In the days leading up to one of Yankee Stadium’s most surprising comebacks, it was the visitors’ ballpark that was making headlines. The previous week, the New York Yankees dropped a two-game series to the Minnesota Twins, and placed the blame on the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome’s roof.
After New York fielders lost some routine fly balls against the unevenly lit dome, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner preemptively protested the second game.1 Manager Billy Martin called the Metrodome a “Little League ballpark” and blasted Twins owner Carl Pohlad for being too cheap to “spend some money on some blue paint for the [expletive] ceiling.”2
Martin’s frustration was no doubt intensified because the losses broke a four-game winning streak that had lifted New York out of the American League East cellar. The disappointing start to the team’s season had prompted the firing of manager Yogi Berra after 16 games, ushering in Martin’s fourth stint as Yankees skipper. Martin wanted it made clear that the ballpark, not his team nor his “Billy-ball” approach, was at fault for the losses. “We were playing good baseball and we come in here and it looks like a circus,” he complained.3
Another Yankee looking to prove that first Metrodome loss was a fluke was starting pitcher Ed Whitson. The high-priced offseason acquisition had been rocked for five runs on nine hits in only 1⅔ innings in Minneapolis, and two dome-induced hits were a key factor.
Looking for redemption in the Bronx, however, he quickly learned that the best-hitting team in the major leagues4 could hit on the road as well.
The game had barely started when Whitson found himself down 1-0 with runners at the corners. The Twins’ first three batters, Kirby Puckett, Mickey Hatcher, and Kent Hrbek, had all singled within his first six pitches The Twins scored a second run and a fourth single before Whitson escaped the inning.
Things got more grim for the Yankees when Minnesota starter Mike Smithson’s first pitch smashed into Rickey Henderson’s elbow. Once aboard, Henderson wasted no time in stealing second, then advancing to third on a Ken Griffey fly out. Henderson tried to score on a Don Mattingly fly ball to shallow center field, but was gunned down at home by Puckett.
In retaliation, Whitson opened the second inning by plunking Gary Gaetti in the hip, which cost him when Gaetti stole second and then scored on a pair of singles that ended Whitson’s night.
Martin turned to former Twins reliever Don Cooper to stop the bleeding, but the righty struggled to locate his pitches. He allowed both inherited runners to score, including one on a wild pitch to Tom Brunansky, who then drew a walk. With two runners on, designated hitter Randy Bush clanged a deep fly off the right-field foul pole for his second home run in as many days6 and an 8-0 Twins lead.
When the ninth batter of the inning, former Yankee Roy Smalley, mercifully slapped an inning-ending groundout toward first baseman Mattingly, many of the 15,136 in the stands were already taking up a taunting chorus of “Let’s go Mets!” chants,7 which intensified as the next three Yankee batters went down in order.
Martin made another call to the bullpen, where someone else had an axe to grind about the previous week’s trip to Minnesota. The second game of the series was the reason right-hander Joe Cowley was available as a reliever in the first place. Much like Whitson before him, Cowley was shelled in the Metrodome, surrendering seven runs on six hits in 3⅔ innings. Martin was so upset by Cowley’s performance that he wouldn’t even come out of the dugout to pull his starter. “He showed me nothing. … Cowley is going to the bullpen,” Martin told reporters.8
Cowley held the Twins scoreless in the third, and then again in the fourth. Meanwhile, since drilling Henderson, Smithson had retired 10 straight batters before Mattingly finally got New York’s first hit, a double to right field.
The defending AL batting champ had just three hits in his previous 25 at-bats, a slump that had dropped his batting average by almost 50 points, from .329 to .282, and started with a 1-for-10 showing at the Metrodome. Dave Winfield brought him home with a single, but Smithson seemed unfazed by his lead shrinking from eight runs to seven, and perhaps with good reason.
After all, a Yankees win on this night would require them to match the record for the team’s greatest-ever comeback at Yankee Stadium.9 In the ballpark’s 62-year history, fans had seen their boys in pinstripes rally from an eight-run deficit only twice – both on consecutive Saturdays in 1933.10
After Smithson hurled a perfect fifth, momentum shifted drastically in the sixth. Bob Meacham, Omar Moreno, and Griffey strung together three singles to load the bases, and Meacham scored on Mattingly’s fly ball. Winfield’s second RBI single of the night drove home Moreno. But Smithson, still staked to a five-run lead, remained on cruise control.
Don Baylor knocked a grounder at third baseman Gaetti, who stepped on the bag for the unassisted out. Smithson only needed to retire Butch Wynegar, the light-hitting catcher who’d missed the previous night’s game with the flu.11
Facing the right-hander, the switch-hitting Wynegar, who’d spent seven seasons in Minnesota,12 batted lefty, allowing him to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s famous short porch in right field. He crushed a three-run homer into the bleachers, and suddenly New York was within two runs. Smithson took one more shot at ending the inning, but finally got the hook after walking Willie Randolph, which brought the tying run to the plate. Though reliever Pete Filson got a quick groundout, the atmosphere in Yankee Stadium had changed.
Cowley responded by sitting down the Twins’ 3-4-5 hitters on his way to retiring 12 straight. After the game, Martin would say the pitcher “did a complete 180”13 in scattering five singles over seven scoreless innings, and reinstated him to the starting rotation.
New York mounted another threat after the seventh-inning stretch. Meacham reached first on a Gaetti throwing error, then got to second when pinch-hitter Henry Cotto singled. Both advanced on a groundout to first base by Mattingly.
With the tying run now in scoring position, Twins manager Billy Gardner pulled Filson for Ron Davis, the team’s de facto stopper. The one-time Yankee All-Star silenced the Bronx crowd by striking out Winfield. In the eighth, he further crushed their hopes with a three-up-three-down inning.
Yankee fans got a glimmer of hope when Davis started the ninth by walking pinch-hitter Ron Hassey on four pitches.14 He refocused and managed to get two more outs, but then walked Griffey, bringing Mattingly to the plate representing the winning run.
In the Twins dugout, Gardner grew concerned about his pitcher’s control, but feared that pulling him could undermine Davis’s confidence. He decided to give the veteran one more pitch, but pull him if it missed the strike zone.17
Davis didn’t miss. He hurled a fastball right across the center of the plate.
“I had a pretty good feeling when I hit it,” Mattingly recalled.18 The ball rocketed over the right-field fence for a three-run, walk-off blast in a 9-8 comeback victory that also set the tone for what became an MVP season for Mattingly and proved a turning point for both teams.19
The win was the first of 85 that the Yankees earned the rest of the way, the most in the American League. Their 97-64 record, however, left them two games behind Toronto for the AL East pennant.
The Twins had come into the game questioning whether they were legitimate World Series contenders, and this loss seemed to be their answer. Minnesota won just five more times in May. Gardner was fired after they lost 21 of their next 32 games. Their 61 wins the rest of the season were fourth-worst in the AL.22 They finished 77-85, tied with Oakland for fourth place in the AL West.
Katie Sharp of Sports Reference LLC provided indispensable help in finding the biggest Yankee Stadium comebacks.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author accessed Baseball-Reference.com, Stathead.com, and Retrosheet.org.
1 Steinbrenner’s protest contended that the Metrodome wasn’t up to major-league standards, and he demanded that American League President Bobby Brown launch an investigation and “straighten out this situation.” The protest was rejected, but the Twins announced the next day that 49 new 1,000-watt ceiling lights would be installed. The Twins insisted that the Yankees’ protest was not a factor in the renovation, that the $100,000 contract for the work had been signed two weeks earlier with the goal of completing the work in time for the All-Star Game. United Press International, “Let There Be Lights! Metrodome Adds 49,” New York Daily News, May 10, 1985.
2 Bill Madden, “Yanks Find No Home in the Dome, 8-6,” New York Daily News, May 8, 1985: 47.
3 Tom Pedulla, “Billy Blows His Top,” Yonkers (New York) Herald Statesman, May 8, 1985: C5.
4 Before the May 13 game, Minnesota’s team batting average was .297 with an OPS of .833, and Puckett and Hatcher ranked first and second in hits. For comparison, the Oakland A’s were second in both categories, batting .274 as a team with a .770 team OPS.
5 Though the x-rays showed no break, Henderson’s elbow would force him to miss three of the Yankees’ next four games. He pinch-ran and scored the game-winning run against the Texas Rangers on May 16, but didn’t return to the starting lineup until May 18 in Anaheim.
6 The previous night, he’d belted a grand slam against the Orioles, giving him seven RBIs in just over 24 hours.
7 Fred Kerber, “Mattingly Magic,” New York Daily News, May 14, 1985: 59. Tom Pedulla, “Mattingly HR Stuns Twins,” Mamaroneck (New York) Daily Times, May 14, 1985: C1.
8 Bill Madden, “HRs Put Cowley on Relief,” New York Daily News, May 10, 1985: 59. Cowley was also an odds-on favorite for demotion to Triple-A Columbus to make room on the roster when reliever Rich Bordi came off the 15-day disabled list.
9 The Yankees had overcome nine-run deficits in their history, but those comebacks occurred in other ballparks.
10 In both cases, New York found itself down 11-3 before bouncing back to win, 15-11 over the Chicago White Sox on May 27 and 17-11 against the Philadelphia Athletics on June 3. The biggest comeback in Yankee Stadium’s history was a nine-run turnaround by the White Sox, who’d found themselves down 12-3 after seven innings on July 28, 1931, but plated 11 runs in the eighth and won 14-12. The Yankees eventually matched that mark on June 26, 1987, overcoming a 9-0 Boston Red Sox start to win 12-11. They equaled the team record on May 16, 2006, with a 14-13 win over the Texas Rangers after trailing 9-0.
11 Tom Pedulla, “Yanks Beat Themselves,” Mamaroneck Daily Times, May 13, 1985: D4.
13 Kerber, “Mattingly Magic.”
15 Tom Verducci, “Yankees’ Rally Wins Fans Over,” Newsday (Long Island, New York), May 14, 1985: 102.
16 Kerber, “Mattingly Magic.”
17 “[If] he threw one more ball … he was gone.” Howard Sinker, “Twins Fall on Home Run in 9th Again,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 14, 1985: 1D.
18 Kerber, “Mattingly Magic.”
19 This was the fourth consecutive game in which the Twins’ opponent hit a ninth-inning home run, and the third of which was a walk-off. The previous three all came off the bat of Fred Lynn in Baltimore. On May 10, Davis surrendered a solo shot to Lynn in a tie game, giving Baltimore a 6-5 win. On May 11, Davis was brought in to preserve a 2-1 lead, but gave up singles to Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray. Curt Wardle replaced Davis and gave up a home run to Lynn for a 4-2 Orioles victory. Then on May 12, starter Frank Viola took a 7-0 shutout into the ninth; Ripken doubled, Murray walked, and Lynn parked another one. In this case, the Twins held on to win 7-3.
20 A career-best 35.
22 The teams with fewer wins were Milwaukee, Texas, and Cleveland, which finished second-to-last in the AL East, last in the AL West, and last in the AL East, respectively.