In the wake of the disastrous season the New York Yankees had last year—a bad start, injuries, disciplinary problems and, finally, a sixth-place finish, the first time the Yankees had finished in the second division in 40 years—came player-sniping at Manager Johnny Keane. One of the truisms of baseball is that each player has "his" manager, the one he prefers above all others. Almost to a man, the Yankees' favorite was Ralph Houk, who managed the club to pennants in 1961, 1962 and 1963 before moving up to the general manager's chair. Any manager who followed him had to suffer from comparison. It happened in 1964 to Yogi Berra and last season to Keane, who did indeed suffer. "I've grown older than I should have in the past year," Keane says wryly.
Speaking about the players' feelings toward the manager, one Yankee says, "A lot of the trouble was that we were spoiled by Houk. He knew how to handle each man. Keane does not understand psychology that well. The guys were really hurt by that drinking incident at the Newark Airport. [Keane fined several players who had been living it up at the airport bar.] They felt that Houk would not have made such a big thing out of it. Houk mingled with his players. Keane is distant. It bothered us last year. But this spring the attitude seems different. Now we're trying to look at Keane's good points, and we're saying we'd like to win one for John."
"Keane walked into a situation that he couldn't do anything about last year," says Roger Maris. "It was like what happened to Kerby Farrell with Cleveland in '57. Wertz was hurting. Score got hit in the eye. Lemon had bone chips. Wynn came down with the gout."
In addition to the new attitude toward the manager, a number of players have done further soul-searching with regard to their relations with each other.
"When we're winning, the things that Joe Pepitone and the other guys do are funny," says one Yankee. "When we're losing, these same guys can do the same things and they become distasteful. It's the same with Maris. When we're winning we say, 'Gee, I wonder when he'll be ready to play.' When we're losing, it's 'That Roger is jakin' it again.' It's strange but true. Our attitude depends on how the team is going. What it all proves is that we're human, just like everybody else."
"I understand how the guys felt," says Maris, who missed much of last season because of a hand injury. "I mean, what can you think when a guy only has a little swelling in his hand and says he can't do the job? Then they take X rays and nothing shows. I can understand the suspicion. I'd have felt the same way. It wasn't fun to be in the dugout day in and day out and to sit there looking like a jerk. It was a long year."
Near the end of the long year bone chips were finally discovered and removed from Maris' right hand. Week by week this spring Maris hit with more and more power, and it looks now as though he will have a pleasantly productive season.
It will be nice for the Yankees to have Maris playing full time again, but, more than to anyone else, the club still looks to Mickey Mantle for help. Mantle appeared in camp this spring bearing yet another evidence of the surgeon's scalpel, this time a serpentine scar that crawled across his right shoulder. Mickey still cannot throw with any strength, and no one knows for sure how long it will be before he can. Certainly, as the Yankees start the season, they cannot count on Mantle—although, except for the shoulder, he is in excellent physical condition. He is 10 pounds leaner than he has been, and his legs, which he has been exercising with 15-pound sandbags, are stronger than they have been in ages. Yet, though Mantle knows his ability and his value to his team, he puts little stock in reports that he inspires his teammates.
"Shoot, I don't believe I've been an inspiration to this club," he says. "The only way you can do that is to produce, and the last couple years I haven't produced. Everybody's trying, as a team and as individuals, to redeem themselves after last season."
Catcher Elston Howard, a third regular who was operated on last year, had a fine spring and should easily better his .233 mark of 1965. "We're more determined after last year," says Howard as he reflects upon the team's sixth-place finish. "I know we're not a second-division club. No club can lose four regulars [Shortstop Tony Kubek, who has since been forced to retire because of a bad back, was the fourth] and a 20-game winner [Jim Bouton, who dropped from 18 wins in 1964 to four last year] and keep winning."
The Yankees no longer possess their once-famed power-hitting superiority, but with Maris and Howard—and perhaps Mantle—ready to go, there almost certainly will be a lot more firepower than there was a year ago, when the team hit an undernourished .235 and was 14th in the majors in scoring runs. Tom Tresh, the one solid man last season (.279, 26 home runs, 74 RBIs, 94 runs), will help the attack, and so will rookie Roy White, who hits singles and doubles with consistency. The Yankee hope that 19-year-old Bobby Murcer will make it at shortstop, but if he doesn't Keane can fall back on Ruben Amaro, who was obtained from the Phillies for Phil Linz. Clete Boyer at third and Bobby Richardson at second operate with ballbearing precision, but First Baseman Pepitone has periods of brilliance, periods of indifference.
It is on the mound that the team needs a renaissance. Mel Stottlemyre (20-9, 2.63 ERA) and left-hander Whitey Ford (16-13) are the only reliables, and Ford is 37 and increasingly susceptible to miseries of one sort or another. Bob Friend, obtained from the Pirates, can win as long as his control is working. Al Downing has enough stuff and speed to be the ideal left-hander to protect the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium, but he has inexplicably bogged down since his debut in 1963. Shoulder trouble has left Bouton's career in serious doubt. For additional starting help, the Yankees can use Jack Cullen and rookie Fritz Peterson. Steve Hamilton, Pedro Ramos, Hal Reniff and rookie Dooley Womack man the bullpen, but none rates as the big stopper who is so badly needed.
The Yankees have more question marks than a true-false quiz. There should be enough positive answers to get them back into the first division, but not enough for first place.