The Mets owned the city in the mid to late 80s, an era which is seen as somewhat forgotten for the Yankees despite the Bronx Bombers winning the most games in the decade.
There was no World Series title for the Yankees between 1978-1996, but the 1985 team was one of the best in the interim. Billy Sample played 59 games for the 1985 Yankees, the subject of his book “A Year In Pinstripes…And Then Some”.
“It was one of the better teams not to win anything,” Sample said of the Yankees team that finished 97-64, good enough for the fourth best record in the majors but not good enough to win the AL East.
Sample thought of writing a book 25 years ago but was told it didn’t have enough name recognition. That Sample wrote a book should be of no surprise. In school he was voted “most versatile” because of his sports, debate club and acting interests. “I’m still working on validating them,” Sample joked.
Sample played with the Texas Rangers from 1978-84, a team that didn’t make the playoffs or receive much national attention like the Yankees. “Looking across the diamond, you got the sense that they were going through different things,” Sample said.
The Yankees traded for Sample before the 1985 season. He would be a bench player as the outfield was set with Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield and Ken Griffey Sr.
It wasn’t quite “The Bronx Is Burning” Yankees of 1977 and 78, but things were still entertaining with George Steinbrenner running things, Billy Martin in his fourth stint as Yankee manager, Don Mattingly in his MVP season and Ron Guidry winning 22 games.
“It seemed like there was something going on every day,” Sample said. “I told sportswriters they were fortunate because they didn’t have to search for a story. Something you thought was a throwaway line might make the back page.”
In 1984, the Yankees were never able to catch the Tigers after Detroit started 35-5. Steinbrenner declared that Yogi Berra would manage the entire season but an opening series sweep at the hands of the Red Sox got the clock ticking.
“Once the drumroll beats, it feels like there’s nothing to stop it from beating,” said Sample, who played for eight managers in his nine year career.
Berra was fired after a 6-10 start and replaced by Martin. The team played much better although one play would make blooper reels for decades to come. That came on August 2, when Dale Berra and Bobby Meachem were thrown out at home on one play.
“If you went around the clubhouse before a game and said two guys would get thrown out on one play, 80 percent would’ve said Berra and Meachem,” Sample said.
Two days later, the Yankees honored Phil Rizzuto but the New York crowd was rooting for White Sox pitcher Tom Seaver to get his 300th win, which he did in a 4-1 Chicago victory. “I kept thinking that Seaver’s strike zone was a little wider that day although it may not have been,” Sample said.
The Yankees saved their wildest for last as reliever Ed Whitson got in a bar fight with Martin. The team was in a tailspin but actually played better after the fight. They entered the final series of the year three games behind Toronto and needing a sweep to stay alive. The Yankees won the first game but Doyle Alexander defeated the Yankees to wrap up the division. Phil Niekro won his 300th career game on the last day.
Sample would end his major league career with the 1986 Braves where he got to work with Willie Stargell, who was the hitting coach. “Down to earth class,” Sample said of the Hall of Famer. “Just to be around him was an honor.”
Sample later became a writer and broadcaster, and wrote the baseball comedy movie “Reunion 108”.
His book should be enjoyed not just by Yankees fans, but fans of the game. “I try to leave you with a nice, warm feeling,” Sample said.