A provocative and little-noted aspect of baseball writing—whether serious fiction, "inside" gossip or journalism—is that so much of it originates in the bullpen. From Mark Harris to Jim Brosnan to Pat Jordan, writers of quite sharply divergent abilities and purposes have found in the life of the bullpen a rich source of baseball chatter, humor, lore and ritual.
It's not difficult to see why. Unlike the dugout, the bullpen is at a distinct distance from the game itself. In the dugout, players and coaches are expected to look for openings in their opponents' strategies and weaknesses in their own, keep pitching charts and other statistics, and conduct a ceaseless litany of invective against opponents and umpires. But in the bullpen, pitchers, catchers and coaches are free to swap stories, play games and practical jokes, grow gardens, banter with fans. It's an atmosphere in which easy talk and irreverence flourish: and talk, as much as action, is at the center of the most interesting baseball writing.
So it is with the latest bullpen manifesto, Sparky Lyle's The Bronx Zoo (Crown, $8.95), written in collaboration with Peter Golenbock. It is not, in the strict sense of the term, a good book. For one thing, Lyle whines so loudly and so often about his miserable 1978 salary—it was $135,000—that a muzzle is in order. For another, the prose is dreadful throughout; in his preface Golenbock thanks several journalists "for working on and hopefully improving whatever writing skills I may have," which in itself suggests he wasn't paying much attention.
Yet despite its considerable faults. The Bronx Zoo is a lot of fun. Since it is a journal of the New York Yankees' 1978 season, it is bound to be interesting: few teams in baseball history, after all, have come up with such wild chills, spills and thrills as the Yankees did last year. But Lyle makes the tale doubly fascinating because he is a tart, sassy and forthright diarist; he speaks his mind with almost belligerent candor, dishing up both gossip and laughs in abundant measure.
April 23, 1979
Lyle begins his journal on the day in October 1977 when he learned that he had won the American League's half of the Cy Young Award with a record of 13-5, a 2.17 ERA and 26 saves. He received the news joyfully, but his joy lasted less than a month. Before November was out, George Steinbrenner, the acquisitive Yankee owner, had signed the formidably talented Pirate reliever, Rich Gossage, who is several years younger than Lyle and possessed of "a 100-mile-an-hour heater" as opposed to Lyle's "80-mile-an-hour slider."
As Lyle's teammate Graig Nettles put it, overnight Lyle went "from Cy Young to Sayonara." Gossage's youth and ability, plus the team's whopping investment in him ($2.75 million over six years), made it a virtual certainty that he would get the lion's share of the late-inning, tight-situation work upon which a reliever's reputation and earning power rest. Lyle demanded to be traded; he wasn't. Lyle demanded more money; he didn't get it. So he stayed on through the tumultuous season, disgruntled and disaffected: but though he was often out of sorts, he did not let his sense of humor desert him, as The Bronx Zoo happily attests.
Bullpen humor, like sports humor generally, tends to be broad, raunchy, macho, sophomoric. It can also be exceedingly funny. Lyle delights in practical jokes, the grosser the better, and the wildest parts of the book are his descriptions of the outrages that various Yankees have perpetrated against each other. The long-since-departed Fritz Peterson was a master of the art; Lyle's admiration for his talents is self-evident, as reflected in his account of an elaborate ruse Peterson pulled on Thurman Munson involving a mail-order gun holster. There's an even more preposterous Peterson-inspired invention involving Gene Michael's jockstrap and a very large bullfrog. Sure it's strictly from Animal House, but if that's your kind of humor, Lyle will make you laugh.
Not surprisingly, Lyle reserves his least flattering words for Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner. Though from time to time he makes an effort to understand Jackson's flamboyant and complicated ego, his fundamental view is that Jackson caters to the writers and places personal considerations ahead of the team's. As for Steinbrenner, in Lyle's relentlessly hostile portrait he comes across as an impatient, insensitive bully who can't leave well enough alone, plays favorites and is summarily harsh to players whose performances fail to satisfy him.
But there are good guys here as well: Catfish Hunter, Munson, Chris Chambliss, Nettles, Elston Howard—and Billy Martin. Lyle is a Martin fan: "Billy Martin treats you like a man. If you do your job, he leaves you alone, whereas most managers don't.... This team could never have become what it did without Billy Martin managing it."
The coda to all of this is that after the season was over, Lyle finally got his wish: he is now a Texas Ranger. But he has certainly left the Yankees something to talk about, and his saucy report from the bullpen makes it all the more difficult to think of him as anything except a Yankee.