Graig Nettles has chosen an apt title for his book, Balls (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $14.95), written with Peter Golenbock (author of Dynasty and coauthor of The Bronx Zoo and Number 1). Considering the book's message, the title is undoubtedly intended as an expletive, however indelicate it may seem. But Bawls would be just as apt; the book is an almost unrelieved flood of bitching by Nettles, who has made the astounding discovery that George Steinbrenner is a difficult s.o.b. to play baseball for.
Nettles blames Steinbrenner for everything that has gone wrong with the Yankees since 1973, the year they both joined the team, and for all I know he may be absolutely right. But it sure makes for a dull, ill-tempered book. Nettles' obsession with Steinbrenner's evil genius leads him to some extraordinary deductive leaps. Nettles suspects, for example, that Steinbrenner arranged for the celebrated appearance of a woman reporter from The New York Times in the Yankee clubhouse last June, because he knew her presence would infuriate Billy Martin to the point that Martin would say and/or do something stupid so that Steinbrenner could chew him out or even fire him again. Nettles also suggests that Steinbrenner runs the sports departments of the Post and Daily News as well, giving him a clean sweep of the New York press.
Nettles seems to hate New York sportswriters even more than he hates George. He thinks they are under orders from their editors to constantly stir up trouble, that they're paid specifically to "dig up dirt" and, if they can't, to invent some. He has used the book to settle what he considers a few old scores with them as well as with Steinbrenner, and I suppose that's fair enough. But, again, Nettles' zeal carries him much too far, as when he refers to one reporter, contemptuously, as a dwarf. The reporter is, indeed, considerably below average height, but the remark—and the contempt—comes with ill grace from one whose status in the world stems from the blessing of a well-proportioned, supremely coordinated body.
There are a number of other lapses of taste and judgment. Some of the language is unnecessarily crude. And Nettles has nothing but alibis for the '76 World Series, not a word about the fine play of a Cincinnati team that beat the Yankees four straight. He says the Yankee players "celebrated hard" after beating Kansas City in the playoffs and "only had a day and a half to recover" from their hangovers before the first game of the Series in Cincinnati. He also says George put the team up too far out of town, made the players ride to the first two games in an uncomfortable "old Army bus" and loused up the ticket distribution to their wives. That's why the Yankees lost four straight.
In the welter of charges against Steinbrenner, it's hard to distinguish which Nettles considers the most serious. But on a personal level he's very clear. The Georgeism that wrecked their relationship forevermore is Steinbrenner's statement in the fall of 1982: "Graig Nettles is in the twilight of his career, and if he never plays another game for me, he has earned more than what I have paid him." Two things are striking about that sentence. The first half is dead accurate, perhaps uncharacteristically for Steinbrenner; when you're playing major league ball at 38, you're in the twilight of your career. The second half is one of the more generous comments George has ever made about one of his players, let alone the implied criticism of his own salary policies. But Nettles took it as a Machiavellian goodby and good riddance (George later gave him a two-year contract at a million a year) and says that Yankee fans began booing him immediately thereafter, implying that George orchestrates the fans as well as the press.
I find all of this sad. When Nettles came up to the majors I took to him instantly because he reminded me of the young Jerry West, one of my longtime heroes. Like West, Nettles played his position as well as anyone ever has. Oh, well, I'll give you a shade here and there, as I would with West. But no team playing Nettles in his prime at third every day would give away anything of significance. Best of all, he was an old-fashioned third baseman—beautiful afield and a power hitter at the plate. I don't recognize him in this book, except for his picture on the back of the dust jacket.