Classic Yankees: Jimmy Key

With the Yankees’ success over most of the last two decades, there are many fans who don’t know what it was like to have a sub-.500 season.

Going into 1993, the Yankees had suffered through four consecutive losing seasons. 1992 saw a new manager and some improvement, notably in discipline and the way the Yankees went about their business. But it was still a losing season nonetheless.

Although Don Mattingly was there to provide some leadership, Donnie Baseball hadn’t been in any postseasons. Not only that, but Mattingly wasn’t “Mattingly” anymore. Bernie Williams was just coming up and the 24 year old showed promise, but he wasn’t “Bernie Williams” yet. Future stars like Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were still a few years away.

Changes needed to be made, and Gene Michael made the right changes. He not only brought in good players, but he brought in the right players. For Jimmy Key, Paul O’Neill and Wade Boggs were veterans who could help Mattingly provide leadership. Key and O’Neill had been on winning World Series teams, and Boggs was in a few postseasons. To this day, I always value getting players who have been through the wars so to speak; players who have played in the postseason, and especially players who have thrived in the postseason. There is something to be said when you add one of those to your team.

This profile will be on Jimmy Key. Key was a “fallback option” for the Yanks in the winter of 1992-1993. The big free agents were Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds. Gene Michael wanted Maddux badly, and was crushed when the future Hall-of-Famer, who he once managed, turned him down.

But what a fallback option Key turned out to be. Key was with the Yankees for only four seasons, 1993-1996, and missed most of 1995 with an injury. One wonders how Yankees history might have been different had Key been healthy in 1995. Would the Yankees still have traded for David Cone, a trade which became a necessity when Key went down for that 1995 season? Would they have beaten Seattle in the playoffs? How far would they have advanced? Would Buck Showalter’s job have been saved? We’ll never know.

In 1992, the year before Key arrived, the 76-86 Yankees had a rotation of Melido Perez (13-16), Scott Sanderson (12-11), and Scott Kamieniecki (6-14). Tim Leary was there and traded in mid-season. Heck, Greg Cadaret started eleven games. Other starters had names of Hillegas, Militello, Jeff Johnson, Wickman, Hitchcock and Curt Young. Not exactly legendary names (to be fair, Wickman had a good career as a reliever). Sanderson and Leary had postseason experience but their better days were behind them.

Key came into that mix and 1993 became one of my favorite Yankee seasons, despite the fact that they didn’t make the postseason that year (if the wild card had been in effect, they would have made it). The Yanks were respectable again, going 88-74 and finishing seven games behind World Champion Toronto in the AL East. In fact, they were tied with the Blue Jays atop the division with only 21 games to go. The Yankees were back, and Key was the ace of the staff. Key was 18-6, ERA of 3.00. The excellence that he showed in Toronto (116-81, 3.42, four playoff appearances, 1992 World Champ) manifested itself in the Bronx. I never saw Whitey Ford pitch except in old film clips, but I would imagine Key was as close to Whitey’s style as you could get. In 1993 and 1994 especially, Key was the active “Chairman of the Board.” Joining Key on that 1993 staff was Perez (6-14) and Kamieniecki (10-7), as well as another pitcher the Yanks brought in, Jim Abbott (11-14). Bob Wickman (14-4) had 19 starts. Other starters were Witt, Hitchcock, Jean, Hutton, Jeff Johnson, Militello…the Yanks were a bit short. How short? They brought in aging Frank Tanana at the end of the year to try to shore things up. You can see how “Key” Jimmy was.

For his role in helping to make the Yankees a winning team again, Key finished 4th in the Cy Young Award voting and 11th in the MVP vote. He was an All-Star and would repeat that in 1994.

As for 1994, who knows what could have happened. At the time of the strike, Key was 17-4, 3.27. This time, he was the runner-up in the CYA voting (won by David Cone) and finished 6th in the MVP vote. At the time of the strike, the Yankees had the best record in the AL. Perez (9-4), Abbott (9-8) and Kamieniecki (8-6) were still there, as was the brutally bad Terry Mullholland (6-7, 6.49). Hitchcock and Bobby Ojeda got some starts as well. But still, once again you can see the importance of Jimmy Key, who led the majors in wins that year and led the AL in starts.

1995, as mentioned earlier, was a wasted year due to injury. Key started just five games, going 1-2, 5.64.

In 1996, Key returned and wasn’t the Key of 1993 and 1994. He did start 30 games and he did go 12-11, 4.68. Meanwhile, a new ace was emerging. Like Key, this youngster was a lefty. Having Key on the team probably was a huge help in this youngster’s development. For Jimmy Key never had overpowering stuff. He was a smart pitcher who knew how to pitch, and had a good pickoff move. You could say the same for Andy Pettitte, for Pettitte was that youngster.

Key pitched well in the 1996 postseason as the prior postseason experience he had with the Blue Jays paid dividends. He had a no-decision in his ALDS start (2 runs in 5 IP), in a game the Yankees won. He was brilliant in his ALCS start, going 8 innings and giving up just 2 runs on 3 hits while gaining the victory. He lost Game 2 of the World Series, giving up four runs in six innings, but Greg Maddux was just outstanding that evening. But Key (and the Yankees) got their revenge on Maddux in Game 6. Key went 5 1/3, gave up one run, and was the winning pitcher as the Yankees won their first World Series in 18 years.

Key became a free agent and signed with Baltimore after the 1996 season, and had one good year for the Orioles, leading them to the 1997 ALCS. The Orioles haven’t had a winning season since. He retired after the 1998 season with a career mark of 186-117, 3.51 (ERA+ 122). His Yankees’ record was 48-23, 3.68 (ERA+ 124).

He was on the 2004 HOF ballot, but only got 0.6% of the vote, thus dropping off forever. He never won 20 in a season, and his average year was along the lines of 15-9, 3.51.

I haven’t been at an Old-Timer’s Day in a while, and don’t know if they brought Key back for one. But if I make one, and Key is introduced, I’ll applaud long and loud, for Key helped bring the Yankees back to respectability, then put them back on top of the baseball world.

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3 Responses to Classic Yankees: Jimmy Key

  1. Mike S. says:

    Yes Will, you are absolutely correct. While not a trade "per se", while Key went to Baltimore for 1997, Wells came to NY.

  2. Susan says:

    I remember those dark days in the early 90s with the terrible starting pitching. I always liked Jimmy Key, even when he was a Blue Jay.

  3. Will says:

    Thanks for that. I didn’t realize Key was with those mid-early 90s Yanks. Guess I blocked that out for some reason. I do remember him being sooo distraught after the Game 2 loss to Maddux. He apologized heavily to his teammates and in the press, although he really didn’t have to. A stud and great to know he was going out there every 5th day. Didn’t Wells come over from Baltimore the same year as Key left to go there?

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