At 8:07 on the night of his return from exile, Billy Martin, the Dead End Kid who somehow never gets dead-ended, poked his cocky puss out of the dugout in Yankee Stadium, smoothed an imaginary wrinkle from his pinstripes and jogged out into the city's open arms. He had in his hand the first lineup card he would deliver as Yankee manager in 11 months—since that day when, speaking of two other superduperegos, Reggie Jackson and owner George Steinbrenner, he had said, "One's a born liar and the other's convicted."
Enacting a scenario worthy of daytime television, Steinbrenner had hugged the prodigal to his forgiving bosom, and now as Martin lifted his cap to the adoring crowd, the organist struck up Billy Boy, the scoreboard flashed WELCOME BACK, BILLY and the fans, in a two-minute, 10-second standing ovation, screamed and flung rolls of unfurling toilet paper onto the field. Martin had said earlier, "I'm a battler and they are battlers. I'm what the common guy likes."
The fact that the Yankees lost to Toronto's tail-end Blue Jays did little to dampen the homecoming party. Billy was back, and to many New Yorkers that was even better than 10 gallons in the tank and a rent-controlled apartment with a river view. Martin was 12 pounds heavier and a ton happier than when he tearfully resigned last July, and to the fans he was Lindbergh back from France, Armstrong back from the moon. To the rest of baseball he was the stormy manager of an injury-riddled team struggling to defend its world championship.
Steinbrenner replaced Manager Bob Lemon with Martin last week for the same reason he dropped Martin for Lemon last summer. He believed New York's problems on the field demanded a different style of leadership—in the dugout and in the clubhouse. "Last year I needed someone 180 degrees from what Billy was," Steinbrenner said. "This year I need someone 180 degrees from what Lemon was."
This year the unflappable Lemon became too detached, a result of a different set of priorities following the death of his youngest son in an automobile accident 10 days after last year's World Series. "It's not that I didn't want to win," he said last week, "but when I lost, it didn't bother me as much." Steinbrenner could sympathize with Lemon's feelings as a man, but not as a manager. He felt the players lacked hustle and spark and, worst of all, concern. "The team was disintegrating and I had to do something now," he said. "Billy is the right guy for the moment."
The problem Martin inherited is remarkably similar to the one he left behind. When he resigned, concerned about "my health and mental well-being," New York was in third place in the American League East, 10 games behind the division leader, Boston. When he returned Tuesday, the Yankees were in fourth place, 8½ games behind Baltimore. (At week's end the margin was nine.) Thus Martin's 1979 Yankees were faced with the monumental task of duplicating the feat of Lemon's 1978 Yankees, the only American League team ever to win a pennant by overcoming a double-digit deficit in a season in which it changed managers. Clearly the odds are again overwhelmingly against the Yanks.
Not many believed Martin would ever get this chance at redemption. Five days after accepting his apology and resignation, Steinbrenner promised that Martin would be back again in 1980. But he didn't put the pledge in writing, and his comments concerning Martin's health and deportment suggested he was looking for an escape hatch. Martin seemed to provide a suitable one when he slugged a Reno sportswriter in November, but that opportunity disappeared after the combatants settled out of court in May. Former Cincinnati Manager Sparky Anderson might have had a shot at the New York job, but two weeks ago he became the manager of Detroit. Steinbrenner suddenly had no other big-name choice.
On the day of Martin's return, the Yankees ranked seventh in the league in hitting, 10th in scoring, 13th in stolen bases, fifth in pitching and 12th in saves. Three of the teams' best players were sidelined. Goose Gossage had been out with a torn ligament in his right thumb since April 19; Jackson had been out with a muscle tear since June 3; and Ron Guidry, winner of 25 games and the Cy Young Award in '78, had been out with a back sprain since June 12. True, the Orioles and Red Sox have had their share of injuries, but nothing to compare with Yankee losses.
Martin is prepared to make the standard argument that "there is plenty of time left," but not all of his players are so confident. "We're struggling and we're putting ourselves in a hole," says Outfielder Lou Piniella, the team's leading hitter at .309. "We're way, way back and it seems we've got the whole league in front of us. I just hope we don't put ourselves in so deep that we put on a finishing kick for nothing."
The situation is even more embarrassing because the team's most serious problem—the unavailability of Gossage, the fireballing fireman who saved 27 games and won 10 last season—was the result of a sophomoric clubhouse fracas between him and journeyman Cliff Johnson. Johnson has since been sentenced to Cleveland, but the trauma lingers on. From the day Gossage was hurt to the day Lemon was fired, Yankee relievers got only two saves. In that same period New York suffered 12 defeats in games in which it held or was tied for the lead entering the seventh inning. If Gossage had won or saved only half of those games (a modest assumption: he had a win and three saves in the first 11 games of the season), New York would be in contention and Lemon would still be manager. Says Martin, "Gossage's getting hurt ruined my vacation. Instead of making cocktails at 5:30, I'm at the park working."
New York's best reliever lately has been rookie Ron Davis, who is 5-0 with two saves after being recalled from Columbus on May 28. When Davis earned those saves against Toronto last week they were the Yankees' first since May 8, when Guidry, of all people, pitched two innings and struck out the last four batters. "Getting a save is a bigger thrill than getting a win," says Davis, "because that's what relievers are supposed to do."
Davis' saves came a little too late for Lemon, who accepted his dismissal like the good company man he is. According to Steinbrenner, Lemon will become the team's general manager next year, just as Steinbrenner announced last July.
For all the Yankees' woes, which most recently include injuries to Starting Pitchers Ed Figueroa and Jim Beattie, they have been the league's most successful team at the gate. Before last week, attendance was already up 91,462 from last year and the preliminary expectation for the three-day, four-game series against Toronto was 69,000. After Martin was named, the actual turnout jumped to 88,418, a 28% increase that more than covered Martin's six-figure salary.
Despite the worshipful crowds, Steinbrenner believes the common guy has had enough of Billy the battler. "The fans understand him now better than they ever did before," he says. "They're waving their banners, but they are also saying, 'I hope he stays out of trouble. No more fights, no more histrionics.' I've told him he's at the final crossroads."
Martin is more than Steinbrenner's manager; he is his personal reclamation project. In 1975, when Martin was fired, by the Rangers, for the third time in seven years, Steinbrenner was right there to put him in pinstripes. In 1977 the owner said he would see to it that Martin didn't have the same kind of "falloff' in his second full year in New York that he had suffered elsewhere. In 1978 he stuck with Martin even after the manager tried to fight Jackson in the dugout. Last year, after Martin hanged himself with his double-barreled "liar" quote, Steinbrenner put him on display at the Yanks' Old-Timers' Game, where it was announced that Martin would be back in 1980. "In my gut it wasn't right that he had to leave," the owner says. "After he resigned that Monday, I knew the next day that I had to bring him back." Now Steinbrenner's challenge is to help Martin make peace with the world. "I don't want him to change out on the field," he said. "I want him to change in his public behavior, and I think he has."
Martin contends that he hasn't changed at all and that he's not about to try. "Maybe he sees something in me that I don't see," Martin says. "I'm the same Billy Martin."
There was evidence aplenty of that last week. The old Billy Martin often spoke in half-truths that only he believed, and he acted in mysterious ways that only he understood. The new Billy Martin glossed over his problems of last year and insisted that he was coaching third base for a while because of the difficulty in teaching new signals to the regular coach, rather than because Steinbrenner told him to. For no apparent reason, in his first lineup he transposed Lou Piniella, usually a rightfielder, and Juan Beniquez, who had been in left, dropped Willie Randolph from second to seventh in the batting order and raised Munson from third to second. Beniquez said later he had played no more than four games in right in his career, and Randolph was on a nine-game .341 hitting streak. "It's his first day on the job and he's trying to get something going," said Randolph generously. "I'm not going to start yelling." The Yankees lost that game 5-4 but won the following evening 2-1 when Martin used a more conventional lineup and batting order in the first game of a doubleheader.
As for Jackson, Martin said, "Reggie is a very important part of our club. We need him to win the pennant."
It was the kind of statement the "old" Martin probably wouldn't have made, but Jackson, the subject of trade rumor, stubbornly refused to accept the peace offering. "I don't have anything to say," he answered via the press. "I just want to play and get well as soon as I can." Later a friend of Jackson's said, "Reggie didn't believe Billy was being sincere." A friend of Martin's answered, "Whether Billy meant it or not isn't as important as the fact that he made a public show of conciliation. By not responding in the same way, Reggie made the situation even worse."
Martin has never been very good at healing wounded psyches like Jackson's. His strength is managing baseball games, not baseball players. During his 11 months in "limbo," as he called it, he watched games on television and second-guessed the same as any other fan. He didn't need spring training to get ready, because for him "managing just clicks in. It comes automatically."
Success with this ball club will be anything but automatic, however. Some players believe who the manager is doesn't really matter because New York is a veteran club with the ability to win in all situations against all odds. "This club is going to do what it's going to do," says Randolph. "If we need somebody to come in and shake us up, we're in bad shape." Graig Nettles says, 'Billy can steal an extra run occasionally with his strategy, but if we come back, the players will deserve all the credit, just like we do for last year." The other opinion is that Martin may be a considerable change for" the better. "Bob was passive," says Piniella. "If something went bad, he'd let it slide, but with Billy you always know he's around."
If the Yankees intend to win they must show more than they did last week. Although they did win five of seven games against Toronto and Cleveland, two of the three teams in the division trailing them, they had to struggle for all but one of the victories. And in one of the defeats they made the kind of lackadaisical mistake that prompted Steinbrenner to make his change. The faux pas occurred in the ninth inning of a 3-2 game against the Blue Jays when Chris Chambliss popped up a sacrifice bunt. By letting the ball fall, the Toronto third baseman was able to force the lead runner at second base. Then, because Chambliss didn't run hard immediately after the bunt, he was doubled up at first. This lack of hustle brought Steinbrenner out of his box and into Martin's office. He thought he had put a stop to mistakes like that when he fired Lemon, but as Chambliss said, "I mess up. We mess up. It doesn't matter who the manager is."
Not to Chambliss, maybe, but don't try to sell that idea in the Yankee Stadium bleachers.
On Martin's opening night he trotted to home plate with his lineup card and received a standing ovation. He remained on center stage for much of the next few games, directing runners from the third-base coaching box, tangling with umpires and agonizing when a Nettles bid for a game-winning home run was caught.
Jackson wasn't about to take Martin's return in stride. He may soon be walking elsewhere.
Owner Steinbrenner, who carries a big stick, said Billy had come to "the final crossroads."
The Thumb began the Yankee slump; until it mends, Gossage's hummer will look like this.