Twenty-four years ago was the last time the New York Yankees finished under .500. Buck Showalter was the manager. Don Mattingly was the captain. George Steinbrenner was suspended.
And, despite a 76-86 record, the 1992 Yankees were going in the right direction.
“You could tell they were not an under-.500 team going down,” said Michael Kay, who in 1992 was in his first season as John Sterling’s partner in the Yankees’ radio booth. “They were an under-.500 team going up.”
The path of the 2016 Yankees (44-44) and beyond is still to be determined. This season could be the under-.500 bookend of a magical nearly quarter-century run — and the start of a stretch of losing years as they rebuild in the Bronx. Or, just like in 1992, perhaps the Yankees are already laying the foundation of young players who will help propel them to another long winning streak.
In hindsight, it is clear that a 34-year-old Showalter, with then-GM Gene “Stick” Michael’s support and without Steinbrenner’s meddling, had a plan to restore professionalism and a winning attitude.
Showalter remembers a specific question during his introductory news conference as Stump Merrill’s replacement in 1992. A reporter asked Showalter what kind of timeline he had for the Yankees to become successful again.
In Showalter’s estimation, a lot of managers and executives cover their behinds in these situations by promising a five-year plan. Showalter didn’t have that option.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a one-year contract,'” Showalter recalled in a recent interview with ESPN.com. “We’re on a one-year plan.”
The 1992 Yankees were five games better than Merrill’s ’91 squad, which, with Steinbrenner sidelined, allowed Showalter to keep his job.
More important than the ’92 record, Showalter and Michael created a new “Yankee Way” that would soon be carried out by the likes of Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada.
The young core that transformed the Yankees into champions wasn’t on the ’92 team, save for a 23-year-old Williams. For him, though, that early taste of the big leagues was sour; some soon-to-be-ex-teammates derisively called him “Bambi.”
Suzyn Waldman, Sterling’s current radio partner in the Yankees’ booth, was a beat reporter for what was then a five-year-old radio station, WFAN.
Waldman recalled Williams’ Coke-bottle glasses, and his writing of music and poetry, which made him a unique personality in the clubhouse. But outfielder Mel Hall didn’t take a liking to the future four-time World Series champion, and would haze the youngster to the point where he’d make him cry.
“Who was gone the next year?” Waldman said. “Mel Hall. I’m not saying cause and effect, but I am saying cause and effect. That was all part of it.”
Mattingly protected Williams from the bullying and made the youngster who would one day join him in Monument Park believe in himself.
“That was the year that Don Mattingly took Bernie in a corner and said, ‘You belong here. Don’t let them get to you,’” Waldman said.
For Williams, said Waldman, it was a transformative moment.
In 1993, the Yankees finished 88-74, the third-best record in the AL but out of the playoff picture in the days before the wild card. In 1994, the Yankees may have been champions if not for the strike — they were 70-43 when the playing stopped — and the cancellation of the World Series.
In 1995 — after Steinbrenner had returned from his ban for paying a gambler to dig up dirt on future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield — they would make the playoffs. Then, after The Boss dumped Showalter in favor of Joe Torre, they’d start their legendary run with a Fall Classic victory in 1996.
Today, the professionalism that Showalter and Michael created is felt throughout the organization, even while the winning has slowed substantially. The next wave of prospects, including Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Luis Severino, approach their job in that manner, though it remains to be seen how their talent will translate to the big leagues.
Waldman watched the transformation that led to championships begin with the little things, like players taking even the most minute parts of their job seriously.
One day in the old Yankee Stadium’s home locker room, early in the 1992 season, Waldman remembers asking 24-year-old second baseman Pat Kelly, “What are you doing?” Kelly was staring at the captain, Mattingly, as No. 23 put the finishing touches on his uniform.
Kelly said he was watching how Mattingly tied his shoes. The infielder wanted to learn from Donnie Baseball, to make sure that he, too, was doing everything right. Though perhaps overly fastidious, it was the kind of attention to detail Showalter asks from his team.
The younger players looked up to Mattingly, lending Showalter, just a few years older than his club’s captain, the authority to implement his agenda.
“He was all about winning and being a good teammate, presenting himself,” Showalter said of Mattingly. “I mean he was such a great role model for the guys that we brought up. We could bring in guys from other places and he’d say, ‘Hey, for us to get where we want to go, we can’t do it that way.’ For a first-year manager to have that type of support from the most respected guy on the team gave me a lot of credibility, and I always appreciated that with him.”
Showalter, Mattingly and nearly everyone else from the ’92 team except Williams would miss out on the joy of ’96 at Yankee Stadium, but they set the framework for it. As they try to avoid finishing beneath .500, the question for the Yankees is: Are they on the way up or on the way down?
ESPN.com’s Eddie Matz contributed to this story.