Sparky Lyle cannot run, hit or field. He has never started a game in the majors. He is sometimes so inattentive that his glove can be swiped out of the bullpen. So why are people disturbed that Sparky went vacationing instead of to the All-Star Game this week?
It is simply that Lyle, who plays for the Yankees, is a chief on baseball's version of Engine Co. 82, those special—and specialized—firefighters known as relief pitchers. Decades ago, when a reliever, usually a crumbling, haggard veteran with dissipated talent, trudged in from the bullpen, fans greeted him with groans. But since relief pitchers have become an elite force in recent years, Lyle rides to the mound in a jaunty, pinstriped imported car. The Yankees say he gets about 60 trips to the gallon.
Through the All-Star break, Lyle's left arm was a better preservative than formaldehyde. It had an earned run average of 1.07 in 59 innings, two victories and 19 "saves." Only twice has his cunning slider failed to baffle Yankee opponents. "I don't know where we'd be without him," understates Yanks' Manager Ralph Houk, whose team has won 42 games. Lyle has figured in half of those victories.
Yes, but where would Albert W. Lyle be without his slider? He would probably be back in his hometown of Reynoldsville, Pa. picking coal out of a strip mine. "The biggest thing I want to do as a kid is get out of school, get a job and get out of my hometown," he says. "It's Archie Bunker country."
Lyle would appear to belong in Reynoldsville. With his thinning brown hair combed back in a pompadour and his thickening gut, he looks like the beer-drinking rightfielder on a company softball team whose main role is to bring the opener and keep his mates laughing. Lyle indeed has the reputation of a prankster; his latest stunt was sitting on, gulp, Houk's birthday cake.
Lyle, 28, started chewing tobacco while still in high school because bubble gum ruined the fillings in his teeth. A well-used, brass spittoon sits on the floor of his dressing cubicle and, between spurts at it, he speaks in his own peculiar grammar, which seems to indicate a virulent dislike of the past tense. Talking of his nickname, he says: "My dad give it to me." Explaining why the Red Sox traded him to New York this year: "I think they lose confidence in me."
As a pitcher, as well as a speaker, Lyle forgets the past and concentrates on the present. When summoned into a game, he usually faces the classic, late-inning pressure situation with the score close and men on base. "A relief pitcher is a specialist," he explains. "Probably more of one than anyone else in baseball. You can't feel pressure. I know I'm going to either be the hero or the goat. There's no second chance."
Accustomed to the abrupt whimsy of the game and its fans, Lyle was less disappointed than many Yankee rooters when he was not named to the All-Star team. "Someone tells me that out of all the hundreds of players ever in the All-Star Game, only 18 of them is relief pitchers," he says. Most previous All-Star managers have agreed with Baltimore's Earl Weaver that relievers are too specialized to merit selection for the game.
Perhaps because of the suddenness with which life can shower humiliation on a reliever, Lyle's humor runs along a self-deprecatory vein, particularly when he discusses his base running—a rare happening—and recalls once tripping and sprawling over third base. His hitting and fielding are hardly better. At bat, he is averaging .100, and the energy he puts into his windup usually leaves him stumbling off the mound, far out of position to field. And, he explained to his snickering teammates, it was not his fault his glove was pilfered out of the bullpen.
However, no one chuckles at him on the mound, particularly when he throws either of his two sliders. One of them breaks slightly in and down to a right-handed batter, and the other sweeps flatly and abruptly away from left-handers. Both pitches have one characteristic in common that rarely fails to frighten batters: the initial appearance of a fastball.
Since hitters see Lyle's sliders only during a few, widely separated at bats in the course of a whole season, they find them doubly difficult to hit. Indeed, they rarely see Lyle himself. During the first few innings of games, he hides out in a bullpen alcove, aware that Houk will not call on him until later. When the signal comes, Lyle loosens up to his own special music, the steady beat of the catcher's glove popping and the approving hum of a coterie of bleacher fans, who hasten to the railing whenever he begins to work. When the game has become tense enough, he will ride forth in style, bounce out of the car and strut to the rubber, his carriage emphasizing the drama of the moment. It is inevitably a special time requiring a specialized man.