Even around the Yankees, where the unexpected is expected, Ron Guidry's offer last week to go to the aid of New York's stricken bullpen was stunning. Owner George Steinbrenner, who often grouses about the selfishness of some of his players, was euphoric, saying, "For Guidry, the Cy Young winner, the guy who went 27-3 for us last year, to say, 'I want to go to the bullpen if it will help the club,' shows you what kind of class guy he is. First he's for the Yankees, second he's for Guidry. Would that every Yankee act like him."
So few have that, as startling as Guidry's decision was, it may have been even more surprising that no one could find a devious motive for it. Could it be that team spirit is rearing its noble head in the Bronx zoo?
Apparently so. "There are no reservations in my mind," said Guidry after it was announced that he'd drop out of the starting rotation. "I'm grateful that I had one real good season. I've had more than my share of glory and trophies, and what a lot of people forget is that I wouldn't have gotten any of them if it hadn't been for my teammates. Now I'll just pitch when they need me."
The idea of shifting to the bullpen first occurred to Guidry during the Yankees' horrible 2-6 West Coast swing that concluded last week with New York in fourth place in the American League East, four games behind division-leading Boston. "I didn't like sitting there and not being able to help," said Guidry. "I got to thinking about what I might do."
May 13, 1979
What he might do, of course, is save two or three games a week, rather than win one on his own. But when Guidry first asked Pitching Coach Tom Morgan about the move, he was turned down. Later he suggested that he relieve between starts, something Manager Bob Lemon did occasionally during his pitching days. "That can really screw you up," said Morgan. But toward the end of the week, as it became clear that the New York bullpen was reeling, the Yankee brass began to reconsider Guidry's offer.
Still, there must be something in it for Guidry, right? "Well, it might mean I'll throw 150 innings instead of 300," he said, "and that might add a year at the end of my career. And when I go in for one inning, the hitters will know I'm not holding anything back. So what's a batter going to think? I'll also be strong later in the year for starting again."
Guidry has been mildly bothered that while he earned his way to the big leagues in 1975 as a reliever, he was never a major league success at the job. On April 14 of this year Lemon called on Guidry at the end of a game against the Chicago White Sox; he faced one batter and got a game-saving double play. "I forgot how much fun that could be. I think I'll go back to the bullpen," Guidry said facetiously that day. Lemon ignored him then, but now says, "It's a really unselfish move on his part."
That Guidry is making such a dramatic change is evidence enough that things have gone sour for the defending world champions. Certainly the Yankee management seems to think so. Last Friday President Al Rosen blasted his team for complacency. The next day Steinbrenner summoned Lemon and the Yankee coaches to his office and tore into them for not maintaining tight discipline, a favorite Steinbrenner theme.
Perhaps lackadaisical play has been a factor in New York's shaky start; the Yanks had an 11-13 record as of Friday. More distressing has been New York's weak hitting—the team average of .254 is 13 points lower than it was for 1978. And worst of all has been the pitching.
Last year New York's staff was easily the best in baseball, with Guidry, Ed Figueroa (20-11) and Catfish Hunter (13-7). Then there was Reliever Rich Gossage, who made 68 appearances, saved 28 games and won 12.
The Yankees tried to improve on that powerful aggregation over the winter. They signed former Dodger ace Tommy John and ex-Red Sox mainstay Luis Tiant. So certain was New York of its pitching excellence that it traded former Cy Young-winning Reliever Sparky Lyle to Texas, mainly because they thought he wouldn't be needed. Another indication of Yankee pitching depth was that right-hander Jim Beattie was sent to Triple A Columbus this spring, though Beattie had been a stalwart down the stretch in '78 and had won a game in the playoffs against Kansas City and another in the World Series against the Dodgers. The placid 24-year-old Beattie says, "I understood. I knew I hadn't gone from prospect to suspect."
Some of the other New York pitchers apparently have. Neither Tiant nor Hunter has won a game. Were it not for John, who is 6-0, and Guidry, who is only 3-2 despite a 2.40 ERA, the Yankees would be much further behind than they are. But the most significant of New York's pitching breakdowns was the result of an April 19 injury to Gossage. While rough-housing in the clubhouse with Catcher Cliff Johnson, the Goose ripped a ligament in the thumb on his pitching hand. He has undergone surgery and is not expected to play again until the middle of next month.
To their sorrow, the Yanks discovered that despite all their pitching riches, Gossage was irreplaceable. "We lost one heckuva asset," said Lemon, understating the case. By the time Guidry went to the bullpen, New York had played 13 games without the Goose, winning five and losing eight. Except for one victory in which John appeared in relief, the pitchers coming out of the bullpen had performed poorly. Three of those Yankee defeats came as the result of disastrous bullpen work of the following sort:
On April 29 in Seattle, John pitched well for 7‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings before leaving the game, leading 5-3, but with the Mariners threatening. Paul Mirabella put down the trouble in the eighth but then cooked up some of his own in the ninth. Ron Davis, who had been brought up from Columbus to take Gossage's spot on the roster and has since been demoted, replaced Mirabella and threw one pitch, which Willie Horton ripped for a two-run double. Dick Tidrow, who was supposed to become the relief ace in Gossage's stead, came in and delivered one pitch. It was hit for a game-winning single by Bruce Bochte.
While the Yankees kept getting shelled in the West, the big shots back East were contemplating what to do. What about that kid Beattie down in Columbus? All he had done since being exiled was go 4-0 while giving up only 17 hits and two earned runs and striking out 34 in 35 innings. Though Beattie had not worked in short relief since his senior season at Dartmouth, he readily acceded when the Yankees asked him to return to New York to labor in the bullpen. "Relief is my ticket back, but it's not my future," he said.
Within a few hours of arriving at Yankee Stadium Friday, Beattie was summoned to the mound by Lemon. The crowd, recalling Beattie's past achievements and hoping for future glories, cheered long and loud. But Beattie pitched terribly, getting only three Oakland hitters out and being charged with the loss as the A's rallied for an 11-5 win. Said Lemon when he trudged out to get Beattie, "Well, Jim, you got your feet wet, anyway."
Beattie's feet presumably were barely dry the next day when it was decided he would henceforth be a starter. For several days Steinbrenner had been privately speaking the unspeakable: How about Guidry as a reliever? Beattie was the fourth man to fail as Gossage's replacement, and Steinbrenner argued, "We've got to stabilize the bullpen. Besides, Beattie should be a starter." So should Guidry, of course. But desperate situations sometimes require unorthodox solutions.
And a solution is just what the Yankees seemed to have found by late Sunday afternoon. Guidry warmed up late in Saturday's game, but John held on against an 11-hit Oakland attack to pick up a 5-4 complete-game victory. Hunter was not as fortunate the next day, and Lemon pulled him in favor of Guidry with one out in the seventh inning, the A's Jeff Newman on third and the score tied 5-5. Working rapidly, Guidry got out of that jam, whiffing one batter and getting a second to pop up. He went on to pitch 3⅖ scoreless innings, allowing two hits and striking out five, before Jim Spencer's 10th-inning single drove in Brian Doyle with the Yankees' winning run. New York was at .500 again because they had an ace—make that, the ace—in the bullpen.