SEEING AIN'T BELIEVING

The Yankee players continued to amaze even themselves as their record surge carried them past the Red Sox and into first place
September 24, 1978

DEAR BILLY,

I guess you've heard what's been going on with the Yankees since you left. It looks like we're going to win without you. Boston came in to the Stadium last week, and we gave it to them again, beat them twice, 4-0 and 3-2. From the scores you can tell it wasn't like the four games up in Fenway the week before. This time we didn't get as many runs, and they didn't make as many errors, but in a way these games were runaways, too. Their fight, their heart seemed to be missing. We had gone into first on Wednesday, when we beat Detroit and they lost to Cleveland. Yeah, Billy, they got beat by the Indians—lost to them twice, in fact. They could have stayed on top if they had swept in Cleveland, but they didn't. I probably should say they couldn't. Maybe Rick Burleson said it best: "It's almost impossible for us to win a game."

Me and the other guys can't hardly believe it, but all of a sudden we think it's almost impossible for us to lose. It's the most exciting thing that's ever happened to any of us. Guidry pitched a two-hitter in the opener against Boston on Friday night. He's 22-2 now with a 1.71 ERA, so no one gets very excited about it any more when he blows somebody down. Just give him the Cy Young, and maybe the MVP, too, and let him go back home to Louisiana. But Catfish. You wouldn't believe Catfish. After Remy had singled, Rice took Catfish way out to the opposite field in the first inning on Saturday afternoon, and that was it. He shut the Red Sox out the rest of the way and struck out eight, his high for the season. He's now won eight of his last 10. You remember that game up in Boston in June when he gave up those two home runs to Boomer Scott and Freddie Lynn? He said that he couldn't pitch again, that his arm hurt too bad. I figure we owe Dr. Cowen a full share for getting those adhesions out of Cat's shoulder.

Oh, I forgot to tell you how we came back on Saturday. Actually, you probably don't want to hear how we did it, but here it is: Reggie made it 2-1 in the first with a single and then tied it with a homer in the fifth. Look, Billy, I know how you feel, but give the guy credit. He's hit .317 since you left. In fact, he may be hitting .317 because you left. He says you made life miserable for him. Yeah, I know, the feeling is mutual. Well, at least you'll be happy to know that Reggie didn't drive in all the runs. We won in the ninth when Rivers tripled and Thurman drove him in. It was a heck of a game. Nobody made an error, and Torrez pitched just as tough for them as Cat did for us. If they'd won, they probably would've gotten a big lift, and we would've had all we could handle the rest of the way. As it was, the win put us 3½ in front, and, Billy, I'd guess this game might have done it for us. It didn't even seem to matter when we finally lost one to the Sox, 7-3, the next day.

You know that Thurman's catching again, don't you? That rightfield experiment ended right after you left. That's when Bob Lemon put Reggie back in right. I haven't even mentioned Lem, have I? He's done a super job of managing, of keeping things quiet and on the right track around here. One of the writers said, "He has stilled the tumult, quieted the chaos and soft-stroked the Yankees into first place." Yeah, I know, you don't like writers either.

I think I've figured out why Al Rosen told ol' George—incidentally, Steinbrenner's kept his mouth pretty much shut since you've left, so you can see how quiet it's gotten around here—to hire Lem. Kansas City fired him in 1972 because he was 52 and they thought he was too old. Then the White Sox canned him this year because they didn't think he was colorful enough. So, don't you see, that's why we hired him—to get some quiet maturity. No offense, Billy.

I know I don't have to tell you that some people are saying we wouldn't be where we are right now, making the greatest comeback in the history of the American League, if Lem hadn't replaced you. One guy—and it's not Reggie—says that, before he signs another contract, he wants to know if you are really coming back in 1980.

But I think all of that is kind of unfair. A lot of people forget that the streak really started when we won the last five games you managed. Remember? We were 14 games out on July 19, and Figueroa and Guidry pitched back-to-back shutouts against the Twins. Since then, we're 43-16. Of course, if the Red Sox had played .500 ball since then, they'd still be in first place, by one game. But that's their problem.

Lem has a pretty good answer when somebody asks him about the streak. He says, "The main reason we've won is that we haven't had as many injuries. I'm no Oral Roberts. I didn't touch them and make them all get well."

I know it was pretty upsetting to you not to have Rivers and Randolph at the top of the order. And, let's face it, Brian Doyle and Damaso Garcia isn't quite the same double-play combination as Dent and Randolph. Let me put it another way: of our first 89 games, Mickey missed 20 and Willie 23. Since then they've missed only seven between them. They've both hit better than .300 since July 19. In fact, the only regulars who haven't are Chambliss and Dent. The starting lineup batted .302 during the streak. And the staffs ERA is 2.61. I can just see you drooling over those numbers.

Here's another tipoff on how well we've been doing since July 19: we've increased our scoring without increasing our home runs. Chambliss and Nettles have hit back-to-back homers twice, but basically it's been three, four, five hits in an inning. During the series in Fenway two weeks ago—they're calling it the Boston Massacre—we had 67 hits and 56 of them were singles.

And remember how teams used to go into the stands trying to find a lefthander to pitch against us? Well, it doesn't work any more. Before the streak started, we were 22-22 against lefties. Since then we're 24-5. One of the main reasons is Nettles. You remember how Casey used to say, "You can look it up." Well, I did, and coming into this year Nettles was a .249 lifetime hitter. But since July 19, he's batted .327, and his average for the season is up to .277. I asked him about it the other day, and he says he's only taking his uppercut, home-run swing when he feels strong. The other times he's swinging just to make contact. He says he wishes he had thought of that 10 years ago. He's been feeling strong a lot lately, though. He had two homers against Detroit last Thursday night, and another against the Red Sox on Friday. He's got 26 now. He might be the MVP of the streak, except everybody else has been doing so great that you can't pick an MVP. It's been one of those team efforts you always talked about.

I hate to be the one to tell you this, Billy, but they ought to give some kind of award to Lem, too. He's not just benefiting from everybody's good health. He's got Willie and Mickey stealing whenever they want, and Thurman and Piniella playing hit-and-run whenever they want. It seems to have made the whole team more aggressive. You wouldn't believe the way guys are taking the extra base. He's left the pitching pretty much to your buddy Art Fowler and to Clyde King. I'd say that's kind of nice, considering that Lem's a Hall of Fame pitcher himself. King, by the way, has done a good job with young Jim Beattie. Remember back in June when he lost to Boston and ol' George ran him back down to the minors the same night? The poor kid left with tears in his eyes, but he came back throwing bullets. He beat Detroit 7-3 the other night in the game that put us in first place.

As for Figueroa, I don't guess he's tried very hard to get in touch with you, has he? He's very happy now that Lem has him pitching every fourth day, and he's even happier that Lem isn't bugging him the way he says you used to. To hear Figgy tell it, you would "come to the mound late in the game and start messing up my mind." Whatever the cause, he's 10-2 in our streak.

I'm trying to think of the best way to explain how Lem manages. One of the guys on the bench complains that he'd like to have you back because you get on umpires more and make more moves in a game, but I think he's missing the difference in your two philosophies. Lem says he hasn't been thrown out of more than five games in five years as a manager, and that most of the time it's happened when he's tried to keep one of his players from getting the thumb. Lem just doesn't try to control a game as much as you do. He says a teammate in Cleveland once told him, "Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up." I guess that pretty much sums up how he operates. He hasn't screwed anything up. He's just going with a set lineup. Heck, the best hitters on the bench—Jim Spencer, Gary Thomasson and Jay Johnstone—have only gotten up a total of 43 times the last month. No, Lem says he likes to see the lineup that won the World Series out there. But it isn't exactly the same bunch, because Roy White was a non-person then, and now he's playing all the time as either the DH or the leftfielder.

It's kind of ironic about Roy. He's a lot happier now, even though Lem fined him and Rivers for being late to the ball park in Seattle one night. It was the first time Roy'd been fined in his 12 years as a Yankee, and I figure Lem did it mainly to show he can't be taken advantage of.

Oh, Billy, here's one you'll like that's been going around the clubhouse. You know how every time one of the writers tries to ask Thurman a question he brushes the guy off by saying, "I'm just glad to be here"? Well, he was taken to the hospital the other night because he felt dizzy and had a headache. It was probably the aftermath of having been beaned in Boston. Some of the guys claim that when the doctor asked Thurman how he felt, he said, "I'm just glad to be here." Anyway, they did something called a brain scan and found nothing.

Speaking of writers, they're still bugging us. I thought the New York papers were supposed to be on strike. Now the same guys are working for some makeshift papers that've come out while the regular ones are shut down. Anyway, the reporters' favorite question used to be, "Can you catch the Red Sox?" We got pretty good at giving them the line that goes: "If everyone stays healthy and if we get some help from the other teams and if we take advantage of our remaining games with Boston, yeah, we probably can." Not many of us really believed it, but we said it anyway. It's like Piniella admitted, "We were flat out of it. Optimism can only take a team so far."

Now that we've gone ahead, the writers are asking what we think about it. Well, I've got to give Nettles credit for originality, because the other day he must have gotten tired of saying that it isn't over yet and that Boston can still come back. He told a reporter, "Frankly, I'm more surprised than I am happy."

I think Graig is going to get that happy feeling pretty soon, though. I think we all are. Lem told his wife on the phone after we beat Boston on Saturday that it's been a lot of fun the last eight weeks. "Even better than sex" is how he put it.

Well, Billy, I've got to go now. If you're interested in coming to the Series just let me know. I'm sure the guys will be happy to see you. Most of them anyway. It's been a great comeback. Sorry you missed it.

Sincerely,
ONE OF THE GUYS

PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Graig Nettles, whose career batting average is .249, has shortened his stroke—sometimes—and hit .327 since the Yankees' comeback began in mid-July. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Since becoming manager, Bob Lemon has used a set lineup in guiding New York to a 43-16 record. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.After Hrabosky threw at him, Bostock charged the mound—only to end up at the bottom of this pile.

K.C. SHOWS ITS K.O. PUNCH

As the Yankees beat up on the Red Sox for the second weekend in a row and moved in to a semi-comfortable lead in the American League East, who should be surging ahead in the West but New York's staunch playoff antagonists of the past two autumns, the Kansas City Royals.

Only two weeks ago, when Kansas City played second-place California in Anaheim Stadium, the Royals seemed about to pull an el foldo worthy of the Red Sox. After holding the Western Division lead almost without interruption since July 17, K.C. dropped three of the four games, and it appeared that Angel owner Gene Autry's $7.5-million investment in free agents over the past two years finally was about to pay off. California trailed by only half a game as last week began, and like the Yankees the Angels seemed to have the upper hand as they looked ahead to another weekend of head-to-head combat, this time in Kansas City.

When the Angels got to K.C, they found themselves in a battle—which would include a couple of bench-emptying skirmishes over knockdown pitches—all right, but it was for their very lives. California fell into such desperate straits mainly because of what had happened a few days earlier: during a four-game interlude in Texas, the Angels had lost three times. Even the Yankees probably could not have won the opener against the Rangers, because Ferguson Jenkins pitched a three-hit, 1-0 shutout. But California had only its ace pitchers, Starter Frank Tanana and reliever Dave LaRoche, to blame for the ensuing defeats. They each blew leads as the Angels lost 7-5 and 6-4.

It hardly mattered that California scored 13 runs in the ninth inning—a major league record—to win the Texas finale 16-1 and break a nine-game Arlington Stadium losing streak. That night the Royals, who had returned to their beloved, carpeted park where they have won 51 of 73 games, blew away Oakland for the fourth straight time. With complete-game performances from Pitchers Marty Pattin, Larry Gura and Paul Splittorff, and eight hits from Amos Otis, who continued a 16-game tear during which he batted almost .500, K.C. outhit the A's 45-20 and out-scored them 29-5.

Otis stayed hot both with his bat and under the collar Friday evening against the Angels. When Nolan Ryan buzzed Otis' face with a fastball, Amos began a stroll toward the mound that brought both squads onto the diamond, but no punches were thrown. Otis, for one, saved his sock for the seventh inning, when he crashed a game-tying home run. The Royals went on to win 3-2 on Clint Hurdle's ninth-inning pinch triple and an opposite-field single by Pete LaCock, the former bench warmer who has become a Kansas City star by hitting .301 while platooning at first base. The win gave K.C. a 4½-game lead in the standings and a six-game bulge in the loss column.

The Angels broke Kansas City's five-game winning streak 4-3 Saturday when rookie Carney Lansford belted a three-run, eighth-inning homer off Royal reliever Al Hrabosky. That clout set the scene for another round of bench-clearing as the maddened Mad Hungarian twice threw over the head of California's next batter, Lyman Bostock. This time there was fighting—and, moments later, ejections—but the only injury was to the Royals' Jerry Terrell, who claimed that his little finger was bitten, and bloodied, by California's Ron Jackson.

The Royals got their teeth into Tanana early on Sunday when Frank White and George Brett clouted third-inning homers. Those blows set Kansas City off to a 5-0 victory that made an 18-game winner of Dennis Leonard and an almost certain three-time division champ of K.C.

Bring on those Yankees.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)