Early last week, in the seventh inning of a game in Yankee Stadium, Reggie Jackson of the California Angels hit a titanic home run off the facade in right field. As Jackson admired this blast from the recent past, many in the crowd of 35,458 began to repeat the old familiar mantra "Reg-gie, Reg-gie." After Jackson had taken a bow from the dugout, the crowd turned its attention and vocal chords to the man who had effectively eighty-sixed 44.
"Steinbrenner creates a partial vacuum with his mouth! Steinbrenner creates a partial vacuum with his mouth!" approximates the chant that engulfed Yankee Stadium.
How could they say something like that? Hadn't George showered them with free agents and pennants and championships? Hadn't he given them the best years of his, their and Reggie's lives? Had they forgotten they were nothing before George arrived?
So what if, in the process, he had taken all the fun out of the game, robbed them of their pride in the Yankees and played them for suckers. How could they say something like that?
May 9, 1982
"I'm sorry, but what did they say?" asked Catcher Rick Cerone after the game. "I couldn't quite hear it."
"It was about the only fun I had all night," said Ron Guidry, who gave up the home run. Though Guidry later downplayed that comment, it upset George, who said, "I didn't expect that from a man I pay $750,000 a year, who gave up a homer to a lefthander who's usually kept out of the lineup against hard-throwing lefthanders."
These are not happy times for George. At week's end the team he rebuilt to win both the Drake Relays and the World Series was 9-11, fourth in the American League East. It was tied for 10th in the league in stolen bases and dead last in home runs. Even worse, the National League team from Queens had outhomered the Bronx Bombers 18-9 while outstealing them 19-10. If George rode the subways, he would see posters that say: NEW YORKERS ARE CONVERGING TO A NEW SOURCE OF POWER, with a picture of the broad backs of Dave Kingman, George Foster and Ellis Valentine.
George made his eighth managerial move in nine years after a win on April 25. He had promised Bob Lemon a whole season, but his promise fell short by at least 148 games. So Lemon, who replaced Gene Michael last September, was replaced by Gene Michael.
When the Yankees lost three of their first four games under Michael, George didn't panic. "You have to give Stick time," he said. Stop that snickering.
Some 200 years ago, George III of England used to fire his entire household staff two or three times a day. He once stopped a carriage to address an oak tree as if it were Frederick the Great. Late at night, George III was given to running through the castle and howling like a dog.
Nobody has seen George M. Steinbrenner III talking to the big bat that towers outside the Stadium, or anything like that, but his baseball sanity has been called into question lately. Not a few people thought George was out of his mind to let Reggie go in the first place. Not only did he lose the power in his lineup, but he also lost the reason many fans ventured to the Bronx. But all 12—count 'em, 12—advisers, whose sole purpose seems to be to suck up to George, told him that Reggie wasn't worth a four-year, $3.6 million contract (plus incentives). "He didn't want to pay me a million at age 39," said Reggie, "but he could be paying Dave Winfield $3 million when he's 39."
Jackson's return promised to be at least interesting, especially after he waited until exactly 6:44 to step out onto the field. In batting practice he put six balls in the seats, to the screaming delight of the fans, most of whom didn't care less that he was hitting. 173 with no homers.
Jackson popped to second his first time up, but in the fifth he singled up the middle, then scored the Angels' go-ahead run on Bob Boone's suicide squeeze. In the seventh Jackson stepped to the plate, and Cerone told him he looked good in his new uniform. Reggie said thank you. Guidry's first pitch was a thigh-high breaking ball that didn't, and Jackson turned on it. Whap! The clout was as prodigious in distance as it was in timing. "He just winked at me when he crossed the plate," said Cerone.
Roy Smalley, George's newest infielder, said, "That's the kind of moment that makes little kids baseball fans for life. I felt like a little kid myself, standing on third."
And the chants began. George, who had given instructions to say he wasn't in the ball park, was sitting in a private box. According to eyewitnesses, he just stared straight ahead. "To make it in New York, you have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," said George, who's from Cleveland and lives in Tampa. "I preach mental toughness, so I have to practice it. I thought the word they used was uncouth, though."
After the rain-shortened game, which the Angels and Angel Moreno won 3-1, George had another elevator incident. As Jackson tells it, he was standing in the street-level lobby of the Yankee offices when the elevator doors opened. There was George. Their eyes met. George let the doors close without getting out. A few moments passed, and the doors opened once more. Again their eyes met. Just before the doors closed again, Jackson heard George mutter something about the elevator not working. Rather than embarrass him any more, Jackson left. "Why avoid me?" said Reggie. "He could have walked by and said something like, 'Way to go, you bastard,' or he could have just walked past me."
The next afternoon Jackson went to the Yankee locker room to visit with his old teammates for about an hour. "They told me I was very lucky to be out of there," Jackson said. "George really ought to own up for a change."
That night Michael broke his maiden as Tommy John shut out the Angels 6-0. But the next night the Yankees lost to Geoff Zahn 2-0. Jackson quite literally had a hand in that one: Leading off the ninth inning of a scoreless game, Reggie was hit on the wrist by reliever Shane Rawley, and his pinch runner was the first man to score. "I wonder who George is going to blame tonight," said Winfield.
Another ex-Yankee, 43-year-old Gaylord Perry, used his great expectorations to dampen New York the following night, as the Mariners made a batting-practice pitcher out of Rich Gossage in a 6-3 victory. "We're making everybody else's pitcher look like Cy Young," said Yankee DH Oscar Gamble. Yet another alumnus, Jim Beattie, held the Yankees to four hits and one unearned run in seven innings on Saturday night. But then Seattle's relievers got roughed up and New York won 5-1. Smalley's grand slam home run was about the best thing that happened to George all week. Another thing was Smalley's two-run single on Sunday when the Yankees won 4-2.
While the Yankees were trying to right themselves on the field, George and the players were using the New York newspapers as a battleground. On the day Lemon was fired, Gossage had some very pointed things to say. Among his most cogent remarks were: "It started in the World Series and went through spring training" and "It's going to be a long year" and finally "We're made to feel like we're little children being spanked every time things go wrong." Gossage doesn't usually pop off like that.
George took to the back pages of the New York Post to defend himself. In an exclusive interview with Dick Young, George said of his managerial change, "If it doesn't turn out, they'll rip me a new seat, those buddies of yours. But if the team turns around and goes on to win, you won't see one [uncouth] word. I'll bet you on it." Young then promised that all the writers would give him "two pips and a hooray" when the Yankees clinch the division.
George gave another exclusive to Maury Allen of the Post. His best lines were "I'm paying those guys [Guidry, Winfield, Ken Griffey and Dave Collins] a lot of money, and they haven't produced" and "I didn't throw those home-run balls to [Bobby] Grich and Jackson; Guidry did." Way to trash one of the best pitchers in baseball, George.
On Saturday, through Young's auspices, Winfield sounded off: "Things get hot and he leaves town.... Maybe when things aren't going well here, I should take a day off to look over my stocks and things." Actually, George was relaxing far from the madding crowd at his horse farm in Ocala, Fla. In an exclusive interview with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Correspondent Tom McEwen, George said, "The Goose should do more pitching and less quacking." He promised, "I'll make one more change, and we think that will make it right. We're getting there and fast, and when we do, we'll be hell on wheels."
George has certainly been hell on wheels since last fall. There was that maxi-tirade after Milwaukee tied the mini-series 2-2. His browbeating and meddling may well have cost the Yankees the World Series.
Over the winter George reshaped the team, acquiring Griffey and Collins for speed. (At week's end Griffey had no stolen bases and Collins no position.) He rehired Lemon for the 1982 season and announced that Michael would be back in 1983. He ordered the team to report voluntarily to spring training in the middle of February, and the extra preparation helped the Yankees go 9-16. Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver took one look at the Yankees in Florida and growled, "There's a guy named George Herman Ruth, called the Babe, who must be rolling over in his grave right now."
George called it the best team he had ever assembled, and then he went about disassembling it. The Yankees needed starters, so starter Gene Nelson was sent to Seattle for a reliever, Rawley. He was acquired so George could trade Ron Davis (who had the temerity to seek arbitration last winter) to the Twins for Smalley, a shortstop, which was something the Yankees already had. The move upset the incumbent, Bucky Dent, as well as the captain of the team, Graig Nettles, whom Smalley was going to spell at third base. Again, all 12 advisers concurred. "We're a true democracy," says George. "We sit around a table and I ask each one what he thinks. I don't even vote." The problem was solved for a while when Nettles broke his left thumb. Unfortunately, by Sunday Dent's bat was moping around at .150, and now Larry Milbourne is in the picture.
Who's on first? is also a burning question. Bob Watson was traded, leaving the Yankees with Dave Revering, Butch Hobson and Collins. The latter two aren't natural first basemen. The trade winds last week had either Toronto's John Mayberry or Pittsburgh's Jason Thompson coming to the Yankees. "There's too much mass confusion here," says Revering, who looked as if he had the job won after he batted .465 in spring training. "I don't know if I am playing tomorrow. I don't know when I'm playing. Come back in a week and you won't see me here." Incredibly, George blamed Gamble for most of the Yankees' troubles. "There's no doubt in my mind that this team would be in first place if Oscar hadn't vetoed a trade to Texas for Al Oliver," he said. "Oscar promised me he'd be the best lefthanded designated hitter in baseball, and he's batting. 130."
With the team so discombobulated, Lemon was a genius to have it at 5-7, which is where the Yankees were when George decided that a change was needed. "The team had no life, no fire," says George. "Lem and I talked. He said it was O.K. He said he didn't take it as a promise, anyway."
So Lemon, a good man, was used as "meat"—the name he gives to nearly everybody. "I thought I might go nine this time, but I didn't even get out of the first inning," Lemon said. Actually, he may have been lucky even to get the start. Reportedly, he had threatened to quit in spring training after George threatened to fire him.
Michael was something of a hero when he told George off last August, but he's back, tail between his legs. "People ask me why I want to manage for George," says Michael. "Lem said it best. 'Managing is the closest thing there is to still playing.' George and I had a talk, and we agreed to be more understanding of each other."
George's defense of his firing managers is that they are always amply compensated. "George thinks that money makes everything good," says Jackson. "But money is the root of all evil. It's harder to get a rich man into heaven than it is to get a camel through the eye of a needle, and I didn't make that up." He did bobble it a little, but the point's the same.
Some clubs win with patience rather than money. Why, if George had owned the Royals in 1980 he might have benched George Brett in May, when he was hitting in the .260s. John was on the '73 Dodgers when they got off to a struggling start. "We went through a bad month and everybody was worried," John says, "but before we knew it, it was June and we were in first place until September. Winning really is just a matter of having patience. It's like rearing your children. You go through some tough spells, but if you show them patience they'll turn out to be fine young people. The management doesn't have the patience here, but the players do."
"I'm no more impatient than the people who booed me the other night," says George. "I want a winner. Look at the record, five flags in nine years. Who can match that?"
The Dodgers come pretty close, and they actually have a farm system. The Yankees haven't gotten a regular out of their minor league organization since George took over in 1973, and they have used only a handful of their own pitchers. He seems to suck the young blood of the minors only to donate it to Seattle and San Diego, and the whole Yankee system is festering. While the Yankees are trying to pry the 32-year-old Mayberry from the Blue Jays, Steve Balboni is knocking down the fences in the International League. "It can be very discouraging in the minors, dreaming you'll wear pinstripes and knowing you never will," says Beattie, whom Steinbrenner once accused of having no guts.
"He really should stick to his horses," says Jackson. "At least he can shoot them if they spit the bit."
There is little or no hope that George will ever see the light, though he has his historic precedents, one of whom, Richard Nixon, was at Yankee Stadium Thursday night. But perhaps none suits him better than George III, a man of some success even though he lost the Revolutionary War. After all, he did beat Napoleon with some late-inning relief help from the Prince Regent. On July 9, 1776, the people of New York tore down the statue of George III in Bowling Green. That was just their way of saying that George III creates a partial vacuum with his mouth.