They are scarcely the Bronx Bombers of sainted antiquity, these 1972 New York Yankees. They do not so much demolish the foe with blockbusters as harry him with birch twigs. Names such as Roy White, Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer do not exactly call to mind Murderers Row, nor is the pitching staff peopled with latter-day Red Ruffings and Whitey Fords.
And yet, almost by sheer force of will, these warriors of comparably modest firepower have thrust themselves into the increasingly turbulent battle for the championship of the American League East. By playing nearly .650 baseball for the past month and by beating the then-division-leading Detroit Tigers three games out of four last week, they had risen to within two games of first place, their farthest advance in a pennant race since the championship year of 1964.
More than that, however, they have awakened their once sparse and somnolent supporters and transformed them into a howling multitude. Rooting for the old Yankees was considered bad form. It was, as one wag suggested, a bit like cheering for U.S. Steel. Rooting for recent Yankee teams was simply bad judgment—before this year, when it became a compulsion. Where once grand-slam home runs were received dispassionately, now infield hits are the source of shameless exultation.
The fans were even cheering themselves last week—an indulgence reminiscent of the self-applause of Los Angeles' faithful for being so good at attending games during the Dodgers' pioneer days on the West Coast. In midweek the Yankee Stadium message board advised the 32,610 paying customers that "the Yanks are third and climbing, but our fans are No. 1." "Yaaaay," cheered the fans. Such displays could be common in the Astrodome or at Riverfront Stadium, but at staid, patrician Yankee Stadium they can only be interpreted as a harbinger of incipient bumpkinism.
There seemed also to be some confusion among the spectators at the Detroit series as to just what sport they were watching. As the Yankees inched into tremulous one-run leads, the fans would chant in unison, "Dee-fense! Dee-fense!" a rallying cry ordinarily heard only at Knick, Jet or Giant games and one hardly suitable to tradition in The House That Ruth Built.
But the most ecstatic spectator responses are reserved for the appearances of a bland and unassuming 28-year-old left-handed relief pitcher named Albert W. (Sparky) Lyle (see cover). As in most everything, the Yankees have a rich tradition in relief pitchers—Johnny Murphy, Joe Page, Luis Arroyo. But no past hero of the bullpen was ever accorded the tumultuous receptions Lyle now accepts as a matter of course. Sparky Lyle does not merely come into a game; he commandeers it.
There is enough ceremony in Lyle's emergence from the bullpen to satisfy a matador. In the distance, beyond the right center-field fence, there opens the passenger door of a pinstripe-painted Datsun. A man enters. He is carrying a Yankee warmup jacket and is presumably stuffing his face with Red Man chewing tobacco. The fans rustle. Can it be? Their murmuring is the sound of a giant engine. It seems to propel the little car to a designated spot before the Yankee dugout. Some expectant applause. Then Stadium Organist Toby Wright solemnly plays Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance. It is Lyle's theme song. He steps out of the car, handing the jacket to a batboy lackey. As he marches with rolling gait to the mound there is...PANDEMONIUM!
Lyle professes to be oblivious to these emotional binges. "I don't hear anything out there," he said after one such triumphant entrance last week. He has a pleasant face and a broad body. "I am looking at Thurman's [catcher Munson's] chest, not the crowd. I am not an emotional person. I can't think about such things. I just throw the ball."
His deeds, not his personality—warm as it may be—are the source of his charisma. Besides four wins, Lyle already has almost 30 saves—a fantastic figure. The entire Yankee relief staff of a year ago had only 12 saves for the season. Sparky has had a hand in more than half of the Yankee victories. And his manager and teammates are no less enthusiastic about him than the most rapt idolater in the grandstand.
"Amazing," they say. "What a guy." After a win last week, Lyle's six-week-old Dalmatian puppy, Sparky, indiscriminately relieved himself on the thick yellow rug in the Yankee clubhouse. "Hey, Sparky," Outfielder Ron Swoboda called out to Lyle, "you just missed a chance for another save." Characteristically, Lyle cleaned up the mess.
"We have not blown many ball games this year, and that's because of Sparky," says Manager Ralph Houk, who also chews Red Man, not necessarily out of admiration for his star. "He can protect a lead."
Twice against the Tigers, Lyle entered games at the beginning of the ninth inning to preserve one-run leads. Rob Gardner, the first pitcher he replaced, was leading 2-1 and had a two-hitter in progress. Steve Kline, whom he succeeded the next day, had pitched eight innings of shutout ball. Lyle held the Tigers both times, which was fine, but how must the two starters have felt about being removed when they were doing so famously?
"I think I could have finished the game," said Gardner, "but I certainly wouldn't have been as spectacular as Sparky was."
Kline was even more emphatic. "Ralph was right in taking me out. There were a lot of lefties coming up. It would have been the right move even if they hit two homers off Sparky."
Such generous talk is nothing short of blasphemy in the starting pitcher club. But some of Lyle's most vocal rooters are, it turns out, the Yank starting pitchers. And Sparky did put out the fire last week. Of the three wins over the Tigers, he saved two and received credit for the other in relief of Fritz Peterson. In five innings pitched, he struck out seven and gave up no runs. Lyle had either a win or a save in the last eight Yankee victories by week's end.
The Yankees got him in March from the Red Sox in a trade for Infielder-Out-fielder Danny Cater. It is a deal the front office hastily brings to the attention of critics of another, less rewarding transaction—Pitcher Stan Bahnsen, now a 15-game winner, to the White Sox for Third Baseman Rich McKinney, now a minor-leaguer.
"You never hear about Lyle and Cater," Houk says in a tone perilously near a whine. "All you hear about is Bahnsen and McKinney."
Still, McKinney's failure at third served to introduce yet another improbable hero to the new Yankee worshipers—Celerino Sanchez, a 28-year-old rookie who, for reasons still unclear (even to the Yankees), wasted eight years playing in his native Mexico. Sanchez' sudden success as the Yankee third baseman can only be an embarrassment to big-league scouts everywhere. It remained for a newspaperman, one Tomas Morales of Mexico City, to alert the Yankees to this forgotten man. Other major league teams had expressed interest in Sanchez, but his team, the Mexico City Tigres, was reluctant to part with him without proper compensation. Sanchez had to threaten to quit the game before the owners would agree to let him go to the Yankees for a minor-leaguer, Ossie Chavaria, and a nominal sum, estimated at $25,000.
Still, Sanchez did not win a place on the Yankee roster in spring training, although he was hitting well. "We hadn't seen much of him," team Vice-President Bob Fishel explained. "Besides we'd put such a tremendous price on McKinney, we had to play him."
When McKinney flopped, Sanchez was finally summoned from Syracuse, where he had hit .327 in 43 games despite a leg injury which still troubles him. The Yankees thought of Sanchez as a bat; what they got, at least initially, was a glove. Although he started slowly, his batting average is now in the .270 range, which is high country in the power-poor AL East. But his fielding has most endeared him to the Yankee hordes.
"He has a great arm," said Houk last week, spitting a contemplative wad of Red Man on the dugout steps. "He has real good hands and he knows what to do with the ball when he gets it. He's played third most of his life, and they play the year round down there, so he has the experience."
Sanchez is positively fearless in the pursuit of the treacherous shots a third baseman must necessarily confront. In the Detroit series alone he was struck on the throat, chest and left arm by nasty hoppers. His torso was a mass of welts and abrasions.
"I've never seen anyone field so many bad hops," said Houk in wonderment. "He's inspiring," said Swoboda, who saw good hops and bad during his days as a Met. "Third base is tough. That man has guts."
To which Sanchez would reply, "Gracias." He speaks no English beyond such rudimentary expressions as "base heet" and "I got eet!" This does raise a communication problem. Gardner, for example, sought last week both to thank Sanchez for a fine stop of a bad hop and to commiserate with him for the lump on the chest he received for his trouble. Gardner found himself at a loss for words. "Hang in there," the pitcher said lamely, patting Sanchez on the back. "I couldn't have said much more. I'm not even sure he understood what I said this time."
Sanchez' courageous play at third may be some inspiration for the "dee-fense" chants. In truth, the Yankee dee-fense does have panache—all those balls plunking into Sanchez' perforated torso; Roy White, a lonely figure in the vast terrain of left field, searching, often vainly, for fly balls lost against the tricky backdrop; and Horace Clarke at second base. One Clarke play last week may, in fact, typify the Yankee dee-fensive style.
In the eighth inning of the final game with the Tigers, there were two outs and runners at first and second, with the Yankees ahead 1-0, when Detroit's Aurelio Rodriguez hit a three-two pitch directly at Yankee Shortstop Gene Michael. Michael, forgetting perhaps that the runners were going with the pitch, flipped the ball to a startled Clarke, who was sauntering slowly toward second under the mistaken impression Michael would throw to first. But Clarke reacted instinctively. Recognizing that there was no play at second base, he simply pivoted and fired hard to first, as if completing a double play. The ball arrived a half-step before Rodriguez, saving a run and possibly a loss.
"Something like that doesn't happen too often," Clarke acknowledged later. Not even with the Yankees.
As it is, the dee-fense may be more interesting than the offense, which is hardly Ruthian. When White lofted a Mickey Lolich pitch into the left-field seats in the opener with Detroit, it was just the third home run to left field the Yankees have hit all season. Only Murcer, with 19 home runs, and Ron Blomberg, with 10, may be considered power threats, and Blomberg plays only against right-hand pitching. The Yankees have no .300 hitter.
What then, besides Lyle and divine providence, is keeping them in the race? Pitching, for instance. In Mel Stottlemyre, Peterson, Mike Kekich and Kline, the Yankees have four dependable starters. Kline, in fact, is enjoying an exceptional year. He has won 13 and lost four, and his earned run average of 1.69 leads major league starting pitchers.
The Yankees also have considerable depth. Houk can platoon the left-hand-hitting Blomberg and the right-hand-hitting Felipe Alou at first base and lefty John Callison and righty Swoboda in right field with no appreciable loss of effectiveness. And in Hal Lanier, Jerry Kenney and Bernie Allen he has three versatile and experienced utility infielders.
Mostly, the Yankees have the division itself working for them. No single team has been able to break away from the pack, and it is conceivable that the division champion eventually will have lost nearly as many games as it has won. The four contenders—Baltimore, Detroit, Boston and the Yankees—are now all barely above .500. Does this indicate strength or weakness?
Strength, says Houk. "This division is a lot stronger than some people anticipated. Cleveland has a lot of tools—all those young players—and Milwaukee has good pitching. It will be a race to the end."
If the Yankees should win it, comparisons with the 1969 Mets will be inevitable, although Swoboda, who was there then and here now, insists that the teams have only their low reputations in common.
Recent Yankee clubs, in fact, have looked a bit more like the early Met teams than like the old Yankees. After dominating the game for more than 40 years, the Yankees simply wandered off the pace after the '64 pennant. Even their stadium, once the Taj Mahal of baseball, has been maligned as a relic. And the team, dressed still in the venerated pinstripes, seems a sartorial anachronism in these peacockish days.
But there is new life now in the ball park and the ball club. The three dates with the Tigers drew 95,218 paying customers, the biggest Yankee haul for a single series in five years.
Team President Mike Burke was late for one of the night games. When asked to explain how such a thing could happen to him, he replied happily: "I was caught in a traffic jam. A traffic jam right outside Yankee Stadium! It was delightful!"
They'll cheer anything at Yankee Stadium these days.
Only Bronx Bomber in sight, Bobby Murcer leads the new Yankees in home runs with 19.
Ron Swoboda was part of '69 Met miracle.
Courageous play of rookie Celerino Sanchez, here just missing putout on Detroit's Ed Brinkman at third, lends style to Yankee infield.