Baseball players are often remembered for a single great accomplishment. Don Larsen had a long and mediocre career, but he endures as The Guy Who Pitched a Perfect Game in a World Series. Joe DiMaggio, who has been everything from Mr. Coffee to Mr. Marilyn Monroe to the Yankee Clipper, remains The Guy Who Hit in 56 Consecutive Games. Roger Maris is The Guy Who Hit 61 Homers. Ted Williams is The Last Guy to Hit .400.
To this long and illustrious list the name of Steve Lyons may now be added. Some people know him as Psycho. Others call him Mr. Versatility. But when the final ballots are counted at the end of his career, Lyons will be remembered as The Guy Who Pulled His Pants Down.
Last week in Boston, Lyons was bantering with a couple seated behind the White Sox dugout who were trying to cajole him into procuring teammate Robin Ventura's autograph. Lyons cheerfully refused, then said, "Gotta go now," and trotted to take his turn in the batting cage.
"Who was that?" the woman in the stands asked her husband.
August 12, 1990
"Lyons," her husband replied. "The guy who pulled his pants down."
It happened in a flash the night of Monday, July 16. The White Sox were playing the Tigers in Detroit. Lyons, a utility infielder who was playing first base that night, bunted and dived headlong into first. Safe! signaled umpire Jim Evans. Tiger pitcher Dan Petry disagreed. They argued over the matter. Lyons, absorbed in the discussion, felt dirt trickling down the inside of his pants. It is a terrible, tickly feeling. So ... well, you've probably seen the tape on the news. Lyons pulled his pants down and casually brushed away the dirt. The argument stopped, and Lyons, apparently realizing his blunder, gave a world-class I-can't-believe-I-pulled-my-pants-down gape.
This partial, PG-13-rated disrobing struck some sort of chord with baseball fans everywhere, who must long for the daffy days of yore, when the likes of Jimmy Piersall slid into the plate after hitting a homer over the wall and owners like Bill Veeck sent midgets into games to pinch-hit. But in all the years of major league baseball, no one, it seems, had ever dropped his drawers on the field. Not Wally Moon. Not Blue Moon Odom. Not even Heinie Manush. Lyons was the first.
Players have pulled their pants down, or had them pulled down for them, in other sports. In hockey in the early '70s, Steve Durbano, a wild-man defenseman for the St. Louis Blues, mooned the opposing crowd after he was ejected from a game following a brawl. More recently, basketball's Chuck Nevitt, at the time a backup center for the Detroit Pistons, had his pants yanked down by teammate Bill Laimbeer during a pre-game shootaround. But the closest anyone in baseball had come to taking off his pants was when Spaceman Bill Lee reportedly shagged flies before a college game clad only in a jockstrap.
Which is why Lyons is now, and ever shall be, The Guy Who Pulled His Pants Down. He says it was unintentional, that he wasn't thinking about where he was or whether the television cameras were on him. "I may be off the wall, but I'm not stupid," he insists. And lest you get the wrong idea, it wasn't like he was suddenly bare-assed naked. Lyons was wearing clean sliding shorts under his pants, for which he thanks both his father, Dick—who taught him how to dress like a big league ballplayer when he was Steve's Little League coach back home in Eugene, Ore.—and his mother, Lillian. "She's the one," says Lyons, "who always told me to wear clean underwear in case something happened and I had to show them to strangers."
Among those who know Psycho best—teammates, ex-teammates, White Sox officials—there are some who think he might have dropped trou for, well, exposure. Lyons has, after all, a certain track record in this field. "I can't set career goals like other players," Lyons says. "I can't say, 'I'd like to get 150 hits this year,' because I don't play often enough. So my biggest goals this year are to appear on Late Night with David Letterman and on the cover of GQ."
If it was exposure Lyons wanted, he certainly got it. Women behind the White Sox dugout waved dollar bills when he came off the field. Playgirl magazine called to discuss a photo spread. (The 30-year-old Lyons, who is married and has two daughters, ages 12 and 5, turned the offer down.) And within 24 hours of the incident, Lyons did approximately 20 radio interviews and seven live TV spots.
"We've got a pitcher, Melido Perez, who earlier this month pitched a no-hitter," Lyons says, "and I'll guarantee you he didn't do two live shots afterwards. I pull my pants down, and I do seven. Something's pretty skewed toward the zany in this game."
"Six guys have thrown no-hitters this year," White Sox pitcher Jack McDowell points out. "Only one guy's taken off his pants."
"He loves that name," says Sox manager Jeff Torborg, who refuses to use it. "That ought to tell you something."
Lyons picked it up when he was in the minor leagues. A first-round draft choice of the Red Sox in 1981, Lyons was touted as one of the future stars of the organization. He had speed (he stole a record 47 bases at Double A New Britain), some power (17 home runs at Triple A Pawtucket) and the versatility that has become his meal ticket in the majors. At New Britain, he even made three appearances as a relief pitcher, with respectable results (1-0, 2.45 ERA). But Lyons was also a little high-strung-throwing temper tantrums and heaving equipment onto the field after making outs—which is why former Red Sox catcher Marc Sullivan nicknamed him Psycho.
When he moved up to the Red Sox, in 1985, Lyons was an immediate hit with the fans. He homered twice in his first start—the only two-homer game of his career—and had a team-high 11 bunt singles that season. He stole 12 bases, regularly dived into first base, played solid centerfield and generally impressed with his hustle. On a team that had always been renowned for its churlishness, Lyons, who seemed to strut when he played, was a breath of fresh air. The fans voted him the Tenth Player Award, for being the unsung hero of the team. After the announcement, a fan from the bleachers yelled to Lyons, "Hey, Steve, how do you spell Toyota?"—that make of car being the prize that goes with the Tenth Player Award. Lyons obliged him by becoming a human semaphore between pitches, spelling T-O-Y-O-T-A with his body. When he got to the A, he leaned over as if to touch his toes and laid one arm across the front of his legs, hoping that manager John McNamara wasn't watching. The fans, having harvested a half-moon, went wild.
Lyons, too, went wild—with disturbing frequency—on the base paths. To this day some people think that is how he got the nickname Psycho. His most memorable gaffe occurred in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers in June 1986. Boston trailed Milwaukee 7-5 in the ninth inning. Lyons was at second, Marty Barrett was at first, and Wade Boggs, who was hitting .400 at the time, was the batter. "I could hear Marty trying to whisper to me from 90 feet away, 'If you can get a good jump, go!' " Lyons recalls. "A double steal would have put the tying run on second. I didn't stop to think how bad the consequences would be if I got thrown out."
Lyons went on the next pitch, and, naturally, he was thrown out at third to end the game. "It was the worst I've ever felt in baseball. When I got to the locker room, McNamara yelled at me, 'Just keep walking right into my office.' He fined me $300. I didn't play much after that, and a little over three weeks later I was traded to Chicago. In a way, I'm glad I pulled my pants down. I'd just as soon be remembered for that as for being thrown out trying to steal third base."
Since joining the White Sox, Lyons has become even more versatile. In '87 Lyons, who bats left, spent most of his time playing third base against righthanded pitchers, batting a career-high .280. But manager Jim Fregosi told him he probably wouldn't make the team the next season unless he learned to catch. So Lyons learned, and in '88 he was the White Sox's third-string catcher, making two appearances behind the plate—not counting the ceremonial first pitches that Lyons regularly volunteered to catch. He also started 102 games at third, two at second, eight in center and five in right. Asked what Lyons did best, Fregosi responded, "TV interviews."
Lyons was still an unrelenting hot dog. One time in Fenway Park he was chasing a foul fly that was snagged by a fan in the stands. Lyons jumped up on the wall and gave the guy a high five. Another time, a fan threw a pretzel covered with mustard at him while he was warming up in the on-deck circle. Lyons picked up the pretzel and took a bite out of it.
In '89, with Torborg as manager, Lyons added first base to his repertoire of positions, starting there 19 times and amusing himself by playing ticktacktoe with the opposing first basemen. He would draw a ticktacktoe board in the infield dirt, make an X, then wait for a half-inning to see where his counterpart had put his O. "Fred McGriff [of Toronto] and Randy Milligan [of Baltimore] were the only guys who wouldn't play with me," Lyons says. "You had to finish the game before they dragged the infield in the fifth inning, so sometimes I'd put two X's in at once with a note in the dirt saying, 'I cheat.' "
Flaky as he might be, Lyons performed well enough on the field that the White Sox signed him last winter to a two-year deal worth nearly $1.2 million. In 1989 he was the only player in the American League to start at five different positions for five games or more. He hit .264—two points above his career average—was 5 for 12 as a pinch hitter, stole nine bases and batted .350 on the road. At one time or another he played every position but pitcher, and this year he even did that, working two innings in a 12-3 loss to Oakland. In that game he allowed one run on two hits, walked four and struck out rookie outfielder Steve Howard, who has since returned to the minors. Howard, as it happens, didn't know Lyons wasn't a regular pitcher. "Says a lot for my career, eh?" Lyons says. "He was asking his teammates, 'What's this guy throw?' They told him to get up there and hit. They were all laughing at him when he came back to the dugout. It was definitely a bittersweet day for that young man. He got his first major league hit earlier in the game, then he got struck out by a utility infielder."
It was one of the brighter moments in a frustrating year for Lyons, who as of Sunday was batting just .211 in 128 at bats. "I'm a hyperactive person anyway, so it's hard for me to sit on the bench," he says. "My game plan this year was to sit next to Torborg and basically drive him crazy so he'd put me out there, but it hasn't worked so far. I know I'm not a great player. There are players who think I don't even deserve to play in this league. But I do the best I can with the tools I have."
During a bitter series between the White Sox and the A's in June, Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart suggested that Lyons should pursue another career. Stewart, miffed at the bench jockeys in the White Sox dugout, identified Lyons as a ringleader, though Lyons insists he was an innocent bystander. Afterward, Stewart called Lyons "a borderline jerk, Mr. False Hustle. He's lucky to have a job. Lyons should be selling insurance."
The agreeable Lyons, who will chat freely with fans and often takes the trouble to introduce himself to honorary batboys before games, shrugs off this put-down. "I'm just trying to line up some options for when I leave baseball," he says. "Dave Stewart thinks I can sell insurance. That's fine. My father's in the insurance business. I'd definitely like to head to the broadcast booth. And I wouldn't mind taking Jim Palmer's job selling underwear. That's not too hard work. A few sit-ups, that's it. And after seeing those women wave dollar bills at me in Detroit, I think I could be a pretty good stripper."
When you're The Guy Who Pulled His Pants Down, you may as well shoot for the moon.