They are neither Bronx nor Bombers these days. They play in a ball park in another New York borough, which makes every contest a road game. Neither in muscle nor numbers will their hitters remind anyone of a Murderers' Row. The manager has his job as a consolation prize, and the team leader changes from day to day like the locker-room supply of T shirts. No beer baron or TV network pays the salaries; the principal owner is yet another man enmeshed in legal trouble relating to Richard Nixon. Resentments that lingered in the wake of early-season trades and a position change have waned, but a disgruntled pitcher quit only last week.
All of which, for some American League fans with long memories, might be good news about the New York Yankees if the team were suffering for such handicaps rather than challenging for its first title in the last 10 years. As the days dwindled down in the ferocious divisional race, New York was rolling with a momentum reminiscent of the pinstripers of old—those guys who won 29 pennants and 20 world championships.
When the week ended, New York led the American League East with an 80-67 record, 2½ games ahead of Baltimore and 3½ in front of Boston, both of which had blown chances to stop the implausible Yanks in their home ball yards. The Yankees beat the Red Sox twice—and a Fenway Park jinx that had stung them 20 times in 21 previous games—before moving on to Baltimore. There, rebounding from a dispiriting one-run loss in 17 innings, the Yanks took two games from the Orioles.
In contrast to the seasons in which New York used to wrap up the pennant by Mother's Day, the Yankees accomplished their march through Boston, Baltimore and Detroit last week with no little luck and some of the least likely heroes in any season. For all of that, however, the team was neither awestruck by its success nor put into a snit by the occasional defeat. After a 6-3 loss Friday night to Detroit, a last-place club that mysteriously had socked it to the Yanks 11 times in 16 previous meetings, the locker room was calm. And this though the Tigers had rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Doc Medich, New York's top pitcher.
"I can't afford to dwell on this thing," said Medich. "We've just got to stay loose, come back tomorrow and play again. Our club doesn't get uptight. The feeling now is that it's just another day we'll have to wait to win the pennant."
On Saturday the Yanks blew a four-run lead but ultimately emerged with a 10-7 victory. And on Sunday they won 10-2 to complete their week on the road with a 6-2 record.
Cool professionalism is but one change wrought in the erratic Yankees by low-key Bill Virdon, who saves his emotional bombast for umpires even when his ego is on the line. Virdon was the second choice of Owner George Steinbrenner as the team's manager. Steinbrenner (who has been fined $15,000 for illegal campaign contributions and has severed his working connection with the team) offered Virdon the job when he could not get Dick Williams from Oakland. Moreover, the job was to be Virdon's only until such time as Williams would be available. With Virdon now a strong candidate for Manager of the Year, that stipulation is a delicious irony.
Virdon himself says, "I really never thought about it. I was going to manage in Denver and it got down to where would I rather be, in the majors or in the minors. It's not too bad being considered No. 2 to Dick Williams. Anyway, the Lord says he has little use for a coward."
Ruled by that philosophy, Virdon made the most dramatic Yankee move of the year when he replaced Bobby Murcer with Elliott Maddox in center field, the glamour position. Murcer, an Oklahoman like his idol, Mickey Mantle, had led the team in hits, doubles, homers, batting average and RBIs for three seasons and his enthusiasm at being switched to right field was less than robust. Virdon had simply decided that Maddox was a far better defensive player, a judgment since vindicated repeatedly. And Maddox has stroked consistent if not long-range hits for a .306 average.
"Murcer still doesn't like the change," says a front-office Yankee, "but he's adjusted to it the way any professional athlete making $120,000 a year would. Besides that, didn't we have a guy named Ruth who played right field? There ought to be some glamour playing that position."
"I'm aware of the folklore that goes with being the Yankee centerfielder," says Maddox, an intelligent, soft-spoken man who has been studying Judaism. "The team leader, the big home-run-hitter thing. But that isn't the case anymore. I could hit more home runs maybe, but I'm not a leader. I don't even think about that."
He adds, "It's nice that we're winning again, leading this late in the season for the first time since 1964, but the similarity between us and the old Yanks ends right there. Back-to-back homers for them were not a rarity. We have to do it with a combination of defense, strategy and playing together. When I go out on the field I think of the Yankee tradition. The Yankees are probably the best known team ever in baseball. You can't forget that tradition, but we can't duplicate their style."
Indeed, New York has hit but 88 homers this season, a total that suffers in comparison not only with the old Yankees but with the team's current pennant rivals. But the club has hit 65 sacrifice flies, just one short of the alltime league record, and the Yankee outfield has 52 assists, with Murcer's 19 the most in the league.
Additional sinew for the defense came with Sandy Alomar, purchased from the Angels on July 8. Virdon put him at second base, a trouble spot, the next night; since then New York has won 41 of 65 games. Against the Western Division, New York is 48-24, and a winner in every series.
The Yankees really began their transition from a clique-ridden also-ran to a contender in April, when a trade sent Pitchers Fritz Peterson, Steve Kline, Fred Beene and Tom Buskey to Cleveland for First Baseman Chris Chambliss and Pitchers Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw. That deal brought heavy criticism, if not open scorn, from several Yankee veterans. Peterson, eight years a Yank, had been especially popular with his teammates.
There is scorn no more. Chambliss has hit safely in the last 12 games and at a .385 pace. And there is absolutely no doubt as to Virdon's firm control of the team. "I don't think we have a team leader," Medich says. "Our leadership isn't lumped into one person, unless it's Bill Virdon. He's been his own man, kept the players hungry, and he hasn't let the ball club get away from him."
"We weren't going good early because we had so many new players," says Maddox. "We weren't acquainted with each other's styles. Another thing, in baseball you spend maybe three or four seasons rooting for a guy on the opposition to fail when he plays against you, like I did with Chris Chambliss. Then suddenly he's a teammate. It takes a while to adjust. Now we're all pulling for one another. Two months ago we went on a road trip and we were one and seven when we got back to Shea Stadium [the team's home park until 1976, when the refurbishing of Yankee Stadium will be completed]. Then we won a few in New York and we were right back in it. The guys realized then that if we bore down we should win our division."
Toward that goal, no game may have been more important to New York than a 6-3 victory over the Red Sox last week. That one ended the Fenway hex at 11 straight losses, seven of them this season.
"This was a big turning point for us," Alomar said. "This time we were determined to come up here and win. We did it and we proved something to ourselves."
"Previously, we'd lose here and then we would have a disastrous road trip," Maddox said. "I think it stayed on everyone's mind. Now there's a psychological lift. We beat Boston in Boston. We can beat anyone now." As a sidelight that would become a frontlight in 24 hours' time, the Yanks bought Alex Johnson, baseball's answer to Duane Thomas, from the Texas Rangers for the $20,000 waiver price. Asked how he planned to use Johnson in the lineup, Virdon grinned and said,' 'I'm not even sure he'll play."
If anyone needed further proof that the Fenway jinx had ended—or that the Red Sox were in a hitting slump—it was forthcoming the next night. Luis Tiant, who was to be backed with but 14 singles and not one earned run in a string of 38 innings, squared off against the Yanks' Pat Dobson in a pitching classic. Dobson went 11 innings without yielding an earned run, retiring 14 batters in a row over one stretch, and 19 of 20 as New York won 2-1 in the 12th. The winning run was scored on a 420-foot homer—by Alex Johnson.
The Yanks had tied the game in the ninth after the umpires ruled fan interference on a line shot by Chambliss that bounced into the right-field stands. Boston Manager Darrell Johnson protested that the ball should have been a ground-rule double, which would have held up the tying runner at third base, but his arguments only earned him an ejection.
"It was a lousy call," Tiant said. "They stink. They should all be fined. They're no good. They don't belong in this league. They don't give a damn about you losing a pennant over a call like that. Umpires are human and they make mistakes, but that was no mistake tonight. The ball bounced and touched the fan. The runner shouldn't have scored."
Where there had been a packed house and communal frenzy in Boston, the opposite was true during the Yanks' series in Baltimore. The Orioles still suffer from the apathy epitomized by Marion Law, who considerably brightens the Avis counter at Friendship Airport.
"What kind of ball game is going on?" she asked a visitor.
"You know, the Orioles," was the visitor's reply.
"Oh, that," she said. "I thought that was all over."
As things turned out, the first game of a twi-night doubleheader in Memorial Stadium was not all over until four hours and 12 minutes after it started. The Yanks took a 2-0 lead in the second and the Orioles got a run back in the same inning. In the fifth Andy Etchebarren hit his first home run of the year to tie it up, and the deadlock continued until the bottom of the 17th, when a pinch single by Boog Powell scored Paul Blair with the winning run. That was 10 innings after Manager Earl Weaver had been tossed out by the umps.
The Orioles got a waiver on the Baltimore midnight curfew, but only five hits in the second game off Larry Gura, a 26-year-old southpaw purchased from Syracuse last month after several trials with the Cubs. Gura scattered the hits as the Yanks made victory look easy. Score: 5-1. A burned-up Oriole fan burned his pennant.
The next night was memorable in that the Yankees' Mike Wallace, another lefthander, who had a 5-0 record as a relief pitcher, made his first American League start. Wallace allowed just five hits in beating Jim Palmer, so long the Oriole "stopper," 3-0.
"Relax, men," Weaver told his press corps. "There's a lot of time left. Maybe next week would be a nice time to put an eight-or nine-game win streak together. There's nothing you can do but keep going to the plate and trying to score."
The race was still going to the wire in Virdon's book. "We've got our work cut out for us," he said. "We're just in a position now where we have to win one less than they do."
Lou Piniella, who has been one of the Yankees' most consistent hitters, slugged a three-run homer in the first inning Friday night at Detroit, but for the first time all week Yankee pitching faltered and the game was lost.
As for the race, ex-Yankee Ralph Houk, the Tiger manager, said, "I wouldn't bet and I wouldn't pick, but at this stage the club with the momentum is the club to beat, so I guess you'd say it's the Yankees." And what does a manager do about a team batting slump, like Boston's? "He takes an extra drink," said Houk.
On Friday, Virdon revealed that Pitcher Sam McDowell, once a feared fireballer, had left the team. "He told me he was hanging it up," Virdon said. "He was unhappy he wasn't contributing." McDowell had a 1-6 record and a 4.69 ERA.
The next day the Yankees resembled their violent predecessors as they ripped Mickey Lolich for three homers and scored four times in the first inning. Maddox made a sensational diving catch of a sinking liner by Ron LeFlore, but the Tigers refused to be intimidated. Al Kaline homered and got two other hits to bring his career total to 2,991, and when Bill Freehan homered in the fifth inning the score was tied at 6-all. In the seventh, however, the Yanks scored four more runs, including Murcer's first homer since July 31, covering 163 at bats, and New York won out. (Murcer still hasn't hit a home run in Shea Stadium.)
In the series finale Sunday the Yankees battered starter Luke Walker and a pair of relievers for 14 hits. Piniella, whom the Yanks had obtained from Kansas City despite reports that he was hard to handle and tough to live with, got four hits in four at bats to drive in three runs. It was still something of a shock to glance over the lineup and note that Piniella was one of seven starters who had not been on the team last year. Gura, while not as effective as he was in his remarkable Baltimore performance, nevertheless gained his fourth win. He held the Tigers scoreless for five innings before being relieved by Sparky Lyle in the seventh. It was Sparky's 55th appearance, and he gave up only one hit the rest of the game. Tiger fans took what solace they could from Kaline's 2,992nd hit, a single accounting for one of the Detroit runs.
And so the borough of Queens' lethal stepchildren headed back to New York for a 10-game home stand with any number of juicy statistics to relish—not least that they had won 24 of their last 32 games. That is .750 ball. And while Virdon departed only briefly (and rather murkily) from his super-cautious "down-to-the-wire" stance, he did at least say something else: "If we can't win it now, we just can't win it, that's all."
Altogether it was a week that did the old Yankees proud. And profoundly disturbed the legion of Yankee haters and fearers who had considered themselves safe for another eon or two.