The New York Yankees, the best team money can buy, lost the American League pennant last week. Actually, it was the 1957 pennant, which was being displayed at a New Jersey department store when someone stole it. But the way the fans were howling and the newspapers gossiping, you would have thought that George Steinbrenner's million-dollar minions had lost the 1977 flag as well.
Heavily favored to repeat as American League champions, the Yankees were off to their worst start in 10 years, losing five straight games and possessing for three days the worst record in the major leagues. But the losses themselves were not what was making the early-season Yankee performance so befuddling. After all, even a club loaded with all-stars can be expected to have slumps. The confounding thing about the team was the way everyone connected with it was taking the defeats.
To the amazement of onlookers, Steinbrenner did not storm into the dugout during the 8-3 loss to Toronto that was New York's fifth in a row and set fire to Manager Billy Martin. Catcher Thurman Munson and Rightfielder Reggie Jackson did not beat each other bloody with their Most Valuable Player trophies. Nobody jumped the team. In fact, instead of turning on each other, the volatile Yankees were saving their invective for the official scorer. Big deal.
Despite this docile behavior, the preseason prognostications for the Yankees still seem appropriate: 1) A team that won the league championship last season, then added free agents Reggie Jackson and Don Gullett, bought DH Jimmy Wynn and traded for Shortstop Bucky Dent should be even better this time around; and 2) If it is not, look out.
Spring training showed how tumultuous the Yankees can be. New York sportswriters went to Florida looking for controversy, and the Yankees nearly wrecked themselves trying to oblige:
First of all, there were contract disputes involving Munson, Third Baseman Graig Nettles, Leftfielder Roy White and Pitchers Dock Ellis and Sparky Lyle. Nettles even left the team for a few days, and Ellis remains unsigned.
After being asked to sharpen his all-round game with better bunting and more bases on balls—reasonable requests of a leadoff batter—Centerfielder Mickey Rivers asked to be traded; later in the spring he was benched twice for not hustling.
Jackson did not feel properly welcomed by his teammates and grumbled privately that he may have made a mistake by signing with New York.
Martin felt Steinbrenner was putting too much emphasis on winning spring-training games, and Steinbrenner raised hell when Martin did not come to an exhibition on the bus with his players.
Everyone was criticized when it was learned the Yankees had voted no World Series shares for their bat boys. As an afterthought, they awarded the boys $100 each, but their Cincinnati counterparts had received $6,591 apiece.
Then Shortstop Fred Stanley became upset when he lost his starting job to Dent, who came from the White Sox just as New York was breaking camp.
With all of this going on, it was no wonder that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to make the Yankees America's goodwill ambassadors to Cuba. It would not have been in the best interest of baseball—or international diplomacy.
It is also easy to understand why New York broke out of the gate like a dray horse once the regular season began. "Last year everybody came to camp with the common goal of winning, and it carried over into the season," says Outfielder Lou Piniella. "This spring we didn't get together, there were too many distractions. I could even see that a few players were complacent. I knew we wouldn't get off to a start as good as last year's."
Because the Yankees have everything in excess—pitching, hitting and ego—no one is quite sure whether they more closely resemble the 1972-74 Oakland A's or today's Philadelphia 76ers. In any case, their potential for success is no less than their potential for conflict.
Speculation about the likelihood of New York breaking apart from within has focused on Jackson. His explosive bat made him the prize of the free-agent draft—at least according to Steinbrenner, who plunked down $2.9 million to obtain him—but the new rightfielder is a paradox: within that manly body lies the sensitivity of a child. Jackson needs to be loved, openly and without reservation, and the Yankees are not a loving team. To earn your pinstripes, you must undergo a rite of passage.
Wynn realized this as soon as he arrived from Atlanta. "The players on this team like to get on one another," he says. "Reggie didn't understand that at first. I said if he laughed with them and took part, he'd get along better."
Despite Wynn's good advice, Jackson doubted for a while this spring that he would ever get along under such circumstances. Though he never let his teammates or the front office know it, he admitted to a couple of non-baseball acquaintances that his choice of the Yankees seemed a mistake. On a flight in Florida one day, Jackson asked a photographer where he was coming from, and when the photographer said he had just left the Dodger camp, Jackson said that maybe that's where he ought to be.
Although Jackson still has not become completely assimilated, he feels he is making progress. "In the spring there was a lot of give and a lot of take, but no melting together," he says. "It was uncomfortable for everybody. When the press started aggravating the situation, I thought it would have been better for everybody if I had not come at all. I knew the team didn't need the controversy. Besides, this was a great team before I got here. They don't need Reggie Jackson to win."
While conceding that "nobody has been openly antagonistic," Jackson still believes there are those who do not want him around. He has his doubts about one Yankee regular in particular, and he also is skeptical of Martin's feelings. On the other hand, despite an uneasy start, Jackson's relationship with Munson—which many observers thought would be New York's undoing—seems to be good.
"I've never had any problem with Reggie," Munson says. "I know he makes more money than me, but why should I be jealous? I'm happy in life. Being jealous of Reggie would be the most stupid thing in the world."
Apparently, Jackson and Munson only needed to eye each other for a while before agreeing to share their turf. It helped when Steinbrenner had them for breakfast one day in spring training, without telling either that he had invited the other. It helped even more when Munson took time out to talk privately with Jackson before a recent game in Milwaukee.
"Munson and Wynn have been my biggest boosters," says Jackson. "Both have been supportive and understanding. When Thurman and I join forces, can't nobody stop us."
Detente with Martin has not come as easily. Jackson wants to bat fourth; with 282 career home runs and 829 RBIs, he feels he deserves the cleanup spot. Martin, however, prefers First Baseman Chris Chambliss hitting there, because Chambliss is less prone to strike out and because he handled the job so well last season, even winning the pennant with a bottom-of-the-ninth homer in the fifth game against Kansas City. Jackson also wants to play every day. "I've never sat down against nobody, never," he emphasizes. But with the Yankees, Jackson will occasionally be on the bench—if he is hurt, as he was slightly two weeks ago, or if Martin wants to get someone else into the lineup.
Jackson also may have overestimated the closeness of his relationship with Steinbrenner. True, Steinbrenner did make signing him the team's top priority in the free-agent scramble, although General Manager Gabe Paul preferred Infielder Bobby Grich, but Steinbrenner says, "Reggie does not understand that Billy and I want him to be second to the team. He wants to be 'it,' and he still can be, even bigger than he was in Oakland and Baltimore. But the team comes first."
Martin insists that he really does like Jackson, as a player and as a person. "You never say no to getting a Reggie Jackson," he says, "because he can help the team. I'd play Hitler and Mussolini if it would help us win. Reggie just has to understand the way I do things. On the field I call the shots. I'm going to win or lose my way. I might bat Reggie fourth when he's hot, but with our running game it's best to have a fourth-place hitter who does not strike out a lot."
Although Jackson obviously disagrees, he is smart enough not to argue the point. "It's important for me to get along with my boss," he says. "I'm going to have to take a certain amount. Well, I'll take it, but I won't eat it."
Martin would probably survive an open rift with Jackson, but he is at a distinct disadvantage when dealing with Steinbrenner, who, after all, owns the club. To his credit, Steinbrenner made the Yankees the team they are today. It is also to his credit that even though he may threaten to trade a Munson or a Nettles or fire Martin, he does not act on pique. At least, he hasn't so far.
"I'm intense and I'm a driver," Steinbrenner says. "I'm a firm believer in the old adage that if you're going to lead, lead. I've been involved in everything from the ushers to the dining room to the players' equipment bags. I raise hell if the rest rooms are dirty. But on the field I let Martin do things his way. The press wants Billy and me to be like North vs. South. Well, it isn't that way."
In fact, as long as Steinbrenner is satisfied to have his say and leave it at that, the two will get along fine. Martin does not like Steinbrenner meddling with his coaches and players, and he does not like the owner calling him after losses. "I think George understands the way I am," Martin says. "He wants to win just as much as I do, and as the owner he is entitled to ask questions. But he is impulsive. When he gets that way, I just tell him I disagree, that he's making a mistake, and he calms down. Sure, he makes me mad sometimes, really mad. But I'm not stupid. I'm closer to him than any other owner I've ever had. I've gone out with him, and he's fun to be with."
Because he was an assistant freshman football coach at Purdue, Steinbrenner puts great stock in his athletic instincts. He says, in fact, that he knew the Yankees would start the season slowly, because "they were not mentally right." But at the same time he respects Martin's ability to run the club, even if he would like to see Jackson batting third and Munson fourth. Steinbrenner buys, sells and trades the way he wants to. Martin must play with what Steinbrenner gives him, even if he does not always like it. He did not agree with the deal that sent reserve Infielder Sandy Alomar to Texas for two minor leaguers. He was glad when a trade fell through that would have brought Bill North and Mike Torrez from Oakland in exchange for Rivers and Ellis. And he concurs with Steinbrenner when the owner admits it was a mistake to let Reliever Grant Jackson go in the expansion draft. A trade Martin encouraged was the one that obtained Dent from Chicago, but even then he wished it could have been accomplished at the cost of some player other than Oscar Gamble.
Steinbrenner has given Martin a team that everyone expects will win. And no one expects it more than Steinbrenner does. The owner's biggest concern is what he calls the "falloff" Martin has suffered after his initial successes in three previous managerial jobs. After winning a division championship with Minnesota in 1969, Martin was fired. Then he finished second and first with Detroit in 1971 and '72 but was dismissed the next year with the team in third place. He took Texas from sixth to second in 1974, but was fired in '75 with the team in fourth. He was hired by Steinbrenner two weeks later.
"I got Martin because he is what we needed at the time," Steinbrenner says. "His record has been one of instant success, and I knew he could put it together in a hurry. But there's always been a drop, and it's my job to see that it doesn't happen again." And Steinbrenner is in a good position to do that, because Martin's previous firings have been as much an indication of his inability to get along with front offices as they have been a result of his teams' declining performances.
It looked for a while last week as if his falloff with New York had come sooner than anybody expected. After Catfish Hunter shut out Milwaukee 3-0 on opening day, the Yankees stopped hitting and a dream that New York's rivals had been having all spring seemed to be coming true. According to that wishful thinking, if the Yankees got off to a bad start, their explosive personalities would set off a disastrous chain reaction, with the players squabbling among themselves and Martin locking horns with Steinbrenner and eventually getting the ax. One defect in the big-blowup scenario was New York's easy early schedule, which included six games with Milwaukee, last in the American East in '76, and four with expansion Toronto.
But the Brewers and Blue Jays proved to be anything but pushovers. After their opening victory, the Yankees lost eight of nine. During that stretch, they were defeated in a succession of relatively low-run games by such undistinguished pitchers as Jerry Augustine (twice) and Bob McClure of the Brewers and Dave Lemanczyk and Jerry Garvin of the Blue Jays. In the only loss not sustained at the hands of Milwaukee or Toronto, the Royals beat the Yanks 5-4, holding them hitless for the final eight innings of a 13-inning game.
By the time the slump had run its course, the Yankees, whose $1.5 million starting lineup is composed entirely of former all-stars, had the worst record in baseball, Hunter was on the 21-day disabled list with an injury sustained in his first start, and Gullett was 0-2. Ellis, Ed Figueroa and Ken Holtzman had all pitched well enough to win, but the hitters had not hit (Jackson, Chambliss, Munson and Nettles were all batting less than .200), the runners weren't running (they had only six steals in 14 attempts) and the fielders weren't fielding (they had 11 errors to their opponents' six).
The low point was reached after the second of two losses to Toronto early last week. "I'm awful relaxed," Martin said mockingly. "Wouldn't you be relaxed if your house was on fire?"
In the next two games—also against Toronto—the Yankee bats finally hit some pitches. That was no surprise; it was bound to happen sooner or later. What was surprising was that the Yankees had survived the slump without rancor arising in the clubhouse or front office. And they broke it with a lineup drawn out of a hat by Jackson, which, among other oddities, had Rivers hitting fifth and Chambliss eighth. In reeling off five straight victories over the Blue Jays and Indians, the Yankees averaged eight runs and 13 hits. In the streak Munson and Jackson had eight hits apiece, and Chambliss broke out with two doubles, a homer and five RBIs in an 8-6 victory over Toronto. Three days later he had a bases-loaded double and a three-run homer in a 10-1 defeat of Cleveland.
Martin said he would stick with the new lineup as long as the Yankees won, but he did not much like it. He is anxious to unveil the batting order that he thinks will put the Yankees back in the World Series. It will not make Jackson or Munson particularly happy, but it pleases the manager. Rivers would lead off, followed by Munson, Jackson, Chambliss, Nettles, left-handed DH Carlos May, White, Willie Randolph and Dent. Against left-handed pitching, which New York saw seven times in its first 12 games. DH Wynn would bat fifth, with Nettles dropping to sixth.
Like fine furniture, no matter how the lineup is arranged it looks awfully good. At least as long as the Yankees are thinking team baseball. "People talk about our egos and our salaries," says Munson, "but they forget we're also players who have had success and care for what we do. Pride doesn't allow you to let down. When you start getting killed on the field and booed by the fans [Jackson was greeted by chants of "Reggie! Reggie!" during his first Yankee Stadium game, but was roundly booed in the subsequent losses], pride takes over."
It had better take over for good, because if it does not, the inevitable confrontations will make the spring training furor look like a love feast.