Once upon a time, the Yankees had a promising young pitching prospect who was inexplicably converted into a late inning reliever. After a couple of seasons of disappointing results, however, many within the organization, not to mention the media and fans, began to question his mental makeup and body size. Eventually, there were indications that the team was looking to trade its once prized prospect, who had become tarnished because of his lack of development.
The Yankees drafted Ron Guidry out of the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1971. Despite barely being 150 pounds soaking wet, Guidry had developed a reputation as a terrific athlete, which attracted the attention of Yankees’ regional scout Atley Donald (whose Yankee record of 12 wins without a loss to start a season was broken by Guidry in 1978). The Yankees weren’t alone in their interest, however. In fact, every team but the Yankees and Reds contacted the hard throwing left hander during his college career, but only Donald seemed to realize that Guidry’s failure to enroll in USL’s spring semester made him eligible for the upcoming June draft. As a result, the Yankees came away with Guidry, making him the 67th overall selection in the third round.
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Over his first three seasons, Guidry struggled with his command in the low minors, walking 147 men in only 214 innings. Meanwhile, the team had been bought by a brash new owner named George Steinbrenner, who jumped into the free agent pool head first. Instead of developing young players, particularly pitchers, Steinbrenner preferred to make a big splash by acquiring established veterans. So, the Yankees added names like Dick Tidrow, Rudy May and Pat Dobson to fill out their rotation and converted the slow-to-develop lefty into a reliever.
After an uneasy transition to his new role in 1974, Guidry finally seemed to turn the corner the following season as a closer in Triple-A Syracuse. In 62 innings, Guidry recorded 14 saves and 76 strikeouts, and was eventually promoted to the big club at the end of the year.
Guidry appeared in only 10 games as a Yankee in 1975, but managed to impress General Manager Gabe Paul. Unfortunately, he still had several doubters in the organization, including the Boss, who often questioned both his diminutive size and, ironically, his toughness. So, despite a solid spring training in 1976, the now 25-year old lefty was once again optioned to the minors.
Guidry took his demotion in stride and absolutely dominated the opposition in the International League, eventually earning a call-up on May 20. The next day, he saw his first game action against the Red Sox, but only lasted one-third of an inning. With the team already trailing 4-2 in the ninth, Guidry allowed four runs, including a two-run homer to Carl Yastrzemski.
Earlier in that same game, the two rivals engaged in what could only be described as a melee. Fights broke out all over the field, and in the aftermath, the Red Sox learned that their ace left hander Bill Lee had suffered a serious shoulder injury. Amid all the controversy stemming from the brawl, Guidry’s inauspicious debut went mostly unnoticed…except by the Boss. Angered by the fight, and more importantly the loss, Steinbrenner fumed at Guidry’s ninth inning meltdown and suggested it proved what he had suspected all along: the skinny kid from Louisiana had no guts.
Over the next 46 games, Guidry served a quasi-punishment as he toiled in the bullpen without ever appearing in a game. Fortunately, the neglected lefty used his free time to learn a new pitch from veteran Sparky Lyle. During his hiatus, Guidry worked on the slider that would eventually make him one of the best pitchers in baseball, but he almost never got the chance to use it.
On July 7, Guidry was sent back to Syracuse because, as Billy Martin explained, he wasn’t getting enough work. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity, Guidry momentarily decided that he would quit. As Guidry and his wife Bonnie headed west on Interstate-80, his intended destination was Lafayette, but after some words of encouragement from his better half, the left hander turned the car around and reported on time to Syracuse.
Although Guidry once again dominated at triple-A, his return to the Bronx on August 7 was almost as ugly as his appearance in May. After surrendering three runs in three innings to the Orioles, you couldn’t have blamed Guidry if his first postgame reflex was to gas up the car, but the Yankees stuck with him over the rest of the season.
After losing the World Series to the Reds, the Yankees actively sought to make improvements, and the man Steinbrenner seemed most eager to trade was Guidry. On several occasions, Paul had to talk the Boss out of giving the talented lefty away, but his resistance seemed futile after Guidry had a horrendous spring training in 1977.
‘O.K., George,’ Paul said. ‘If you want to trade Guidry, I’ll agree to it under one condition: that you issue a press release saying that I, Gabe Paul, unalterably oppose the trade and that you, George Steinbrenner, insist on it, and that when—not if, but when—Ron Guidry becomes an outstanding major league pitcher for another team, you take the blame.’” – Sam Moses, Sports Illustrated, January 22, 1979
Somehow, Paul was able to keep Steinbrenner from trading Guidry, and eventually, his years of patience were rewarded. Following a handful of solid relief outings, Guidry was given a spot start on April 29 when newly acquired Mike Torrez failed to show up on time (one report stated he was attending to his wife who just gave birth, but another claimed he went fishing with his agent). Torrez’ tardiness was the opportunity Guidry needed. Over 8 1/3 innings, the electric lefty mowed down the Seattle Mariners, surrendering just two hits and no runs while striking out eight.
Guidry would eventually become a permanent part of the rotation in 1977, and then the following year, Louisiana Lightning was born when he turned in one of the best single seasons in franchise history. A long and arduous road to the majors had finally paid off for Guidry and the Yankees.
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In many ways, Joba Chamberlain’s career path has been similar to Guidry’s. Although there are certainly some significant differences (particularly Chamberlain’s shorter path to the majors as well as his immediate success before experiencing failure) between the two, the major themes compare: both were late bloomers on the amateur level; experienced shifting roles within the organization; disappointed early in their career; and faced intense scrutiny of both their psychological and physical makeup. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Chamberlain’s story will end up like Guidry’s.
The Yankees haven’t exactly given up on Chamberlain just yet, but it sure seems like they are getting close. Once thought to be either a future ace or dominant closer, Joba is now fighting for a role in middle relief. Even Brian Cashman, who was once a vocal supporter, has started to sound a little bit leery, going so far as to suggest that the righty isn’t even guaranteed a spot on the 2011 roster.
Perhaps sensing the Yankees’ growing frustration with Chamberlain, you can bet several other teams will be sniffing around, hoping the Yankees will pull the trigger on a deal born of exasperation. What seems to be forgotten, however, is Chamberlain is still only 25, or one year younger than Guidry when he had his breakout season in 1977. Contrary to growing popular sentiment (among fans, media and even some in the organization), Chamberlain’s career is not in decline. In fact, it hasn’t even started.
The baseball landscape is littered with pitching prospects who never panned out. So, it wouldn’t be a shock if Chamberlain never develops beyond his current role in middle relief. However, the story of Ron Guidry should still serve as a cautionary tale. When it comes to developing pitchers, patience really is a virtue. Like any good fairytale, the early trials and tribulations are what make the final outcome all the more worthwhile.
Guidry’s story also offers a few lessons for Joba as well. Despite his early struggles and the organizations lack of confidence, Guidry remained focused on his craft. Not only did he use his time in the bullpen to learn from a veteran like Lyle (perhaps learning a cutter from Mariano Rivera wouldn’t be such a bad idea), but the skinny Cajun dedicated himself to getting stronger. In fact, he was often regarded as the team’s best athlete and cited as the player most likely to be found working out in the gym.
Does Chamberlain have that same level of dedication as Guidry? If not, he’ll have no one to blame but himself if his career ends in failure. Meanwhile, the question for the Yankees is whether they have closed the book on the young righty’s future? If so, the public scorn will be theirs if Chamberlain writes a final, triumphant chapter with another team. Hopefully, neither scenario will play out, allowing Chamberlain and the Yankees to share success instead of blame. After all, that is how fairy tales are supposed to end.