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THE CLIMAX OF BILLY V

July 04, 1988
July 04, 1988

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July 4, 1988

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THE CLIMAX OF BILLY V

This episode of the Yankee drama had a tired plot

Billy V Turned into what Animal House V would probably be like. Billy I and Billy II worked. They were funny. Even Billy III got two stars. By Billy V, it was neither funny nor meaningful. Who wanted to watch an ashen, trembling man get thrown out of a Texas topless bar or toss dirt at an umpire? "I find this boring by now," says Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry, who has seen Billy I-V and survived 14 Yankee managerial changes since 1975, of which last week's sacking of Billy Martin—he was replaced by Lou Piniella, who had also preceded him—was only the latest.

This is an article from the July 4, 1988 issue

Contrast the New York Mets and the Yankees: The Mets don't have people laughing at them. They finished second in 1987 and acquired 10 young players to restock their farm system. The Yankees finished fourth, rehired Martin and added some $4 million to their payroll. Davey Johnson is in his fifth season as the Mets' manager. In that time the Yankees have had Yogi Berra II, Billy IV, Lou Piniella I, Billy V and Lou II. Oh, yes. Billy I lasted 471 games; Billy II, III, IV and V a total of 471.

George Steinbrenner never has figured out that a baseball season is not a high-speed car chase. He also hasn't learned that making headlines doesn't get a team to the World Series. So his wild, emotional swerves continue, with 15 managerial and 22 pitching-coach changes since he became the team's owner in 1973. Steinbrenner was cunning in his most recent ousting of Martin, using his latest office boy (also known, in the Yankee scheme of things, as the general manager), Bob Quinn, to carry out his orders and take Martin's heat. Steinbrenner knew that having Quinn remove catcher Don Slaught from the disabled list on June 20 would hasten the end.

Despite a rash of injuries and a recent 2-7 road trip culminating in a three-game sweep by Detroit that knocked the Yankees out of first place, Martin's team was still in the race. However, Steinbrenner felt that the pitching staff was being blown out and that, with 94 games left, Piniella would have enough time to save a very talented team.

The fact that teams like Boston and Toronto had expressed interest in Piniella's managerial services made him more attractive to Steinbrenner, who is haunted by the 1980 resignation of the late Dick Howser, who went on to win the 1985 World Series with Kansas City. One Yankee player says, "We would have won last year if George hadn't undermined Lou in Cleveland." On that occasion Steinbrenner flew off the handle when Piniella went out to lunch instead of waiting by the phone for the Boss to call. After that, the relationship between the two men was strained. All of which raises serious questions about the longevity of Lou II, even if Piniella is as, good a manager as most experts believe.

Late last season Steinbrenner issued a statement in which he claimed that Piniella had privately accused outfielder Rickey Henderson, one of the two most important Yankees—first baseman Don Mattingly is the other—of "jaking it," and that Piniella had wanted Henderson traded. When Martin returned to the Yankees' helm, Henderson blasted Piniella. Now, as the Mets head for their second divisional title in three years, Steinbrenner needs Henderson to play for Piniella if the Yankees are to win their first in seven years.

Then there's the question of whether Martin's 68-game tenure has done irreparable damage to New York's pitching staff. It's going to take more than a couple of outings to rid reliever Dave Righetti of his elbow woes, build back his arm strength and restore his shaken confidence. John Candelaria hasn't been the same since he pitched three complete games for the first time in four years, and also warmed up and worked between starts. Who knows what effects Tommy John, 45, will feel from having started twice and relieved twice in an eight-day span?

"This is an amazing team," says Mattingly. "Most of us don't notice everything that goes on around us. They're not really distractions, because we don't talk about all the craziness. We're conditioned to it all. We're used to media wandering all over the clubhouse. There's a toughness that's been developed over the years." In Mattingly, rightfielder Dave Winfield, second baseman Willie Randolph, third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, et al., Piniella has a core of players' players. In designated hitter Jack Clark, he has the most dangerous righthanded batter in the league. In Piniella, Steinbrenner has the manager he should have left alone in the first place.

The Yankees are the best team in the American League East, but winning may be beyond the control of the players and the manager because the owner is beyond self-control. Piniella—or somebody—should remind Steinbrenner that "the Bore" fits the back-page headlines just as well as "the Boss."

PHOTOLANE STEWART