Twenty five years ago, Kevin Maas, the product of a prospect starved New York Yankees team was unofficially deemed the savior for a desperate franchise, but unrealistic expectations stalled his development and his legacy became a cautionary tale of how sudden success can ultimately lead to one’s demise.
The New York Yankees were the winningest team of the 1980’s. Armed with the checkbook of George Steinbrenner, the Yankees were able to acquire any player with name recognition. Individuals such as Rickey Henderson, Jack Clark, Jesse Barfield, and Dave Winfield donned the Yankees pinstripes seeking to recapture the magic of the “Bronx Zoo” era of the late 1970s. The decade however became defined by desperation and false hopes. Acquisitions such as Dave LaPoint, Ed Whitson, and Steve Kemp became social pariahs unable to handle the New York spotlight. In exchange for these and a laundry list of other flameouts were prospects Fred McGriff, Bob Tewksbury, Doug Drabek, Hal Morris, and Otis Nixon.
The adverse trend began more pronounced in 1988 when the Yankees traded top prospect Jay Buhner the Mariners for aging DH Ken Phelps in a scene parodied nearly a decade later on Seinfeld. Quick fixes like Steve Trout did not result in the pennant as initially expected. Yankees pride and tradition declined precipitously and dysfunction reigned supreme. Dallas Green, Gene Michael, Lou Piniella, and Billy Martin guided the island of misfit toys while enduring the wrath of Steinbrenner. Tony Kubek, a former Yankees shortstop and team broadcaster was critical of the team’s direction under Steinbrenner, exclaiming, “He’s got an expensive toy. Baseball’s tough enough without an owner harassing you.” Perception waned and a once proud franchise reached its bleakest point, (mlblogs.com).
During the 1990 season, the club hit rock bottom. Under Bucky Dent and Stump Merrill, the Yankees lost 95 games, finishing with their worst showing since 1912 when they were known as the Highlanders. During their time in the abyss of the league, the Yankees emptied the lasting remains of a once potent farm system, fielding lineups featuring forgettable names such as Roberto Kelly, Alvaro Espinoza, Hensley Muelens, and Oscar Azocar. With Don Mattingly nursing a debilitating back injury, the Yankees believed they found his successor in an unheralded prospect named Kevin Maas.
A 22nd round selection in the 1986 draft, Maas immediately made his presence felt. In his first 77 at bats, Maas hit ten home runs, becoming the fastest player ever to achieve the feat. A dead pull hitter, Maas took advantage of the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, mashing ever mistake pitch over the wall. Instant success prompted premature comparisons to Mantle and Maris and the fabled 1961 season. With little reason to cheer and watch, the Yankees milked the unexpected success of Maas at every instance. By the end of the season, Maas compiled 21 home runs in just 79 games. His .902 OPS and an oWAR of 2 appeared to signal a franchise cornerstone. Maas finished second to Sandy Alomar Jr. of the Cleveland Indians for Rookie of the Year and was immediately slotted as the DH for 1991 with Mattingly receiving a clean bill of health.
Though Maas would exceed twenty home runs for the second consecutive season, those figures came in two hundred additional at bats. In successive years his major league opportunities dwindled as he failed to make the necessary adjustments against pitches who figured out his pull hitting fastball approach. By 1992, Stick Michael and Buck Showalter were identifying players to build around within the slowly improving Yankees system and chose not to build around Maas. Two years later, after three consecutive seasons of depreciating production, the Yankees made it official and Maas became a journeyman before completing his career in Japan.
As the decade progressed, the Yankees slowly built a dynasty around prospects Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. At the peak of championship glory and peak efficacy both on the field and in the clubhouse, the Kevin Maas era became a cautionary tale of immediate success lacking sustainability. Premature promise and destined greatness surrounded future Yankees such as Shane Spencer, Ricky Ledee, and Shelley Duncan, but the summer of Maas in 1990 became the first instance of the theme. Twenty five years after the fact, prospects are littering baseball at a record pace and are achieving high levels of dominance almost instantaneously. For those who endured years of failed prospects and fallen hopes, the accomplishments are met with skepticism and disbelief. Trading wide-eyed youngsters for proven commodities appears more prudent for fear of the next overhyped phenom. In a era with better scouting and the greatest amount of information at our disposal, there are fewer instances of flameouts who once graced the annals of publications and online lists.
Accumulating the prospects who can develop into a sustainable contender is proving to be the proper method of building a franchise. The San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals have combined for five World Series appearances this decade, following this blueprint. As for Kevin Maas, the idealistic symbol of Yankees glory, made a career for himself as a financial consultant in California. Maas has also maintained close ties to the Yankees organization, appearing at Old Timer’s Day in both 2008 and 2011. Over two decades after his burst onto the major league scene, Maas is content with the way his life turned out and his accomplishments, “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Maas says. “I’m doing things I really enjoy.” (New York Daily News). The summer of 1990 was an enjoyable time in the Bronx for Kevin Maas, who for a brief moment appeared to be the silver lining after dark cloud of disappointment and frustration appeared to linger upon the Yankees.