Magician in The Bronx: What if the Yankees had acquired Rod Carew in 1979?

October 18, 2015 No Comments »
Magician in The Bronx: What if the Yankees had acquired Rod Carew in 1979?

Anyone who saw Rod Carew swing the bat will never forget it. He was a magician with a Louisville Slugger in his hands. The multiple batting titles he won were earned largely off his knack for slicing line drives to every square inch of the diamond.

Carew split his Hall of Fame career between the Twins and Angels and though he racked up nearly every individual honor you can get in the big leagues, he never played in a World Series. Would that have changed had a trade that was nearly finalized have gone through in the winter of 1979?

When the economics of baseball changed dramatically in the mid-1970s no owner was more blindsided and disgusted than Calvin Griffith, the miserly owner of the Minnesota Twins. Griffith was part of a baseball dynasty, the heir to Clark Griffith (the uncle who raised Calvin as his own son), the devilishly clever and pennywise owner of the Washington Senators for more than three decades. But when free agency arrived on the MLB scene, Calvin wanted no part of it. He thought ballplayers should be happy to make whatever the owner deemed fit. Not only was Calvin a cheap owner, he was also a bigot. He moved Uncle Clark’s team to Minneapolis in 1961 and years later he told a gathering there:

“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

He’d have been great pals with former NBA owner Donald Sterling.

In the 1978-79 offseason Griffith knew he would have to trade Carew, his best player on a very mediocre Twins team. He didn’t care what the fans thought or what his manager thought, he just knew he had to get something in return for Carew before he lost him to free agency for essentially nothing more than an amateur draft pick. That’s why he worked the phones feverishly after the ’78 season to make a deal that would send Carew somewhere else.

That’s when Griffith started to have regular phone conversations with a man who was almost his exact opposite fiscally — George M. Steinbrenner III. Before long the framework of a deal was in place: the Twins would send seven-time batting champion Carew to The Bronx in exchange for a slew of players to stock the Twins slim cupboard. It would be a bonanza for Carew too, who moved to the Washington Heights area of New York when he was a teenager and grew up in Manhattan. Carew would join the two-time defending World Series champions and finally get a chance to make a run at the World Series. Steinbrenner was drooling at the thought of having the two-time defending batting champ near the top of his lineup and he was willing to package several players to get his man.

The Yankees were going to send first baseman Chris Chambliss (he of pennant-winning homer fame), journeyman outfielder Juan Beniquez, and two youngsters: second baseman Damaso Garcia and lefthanded pitcher Dave Righetti. It was a four-for-one deal and the Twins would be getting a big bat to put in the middle of their lineup in Chambliss along with a serviceable outfielder in the 28-year old Beniquez. The keys to the deal though, in the eyes of Griffith, were prospects Garcia and Righetti. Some scout were comparing Righetti’s fastball to that of Yankee lefty Ron Guidry, and Garcia was a top middle infield prospect with a great glove and excellent speed. With those four players in tow, Griffith thought he’d improve his team’s depth and allow them to eventually challenge for the AL West division title.

Steinbrenner’s general manager was Cedric Tallis, a baseball lifer who worked his way diligently through the minor leagues before finding himself sitting a few offices away from The Boss at Yankee Stadium. But being Yankee GM under George was a very unsafe position in those days. Just a few months earlier Steinbrenner had shocked Yankee fans when he announced Billy Martin (whom he’d fired) would be back as manager and his current skipper Bob Lemon would be GM. Tallis stepped in when those plans (predictably) didn’t go as planned. As smart as he was, Tallis was GM in name only. It was George who wanted Carew in pinstripes.

Early in January it seemed the deal was going to be finalized. But then Steinbrenner started to solicit opinions from some of his lieutenants: his scouts LOVED Dave Righetti and his front office thought Chambliss was too important to lose. And even though they had Willie Randolph at second and didn’t need Garcia, they really thought he could be a Gold Glove infielder and could be used as a chip in a bigger deal down the road. The Yanks tried to restructure the deal, but Griffith balked. He wanted the prospects. The trade was killed.

A month later just as spring training was starting the Twins completed a deal that sent Carew to the California Angels instead, in return for Ken Landreaux, Dave Engle, Paul Hartzell, and Brad Havens. Griffith was far less excited about this mix of players, but he had to get something for Carew who would demand millions after the ’79 season as a free agent.

Carew went on to reach the postseason twice with the Angels but never played in a World Series. The Twins got a few good seasons out of Landreaux but by 1982 they were 102-game losers and Griffith sold the team before the ’85 season. The deal that happened helped the Angels far more than the Twins, but what would have happened had the Twins and Yankees pulled the trigger on the other deal?

Carew in The Bronx
It was often said that Carew was the lind of guy who could roll out of bed and hit .300 anywhere. Well, that was true for everywhere except Yankee Stadium. Carew hit .264 in Yankee Stadium, by far the lowest mark in any ballpark where he played as many as 25 games. He was never a power hitter of course, so it’s questionable whether the lefthanded swinger would have been able to take advantage of the short right field dimensions in The House That Ruth Built. Even as he got older, Carew never showed a desire to hit the ball a little deeper to get more homers and extra-base hits. He was a singles hitter. In 1979 he was still a great hitter, he’d hit .324 with a .400 OBP in his first five seasons with the Halos. In Yankee Stadium there’s little reason to believe he couldn’t have kept his average up to his lofty standards. But as great as Carew was at getting his hits, he was a 2.5-4.5 WAR player after the Twins traded him. His prime had been from 1973-77, he was basically done stealing bases, and he was a first baseman who hit less than five homers per year. Steinbrenner may have loved watching Rod hit like the rest of us did, but Griffith may have realized what others didn’t: Carew was an overpriced singles hitter.

As a Yankee, Carew probably would have been slotted in the #2 or #3 spot in the lineup, right in front of Reggie Jackson and eventually Dave Winfield. He would have had lots of chances to score runs and he would have solidified a first base spot for the Yankees, no doubt. After the ’79 season the Yankees traded Chambliss anyway and then they shuttled in a series of veterans like Bob Watson, John Mayberry, and even Ken Griffey. But while Carew would have been an All-Star in their place, he wasn’t so much of an upgrade at that point in his career that he would have pushed the Yankees to a higher level in any one season. Though had he been traded to the Yanks, Carew would have had a chance to play in the Fall Classic in 1981 against the Dodgers. He also could have become the first batter to collect his 3,000th hit as a Yankee.

Chambliss, Righetti, Beniquez, and Garcia in the Twin Cities
Had Steinbrenner not listened to the people around him and made the deal to get Carew, he would have regretted it. First there were the guys he lost anyway in later deals: Chambliss seemed to be on the bad side of 30 but he still had a lot of oomph in his bat (he went to the Braves and hit 80 homers for them, more than he’d hit in New York). Garcia was fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in Rookie of the Year voting in 1980 with the Blue Jays and was a two-time All-Star who hit .300 a few times and showed his great glove while stealing more than 200 bases in his career. Then there was Beniquez, who the Yanks kept in 1979 but then traded away for almost nothing. Beniquez played nine more years after ’79 and was a quality #4 outfielder.

But the big regret would have been Righetti, the stud lefty. Righetti was a big reason the ’81 Yanks won the pennant, earning Rookie of the Year honors. He went on to transition to the closer role and saved more than 200 games for George’s team. had he been in Minnesota, he could have been a part of the Twins revival in the 1980s when Kirby and Herbie and the Gang won pennants in 1987 and 1991.

How do you think Rod Carew would have fared as a Yankee? Tell us in comments below.

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