Yesterday’s off day brought news of the untimely passing of former Yankee Oscar Azocar, who died in his native Venezuela at the age of 45. Although Azocar was only a footnote during a down period, his short career epitomized a tumultuous era in Yankees’ history.
The 1990 Yankees’.414 winning percentage was the fifth worst in franchise history and the lowest since 1913. The team’s last place finish was also only the fifth time the Yankees ended the year in the cellar. After years of organizational turmoil, managerial turnover and neglect of the farm system, the Yankees had finally hit rock bottom.
At the same time the team was reaching new lows on the field, the Yankees were making unflattering news off of it. The beginning of the 1990 season revolved around George Steinbrenner’s ongoing dispute with and subsequent attempt to trade David Winfield, and culminated in the owner’s eventual lifetime ban for actions involved in the Winfield feud. Amid that backdrop, the Yankees won four of the first games to start the season, but then plummeted thereafter. By June 5, the team was already nine games out of first with an 18-31 record, which cost Bucky Dent his job as manager. Adding insult to injury, the axe was wielded while the Yankees were in the midst of being swept at Fenway Park, the site of Dent’s most heralded achievement.
With the season basically over before it started, and George Steinbrenner preoccupied with saving his baseball life, the Yankees began the process of rebuilding the team for the first time since the mid-1960s. Unfortunately, there weren’t many Roy White’s, Thurman Munson’s, Mel Stottlemyre’s or Bobby Murcer’s in the pipeline just yet.
Instead, the Yankees promoted a litany of non-prospects to bolster the club, which was now being managed by Stump Merrill, who previously had managed the team’s triple-A affiliate in Columbus. Along with Mike Blowers and Deion Sanders, who started the year with the big club, the Yankees’ mid-season “youth movement” also included Azocar, Kevin Maas, Hensley Muelens and Jim Leyritz.
Although Kevin Maas looked to provide the most promise, thanks to a stretch in which he hit 15 HRs over his first 42 games, it was Azocar who made the biggest splash, hitting .386 with 4 HRs and 9 RBIs in his first 15 games. In his first start on July 18 against the Royals, Azocar went 3-4 with a HR to help lead the Yankees to a 5-3 victory. In fact, the rookie trio of Azocar, Maas and Leyritz combined for six hits and three runs scored. Things were looking up.
I like this lineup now. It’s fun playing with Leyritz, Maas, Azocar and Deion. You see some serious talent there. And they’ve been impressive.” – Don Mattingly, quoted in the July 19, 1990 edition of the New Tork Times
On July 31, one day after George Steinbrenner’s lifetime suspension was announced, the team had two rookies in the everyday lineup sporting an OPS above 1.000 as well as a young catcher/3B in Jim Leyritz with an OPS of .840. Whereas the eve of the trade deadline was usually a time when the Yankees were shedding young players, this time around, the team’s youth movement seemed to be paying off. Of course, those early results were merely an illusion.
From August 1 until the end of the season, Azocar posted a brutal line of .197/.211/.242 in 161 PAs. Azocar was really never a prospect anyway, and that offseason he was traded to the Padres for a player to be named later. Like Azocar, Maas and Muelens would quickly flame out, while Blowers and Sanders would have limited success with other teams. Only Leyritz wound up leaving an indelible mark on the franchise as the author of two huge post season homeruns.
In what truly was a disastrous season for the Yankees, Oscar Azocar helped to offer some hope, even if it was just a glimmer that was destined to be extinguished. For Yankee fans who suffered through that period in team history, names like Maas and Azocar still elicit a wry smile…not only because they serve as a reminder of how far the team has come, but also because they provided a reason to watch amid so much despair.
Rest in peace Oscar Azocar…and keep swinging.