In Fort Lauderdale last week, Sparky Lyle of the world champion New York Yankees was getting ready for the baseball season in typical fashion. For Lyle, that meant an early-morning workout—consisting of a little throwing, a couple of lethargic wind sprints and a friendly pepper game—on a day when most of his teammates would have to endure a six-hour bus trip to Vero Beach and back for an exhibition game with the Dodgers. Returning to his locker after deciding that he had done enough work for one day, Lyle found a note that read, "You're pitching Saturday."
Lyle took a pen and on the note scribbled, "Maybe I will." Then he stepped into a pair of jeans, pulled on a yellow T shirt that clearly outlined his sizable paunch, donned a Panama hat that shaded his droopy mustache, grinned a grin and headed for "the only place besides the ball park where I feel comfortable."
At his hotel bar, Lyle was halfway through a cheeseburger and his first vodka and soda of the day when the telephone rang. "Do we still have an opening for a dishwasher?" the bartender asked the cashier.
"You have?" said Lyle, putting down the burger. He stood up and pointed a finger toward heaven. "O.K., George," he yelled. "You better come across now. You hear me, George?"
Welcome back to the Yankees, America. In case anyone needs a reintroduction, Lyle, at 34, was the American League's best pitcher last season. Not just the best relief pitcher, which he certainly was, but the best pitcher, period. Relying on a single pitch—his dreaded slider—the lefthander, who was summoned only in the tightest spots, had a 13-5 record, 26 saves and an ERA of 2.17. He also became the first relief pitcher in the American League to win the Cy Young Award.
All season long, Lyle worked like a pack mule, and he loved it. On six occasions he appeared in three or more consecutive games, and in. June he had five saves in five straight appearances. In the stretch during late August and early September, when the Yankees climbed past Boston and into first place in the East, Lyle had four wins and seven saves in 13 appearances. In all, he pitched in 72 games and finished 60 of them, each a Yankee record, and extended his major league record for relief appearances to 621. He has not made a single start in his 11 seasons in the major leagues. On the basis of his 2.44 career ERA, one could argue that Sparky Lyle is baseball's alltime best pure relief specialist.
But what was all that fuss about his late arrival for spring training? And why is he loafing a bit and begging off bus trips and hanging out in the hotel bar and scribbling wise-guy notes? Why do some of his close friends on the club expect him to walk out on the Yankees any day? Why is he threatening to become a dishwasher if "George" does not come across? And why is he sulking like an only child who suddenly finds a new baby in the house?
Why? Because that is just what has happened. Except it is not just one baby, but twins, with whom Lyle must share his bullpen. It seems that George Steinbrenner, the team's imperious owner, reasoned that the only thing better than having one Sparky Lyle would be having two Sparky Lyles, or better yet, three. But he forgot to consult Sparky before tossing several more of his millions—almost four of them—to land a pair of right-handed, free-agent relievers: Rich Gossage and Rawly Eastwick.
As a result, Lyle told Steinbrenner that he does not want to be a Yankee anymore, for reasons that have something to do with just how thin one can slice baloney. With Lyle, Gossage and Eastwick, the Yankees have a bullpen of stupendous proportions, and how, Lyle wonders, can Manager Billy Martin find a way to keep everybody busy, and therefore happy?
Gossage, 26, is a strapping power pitcher, a 6'3" 210-pounder whose fastball has been clocked at 99 mph. He was the American League Fireman of the Year in 1975 with the White Sox, and for Pittsburgh last season he had statistics much like Lyle's: 11-9, 26 saves and a 1.62 ERA in 72 appearances. He also had 151 strikeouts in 133 innings. Eastwick, 27, was a Fireman of the Year, too, in 1976 with the Reds, and last season he pitched in 64 games for Cincinnati and St. Louis.
And there's the rub. Simple arithmetic shows that the three Yankee bullpen aces appeared in a total of 208 games last season, and veteran Dick Tidrow's 42 stints push the number to 250. At the same time, Yankee starters pitched a total of 52 complete games, third in the league.
After Lyle won the Cy Young Award, Steinbrenner tacked a $35,000 bonus onto his $140,000 salary and extended his contract a year, through 1980. The next Lyle knew, the Yankees had signed Gossage for $2.75 million. "I knew anyone in his right mind would go out and get that man," he says. "Right then, I didn't feel that my job was taken away. But I felt I'd be slowly edged out." When Eastwick signed for $1.1 million 19 days later, Lyle felt the earth sliding.
"I had been so happy," says Lyle, "because I figured Steinbrenner appreciated what I did for the club. Then, when he got Gossage and Eastwick I was so damn down because I felt like he sort of set me up for that, with the money he gave me. He never said anything to reassure me. Never called. Never wrote."
In January, Lyle announced that he wanted to be traded. "Everyone knows I have to pitch a lot to be effective," he said. "I can't sit around for four or five days without working. That will be the ruination of the whole season, and I don't want to waste any of the four or five years I have left."
The Yankees kept mum about Lyle's complaint until camp opened, and when Lyle did not report with the rest of the battery men on Feb. 20, Martin and Steinbrenner launched their counteroffensive, blasting Lyle for his "immaturity." "He's a Cy Young Award winner," said Martin. "He should set an example."
Out on the field, the other pitchers were amused by all the fuss. "Sparky's never been here on time," said Catfish Hunter. "I don't think anyone looked for him to be here on time, at least not the players." Said Steinbrenner, "If Lyle isn't mature enough to understand that he has a contractual and moral obligation to the Yankees, we certainly are not going to waste one minute of our time attempting to find out where he is."
With Holmesian brilliance, General Manager Cedric Tallis deduced that Lyle was home in New Jersey and called him there. Lyle said he would arrive on Feb. 24. His secret plan was to be driven to the practice field in a hearse and delivered to the mound in a coffin carried by four pallbearers. But when Lyle stepped off the plane at the Fort Lauderdale airport, Steinbrenner had one-upped him. There to greet Lyle were a 100-piece band playing Pomp and Circumstance, 28 pompon girls, nine majorettes and a banner that read WELCOME SPARKY LYLE—FINALLY. "Imagine if I had been a whole week late," Lyle said to his wife.
Once in camp, Lyle insisted he was serious about wanting to be traded. "It isn't the money," he said. "I don't give a damn about the money. I just want to be somewhere where I can pitch." Despite his "It isn't the money" disclaimers, though, Lyle has repeatedly indicated that a new long-term contract would make him one happy Yankee. Steinbrenner listened to Lyle's plea for all of 10 minutes. A few days later came a report that the Yankees could get no better offer than the proposal they got from Texas: Outfielder Claudell Washington and Pitcher Paul Lindblad for Lyle and First Baseman Chris Chambliss.
"What's the market for Lyle at age 34?" Steinbrenner said. "I'm not going to sacrifice anything just to trade him."
The fact is, Steinbrenner has no intention of trading Lyle. After all, Lyle is asked, if you were the owner and had enough money, who would you want in your bullpen?
"Me," he says.
"Yeah. Gossage...and...probably Eastwick."
So how would things be different than they are now?
"I would understand what I'm doing to myself mentally."
But even Lyle realizes that the greatest burden will fall upon Martin. If the 1978 Yankee bullpen does not turn out to be the greatest in baseball history, surely the reason will be that Martin mismanaged his relievers. "Gossage and Sparky will both get plenty of work," blurts Martin whenever the question arises. And Eastwick?
"Ask Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner got Eastwick on his own."
Would Martin rather not have Eastwick? "You don't never have enough pitching."