For baseball fans, the death of comedian Jerry Stiller on Monday immediately recalled a question that has lingered for nearly 25 years: “What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?”
Stiller, who died at age 92, was perhaps best known for his role as Frank Costanza (George’s father) on “Seinfeld.” In a 1996 episode, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner went to the Costanzas’ home to erroneously inform them that their son, who was the assistant to the traveling secretary for the team, had died. Frank, however, apparently was more concerned with airing his grievances with one of Steinbrenner’s baseball moves than his son’s passing.
“What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?” Frank ranted. “He had 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs last year. He’s got a rocket for an arm. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing.”
To which Steinbrenner replied, “Buhner was a good prospect, no question about it. But my baseball people loved Ken Phelps’ bat. They kept saying Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps.”
Frank had a point. In fact, our David Schoenfield included the Buhner-for-Phelps swap of July 1988 in his list of the worst deadline trades of all time.
Buhner, a 23-year-old just breaking into the major leagues at the time of the trade, had 44 home runs and 138 RBIs in 1996, his second of three straight 40-100 seasons from 1995 to ’97. He went on to hit 307 home runs during his 14 seasons in Seattle, and he had 100 outfield assists, including 15 in 1991 and 14 in ’92. Buhner was inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame in 2004.
And Buhner antagonized his former team throughout his career. He hit 28 home runs with a .957 OPS in 104 games against New York.
On the other hand, Phelps, a 33-year-old platoon DH, hit just 17 home runs for the Yankees over two seasons.
And Frank Costanza wasn’t done with Steinbrenner. In the “Seinfeld” series finale in 1998, Frank again called The Boss into question, yelling at him, “How could you give $12 million to Hideki Irabu?”
The Yankees signed Irabu, once billed as “the Japanese Nolan Ryan,” to a four-year, $12.8 million deal in 1997. At the time, it was the most money ever guaranteed to a player who had never played professional baseball in the United States.
While Irabu won two World Series with the Yankees in 1998 and 1999, his only postseason appearance was a relief outing in the 1999 ALCS when the Red Sox got 13 hits off him in a 13-1 loss. He went 29-20 with 315 strikeouts and a 4.80 ERA in 74 games (64 starts) over three seasons with New York and was traded to the Montreal Expos in December 1999.
It seems Frank knew his baseball. Maybe Steinbrenner hired the wrong Costanza.