There was an air of unreality to the entire weekend. In the Oakland Coliseum, where baseball was once played in cloistral solitude, there appeared spectators in unprecedented hordes whose penchants for mischief, combat and partisanship would do honor to any crowd that ever darkened a grandstand in the Bronx or The Fens. The Yankees were in town for a four-game series, but they were scarcely the Yankees of recent memory. The man many New York fans still prefer to think of as their manager was wearing an Oakland uniform, and there were relative strangers named Lefebvre, Cerone and Brown playing in the steads of more celebrated Yankees. There was a World Series tension in the atmosphere, for this was the first encounter between A's Manager Billy Martin and the team he led forward and astray only a year ago. These Yankees were riding high atop the American League East, and there was nothing Martin would have liked better than to sweep four straight, to send his old team back to New York in second place.
Martin, of course, insisted that this was to be just another series—at least as far as he was concerned. "It's not a personal vendetta," he advised the would-be war correspondents from New York who crowded into his clubhouse cubicle before the start of last Friday's series-opening twi-night doubleheader. "I'm trying to do a job here with the Oakland A's. You guys are making up something that isn't there. I don't think Reggie has any vendetta," he said of his former player, and sometime antagonist, Reggie Jackson. "Reggie and I are friends. We have been since the last time I left the Yankees." Over on his side of the field, Jackson was equally pacific. "I enjoy watching Billy," he said. "He's demonstrative and emotional. People like that."
Barely an hour later, Jackson, bat in hand, came springing out of the Yankee dugout with that fullback's stride of his, and as he did, the huge crowd—47,768 strong, the most to attend a regular-season game in Oakland in nearly a decade—began to boo. As Jackson performed his calisthenics with a weighted bat in the on-deck circle, the roar from the seats on this balmy night was like a chill winter wind. Enjoying himself, Jackson prolonged his entrance into the batter's box, fiddling first with his spectacles, then stretching his bat toward Oakland Pitcher Brian Kingman, who was standing impatiently on the mound. There were cheers now among the catcalls, and someone tossed a Reggie bar from the second deck, a gesture that went unnoticed by Jackson.
Willie Randolph was on second base, in scoring position, with two outs in the top of the first as Jackson finally settled in at the plate. Kingman stretched and delivered a fastball straight at the great man's head. Jackson went down smartly as the ball sailed passed him. He was up in a flash, looking more determined than before. He might have expected as much from Martin's team. But Kingman insisted later the duster was of his own inspiration. "I sort of backed him off the plate," he said. "He really stands up there aggressively." It was good theater but bad tactics. Jackson ran the count to two balls, no strikes and then, with that whooshing swing, lashed a double barely fair down the rightfield line to drive in the first run of the game. He was standing on second base smiling when the booing started again.
But the A's won the first game 4-3 when Mickey Klutts led off the last of the ninth inning by bombing a Ron Guidry fastball over Leftfielder Joe Lefebvre's groping glove for a home run. It was only the second homer of the season for Klutts, who, like his manager, is a former Yankee.
The second game of the doubleheader was as dramatic as the first. The A's led 4-2 in the seventh when Jackson came up with the bases loaded, a portentous turn of events that had the fans in a frenzy. Jackson, as always, was clearly enjoying center stage. With the count two balls, no strikes, he took a cut at a Matt Keough fastball that sent him lurching halfway to the mound. The crowd cheered so thrilling a failure. Jackson swung again at the next pitch, but this time he did not miss. The ball soared deep into the bleachers in right centerfield.
Jackson won the game, but Goose Gossage, the fearsome fireballing reliever, preserved it, retiring seven consecutive batters, five by strikeouts. Only a few hours earlier, Martin had lamented the lack of someone as "awesome" as Gossage in his own bullpen. With such a monster, he said, his A's would be leading the American League West by 10 games, instead of trailing division-leading Kansas City by seven. Indeed, with Gossage, the Yankees were leading the American League East by five games at the end of the weekend. He is "awesome" (a word much in favor among the baseball intelligentsia these days, replacing, it seems, "velocity" in frequency of pompous usage), but the Yankees wouldn't be where they are if it were not for another aspect of their team that is equally "awesome"—their depth.
If all had gone well for new Manager Dick Howser, he would have an outfield of Oscar Gamble, Ruppert Jones and Jackson playing for him. There have been few occasions this year when all have been in the same lineup, and there may not be many more. Jones, the fine young centerfielder obtained last November from Seattle, underwent abdominal surgery in May and isn't expected to return to the lineup for at least another month. Gamble has a broken toe and won't be available for perhaps another 10 days. Jackson can play only occasionally in the outfield because of a strained muscle in his right thigh. He has already missed 13 games and many of his appearances in the lineup have been as the designated hitter.
The Yankees still have veterans Bobby Murcer, 34, and Lou Piniella, 36, in outfield reserve, but the heavy duty lately has fallen to Bobby Brown, 26, and Lefebvre (pronounced le-FAY), 24, who before this season had, between them, performed in a total of 34 major league games. Actually, those games were all played by Brown. Lefebvre didn't get into a big league game until May 22 of this year, after he was called up from the Yankee top farm team, in Columbus, Ohio. He hit a homer in his third time at bat and then another the next day as a pinch hitter, becoming the first American League rookie to hit homers in each of his first two games. In 21 games so far, Lefebvre is hitting .271, with four homers and 10 runs batted in, and he has proved himself to be an able outfielder with a strong and accurate arm. He also has a refreshing attitude. "I know I'm a good player," he says, "but those guys [the injured Gamble and Jones] are a cut above."
Lefebvre is part of what promises to be a steady procession of outstanding young players who will reach New York from the Yankee farm system. All five Yankee farm clubs finished in first place last year, and all five are at or near the top in their league races this season. Gene Michael, who in six short years has advanced from Yankee shortstop to general manager, has said the team will exercise all options—buying, trading, acquiring free agents and developing minor leaguers—in the pursuit of quality, but clearly the team that was accused of purchasing its world championships in 1977 and '78 may soon be winning similar honors using, almost exclusively, players obtained from such conventional sources as the minor leagues and trades.
Brown, for instance, was picked up by the Columbus farm team last year on waivers from Toronto—at the insistence of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who overruled several lesser but supposedly better-informed front-office savants—and then his contract was bought outright by the Yankees. At various times Brown has played for the Oriole, Phillie, Met and Blue Jay organizations, and this is his second tour with the Yankees. Through all of these peregrinations he has consistently hit near or above .300, so it is a mystery to him why it took him eight seasons to find regular employment in the big time. "I never doubted myself," he says, "but I spent a lot of time trying to find out why others doubted me. I was prepared when I finally got my shot. The only pressure I felt was in the minors, trying to get up here."
The Yankees abound in such new heroes. Dennis Werth, a remarkably versatile athlete who played last season in Columbus, can catch and play first, third and the outfield. He has hit .414 and belted two home runs and three doubles in the few opportunities he has had. Mike Griffin, another rookie from Columbus, has won a couple of games filling in as a starter. Eric Soderholm, a veteran who was traded to New York by Texas last November after years with the Twins and White Sox, is hitting .337 as a fill-in for Graig Nettles at third. But probably the most important new face on the Yankees is that of Rick Cerone.
Cerone, acquired with lefthander Tom Underwood from Toronto in a trade, felt somewhat more pressure than the other newcomers, seeing as he was to be the replacement for the late Thurman Munson. Cerone seems lighter than his program weight of 185 pounds, but there is no questioning his stoutness of heart or his stamina. Through Sunday, he had caught all but two of the Yankees' 58 games and, until Jackson's grand slam on Friday, had been leading New York in RBIs with 32.
"I've given him his chances to sit down," says Howser, "and he's given me his Charles Atlas thing. 'I'm in great shape,' he'll say. But we won't catch him like this all season."
Cerone says he would just as soon play every game, "but I know it's something I can't do. This is such a mentally and physically demanding job. and though I'm an easygoing person off the field, I play hard on it." Cerone acknowledges that following a legend wasn't easy. "There were a lot of distractions, but I finally said to myself that I had to do just what I can do and forget the rest. Winning has made it easier."
And the Yankees certainly have been winning. Three lefthanded starters have contributed 20 of the team's 37 victories, the most surprising of them Underwood, whose six wins match those of Guidry and whose 2.99 earned run average is the best of any man in the rotation. Guidry has been struggling, but a struggling Guidry is still an asset. The top winner on the staff is Tommy John, 8-2, who has had four shutouts.
But perhaps the most valuable Yankee, more so than any of the new heroes, even more so than Jackson and his timely and dramatic hits—his 14th and 15th homers of the season resulted in three runs during the Yankees' 8-2 win in Sunday's 'finale in Oakland—has been Randolph, the second baseman, a .318 hitter whose on-base average, .444, was the best in the league at week's end. He also leads the league in walks, with 48, is tied for fourth in stolen bases (16) and triples (4) and is sixth in runs with 41. "Without him," says Howser, "we'd be, well, I hate to think where."
On Saturday, two other old hands—antiheroes, really—emerged from exile to give the Yankees a lift. Ed Figueroa, a 20-game winner only two years ago, hadn't started a game since April 25 and hadn't pitched in any capacity for 10 days. His longest appearance of the year had been a six-inning relief stint on May 25. Before Saturday's game, he had pitched only 27 innings and had a 1-2 record with an ERA of 5.33. He had made no secret of his displeasure over his inactivity, threatening at one point to go AWOL to his native Puerto Rico.
Murcer was another forgotten man. He had been at bat 67 times, had hit .239 and of late had been complaining about his lack of playing time. All this got him was criticism from both management and the press. Murcer's teammates call him Black Cloud and he gave Figueroa the nickname The Hostage.
But on Saturday, Howser gave Figueroa his fourth start of the season, and he responded by yielding only one run in eight innings. However, that run put him behind 1-0 going into the ninth. Enter Murcer. With two out in the ninth, he hit a two-strike pitch for a two-run homer. With the help of Rudy May and the inevitable Gossage, Figgy was a winner again.
In the clubhouse afterward, the two outcasts were returned for the moment to everyone's good graces. "From the outhouse to the penthouse," Jackson more or less shouted, while applying an ice pack to his sore thigh. Howser announced that Figueroa was at least out of the bullpen and back into the starting rotation. Murcer's future would remain a day-to-day matter, but he was too stunned by his accomplishment to much care. "I have no earthly idea how I could hit a ball out of this park today," he said, shaking his head in wonder. "I know I hit it good, but I saw a lot of other balls that didn't go out today."
Back at their hotel, Murcer greeted Figueroa exuberantly. "Black Cloud and The Hostage did it," he chortled. With the Yankees, it could as easily have been the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Somebody from somewhere is always doing it.
On center stage against Oakland, Jackson did his favorite routine: three homers and a .500 average.
When Klutts tried to steal home, Cerone, star of the new cast of Yankees, applied a discreet tag.
Brown has hit for everyone, Yankees included.
Lefebvre averaged a homer a day for 48 hours.
This is why teammates call Cerone Spongehead.