On the other side of town in Fort Steinbrenner, The Bronx, no one ever claimed that this was "baseball the way it oughta be." The Yankees were the tabloid warriors, and their managers were as disposable as Handi-wipes.
It was just a decade ago that those Reggie-Billy-George Yankees were the last club to win back-to-back world championships, and one of the key veterans on that team was Lou Piniella, who now, in his second season as manager, has New York in first place in the American League East. "We didn't have the most talent," Piniella recalls, "but we had two outstanding characteristics: We were the toughest, and we had the most usable parts. I see the same things in this team."
Except for the turmoil. "We're as quiet as a church mouse," says reliever Dave Righetti, exaggerating just a tad. Adds Mattingly, "No one on this team is looking to do anything but play baseball. Nobody's doing any books. We don't have a lot of guys doing commercials. We don't have any controversial personalities. I'll admit that we also haven't won anything, so we have one single purpose—winning. But no one here needs any other kind of publicity."
This is not a team lacking for marquee stars, with Mattingly, Righetti, Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield and Ron Guidry. But, Piniella points out, "with the exception of Willie Randolph, no one's having a great year." Indeed, Mattingly (injured disks) and Henderson (pulled right hamstring) missed almost all of June, and Guidry is just getting back to normal after serving his failed-free-agent penance. Even Righetti, with nine blown save opportunities, is struggling.
July 12, 1987
"Yet, no one tries to make excuses for injuries," says veteran outfielder-DH Mike Easier. "When Henderson and Mattingly were out and then Claudell Washington got hurt, this team said nothing and went out to get it on."
Captain Randolph and Winfield took over as leaders during that potentially disastrous period. Winfield, Steinbrenner's favorite target for abuse, batted .342 with five homers during the Mattingly-Henderson absence and—mirabile dictu—even earned veiled praise from his boss. The two injured stars were together for only four games of a vital 26-game stretch against AL East clubs, and the Yankees still went 16-10. On Sunday, New York led the Blue Jays by five full games.
But it hadn't been easy. On June 26, the Yankees beat Roger Clemens and the Red Sox, 12-11, after trailing 9-0. In Toronto last week, in the opener of a three-game series, they blew an 11-4 lead, then trailed, 14-11, and finally pulled it out 15-14 on Winfield's grand slam homer.
"The way this team played," says Easier, now in his second tour with the Yanks after returning from Philadelphia last month, "is a reflection of the manager, both in terms of thought and temperament."
Make no mistake, it's still Steinbrenner's ball club; the phone lines to the manager's and general manager's offices are as hot as ever. But, says Mat-tingly, "the players know that Lou takes the heat for us, and we appreciate it. Never does he bring anything but the desire to win out of his office into the clubhouse."
"George beats and wears down his managers," says one Yankee insider. "But it doesn't bother Lou. He won't let anyone beat him. Lou wants to be great, and he's never afraid."
"Lou is a lot like Billy," claims third baseman Mike Pagliarulo. "He gets all over players when they mess up. Then a couple of minutes later he comes back and says, 'Now, this is the way you should have done it.' His door and mind are always open. And he is behind us as much as he drives us." Unlike Martin, however, Piniella never allows incidents that ignite during games to carry over to the clubhouse, hotel bars or team flights.
While Piniella is largely responsible for shaping his team's personality, Steinbrenner and general manager Woody Woodward have remade the roster while avoiding past mistakes. "What happened in the early eighties was that the Yankees started picking up players just because they were names or had good stats," Piniella says. "There wasn't always much thought as to role or whether he could handle New York."
The Yankees would sign a Steve Kemp—the perfect opposite of a Yankee Stadium hitter—or a Dave Collins just because he was a notable free agent. "Then they started bringing in guys like Ed Whitson, Mike Armstrong, Butch Wynegar and guys who just couldn't handle the heat of this city," adds one player. Since last year, the team has made deals for both role players and players who won't be intimidated by the back pages of New York's tabloids.
Wayne Tolleson and Ron Kittle came from the White Sox, Claudell Washington arrived from Atlanta, and then Woodward signed free agents Gary Ward and Rick Cerone. Easier and Mark Salas came in trades. Tolleson had the reputation of being a utility man, but the Yankees believed he could be an everyday shortstop.
Kittle has hit .324 as a DH, and the addition of Ward has been crucial both for his .337 average against lefties—the Yanks are 19-8 in games started by opposing lefthanders—and his soothing clubhouse personality. Washington has been an invaluable backup, and the left-hand-hitting Salas and Easier are what Piniella calls "professional hitters."
That only Randolph, with a .321 average and a 100-RBI pace, and Winfield have had outstanding half-seasons should be encouraging. "It's just about time for Rickey and Mattingly to get hot and put on a show," says Piniella. But this is no runaway train like the 1986 Mets, because the Bronx Church Mice still have serious pitching concerns.
The Yankee starters are better than last year, but because Dennis Rasmussen was their only double-figure game winner, anything would have been an improvement. The acquisition of Rick Rhoden from Pittsburgh (10-5 through Sunday) has helped, 44-year-old Tommy John has won seven games and Piniella is counting on Guidry to win 10 games in the second half. But Rasmussen and Bob Tewksbury have been inconsistent, Charles Hudson—he of the 6-0 start—is in Columbus learning to be a reliever, and Piniella admits, "We've got to get more innings out of our starters or we'll blow the bullpen out." A starting staff that fails to last the fifth inning once every four starts and whose combined earned run average is 4.20 is begging for collapse.
Still, the Yankees reached the midway point with a bigger lead than any front-runner except the Mets' favorite team, the Cardinals. That in itself is not too surprising. But it is strange that they were doing it in the manner of last year's serene, pastoral Mets. "This," says Pagliarulo with a chuckle, "is the way baseball ought to be."