Reliever was traded for same HOFer -- twice
A version of this story originally ran in April 2020.
The second time Eric Plunk was traded for Rickey Henderson, it began to feel personal.
Plunk was going to the bathroom when the phone rang to inform him of the June 1989 trade, so that’s about as personal as it gets. And after that phone call sent him scrambling across the country to join his new team, Plunk considered how unlikely it was -- and how unlucky he was -- to be involved in blockbuster deals for Henderson twice in the span of 4 1/2 years.
“If this dude would retire,” Plunk remembers thinking, “maybe I could stay in one place.”
Henderson retired after the 2003 season, with a Major League-record 1,406 stolen bases and 2,295 runs scored. He was a legendary leadoff man and one of the most electrifying players in the history of the sport.
But Rickey also changed teams 12 times and was traded four times -- an unusual amount of movement for a player of his profile. And what’s doubly unusual is that Plunk, a right-handed reliever who would go on to a long career of his own, was somehow involved in the first two of those swaps -- going from the Yankees to the A's when Henderson became George Steinbrenner’s prized pickup at the 1984 Winter Meetings (38 years ago today), then back to the Yankees when Henderson made his triumphant return to Oakland midway through the ’89 season.
It's one of the great transactional oddities of all time and a fun point of baseball reflection. Obviously, trades happen all the time, and there are occasional instances in history in which players were dealt for each other twice (Tim Cullen and Ron Hansen were the first players dealt for each other twice in the same season, flip-flopping between the Chicago White Sox and Washington Senators in February and August of 1968).
To be traded twice for the same Hall of Famer, however, is especially rare. Unfortunately, Elias Sports Bureau was not able to tell us if Plunk is the only player with such a claim to Fame. But it’s safe to say the list is short.
“At least,” Plunk says with a laugh, “I must have had some kind of value in the trades.”
The first trade
When the Yankees plucked Plunk out of high school in the fourth round of the 1981 Draft, he assumed, as any Yankees Draft pickup might, that he would one day don the famous pinstripes in his big league debut. But while an affiliation with the Yanks had many perks -- better Minor League pay than you’d find in most farm systems at the time and outstanding instruction, to name a few -- his outlook was altered once he got the lay of the land.
“Every time a position opened up at the big league level, the Yankees would make a blockbuster trade,” Plunk says. “They wanted well-known players. In the Minor Leagues, we understood that the best thing that could happen to you is to kick butt and get traded.”
Plunk indeed kicked butt as a 20-year-old at Class A Fort Lauderdale in 1984, compiling a 2.86 ERA over 176 1/3 innings (28 starts). Baseball America ranked him as the Yankees’ No. 5 prospect going into '85.
Meanwhile, Henderson was coming off a typically excellent 1984 season. He was a four-time All-Star, had led the American League in steals five straight years, and though this particular stat wasn’t getting much attention even from the A’s at the time, had a career on-base percentage of exactly .400.
Henderson was also a pending free agent, and his hometown A’s -- mired as they were in a series of sub-.500 seasons -- were not motivated to extend him.
“Probably in 1985,” then-general manager Sandy Alderson would later tell MLB Trade Rumors, “we didn’t have a full appreciation of all his talents.”
What the A's did have was a market for Henderson that included the Yankees, Orioles, Dodgers and Rangers. Oakland sought a five-player package and aimed high, targeting packages that included not just big league talents like the O’s Storm Davis and the Dodgers’ Bob Welch but also top prospects. As we saw in Los Angeles' February 2020 deal for Mookie Betts, obtaining that kind of return for just one year of control of an established superstar is virtually impossible in today’s game. But back in 1984, the A’s were setting a framework for deals involving high-profile players entering free agency that other clubs would follow for many years.
When the deal with the Yankees was completed on Dec. 5, 1984, the A’s gave up Henderson, pitcher Bert Bradley and cash and landed Jay Howell (a big league right-hander on the cusp of an All-Star season of his own) and four of the Yankees’ top five prospects -- right-hander Jose Rijo (widely considered the centerpiece of the A’s haul), outfielder Stan Javier, left-hander Tim Birtsas and Plunk.
Birtsas and Plunk had been teammates and roommates at Fort Lauderdale.
“We were stoked,” Plunk says. “We’re in the Minor Leagues, in A-ball and had never met Rickey Henderson, but we were thrilled to be traded for him. I understood this was the next step in my opportunity to get somewhere.”
With Oakland, Plunk got somewhere quickly. He was at Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Tacoma in 1985 and up in the big leagues for most of ’86. By ’88, he was a key figure in the bullpen for the AL champs, and he pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings in the loss to the Dodgers in the World Series.
Though Rijo didn’t blossom until a subsequent trade to the Reds prior to the 1988 season, the Henderson deal would nonetheless go down as a strong return for Oakland considering they gave up a one-year rental.
And from the Yankees’ perspective, Henderson wasn’t a rental for long. Upon arrival, they gave him a five-year contract worth $8.5 million, making him the third-highest paid player in baseball at the time. Henderson lived up to it by finishing third in AL Most Valuable Player Award voting in 1985. (Yanks teammate Don Mattingly actually took home AL MVP honors that year. New York won 97 games, yet finished second to Toronto in the pre-Wild Card AL East, just missing the postseason.)
The second trade
On the whole, Henderson’s New York tenure was excellent. By the final season of the deal in 1989, however, the Yankees weren’t willing to meet Henderson’s asking price of $2.8 million per year in a new deal. Henderson was 30 years old, and 65 games into the season, he was hitting just .247 with 25 steals (a light total for him). So there was concern that his star was fading.
With the A’s just two games ahead of the Royals in the AL West as of June 21 and looking to get back to the Series stage, it was prime time to bring Rickey back to his roots. Henderson had the right to veto any trade the Yankees presented to him, so Oakland had a leg up on the other suitors.
“Oakland was the only place I knew I’d like to go,” Henderson told the New York Times when the deal was done. ''I knew that if we didn't come to an agreement by the All-Star break I'd be a free agent anyway, and we had the opportunity to do it now, so I decided to go back home.''
Among the A’s players, there was talk of a potential Henderson swap in the days leading up to the trade. And with the Yankees known to be targeting relief help, Plunk figured he could be involved.
“One of our pitching coaches [Dave Duncan] told us, ‘Oh, nobody’s going anywhere,’” Plunk recalls. “The way my mind works, that’s when it went, ‘Ding!’ It seems like, why would you say anything if there wasn’t something going on?”
Plunk’s intuition was accurate. Around 8 a.m. PT the morning of June 21, his home phone rang.
“I was taking a leak,” Plunk says with a laugh. “My wife [Billie] answered the phone. I hear it ring and think, ‘Man, who could be calling this early?’ Because everybody knows you’re not supposed to call before like 10 or 11 a.m. And then it dawned on me: ‘Today’s the day, dude.’”
Indeed, Alderson was on the line, informing him the deal was done. It was Plunk, left-hander Greg Cadaret and outfielder Luis Polonia going to the Yanks for Henderson.
Whereas the first trade had Plunk excited about the opportunity that awaited in Oakland, this one was a letdown. The A’s were established and October-bound. The Yankees were in fourth place and below .500.
In the months that followed, a revitalized Rickey hit .294 and stole 52 bags in the remainder of the regular season, then ignited the A’s with a 15-for-34 showing with eight extra-base hits, 11 steals and nine walks in the postseason, in which he was the MVP of the AL Championship Series against the Blue Jays. Oakland swept cross-bay rival San Francisco in the World Series.
“That was the earthquake year, though,” Plunk says. “So I don’t know if I was too unhappy not to be involved in that. They won the World Series, and I didn’t get to experience that. But with the earthquake … you could have lost loved ones and who knows?”
The timeline wasn’t what Plunk initially expected when he started his pro career, but he finally got to wear the pinstripes. He spent 2 1/2 seasons with the Yankees, then went on to be a central bullpen piece during the Indians’ run of excellence in the 1990s before finishing his career with the Brewers in '99.
Henderson ended up signing a four-year, $12 million deal with the A’s after the 1989 World Series (more than the $2.8 million average annual value he sought from New York).
In his long tenure in the bigs, Plunk faced 829 big league batters. The hitter he faced more than any other was a Hall of Famer. Can you guess who it was?
Well … it was actually Cal Ripken Jr. Sorry for the fakeout.
But the hitter Plunk faced the second most was also a Hall of Famer. And that was Henderson.
The overall result was a mixed bag for both. Henderson was limited to five hits (only one for extra bases) in 38 plate appearances. But he also drew 15 walks off Plunk, good for a .526 OBP.
“I was wild, and that dude knew it,” Plunk says. “He’d just stand there. I remember one time [May 9, 1990], he came up with the bases juiced with the game tied in the bottom of the 11th … and I walked him on four straight pitches. Game over. I came in the locker room, and I’m pissed off. And Steve Balboni, who normally didn’t say too much, looked over and goes, ‘Man, you should have just drilled that dude in the back!’”
Plunk and Henderson crossed paths just once off the field. It was during an offseason in their playing days, at a softball tournament in Hawaii in which they were among the Major Leaguers asked to come in and coach. A free vacation, basically.
Their interaction wasn’t long, but it was long enough that, in Plunk’s memory, he got to hear Henderson refer to himself in the third person, as Rickey has been known to do. And the two shared a laugh about their time together on the transaction wire.
“We were waving to each other from the planes,” they joked.
Plunk was not thrilled about the second trade at the time it went down, but he’s come to appreciate his part in this bit of baseball trivia. Given the general instability of the relief role, a 14-season career spent primarily in the ‘pen is quite a success. Plunk got to pitch in four postseasons, compiled 1,151 innings with an above-average ERA+ (112), made more than $10 million (per Baseball Reference), then settled into a happy retirement in which he does private coaching on the side.
Perhaps, though, the greatest testament to Plunk’s ability is that he was twice a part of a haul for a Hall of Famer.
“I’m glad the dude I got traded for was good enough to go to the Hall of Fame,” Plunk says. “It’s not like I was traded for Wally Pipp or somebody like that.”