FORT MYERS, FLA. – The New York Yankees won five consecutive American League pennants from 1960 through 1964. They were 2-2 in those World Series before facing the St. Louis Cardinals in October 1964.
Yogi Berra was a rookie manager, with Ralph Houk having moved up to general manager. CBS had bought the team from Dan Topping and Del Webb during the summer.
The Yankees lost in seven games to the Cardinals, and they did not take it well. Houk fired Berra as manager and brought in Johnny Keane, the Series-winning manager from St. Louis. CBS fired Mel Allen, a legendary announcer, and gave a strong role to Phil Rizutto in the booth.
On July 11, 1965, at Met Stadium, the Yankees’ dynasty was officially left in ruins. Harmon Killebrew hit a two-out, two-run home run on a 3-2 pitch in the bottom of the ninth off Yankees reliever Pete Mikkelsen to give the Twins a 6-5 victory.
This boosted the Twins lead to 4 ½ games in the 10-team American League, and left the Yankees in seventh place and 14½ games behind. Two days later, the All-Star Game was played at Met Stadium, with the magnificent National League roster edging the AL, 6-5, with Harmon hitting another home run.
The aging Yankees were done for the season after Harmon's clutch home run and, basically, done for a decade.
They were 70-89 in 1966 and finished last -- the only Yankees team that can claim to ever had finished 10th.
That was the season when Horace Clarke took over at second base. He was a good player for the Yankees, playing in 1,230 games and collecting 1,213 hits. The fact he was also the Yankees’ best player on occasion was what has caused Yankees’ fans to come up with the “Horace Clarke Era.’’
The Yankees were more irrelevant in the American League from 1966 to 1973 than at any time since Babe Ruth arrived 100 years ago. They had one good season, 93-69, and that still left them trailing the runaway Orioles by 15 games in the AL East.
That wonderful description of the Yankees’ brief period of futility has led to a direct steal of the concept. For me, the six-year stretch at the start of the Twins’ sixth decade – the worst in franchise history – lives as our “Tsuyoshi Nishioka Era,'' even if he only played in the first two of those seasons.
The Twins were 407-565 from 2011 to 2016. The collapse started in 2011, when Nishioka, a Japan League batting champion, was signed in the belief that he would give the Twins a more mobile shortstop than J.J. Hardy.
The festive first season in Target Field in 2010, with 94 wins and a sixth AL Central title in nine years, was transformed into a 63-99 disaster. The Twins had one winning season among the six of the Nishioka Era, 83-79 in 2015, and that was followed in 2016 by their losing-est season ever, 59-103.
When it comes to Eras, Horace was under-radar good amid unusually bad for the Yankees, and Nishi was memorably futile amid massive Twins’ futility.
The Twins paid a $5.3 million posting fee to acquire Nishioka from Japan, then gave him a three-year contract for $9.25 million. He brought more fame from Japan than being a batting champion. He also was married to Naoko Tokuzawa, a well-known model and occasional actress.
Nishi had it all, except: The slappy swing didn’t work for him in the big leagues, he couldn’t make the throw from shortstop, and he had no idea how to turn a double play as a second baseman.
That flaw cost him a broken fibula early in his Twins’ days when he made no effort to avoid a hard slide by Nick Swisher. He played 68 games in 2011, batting .226. He also was divorced by his famous and fetching bride
It was a sad sight in March 2012, when Nishioka and his interpreter/companion were packing up in the big-league clubhouse to head across the parking lot to join the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings. He played 101 games forClass AAA Rochester and only three for the Twins in 2012, being hitless and nearly catch-less in a three-game series in Cleveland.
Nishioka left the Twins' final $3.25 million on the table and voluntarily went back to Japan in late September. He was 29 and had an outstanding 2013 for the Hanshin Tigers, being named to Japan's “Best Nine’’ – the top player at each position covering both the Pacific and Central Leagues.
He had numerous injuries after that and was last playing in an independent league in Japan.
On Thursday, new Twins pitcher Maeda held a 25-minute media session at Hammond Stadium, the first half with Minnesota reporters, the second with a dozen Japanese news people.
There’s no Nishi-style mystery as to whether Maeda’s skills will work for the Twins. He’s been pitching in L.A. for the Dodgers at a competitive level for the previous four seasons.
I was curious as to whether Maeda had a relationship with Nishioka – beyond pitcher vs. hitter – while in Japan. I also knew that asking that question in Thursday’s group would be deemed as a sarcastic interruption of the proceedings.
When Maeda was finished, I was able to ask him about Nishioka as he walked back to the Twins’ clubhouse. Through his interpreter, Maeda said:
“He’s much older (3 ½ years) than me. I was young when I first faced him and he was a very good hitter in Japan. I know Nishioka, but not that well.’’
ADDENDUM: As for that Killebrew home run hit off the Yankees in ’65, I wrote about it on an anniversary of Brew’s blast, and tracked down Pete Mikkelsen.
Pete came to the phone and I started with, ‘’I’m sure you remember that Killebrew home run …’’
Mikkelsen abruptly stopped me and said: “What’s wrong with you Minnesotans? Every time I run into one of you people, I hear, ‘I remember that home run Harmon hit against you in ’65.’
“I gave up a home run to Harmon Killebrew. There are about 300 other pitchers who can say that. Goodbye.’’
Pete died in 2006, lbut leaving me with a long-lasting smile over that brief conversation.