With the minor league playoffs concluded, Buhner made his major league debut in 1987 on September 11, and appeared in seven games that year. In 1988, he was back and forth between Columbus and New York, and was batting .188 (13 for 69) with three home runs in three stints for the big club when was traded on July 21 to the Seattle Mariners, along with two career minor leaguers (Rich Balabon and Troy Evers), in exchange for designated hitter Ken Phelps, a Seattle native. This trade is often considered one of the Yankees’ worst and one of the Mariners’ best.
The trade was referenced on the television sitcom Seinfeld, in the January 1996 episode “The Caddy”. The Yankees’ owner, George Steinbrenner, appears at the home of George Costanza’s parents to inform them – mistakenly – that their son is dead. The only response of Frank Costanza (played by Jerry Stiller) is, “What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?! He had 30 home runs, over 100 RBIs last year! He’s got a rocket for an arm…. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing!” The clip was played at Safeco Field when Buhner was inducted into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame in August 2004.