For those old enough to remember, there was a four-year span when the Yankees were among the worst teams in baseball. Between 1989 and 1992, they twice lost 90 games and never won more than 76.
Owner George Steinbrenner was suspended, Don Mattingly’s back hurt and Dave Winfield had been traded. The man at the helm was Stump Merrill, who was in many ways is a Yankee lifer.
“That’s the first time I’ve failed at anything in my life,” Merrill said on July 1 at Old Timers’ Day. “It was a hell of a adjustment. Then, I got fired and that affected me for a while. And then you didn’t get fired, you got replaced, because you’re still here. That being the case, somebody thought that you had some value somewhere else.”
In hindsight, there was a silver lining to those years.
Since Steinbrenner was suspended, his absence provided time for players such as Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams to develop. Then, a 91-loss season in 1991 allowed the Yankees to use the No. 6 overall pick in 1992 on Derek Jeter. In 1994, he managed Posada, Jeter, Pettitte and Rivera at Triple-A Columbus, who would all make their major league debuts the following year.
“I don’t think that we anticipated that they would be the great players that they would, but the thing that you knew was because they all had great effort, they were all going to get there and make their way,” Merrill said. “The rest of the story is known — not only do they get there and make their way, but they’ve made it very well. Those are the rewards that you get, in being a small part in their development along the way.
“Did I get them to the big leagues? No. They got themselves to the big leagues. What I was fortunate to be able to do was be able to write their name in the lineup on a daily basis.”
After managing the members of the “Core Four” in the minors, and Williams briefly in the majors, Merrill managed Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang for Double-A Trenton in 2003 and 2004. Cano has turned into one of the game’s best second basemen while Wang was a two-time 19-game winner before a serious injury in 2008.
Merrill was a first-time attendee at Old Timers’ Day, where the details of his years in the Yankee organization were announced. His accomplishments included 1,460 victories in a minor league managerial career that began in 1978 in the Eastern League and included stops in Nashville, Fort Lauderdale, Columbus, Albany, Prince William, Norwich and Trenton.
Those stops were interrupted by stints as a first base coach for Yogi Berra, Billy Martin and Lou Piniella in 1985 and 1987 respectively and his unsuccessful 275-game major league managerial career.
Staying in the organization for that long is simple for Merrill. He shares the same desire to win as Steinbrenner did and although his stint as a major league manager was personally disappointing, Merrill is content with the career he has enjoyed with the Yankees.
“I think he knows I had a passion to win,” Merrill said. “He had a passion to win. That’s one of the reasons, when provided the opportunity, I stayed. Because I knew he had the same passion to win that I did, and why go elsewhere?
“I have worn a lot of hats, there’s no question. But I’ve been very fortunate — that man has taken care of me for 36 years. And I’m tremendously indebted to him, even though he’s no longer with us, and his family. And just proud as hell to be part of the organization.”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.