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The ‘underrated heroes’ who discovered the Yankees’ Core Four

A series by Joel Sherman chronicles how the Yankees’ fiasco of 1990 laid the groundwork for a dynasty.

From mid-February to early June 1990, Donald Trump dominated tabloid coverage in New York. The dissolution of his marriage to Ivana served as one bookend and a $2 billion debt that threatened his empire the other.

On Feb. 16, one of this paper’s most famous headlines screamed, “The Best Sex I’ve Ever Had” — those the alleged words of Marla Maples, with whom Trump was having an affair. On June 5, The Post front page was, “UH-OWE,” depicting the banks closing in on Trump and the likelihood he would have to file for bankruptcy, leading to Forbes tossing him from its list of top millionaires.

In between there was a run of scandalous front pages about either the real estate mogul’s romantic or financial life. There were stories that he was trying to save his marriage with a photo of him and Ivana holding hands outside the premiere of “Pretty Woman” or that he and his wife had signed a 60-day agreement stipulating they could have sex with whomever they wanted without fear it would become part of divorce proceedings or that he did not think adultery was a sin.

Concurrently, there was someone akin to Trump being lambasted on the other side of the paper. Like Trump, George Steinbrenner both admired and feared a self-made, demanding father. Both had disgraced lawyer Roy Cohn as a philosophical mentor and adhered to the attorney’s philosophies to never admit being wrong and, when in doubt, sue, sue, sue. Both had become larger than life in the 1970s via tabloid sensationalism. Both would take credit for what went right and blame mercilessly others when anything went wrong within their respective businesses. Both would attack their enemies relentlessly, including using derisive nicknames (Mr. May, anyone?).

In 1990, Steinbrenner also was dealing with scandal, humiliation and questions about the financial health of his American Shipbuilding Company. Steinbrenner was being investigated by the Commissioner’s Office. And by the first week of June, the Yankees had the majors’ worst record.

Year-end reviews in 1990 described Trump and/or Steinbrenner as finished, comeuppance for their central roles in the excesses of the 1980s. Trump obviously emerged larger than ever from his low point.

Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte
Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Andy PettitteGetty Images

So did Steinbrenner, who on the surface had a terrible team and was about to be stripped of his ownership. Below the surface, though — what was not appearing on front, back or any pages — was his ultimate salvation. A dynasty was being forged and no one knew it. No one could have known it in real time.

In that Trump-dominated period from mid-February to early June — a span of less than four months — the Yankees used $2,000 to sign a skinny kid from Panama, an afterthought really, and deployed 22nd- and 24th-round picks on a pudgy left-hander and a shortstop who had no shot whatsoever of staying at that position in the pros.

Those decisions merely changed baseball history.

Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada were both shortstops when scouts began to look at them. Posada and Andy Pettitte were both draft-and-follow prospects — high school picks who had to play elsewhere to convince the Yankees to sign them nearly a year after being selected.

They were far from no-brainers when they came to the organization. It would have been much easier — much easier — to believe the trio would never play a day in the majors rather than form three-quarters of the most important quartet in Yankee history.

Rivera was playing shortstop for the Oeste Vaqueros in the 1988 Panamanian national tournament. A scout for the Royals named Herb Raybourn saw the shortstop, liked his athleticism and arm, but did not project a major leaguer. A year later, at the same tournament, Oeste’s top pitcher was getting knocked around. So the manager asked the shortstop to pitch. It was just that Rivera had never pitched before.

Nevertheless, he did so well that two of his teammates recommended him to Yankee scout Chico Heron, who was running a tryout camp. The Yanks were the dominant team in Panama — one of their finds, Roberto Kelly, was playing center field in the majors — so an invitation to a camp was prestigious and staying the whole week was more than that.

Heron appreciated what he saw in Rivera, an athlete who could throw 85-87 mph, and invited him to stay the week. On the last day of the camp, the Yanks’ new head of Latin American operations saw Rivera throw. It was Raybourn, and he knew instantly Rivera was the shortstop from the year before.

The arm action and the agility were so obvious and Raybourn began to dream about what better nutrition and training could mean to that 155-pound piece of clay.

Mariano Rivera
Mariano RiveraUPI

But Rivera already was 20. Most Latin prospects were identified even before their teens, often signed no later than 16. Thus, when Raybourn visited the Rivera home in Puerto Caimito, a poor fishing village, on Feb. 17, 1990, he had just $2,000 to offer. Rivera’s father was known in town as Captain Mariano for captaining another man’s shrimping boat. The family did not have much. The decision to sign, right there in the living room, was easy.

So was professional baseball initially for Rivera. He was dominant. Yet, he had few believers. The Yankee policy then was that the best pitching prospects started or closed. Rivera was stationed in middle relief, where he allowed one earned run in 45 innings in 21 relief outings for the 1990 Gulf Coast League Tampa Yankees.

Rivera’s initial champion was his first manager, Glenn Sherlock, who implored the Yankees’ director of minor league operations Mitch Lukevics to allow him to start the righty on the final day of the season to try to get the five innings necessary to win the ERA title.

In the opener of a doubleheader on Aug. 31 — the day Seattle’s Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. became the first father and son to play on the same team — Rivera threw seven no-hit innings against the Bradenton Pirates. It left Rivera with statistics for 1990 that feel made up: 52 innings, 17 hits, one earned run, a 0.17 ERA, seven walks and 58 strikeouts.

He won the Gulf Coast League ERA title and so much more. As Sherlock put it years later, “That no-hitter put him on the map with the organization.”

“The underrated heroes of the dynasty are Bill Livesey and Brian Sabean,” Brian Cashman says now.

The vision and leadership of that duo — Livesey, the Yankees’ scouting director, and Sabean, the vice president of player development and scouting — helped create layers of talent that would not just fill the Yankee roster with depth (Pat Kelly, Scott Kamieniecki, Jim Leyritz, Gerald Williams, etc.) and cornerstones (Rivera, Pettitte, Posada, Bernie Williams, eventually Derek Jeter), but also left the Yankees reams of other prospects so they could trade for stars such as David Cone and Jack McDowell, John Wetteland and Cecil Fielder.

While the 1990 Yankees were sinking, the talent in the minors was beginning to reach the majors or rise in the system. Livesey and Sabean had emphasized character and athleticism. They wanted players who not only could handle the majors, but those mentally tough enough to thrive in New York in front of a full house at Yankee Stadium.

Livesey had developed a system that showed the size characteristics of the best players at each position and the Yankees leaned on that. The athleticism and size stood out as you began to visit Yankee minor league teams.

“We tried to get away from average,” Livesey recalls. “We didn’t like average size or average tools. Successful big leaguers didn’t have average tools. If we could find an above-average tool, our development could clean up the other stuff, but that player would always have that carrying tool.”

Livesey and Sabean also emphasized winning in the minors. Yes, that fit Steinbrenner’s world view. But Livesey and Sabean believed knowing how to win was a tool as well and they wanted groups of players coming up the system to feel that collective success.

Brian Cashman with Yankees scout Bill Livesly in 2012
Brian Cashman with Yankees scout Bill Livesly in 2012N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

“Bill Livesey and Brian Sabean had a love for the Yankees that exceeded even our fans,” remembers Joe Molloy, then Steinbrenner’s son-in-law and the boss of the Yankees’ minor league complex. “They wanted to win as bad or more than anyone. They wanted to prove what was happening in the minors and what their scouts were doing was beneficial to putting a winner on the field. They were honest in their assessments with me and with George before he was suspended. They were honest when it came to baseball. Most of what they said would happen with our players, happened.”

Livesey and Sabean had assembled a veteran scouting staff that stayed together over a long period and was empowered by the duo to be tireless, fearless and boundaryless in trying to find talent, whether in small towns in Panama or junior colleges.

The Yankees scouts needed such resourcefulness and diligence. Due to forfeiting picks as compensation for signing free agents, the Yankees only once in the 1980s had their first-round pick and three times they did not have a pick until the fourth round. So finding jewels deeper in the draft was the mandate.

On June 5, 1990 — the second day of that year’s draft — between the 16th and 28th rounds, the Yanks made seven picks of players who would play in the majors, including Ricky Ledee in the 16th, Pettitte in the 22nd, Posada in the 24th and Shane Spencer in the 28th.

The draft was quite different in 1990. There were 1,489 picks — and the Astros took 100 of them.

Future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones was the first selection and future union executive director Tony Clark went second. The intrigue of the draft surrounded Todd Van Poppel, a Texas schoolboy viewed as one of the best pitching prospects in years. But he and his agent, Scott Boras, were talking about the kind of bonus not given previously, which scared the Braves — for example — away from him and toward Jones.

Van Poppel lasted until the 14th pick. The A’s took him and gave the right-hander a then draft-record $1.2 million deal and the first multi-year contract ever bestowed a high school player. He was a bust, going 40-52 with a 5.58 ERA in the majors. The Texas high school pitcher drafted in 1990 who was going to be the best major leaguer was taken 21 rounds later and received considerably less money — but not without a fight.

“We had a veteran scouting staff,” Sabean recalls. “They had the skills to do a lot deeper background checks, which really helped I think with Andy Pettitte.”

The Yankees drafted 74 players. Carl Everett, a Tampa outfielder from the same high school as Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield, was grabbed with the 10th-overall pick — the Yanks’ highest pick since taking a Kent State catcher named Thurman Munson fourth overall in 1968, one pick before the Dodgers grabbed Bobby Valentine.

“Andy Pettitte looked like a different kid; no he looked like a man in fact” — Bill Livesy, the Yankees’ scouting director in 1990 on Andy Pettitte after a stint at San Jacinto Junior College

With the 594th pick overall, the Yanks selected Pettitte, who was burly enough then to have played nose tackle and center on his high school football team. He threw 85-87 mph, and no agreement was reached out of the draft. But for Joe Robison, there was something about the kid’s determination and competitiveness, in particular, that kept the veteran scout pushing, first, for Pettitte’s drafting and then not to give up on signing him.

Pettitte was considering the University of Texas. Had he gone to a four-year school, the Yanks would have lost his draft rights. But Pettitte was convinced to go to San Jacinto Junior College by then coach Wayne Graham, who would go on to fame at Rice.

Graham’s sales pitch won because he told Pettitte the lefty reminded him of another burly pitcher who had come to San Jacinto. That guy just happened to be Pettitte’s idol — Roger Clemens. As with Clemens, Graham convinced Pettitte to get into much better shape and that led to a jump in velocity and effectiveness.

“Joe kept telling me you are going to like Andy now,” Livesey remembers. “I saw him in late January or early February and I was, ‘Who is this?’ He had thinned. Wayne Graham did a great job with him. Andy looked like a different kid; no, he looked like a man in fact.”

Because Pettitte went to a junior college, he fell under draft-and-follow protocols, which gave teams the right to sign a player until a week before the next year’s draft.

“Joe was really high on him,” Sabean recalls. The scout knew this version of Pettitte would be taken much higher if he went back into the draft. The Yanks offered $40,000. Pettitte, tired of the back and forth with the Yanks, went with his dad, Tom, to his aunt Jenny Martello’s house in Baton Rouge, La., where coincidentally there was a baseball tournament in progress attended by … Joe Robison.

Robison found the Pettittes and, on the final day before draft-and-follow rights would be lost, told them $55,000 was the last offer. Pettitte, pulling a number out of thin air, said he would sign on the spot for $80,000. Robison, who had been making calls back to Livesey for permission how high to go, never blinked. He didn’t leave for another call. He said deal.

Pettitte would always wonder — not happily — how much higher he could have gotten the Yankees to go.

The Yankees had drafted Posada in the 43rd round in 1989 out of high school in Puerto Rico. But his father was a scout and felt Posada needed more seasoning, particularly in the United States. Posada, though, did not have good enough SAT scores to get into a four-year school. He had considered the strong program at Miami Dade Junior College, from which Mike Piazza had been drafted in 1988.

But Jorge Posada Sr. didn’t want the distraction of South Florida for his son. Posada was about to sign with Pensacola Junior College, which had recently sent Mark Whiten to the majors, when Fred Fricke called to offer a full scholarship and a starting job immediately if Posada would come to Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Ala. Posada agreed.

Problem: He didn’t even know where Alabama was other than it was in the South. He had enough English skills to get by in Puerto Rico, but was not fluent. He already came with the baggage of having been drafted by the Yankees. So there were fights at the school, one with a basketball player.

“You don’t want to say racist, but it was a little bit,” Posada says now.

Jorge Posada
Jorge PosadaAP

He was homesick. But he dove into weight training, determined he would get his 60-yard time under seven seconds and began to look and feel like a man. Yankee scout Leon Wurth saw Posada hit a homer from both sides of the plate. But like Robison with Pettitte, there was more.

“He had energy, focus,” Wurth recalls. “He played with intensity. He just stood out from that standpoint.”

Wurth didn’t think Posada had the range for shortstop, but he had great makeup and those carrying tools that Livesey had said to seek — power from both sides and a cannon arm. Plus, Livesey and Sabean had told scouts not to be bound to where the players were currently stationed, but follow the size/skill profile for imagining a position. The Yanks, for example, had — because of his gasp-worthy speed — turned Otis Nixon from a righty-hitting third baseman into a switch-hitting outfielder. And they had enjoyed success, moving a growing group of players they drafted at other positions into catchers, starting with Scott Bradley, but now with Jim Leyritz, who used that learned skill to go from an undrafted college shortstop to the majors in 1990.

So the Yankees drafted Posada once more in 1990. He didn’t sign right away and began playing semi-pro for the Hartselle Expos, also in Alabama. Livesey suggested that if Posada was having trouble with range, then why not put him someplace where the ball came to him to capitalize on his arm and bat. Wurth recommended to Posada to try catching. But like with Rivera at a new position, it was about fortune as much as anything.

“The catcher didn’t show up, so I said I could catch because I had caught my dad in softball,” Posada remembers. “I can get back there and Leon Wurth was there that day.”

Wurth and another Yankee scout at least appreciated that Posada didn’t flinch while catching. The Yanks, though, were only offering $12,000. Wurth went to Puerto Rico to try to do a deal. Posada had a letter of intent to play at the University of Alabama, so the Yanks upped their offer to $30,000. Posada Sr. wanted assurance, especially if Posada were going to try to catch, that the Yankees would keep his son at least five years to give him a real shot at this. Livesey told the Posadas through Wurth that the $30,000 was that commitment. Posada signed, like Pettitte, at the deadline.

“We tried to enlarge the applicant pool,” Livesey recalls. “When our scouts went to a game and wanted to imagine a player at a different position, we didn’t discourage that. We tried not to scout the great players in the draft. It was a waste of time. We didn’t have first-round picks. I would be scouting someone else’s players. Our job was to find the ones with talent who others may have missed. And we found some special ones.”

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