters of the 70’s
became available and the rebuilding Mets jumped at the chance to grab him.
Here was a guy who was still clearly a dominant player, driving in 90 runs in
108 games in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign and more than 90 in each
of the previous five, including a ridiculous 149 in 1977, when he blasted 52
homers. Ridiculous could also describe his collapse in blue and orange, as
his batting average and production plummeted while his strikeouts rose and
his outfield play – never spectacular – diminished further. The highest-paid
player in the game in 1986, he missed out on the Mets’ World Series
celebration when, hitting .227, he was released on August 7.
10 (tie). Steve Kemp, Yankees OF, 1983-84 – Here’s a guy whose best years seemed to be ahead of
him. Injuries had something to do with his decline, but he never came close to matching his success
in Detroit and Chicago. The Yanks unloaded him to Pittsburgh after the 1984 season, but were still
paying his salary, which ranked in the top 10 both years, when he hit just three more home runs and
9. Bobby Bonilla, Mets OF-3B, 1992-95, 1999 – Emblematic of the unfulfilled promise of the early-to-
mid ‘90’s Mets squads, Bonilla was actually more productive his first time around than many Mets
fans might remember, hitting 34 homers in 1993. But his personality issues, run-ins with the media
and sometimes disinterested attitude make it easier for fans to think of his .160 average in 60 games
in 1999, as well as the galling idea that his $5.9 million salary from that year is being paid over what
seems like the next century.
8. Dave Collins, Yankees OF-1B, 1982 – When the Yankees dismantled the teams that made
Championship runs from 1977-81, Collins was the centerpiece of a new speed-and-singles plan.
Seemed like a good idea at the time, as Collins averaged nearly 34 stolen bases in his first five full
seasons, including 79 in 1980, and hit .300 twice. But Ruth built this House, not Renaldo Nehemiah.
A late nine-game losing streak helped the Yanks to their worst record in 15 years (79-83) and the Go-
Go-Yanks were history. Collins gains additional infamy for being included in the deal that sent Fred
McGriff to the Blue Jays for Dale Murray, who barely missed making this top 10.
7. Dave LaPoint, Yankees P, 1989-90 – Maybe the Yankees should have seen this one coming.
LaPoint’s 14-win, 3.25 ERA season in 1988, split between the White Sox and Pirates, masked the 17-
loss campaign three years earlier that turned him into a situational lefty. He was just plain awful as a
Yankee free agent signee, and his two pitch speeds – slow and stop – led to more than 11 hits per
nine innings and an unsightly 4.73 ERA over two seasons.
6. Steve Trout, Yankees P, 1987 – “I just won you the pennant. I got you Steve Trout.” These were the
words of George Steinbrenner on July 13, 1987. The veteran lefty had been 6-3 for the Cubs, and
was coming off consecutive complete-game shutouts in his previous two starts. But he left his map
for the strike zone on the plane from Chicago, walking 37 and uncorking nine wild pitches while
allowing 36 runs in 46 innings in going 0-4 with an ugly 6.60 ERA the rest of the way. Desperate to
unload Trout, the Yankees actually found a taker in Seattle after the season, bringing back the
dependable Lee Guetterman in the deal.
5. Denny Neagle, Yankees P, 2000 – “I just won you the pennant. I got you Denny Neagle.” Ok, no
one is on record as having said that, but they might well have thought it at the time. At 8-2 with a fine
3.52 ERA with the Reds through the first two-thirds of the 2000 season, Neagle looked like the final
cog in the Yankee rotation that was headed for its third straight World Series title. But Neagle had
little to do with that, blowing up to a 5.81 ERA for the regular season, drawing losses in both ALCS
starts and the complete loss of confidence by Joe Torre.
4. Juan Samuel, Mets OF, 1989 – Mets fans point to the trade of Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell,
who both had plenty of productive years left in them, for Samuel as the beginning of a run of bad
decisions and bad luck that led to the franchise hitting close to rock bottom. Samuel was a five-tool
player who left at least three of them in Philadelphia. Just one year removed from a near 30-30
season, he hit just .228 with three homers and struck out 75 times in 86 games before being
peddled to the Dodgers following the season.
3. Roberto Alomar, Mets 2B, 2002-03 – Here was one of the most dynamic
players of the 1990’s, in my mind a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Alomar was 34
when he came to the Mets, but had hit .336, .310 and .328 in his past three
years and had averaged 18 home runs and 25 stolen bases over the
previous six, along with being the best defensive second baseman in the
game for more than a decade. Mets fans got to see practically none of that,
as Alomar stumbled out of the gate and never got it going, hitting just over
.260 in a year and a half before the White Sox took him off their hands.
2. Ken Phelps, Yankees DH, 1988-89 – Phelps was showing up as the
punch line of a Seinfeld gag years after his disappointing 131-game run in Pinstripes. A prolific
slugger with Seattle – he averaged between 12 and 14 at bats per home run over a four-year span –
Phelps imploded as a Yankee, an ignominy made worse by the fact that he was traded for future All-
Star and three-time 40-homer man Jay Buhner. Phelps was given away to the A’s during the ’89
season but hit just one more home run in 67 games over the next year and a half, so he may have
been close to finished when he reached New York. But he lives on in Yankee lore of bad trades and
bad performances during the dismal late 80’s-early 90’s period.
1. Ed Whitson, Yankees P, 1985-86 – At last, the Poster Child for New York Lemons… the absolute
epitome of what it means to fail in New York. Let me count the ways… First, Whitson seemed to be
coming into his own after bouncing around a bit in the first eight years of his career. Then, he not only
pitched poorly for the Yankees, but was so spooked by the Big Apple that Billy Martin and Lou Piniella
famously had to juggle the rotation so that Whitson only pitched on the road. Bob Shirley ended up
with a bunch of his N.Y. starts, not a particularly enticing prospect for Bombers fans. Finally, after the
Yanks somehow wrested solid Tim Stoddard from the Padres in a trade, Whitson became one of the
National League’s top starters over the next four years, winning in double digits and pitching 200+
innings each year, including two sub-2.70 ERA seasons.
Honorable Mention: Yankees – Doyle Alexander, Rich Dotson, Toby Harrah, Xavier Hernandez, Lance
McCullers, Dale Murray, Javier Vazquez, Rondell White, Jay Witasick; Mets – Carlos Baerga, Derek
Bell, Roger Cedeno, Vince Coleman, Richard Hidalgo, Randy Jones, Braden Looper, Mel Rojas, Mo
Note: BaseballReference.com and Retrosheet.org were used to confirm the statistical data in this