Suppose this guy is running up a hill with a gun in his hand," said Tom Tresh. "He's charging the machinegun nest single-handed, see? And just then he pulls a hamstring muscle."
"Yeah," said Phil Linz. "How come nobody pulls muscles but ballplayers?"
Mickey Mantle, sitting in the back of the New York Yankee bus on a hamstring muscle that hurt too much to charge first base, let alone a machinegun nest, guffawed with the rest. The humor was low but spirits were high, which was impressive, considering that it was 3 a.m. and that the Yankees were a thousand miles away from where that wearying day had begun for them. In not much more than a week they had traveled from Puerto Rico to Fort Lauderdale to Jacksonville to Houston and now to Minnesota, but still there were laughs. Tony Kubek reviewed the "typical Appalachian stunt" by Steve Hamilton, who escaped from the wet fury of one lawn sprinkler by taking a long-legged leap into another one. Whitey Ford analyzed the rocks in Phil Linz's head that had gotten him into a "pickle" on the base paths and the luck that had gotten him out of it. The word "pickle" was leaped upon and judged pretty funny all by itself. The bus rolled merrily through the night.
The Yankees may be in trouble, the pundits are saying. They were losers in spring training and after two chilling weeks of regular-season play they were under .500 and looking as though they belonged down there. But still there were laughs and an atmosphere of fun, the sign of a loose, tension-free ball club. One New York sportswriter asked, "Do you think there is such a thing as a team being too loose?" Not likely. "It's tough to laugh with a loser," was the pronunciamento of Don Blasingame of the Washington Senators, who in his career has played for both winners and losers.
The principal trouble, as usual, is simply being The Yankees, who are forever obliged to equate the logical possibility of not winning the pennant with the sinking of a bar of Ivory soap at Procter & Gamble. If you lose a few games the critics start carping immediately. As it was with Joe McCarthy is now and ever shall be—except that now it is fun to be a Yankee. It wasn't always.
The evolution has been swift. Short years ago the Yankee clubhouse held all the carefree charm of a dentist's office. The sounds were the "What difference does it make?" of Mantle, the noncommittal grunt of Yogi Berra (which would be magically transformed into a funny malapropism in a column), the grim silence of Frank Crosetti, glowering with fine impartiality at the ball bag, the reporters or the new stock prospectus, the snarls of Roger Maris about the sportswriters' "ripping me."
The Yankees have a picnic table in the middle of their spacious, wall-to-wall-carpeted clubhouse, and it used to be unwritten law that no "new" man (i.e., one with fewer than four World Series checks in the bank) could sit at it. Only a brash interloper like Ryne Duren dared to break it. The sportswriters counted the days until it was Ford's turn to pitch. Then they would have a player who would talk to them. In between, they would "write Stengel," because Stengel and only Stengel could or would say what he thought—or at least what he wanted to get printed in the papers, which were and are a tool of his trade.
Now there is a Crosetti who grins broadly at the elaborate pyrotechnics on the scoreboard in Houston's Astrodome, an extravagantly cheap gimmick that he once would have denounced as "bush." There is a Maris who views big black newspaper headlines unfairly labeling him a bar brawler and cracks only that "it knocked Vietnam off Page One and that ain't bad." There are second-year men who feel free to needle elders who are separated from the Hall of Fame only by time. There are personalities inside almost all the gray flannel suits. So sweeping has the metamorphosis been that the Yankees, almost to a man, doubt or deny that anything has changed.
"We always had fun," said Elston Howard. "The manager tells you to have fun."
The manager? Fun, except for himself, was never a principal component of Dr. Stengel's elixir, and indeed his overwhelming Presence was the factor that suppressed several now-burgeoning personalities. As for Yogi Berra, he more likely would have asked some of them to have just a little less fun. All Johnny Keane has been telling them is some things they didn't know, or hadn't thought of, about playing baseball. There has been only one other Yankee manager lately.
"Well, yes," said General Manager Ralph Houk, whose utterances for the record include almost as many implicit whereases as a Mel Allen opinion. "I told them you get a little more out of the game if you enjoy yourself. Of course, that can be taken two ways."
It can be, and it was. "Yeah, we're loose, I guess," one veteran said the other day. "But I don't see how we could be any looser than we were last year." (This is as close as the more candid of the Yankees come to admitting that they betrayed—the word is chosen carefully—Yogi last year. One or two of the most candid, however, believe it was the management that made him a human sacrifice, cynically setting him up as a sort of visual aid in the cold war against that superannuated Presence who was now plying his trade—and getting what he wanted in the papers—with the Mets. "I think they were afraid," the employee said, "of what the people would say if the Yankees didn't give Yogi a chance to manage.")
"What I meant," Houk explained, "is that when you get to the clubhouse you gotta be all baseball. But if you're scared to make a boot, you're likely to boot more. A certain amount of kidding doesn't hurt if it isn't overdone—if it's done in a professional way. If you kick one and you have a few guys get on you in a joking way, you get the word pretty good. You gotta keep loose and keep battling at it, you know? I mean if a guy pulls a rockhead move on the bases, and when he gets back to the dugout some guys needle him some, it's better than if they just sit there and don't say anything. He wouldn't know what they're thinking and that would tighten him up even more."
The Yankees had gotten the point. It was morning now and the bus was rolling toward Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., and the laughter was cascading from the rear seats. This was the day the bell rang, when the spring training charades were over and the play for pay began. Ford, the elder statesman, had summed it up in Puerto Rico eight days earlier. "Up to now," he said, "spring training is baloney. Yeah, you get in shape and all that, but those last days are when it really becomes important. This is when you have to get back in the habit of winning."
Somehow the habit had been slightly more elusive than usual. The Yankees had played three successive extra-inning games in Houston's Astrodome only to lose two of the three to the wretched, wretchedly named Astros. In all, they had lost 18 of 30 spring training games, a record that was one game worse than the previous spring's, which in turn was only half a game better than that of the year before. Johnny Keane said early in training, "The reason the Yankees lose games in the spring is that they don't play their good players." Coming into Minnesota for Opening Day, he admitted that the spring campaign had been less than satisfactory. "I'd have liked to win some more games," he said.
The bus rolled between the piles of dirty snow into the stadium, and the laughter continued. The humor was obscure, but seemed to center on the jester Joe Pepitone, who specializes in Rabelaisian comedy. Well, it had been an unsatisfactory spring, but the club was still loose. Very loose.
The Yankees gave away a run in a ragged first inning, and Pepitone did another funny thing to start the second. He played Jimmy Hall's grounder off his chest and booted it halfway back to home plate. Two pitches later Hall had second stolen cleanly but the big jump he had on Jim Bouton, the pitcher, became academic when Bouton's pitch bounced wildly off the plate. Bob Allison hit a one-hopper to the left of Kubek, the shortstop. Hall, assuming Tony would make the play, prudently retreated toward second. This distracted Kubek just enough so that the ball got by him, but Hall's retreat to the base left him with no chance to score. He scored. The ball "stayed down" on the thawed tundra of the outfield and went under Tresh's glove in center.
That set the tone of the afternoon, and things went on that way. Arturo Lopez, playing left field for Mantle in the late innings, set up the winning run for the Twins by losing a fly ball as though he were still in the Astrodome, and the Yanks had dropped another one-run job, making five errors that were recorded.
The defeat hurt the Yankees' standing and the 15,388 attendance didn't do much for the exchequer, but Houk was damned if anything was going to damage the Image he has been remolding so carefully. He pronounced the atrocity "exciting." Then, in an aside to Rick Ferrell, the Detroit Tiger vice-president who had been a visiting fireman at the game, he said the worst error of the day never got in the book. "Bouton throwing that damned changeup to the pitcher," he grumbled. Bouton had indeed served a change, a veritable lollipop, to Jim Kaat, who hitched his swing and stroked a two-run single. A reporter agreed that the pitch wasn't exactly inspired and Houk reversed his field like nobody since Buddy Young was slim. "Well, Kaat's a pretty good hitter," he said. "You can't take chances with a guy like him."
Bouton is a thinker, and just about every one of those since Gaius Cassius has been suspect. One of the things he'd been thinking of all winter was that an alarming number of the alarming number of home run balls (32) he had thrown last year were hit by pitchers. "Gary Peters," he said. "Juan Pizarro," corrected his roommate, Linz. "I don't think I was doing the whole job on the pitchers," Bouton said. "I wasn't concentrating on them. This time I was trying to work on Kaat."
Bouton concentrates on many things, including Linz. Ball clubs don't pair on roommates by drawing numbers out of a hat. The old Brooklyn Dodgers figured that the placid Carl Erskine was a modulating influence on the then moody, volatile Duke Snider, and Gil Hodges had more than a little to do with the maturation of the red-necked Don Drysdale. Sandy Koufax' father is glad the tough, uncomplicated Carl Furillo was his son's shepherd in his tender years, and so on. But ball clubs never couple two "flakes." That can be like mixing nitric and hydrochloric acids.
All rules, however, are made to be broken. A less imaginative man than Yankee Traveling Secretary Bruce Henry might have hesitated to make an entry of Bouton and Linz because both are qualified flakes. But keeping them apart would have been as insensitive as splitting Laurel and Hardy. Besides, it makes sense. Bouton is married and works at it; Linz is a bachelor and works—nay, labors—at it. Bouton has a place for everything and everything in its place; Linz is lucky his head is firmly attached. Bouton wakes up smiling; Linz is a monster of frightful mien in the morning.
Spud Murray, the Yankees' venerable batting practice pitcher, didn't seem the type, somehow, to be carrying an Ayn Rand book aboard an airplane, and he wasn't. It belonged to Linz, who needs help with things like carrying books aboard planes. Bouton helps him all the time. The phone rang in their room one day, and Bouton answered. The alarum was the voice of Linz. "Something different every day," Bouton said to a visitor as his roomie's voice crackled from the phone. Bouton put it down and went through the room like a house detective. "He thinks he lost his Little Black Book," Bouton explained. "I packed it in his suitcase, but he won't be satisfied unless I tell him I looked for it." The day before Linz, an otherwise amiable sort, had vowed to reduce the city of Houston to oneness with Nineveh and Tyre. He had sent one of his custom-made shirts to the laundry with one cuff link attached and those stupid bush people had lost it. "He'll be all right after a cup of coffee," Bouton had said reassuringly, and Linz was.
The Boutons and Linzes are the people who were being seen but not heard around the Yankees a couple of years ago. There are others who weren't even being seen. The fact that Cotton Deal, with only a little help, can knock off The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle doesn't make him a superior pitching coach, but his staff is appreciably happier than it was under some of Deal's predecessors, like the humorless Jim Turner or even the cool Johnny Sain. Jim Hegan, the bullpen coach, never could hit much as a big-leaguer, and Vern Benson, Keane's right-hand man, was only a transient in the majors, but they lend any team class just by being around. That's part of what has happened to the Yankees. The players don't know much about Keane yet, but they're mildly amazed at his baseball acumen, and that makes them respect him. Gaining respect is only one part of being a manager, but it's the sine qua non.
There still will be grunts and snarls and silences in the Yankee clubhouse at times this year, because there will be troubles. The worst trouble, of course, would be a disabling injury to Mantle, who is as expendable to the Yankees as Roland was to Charlemagne at Roncesvalles. "I'll be able to run good after a couple of weeks." Mantle said just before the season began, and then ran good after two innings, pulled hamstring and all, to steal a hit from the Twins' Tony Oliva deep in left field. "I'll settle for the same number of games  I played last year," he said. So would everyone, including the man who knows him best, Whitey Ford.
"I guess you could call him inspirational," said Ford, a pragmatist. "First of all, we know he scares the other pitcher. And when he's in there the guys play harder. Yeah, a kind of gratitude, I guess, but mostly they're ashamed not to, if he can play the way he's hurting."
If he can't, there's trouble. But they have Hector Lopez in reserve, and Hector is the best part-time hitter in baseball. Or they might platoon Hector with Arturo Lopez (no relation), who bats left, throws left and thinks right. If Arturo Lopez can play major league ball, and it seems he can, he could turn out to be the folk hero the Yankees haven't had since they captured the Italians of New York in the '30s and '40s with Lazzeri, Crosetti, DiMaggio and Rizzuto. Arturo is a Puerto Rican from The Bronx, and not the high-class kind of Bronx. He can tell you about the currents in the Harlem River around 138th Street because he swam there or nowhere, and about the stigma he felt about going to Morris High School, where you were presumed guilty and there was almost no way to establish the innocence that might possibly get you transferred to a school like Stuyvesant.
Arturo is no kid. He tried for a time to get away with a faked "baseball age," but it didn't work. The Yankees already know that he never played professional ball until he was 24. He will be 28 years old this week, and he has served a four-year hitch of sea duty in the Navy and gotten married and sired four children and sold insurance and been a teller in a bank and begun studying law by mail and dropped a fly ball and blown his first big-league game and passed up the built-in alibis about sun and wind and spongy field and said he blew the play.
You begin to understand Arturo when he tells you about his parents. His father repaired sewing machines and his mother sewed. "It was tough," he says, "but they didn't quit trying. They didn't go on welfare like the slobs. Now my father is a foreman, and now I have a shot and that's all I want. That's all I need, because I'm physically and mentally prepared to play this game."
Lopez is an American who describes himself as Spanish, as another would call himself Irish, refusing to deny his heritage or to consider it a disadvantage, and when he tells you something important his handsome face lights up. The eyes narrow and the straight white teeth set and the lips curl a little; he looks hard, a little cruel, the way Jean Laffite or El Cid might have looked when something was very important. The physical you know about, because he is built like a lifeguard, or like the middle-sized boxer he was, or like the guy who came up with a sore arm because he punched somebody in the mouth for a very good reason and dislocated his thumb a few days before he reported to his first professional baseball camp. When did he know he was mentally ready for big-league baseball? The black eyes glistened, sparkled.
"This morning," he said, "when Ralph Houk told me I had made the club. I still have a minimum contract, and I don't have the job for sure yet—they have to cut two men by May 12. But after what I've had to do, and what I've seen my father do, what the hell is tough?"
So the Yankees might have to play Artie Lopez, professional. Other terrible things could happen. The left side of the infield could hit a composite .223. Maris, for all his neo-jollity, might produce only 26 home runs. Tresh, for all his potential, might hit only .246. There might not even be a 20-game winner on the pitching staff.
But those were the things that happened last year, and the Yankees won the pennant last year and were in the World Series until the very last inning of the seventh game, when they made Bob Gibson sweat like a horse for the final out.
They might not be as lucky this year, but what the hell. They're nicer guys, and they won't finish last.