The Paranoid Style in Yankee Baseball

It is about 10 o’clock in the morning, the Florida sun is already heating up, and I am standing outside a closed gate at the New York Yankees’ Fort Lauderdale training camp. I give the security man my name and tell him I have an appointment with the Yankees’ PR director, Ken Nigro. The guard does not move. It is clear to him that I’m trying to pull some kind of fast one. I reach into my pocket to produce the working-press card is­sued by the New York City Police Department. My picture is on it. In color.

The guard reaches two fingers through the fence for the card. He looks several times at it, several times at me, but he does not open the gate. Neither does he return the card. Carrying it with him, he walks the 15 yards to the press trailer. A moment or two later, he emerges, opens the gate just barely wide enough to admit me, and hands back the card. “They’re expecting you,” he says. He sounds disap­pointed.

Waiting inside the trailer, already typed out on the reception desk, is the little pink pass that will admit me to the field, clubhouse, press box, etc. for the duration of spring training. Nigro is there too. Tall, whippet-thin, and with a haircut that could pass for punk if it wasn’t vaguely military, he takes two rapid steps backward as I enter his office. Eventually he recovers and shakes my hand almost as though he didn’t believe it carried a com­municable disease. We talk politely for a minute or two, and I ask him for a media guide. Though these pocket-sized fact books were once, years ago, more-or-less internal documents distributed only to the media and other baseball clubs, most teams now print them up by the tens of thousands and sell them as souvenirs. The Yankees’ costs five bucks at the Stadium, six by mail. Nigro hesitates, finally unclasps a trunk near the door, and removes one. “You’re very lucky,” he says, “we have only a few left.”

I thank him, consider offering to shake his hand again but decide I don’t want to unnerve him, and start to leave the office. “One thing,” he says, “just a word to the wise.”


“You’re interested in Billy Martin, right?”


“I wouldn’t ask him any questions if I were you. He can be, er, difficult.

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It is a truism of administrative theory that the speed of change in any organiza­tion is inversely related to its complexity. When Jimmy Carter wanted to send peanuts to market, they went; when he tried to counter Pentagon procedures, nothing happened. Major league baseball clubs — front offices, farm teams, scouts, players, coaches, agents, broadcast subsidiaries, union reps — are relatively complex entities; though the advent of free agency made it possible to work signif­icant year-to-year changes in the players’ roster, organizational character yielded only grudgingly. Even in the darkest days of the Horace Clarke era, the Yankees’ off-field personality was as patrician and imperial as it had been in their days of greatness. The imperialism remains to some degree (in most spring training camps, security consists of a retiree tilted back in a folding chair), but the essential hallmark of the Yankees has changed in the decade since George Steinbrenner purchased the club in 1973. By now, at every level in the organization — from the guard at the gate to the principal owner in his private box —the Yankees are marked by a broad streak of paranoia.

Before getting into definitions, I should point out that it is not necessarily a bad thing for an organization to exhibit symptoms of paranoia. Within the United States government, for instance, there are several thriving bureaucracies that are supposed to be obsessed with the notion that someone — the Russians, the Cubans, the Yippies — is out to get us. That is their job, and as long as some countervailing force keeps their twitching fingers off the launch button, it may even be a useful one. Paranoia becomes dangerous or self­-defeating only when when it achieves the kind of dominance it has with the Yankees.

Clinically, paranoia can be defined as a malfunction marked by systematized delusions of grandeur (“I am the pope”) or of persecution (“The media are out to get me”). Authorities generally recognize that, except in a schizophrenic state, the disorder can coexist with an otherwise intact mental and psychological condi­tion. Paranoia can involve hallucinations (“See that short man in the lavender suit over there? He’s one of them”), but as a garden variety neurosis, it involves prob­lems interpreting reality, not perceiving it.

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Thus, on the afternoon of March 25, when the Yankees were trailing the Expos 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth, approx­imately 7000 observers were in general agreement that Roy Smalley’s leadoff line drive to right field was perhaps trapped, rather than caught, by the Montreal out­fielder. The umpire thought not, however, and as Smalley chugged into second with an apparent double, he signaled that the ball bad been caught. George Steinbren­ner, standing surrounded by reporters in an area along the rightfield line near the Yankee club house, disagreed. “Schmuck,” he shouted (registering un­happiness, disappointment, and grief). Then, as reporters dutifully transcribed his words, he continued, “This happens every spring. The damn National League umps are all homers. [NL president Chub] Feeney tells them to give close calls to the National League teams” (thereby registering paranoid belief in a conspiracy).

Steinbrenner’s charge, being news, was duly reported, and as might be expected, caused some raised eyebrows in the com­missioner’s office. Steinbrenner re­sponded neither with a denial nor an apology, but by promptly banning all re­porters from the area in which he’d been standing (thereby positing Conspiracy B). The ban, creating the George Steinbren­ner memorial zone of silence, was enforced by two uniformed Fort Lauderdale police. Throughout the game, though Steinbrenner never deigned to enter the quarantined area himself, he periodically craned forward from the owner’s box to make sure it was clear of reporters.

There are a couple of points to be made here. First, paranoia is an organizing principle, imposing order (the umps are out to get me) on chance (working with only a three-man crew, they blew the call). To invent, and reinvent on the spot, an explanation for every event which leaves one never at fault, always a victim, is hard work and demands a creative intelligence. It is, for instance, just barely imaginable that Feeney told his umps to be biased­ — though it is hardly likely he would think this the ideal way to get them ready for the National League season.

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Second, the existence of real power makes it considerably easier to sustain one’s paranoid delusions. First, Stein­brenner indicted the reporters as co-con­spirators in the attempt to embarrass him, and then, by banning them from the area in which they’d been watching late innings ever since the Yankees moved to Lauderdale in 1962, he proved they were part of it (see Richard Nixon, Daniel Ells­berg, and “national security”). Otherwise, he’d have let them stay there, right? He’s a rational guy.

When things aren’t going as he de­mands, Steinbrenner vents his feelings of betrayal by scattershot attacks, often vil­lifying the players’ he’s spent millions on. His impulsive decision to trade away Bobby Murcer after a pop up was an early example; last year’s repeated remarks that Winfield wasn’t a superstar like Reg­gie indicates he hasn’t changed much. In­deed, during 1982’s rotating circus of managers and pitching coaches, the Yankee clubhouse was often as sullen and suspicious as the principal owner himself. Long before they became a fifth-place team, the Yankees had started acting like one.

This spring — only partly, I think, because it was spring — the team seemed more relaxed, A slumping Cerone could work on his stance with Pinella, and Murcer could terrify a hungover player with the spurious news that he’d be dh’ing during the afternoon’s game. Winfield seemed particularly at ease and secure in his role as the team’s acknowledged leader. “A lot of it,” he said, “is that Billy protects us from George. Not in any direct sense, maybe — though I think he’ll do that too, if he has too — but that he acts as a lightening rod.” Winfield broke off to guffaw as another player, reacting to the deaths in the Lippizanner stables, shouted across the room to the trainer’s office, “Hey, Gene. If that stuff kills horses, how come it only makes Willie’s lip sore?” then continued: “This year when George wants to scream at someone, he’ll scream at Billy and just let us play baseball.”

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Billy Martin, the likely target for Steinbrenner’s predictable rages, has been a favorite victim of authority for much of his life; after the famous Copacabana incident in 1957, you can bet it wasn’t Ford or Mantle the Yankees traded. Now nearing the age of 55, he has all Steinbrenner’s intelligence and eye for conspiracy, but only he (occasionally) be­lieves he has Steinbrenner’s power. Mar­tin is often fond of pointing out to his players and to reporters that he’s both “a man and a manager.” As a man, he man­ifests all the characteristics of negative paranoia — every fight he ever got into was the other guy’s fault; every baseball job he’s ever lost was because people poisoned the owner against him — but as a manager, he makes the paranoid mindset work for him.

The concept of “positive paranoia” was first discussed by Andrew Weil in his 1974 book, The Natural Mind. Weil argued that paranoia, usually treated as a unitary phenomenon, actually had two parts — first, the imposition or discovery of a pattern in random events, and sec­ond, the interpretation of that pattern as hostile. Citing work done at San Fran­cisco’s Mt. Zion Hospital during the Haight-Ashbury heyday, Weil noted the existence of a significant number of peo­ple who exhibited the typical paranoid’s obsessive drive to explain every single blot in even the most complex Rorshach test, but who appeared to believe, quite hap­pily, “that the universe is a conspiracy organized for their own benefit.” In sports, such a tendency is called “a win­ning attitude.”

To watch a Billy Martin training camp is to discover the positive side of paranoia at work. To the occasional observer, base­ball often appears a collection of random events — hit a round, spinning ball with a round bat and who knows where the damn thing will go? — but winning teams win precisely because they can impose a pat­tern on that randomness. Offensively, they hit behind the runner or execute the squeeze; defensively, the best teams have a coordinated, routine response for vir­tually every situation. There is no predict­ing, for instance, the precise way a bunt attempting to move a runner from first to second will roll, but the defensive re­sponse — the first and third basemen charging, the second baseman covering first, the shortstop covering second, the left fielder breaking toward third — is de­signed to incorporate the random roll of the ball into a pattern determined by the team in the field.

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To create such patterns — to imagine and neutralize virtually anything an of­fensive team can do — is to exercise posi­tive paranoia, and Martin’s teams prac­tice these routines endlessly and inven­tively: runners on first and third, no out, and the batter pops a foul near the stands behind first base. What is the play?

The intuitive play, of course, is for the first or second baseman, whichever catches the ball, to heave it home and prevent a run from scoring. The problem is that a throw from short right field to home may he wasted if the runner on third is only bluffing, and will allow any­one but Rusty Staub to tag up and go from first to second, putting two runners in scoring position and eliminating the prospect of a routine double play. Most clubs defense the pop foul, then, by having the pitcher run to a spot on the direct line between where the foul is caught and home plate and act as cutoff man. Martin, instead, has the pitcher break directly for first base, and drills his fielders to fire the ball directly to the inside corner of the base. This pins the runner on first, ob­viously, but it eliminates the prospect of a direct throw home. Does it work?

Coach Don Zimmer is positioned near the boxes behind first, tossing pops into the air and letting either Don Baylor or Willie Randolph call for the ball. As he tosses it, Bob Shirley races from the pitcher’s mound to first base. At the precise moment the ball is caught, Jerry Mumphrey, perhaps the fastest Yankee regular, tags up at third and tries to score. Time after time, Shirley’s relay to the catcher nips him. The drill, with different runners, fielders, and pitchers, goes on for almost 20 minutes.

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“You set up the play that way,” says Martin later, “to make their first base coach play defense for you, and you prac­tice it with a fast runner on third to convince everyone it’ll work. If a player not only knows what to do, but believes it’s what he should be doing, he’s gonna do it right 99 times out of a 100. On a play like that, if anyone stops to think — Willie, the pitcher — the runner scores, so you drill and make it as routine as the pitcher covering first on a grounder.”

How often, during the course of a sea­son, does the situation they just practiced come up? “Maybe only three or four times a year,” he says, “but maybe a dozen or so. Maybe three times in one game. But even if it’s only once, you fuckin’ well better be ready for it.”

Martin, pretty much an autodidact since high school, is a Civil War buff, and military thinking is the paradigm of posi­tive paranoia. Conceive a strategy, devise tactics, drill, and execute. And, of course, the enemy is out to get you.

In baseball, the other team is out to win, so field generalship is an appropriate mode. Roy Smalley, nine years in baseball and going through his first full spring with Martin, talked about the system: “There’s more money here, first of all, which means more coaches to work with you, which means more time actually to practice, in­stead of just taking infield or bp. There’s an attention to detail here that I’ve never seen anywhere else, except maybe a little with Gene Mauch.

“But I think Billy’s real genius as a manager is that he knows what to do with a particular team. At Oakland, he had to steal every run he could get, so he in­vented Billy Ball — you guys named it that, he didn’t. But with this lineup, he can afford to wait for the big inning, so he’ll be more conservative, stealing a run only when he has to, or just enough to keep the other guys off balance. I mean, even though we’re loaded with power, he’s made damn sure that everyone knows how to squeeze.”

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The threat works for him. Leading the Dodgers 1-0 in the seventh inning of a game at Vero Beach, the Yankees load the bases off Fernando Valenzuela on a single, an error, and a walk. With the bottom three hitters coming up, everyone in the park is thinking Billy Ball, and the cor­ners move onto the grass and toward the foul lines. But Andre Robertson swings away and lines a single to right through the hole where the first baseman might have been. The corners move back as Otis Nixon comes up swinging. He tops a ball toward third, and Valenzuela has to field it, too late for a play. With pitcher Shane Rawley, who may not lift a bat again all year, in the box, the infield moves in again. But even Rawley swings, sending a grounder neatly through the too-wide gap between third and short. By the time the inning is over, the Yankees lead 8-0.

After the game, Martin laughed about the sequence. “That’s what you call Billy Bull, right? If they know you’re capable of executing the squeeze — and if they know you’re willing to do it — they’ve got to defense it. As soon as they do, they give you a bunch of other options.”

Though Martin’s Yankees will often be able to wait for their power to carry them, they will probably not be staid. Through­out the spring, they worked on a com­plicated decoy double steal involving the runner on first apparently slipping as he broke for second, and drawing a throw that would let a runner on third come home. It is perhaps a little too tricky, and after a game against the Expos during which Nettles ran directly into the wait­ing arms of the Montreal catcher, Martin was a little testy. “Nettles worked it right,” he insisted. “Mumphrey just got a little too far off the base.”

But what was supposed to happen?

“Listen, it’s supposed to be a surprise play. How can it be a fuckin’ surprise if you put it in the paper?”

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Martin’s attitude toward the press is complex. He is extremely sensitive to the fact that they can be his allies — tacitly agreeing that certain things are “automatically” off the record — and he cultivates the beat reporters assiduously. As spring training wound down, for instance, every­one was involved in the who’ll-make-the­-team guessing game; Martin leaked the final roster to the regular reporters 24 hours before it was officially released. He was able to do this, of course, partly be­cause be knew them and trusted them enough to know that one of them wouldn’t rush up to Butch Hobson and ask how it felt to be cut while Hobson was still hoping to make the team. In that sense, it’s easy to explain the way Martin works with the regulars, but nothing (except, perhaps, suppressed resentment that he does have to be nice to the major dailies) can quite explain the occasional cruelty he shows to other journalists. An hour or so before a Lauderdale game against the Astros, Martin was sitting in the dugout talking with me and a Newsday reporter, when a puppy-dog of a kid bounced up. “Excuse me, Mr. Martin ” he said, “I’m with the Pace College newspaper, can I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure, sit right down here next to me and ask away.”

The kid got his tape recorder working and began with the obvious roster question: “I’m going to tell all the writers that at the same time,” Martin said. The kid tried to rephrase it, “Didn’t I just tell you I was going to tell all the writers that at the same time?” Flustered, and without the experience to slide to another subject, the kid sort of burbled about how many pitchers the Yankees might carry. Martin looked at him like he was dogshit: “If I answer that, it’ll make three times I’ve told you the same thing. Twice is enough, isn’t it?” His ears red with embarrass­ment, the kid shut off his recorder and got up. “Right, thanks Mr. Martin. Have a good year.” “Sure, same to you …” and as the kid walked away, he continued, “… asshole.”

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Logically, Martin was right. A half­-dozen reporters had been working for a month to figure out the answer to those questions, and he was hardly going to stiff them and give it to a kid on a daypass, but the combative, bullying nature of his re­sponse was surely not a matter of logic. When things are not going as he wants­ — when they aren’t fitting the pattern he’s designed — Martin can be weirdly short­-fused.

Still, though I don’t believe that some­one else started every fight he ever got into (and if you believe Martin’s explana­tion that he offered to bet the famous marshmallow salesman $300 to a penny that he could kick the salesman’s ass in order to avoid a fight by making the sales­man leave him alone, I hope the Easter Bunny brought you lots of candy), it’s clear that Martin’s rep has made him something of a target. A Fort Myers cop who was on crowd control duty when Mar­tin arrived for spring’s final game said, “At first I didn’t recognize him. He was wearing a cowboy hat and had an attrac­tive young woman in the car with him, but he made a couple of jokes and seemed in a real good mood. When he got out of the car, he was signing autographs for all the kids and laughing. But out of nowhere, this one guy — a pretty big guy — started shoving him and shouting at him. Martin shoved him back once — not hard, just to get him away — and I had to grab the guy and lead him off.” If the cop hadn’t been there, headlines again.

In general, most of the players ap­preciate Martin’s readiness for at least a metaphorical fight. Bob Shirley, who came to the Yankees as a free agent dur­ing the off-season, may feel differently now that he’s been dropped from the starting rotation after a single bad outing, but in Lauderdale, he was full of praise for Martin. “I’m really looking forward to playing for him. San Diego, and especially Cincinnatti last year, it was almost like nobody cared what happened. You win, you lose, you get a bad call … so what. Billy’s different. He wants to win, he wants you to win, and you know that if anything goes wrong, he’s a hundred per cent on your side. You know the fielders are going to be making the plays, too, because they know how much be wants to win. Everything is going to be different this year.”

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Well, yes and no. There is no question­ing Martin’s will to win — barely able to stand up straight after an attack of food poisoning that struck down 15 Yankees after their New Orleans road trip, Martin managed to lurch up from the trainer’s table and chew out Rudy May for having walked six and hit one batter during less than an inning of a B-squad game — but there are limits to will power. Despite their strong spring, the Yankees starting rotation remains shakey, and Baltimore has to be the division favorite. Belief can carry a galvanized team of college kids through a short tournament, but it’s un­likely to sustain professional athletes over a 162-game season; they know too much.

And like all neuroses, paranoia­ — whether positive or negative — exists be­cause it serves the function of making reality easier for the neurotic to deal with. The intellectual struggle involved in fit­ting external events into a preconceived pattern pays off by providing a coherence that lets the paranoid function with con­sistency — and often with brilliance. Over time, however, not even the most fertile imagination can keep pace with the curve balls life throws; at that point, either the systematization stretches so far that it tips over into a psychotic creation of un­reality or the paranoid is forced to aban­don it, often sinking into deep depression. Given good breaks, Martin may be able to sustain his positive paranoia over an en­tire season, but, it seems inevitably to crumble over time. As Maury Allen wrote in his 1980 bio, Damn Yankee, “The scouting report on Martin said he would have one personality for the first year of his managerial career and another — “ug­lier, meaner, and more sarcastic — later. He would play to the press in his first season, buddy up with the players, drink­ing socially and laughing with them about common enemies, the press and manag­ment, and charm the fans. Things would change later as his own insecurities would surface, his own ego would take hold, his true nature would spring to the fore.”

The difference between the 1981 and ’82 seasons with Oakland provide the most recent demonstration that Allen was right about the superficial pattern, but he’s wrong to suggest that the ugly Martin is “truer to nature” than Billy the Good. The natures are one and the same; it is external events that determine which dominates. All the things which have made Martin the best dugout manager in the game, year in and year out, contribute to his apparently inescapable loss of con­trol. Every game in which Martin and his teams are able to control chance within the boundaries of the playing field leaves him more vulnerable to the breakdown when off-field events remind him how lit­tle control he really has.

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Injuries, throughout his managerial ca­reer, have driven Martin round the bend. Prior to the famous “One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted” remark that led to his first departure from the Yankees in 1978, Martin had been trying to buy time with a jury-rigged team. Three starting pitchers (Hunter, Messersmith, Gullet) and his best long reliever (Tidrow) couldn’t throw. His double-play combina­tion (Dent and Randolph) was out, cen­terfielder Mickey Rivers fractured his hand, and catcher Thurman Munson was so crippled by cysts it pained him even to squat behind the plate. The same ability to see patterns that makes Martin a great manager began to give him the creepy crawlies. The only explanation for all these events was a more sinister kind of pattern. It was Reggie’s fault, or George’s, or even Henry Hecht’s. Or maybe, in an unholy conspiracy, all three of them: “The press made it so much harder for all of us,” Martin has written. “Henry Hecht of the New York Post was the worst, … he’d try to pit player against player, or a player against me, or me against George. He’d do that all the time.” Eventually, preoc­cupied by the plotting he knew was going on in the clubhouse and the front office, Martin lost his grip on what was happen­ing on the ballfield. He begin issuing con­fusing instructions to the bullpen, at one point telling Sparky Lyle just to get up and soft toss and a minute later calling to find out if he was ready to go into the game.

In another setting — one where the owner wasn’t already preoccupied by his belief that the manager, the press, and the players were part of the conspiracy oper­ating against him — it is possible that Martin could survive his various crises. He didn’t make it through Oakland’s sore-armed 1982, it’s true, but one can at least imagine a setting in which he could simply hold on for a while, then gradually recover. That situation does not exist with George Steinbrenner’s Yankees, and for the sake of the players — for Martin’s as well — one wishes Mumphrey, Kemp, Net­tles, Smalley, and Gamble an exceedingly speedy recovery. ♦

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball


‘We’ve Got a Contender’

This month the city is making a manic attempt to convey its bygone grandeur. On the Fourth there was more white flapping in the harbor than on sheet-airing day in a whorehouse. And mid-month the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will arrive to honor the man who wind-sprinted through the primaries, the Georgia Preach.

That old slattern Broadway will be gussied up in an attempt to remove its younger sisters from the streets. But it’s all cosmetic. The sounds of decay and death will be excluded from the mindless chatter inside the Garden, while the insistent offstage reverberations remain as ominous as those in “The Cherry Orchard.”

The one vestige of our halcyon days resides in the Bronx — the Yankees. By playing majestic ball and with some front office high­handedness, the team resembles the pin-striped aristocracy of old. True, the city floated the ballooned price for refurbishing the stadium, and owner George Steinbrenner seems to fit the mold of the boardmen who have always run the Yankees.

For openers, he was convicted for illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign, but Jimmy Bres­lin tells us in his book on Water­gate, How the Good Guys Finally Won, that Steinbrenner might have been the first whiff that aired the Nixon stink.

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According to Breslin, Steinbrenner (always a large Democratic contributor) padlocked his checkbook in ’72. When he was asked to explain his new-found frugality, Steinbrenner told the Democratic alms-seekers that the Nixon forces had threatened him with an extensive audit of back income taxes if he didn’t make a large contribution to CREEP. Breslin reports that this incident and others like it led House Speak­er Tip O’Neill to the conclusion that the Nixon gang was into knav­ery not yet conceived by the other side of the aisle.

After being suspended from baseball last season (in reality he was as excluded as Robespierre), Steinbrenner’s first edict this year was that the Yankees’ hair should be shorn. (I have come to believe that a darning egg is an erotic symbol in the Midwest.) Then there was the flap over the stadi­um’s financing, the city’s reneging on the promise to rebuild the area surrounding the park, and the Yankees playing feudal barons in determining who should be allowed to rent the stadium we paid for (the Moonies, passing tonsorial muster, were approved).

So taking all these overtures, the Yankees seem (on the surface) their old nasty selves. Such pre­ludes don’t kindle passion, espe­cially in the heart of an old Nation­al League rooter. But my Giants are long gone, and one can’t go through life listening to Tony Ben­nett warble about coronary dis­placement.

And so we are left with the Yankees, a situation akin to the old dilemma of being stranded on an island with a nun.

The Yankees have been adopted as our surrogate gun to instill fear into the hinterlands. Survival, not grand passion, is the issue. There is precedent for this. Surely no one believes that the hard hats found anything in common with William Buckley. Indeed, Buckley was the archetype of the kid they used to chase home from school, but they needed a verbal gun to tangle with their antagonists. So be it with the Yankees. During our sad interlude their foreboding pin stripes are the symbolic gate that is holding the tiger at bay.

The aristocratic trappings aside, the Yankees have changed. Stein­brenner has surrounded himself with solid baseball men. He hired Gabe Paul as general manager from Cleveland, and Paul is a freewheeling trader and an astute appraiser of personnel. Many peo­ple credit Paul with putting to­gether the pennant-winning 1961 Cincinnati Reds, and he is the man who hired Pete Rose. Since he joined the Yankees in 1973, Paul has swapped flesh with the abandon of a harem master.

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Only two of the current Yankee starters — Thurman Munson and Roy White — are products of the Yankee system. Indeed, not since Victor Frankenstein scoured the countryside has a monster been created from so many divergent sources. The Yankees’ current credo is similar to that of Emma Lazarus.

Then there is the matter of race. The Yankees of yore, when they were a whale of a team, bowed in pigment to Moby Dick. The cur­rent team has five black starters, and on a day when Dock Ellis and Elrod Hendricks are battery mates, seven of the starting nine are black! Moreover, they have abandoned their traditional white centerpiece — the man on the wed­ding cake — in centerfield. Once the province of Di Maggio, Mantle, and Murcer, centerfield belongs to Mickey Rivers, and backup is Elliott Maddox.

But obtaining the players is one thing. Getting them to function tandem is quite another. It is here, that the Yankees rolled the dice by hiring Billy Martin. No more fatherly “Iron Major” Houks or bland Bill Verdons. The front office stooped to conquer when they anointed Martin — tough, streetwise, and unpredictable and skitterish thoroughbred who was fired by three teams after he had led them to winning seasons! (It should be remembered the Yankees once exiled Phil Linz for playing a Goddamn harmonica a bus!) Amazing that the Wasp Yankees would hire “Billy the Kid,” “The Brat,” the tough “dago.” Martin, who punched out Jimmy Piersall, who made headlines with his birthday brawl in the Copa and was traded shortly thereafter from the Yanks, and who as a manager at Minnesota “put out the lights” of Dave Boswell, one of his best pitchers. To the old Yankee brass, Martin would be considered a guttersnipe. To the current front office, he is seen as the premier skipper in baseball. It’s a good tout. Con­sider:

Martin, like Eddie Stanky, always exceeded his soupcon of talent with brains, aggressiveness, and a penchant to fade the action when the stakes were high. Branch Rickey once said about Stanky that he couldn’t run, throw, or hit, but he was the best damn second ba­seman Rickey every saw. Casey Stengel said that Martin was the smartest player he ever had, and his record as a player is telling.

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Martin holds a lifetime batting average of .257, while in World Series play he hit .333. In 11 years as a player — 3419 at-bats — he hit 64 home runs, in 99 at-bats in four World Series he hit five. His home run percentage in regular season play was 1.9 per cent, compared to 5.1 per cent in the Series. In the 1952 Series he made the famous catch of Jackie Robinson’s pop fly to save the Series for the Yanks. In 1953 he won the Babe Ruth Award for the best player in the Series batting .500 by going 12 for 21 including a double, two triples, two homers, and five RBIs, plus 1 stolen base. Martin fit the Hemingway canon of grace under pressure.

In 1968, serving as a coach for the Twins, he was offered a chance to manage Denver in Triple-A ball. Martin said he didn’t want the job (“I liked the security of a third base coach”), but his second wife Gretchen insisted he take the chance. Rumor had it Minnesota was giving Martin a last meal —­ they were looking to dump him and felt his fiery nature would add discord to an already floundering minor league club. He took over a seven and 22 team and transformed them into a 65–50 winner by season’s end. The next year Minnesota, with Billy’s cherry pie all over its face, hired him as the manager of the parent club. Minnesota won the divisional championship, and Martin lost his job. The end result might be characterized as a case where the operation was a success but the doctor died.

Martin sat out the ’70 season and in ’71 took charge of the Detroit Tigers, leading them to a divisional championship in ’72. He lost that job in September ’73 and a week later was hired by the Texas Rangers, whom he led to a second place finish. In 1974 he won the Manager of the Year Award but was fired by Texas in July of ’75 when he was picked up by the Yankees.

It seems that in the baseball world Martin is someone with whom you have an affair or a fling but never a relationship. His fire makes him irresistible to Geritol owners, but Christ, a steady diet? He suffers the fate of many lovers — his spirit, his unorthodoxy leads to coupling, but the constant heat burns the union to ashes. Like a frisky terrier, the hope is always to channel the spirit “construc­tively,” but Martin refuses to be housebroken. He has warred with owners, general managers, players, umpires, and the press. Martin is not your man if your ­ultimate aim is to get him to piss ­obediently on a paper in the corner.

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But Gabe Paul, by the nature of his trades, seems to fathom Martin’s personality. Martin says his managerial philosophy is simple: take it to the opposition, force them to make mistakes. And in concert with Martin, Paul has fashioned such a team.

It is similar to the team that Leo Durocher demanded and got when he became manager of the Giants, and the comparison doesn’t end there. Durocher and Martin wedded by baseball genius, cocki­ness, quicksilver tempers, a gam­bler’s instinct, and desire to win that exceeds Chuck Colson and his supine grandmother.

To past Yankee teams, the steal, the hit and run, the squeeze were proletarian gambits to be used occasionally (more to alleviate monotony, one suspected, than of necessity). When Yankee runners reached base, they waited there with the hauteur of a man who is always assured he can commdeer a cab in the rain. The trip home was guaranteed by a Di Maggio, Henrich, Mantle, Berra, or Maris. Under Martin, everyone carries a token.

Even Martin’s room in the club­house lacks grandeur. With its white pocked cement walls, it looks (fittingly enough) like the inside of a bunker. The furniture is functional Ramada Inn, and the sterility of the walls is interrupted only twice — by a plastic Pepsi-Cola clock (it compounds more than interrupts) and by a photo of Casey Stengel doffing his cap.

Martin sits behind his cluttered desk. He is lean, and the only validations of his brawler’s rep are impressive forearms and outsize bony fists for a man of his build. But it is his dark, on-the-prowl, pit-boss eyes (every sonnuva bitch is pocketing an ace) and his long nose that predominate.

Alfred Manuel Martin was born May 16, 1928, in Berkeley, California, to a Portuguese father (Marteen) and an Italian mother. Eight months after his birth his father cakewalked, and this psychic blow may have led to the physical ones he later visited on others. The “Billy” came from his grandmother’s calling him “bello” (“beautiful” in Italian).

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Martin’s mother still lives in Berkeley in the oldest house in the city, but it is difficult to imagine Martin as anything other than a New York Italian. His style de­mands such designation. Two other out-0f-towners come to mind in their personification of the city; Leo Durocher (Springfield, Mas­sachusetts) was as much Brooklyn as the trolley car, and Toots Shor (Philadelphia) seemed like the Jewish Jimmy Walker.

In an interview Martin has a sense of self-presence. There are theatrical props: half-lens glasses lie on his desk, and he puffs on a large U-shaped pipe — scholarly ar­tifacts to offset his tough image. But then they are more than props, since even his critics admit he is an ardent student of the game and an organizational wizard. G.M. Jim Campbell of Detroit said, after firing him: “Foul line to foul line, Billy was exemplary.”

Indeed, Martin is so much for “the club” he really doesn’t think outsiders should intrude in its do­main. When asked if he is doing anything to fill the gap at shortstop (collectively, Mason and Stanley are hitting about 60 points below Ty Cobb’s best season), he shoots back, “Who says there is a gap?”

When informed “the press” for one example, he retorts, “If writers knew any Goddamn thing, they would be managers.”

When questioned if there is bad blood between him and Elliott Maddox, Martin says that’s “in­ternal stuff — nobody wants to read about that.”

He will tell you he never embar­rasses any of his players in public: “That’s bush.” Criticism, when it comes, usually comes privately, first from one of his coaches, and if that isn’t heeded, he will step in.

Probably no other manager in baseball controls more aspects of the game. Martin does it all: shifts the fielders, calls pitchouts, and nobody runs without his okay. On any other club such adept runners as Rivers and Willie Randolph would have a carte blanche go-­sign. When Rivers (possibly the fastest man in the game) was asked about this, he answered abruptly: “Ask Billy. He handles everything. I just do what he tells me.”

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But Martin’s tutorial style is liberating to others. Oscar Gamble says he never played for a manag­er who utilizes his players more, and Greg Nettles (with seven sto­len bases) says no other manager ever thought of giving him a go-sign!

Martin has been quoted as say­ing a manager of his sort can change the outcome of 20 to 50 games. He also has been quoted as stating that the secret of managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four who are unsure. But then Martin changes quotes as quickly as signs.

He now says the manager does more work in the clubhouse than on the field. It is in the clubhouse that personalities have to be assuaged, and where one must stay on top of “little problems.”

Martin, who said in his playing days that he was “the proudest Yankee,” sees baseball as an ex­ample for life. There is loyalty on a team, and that is an attribute he cherishes. When Casey Stengel (whom he considers the greatest manager he ever saw) didn’t back up Martin after the Copa incident, he didn’t talk to Stengel for five years. Martin simply commented, “I was mad. It takes me much longer than other people to get over things. That’s the way I am.”

Now he pays the ultimate hom­age to Stengel by imitation. When he walks to the mound, he sticks his right hand in his back pocket just as his mentor did, and he has even adopted Stengel’s funny little trot.

To Martin, the business world could learn much from the club­house, because it is there you find “pride, desire, self-sacrifice — like the Marine slogan of ‘Semper Fi­delis.’ ” Such attitudes coincide with Martin’s Catholicism. He is a churchgoer and wears a gold cross on his cap. Churches and club­houses give the same security as a ring of wagons — you always know where the enemy is.

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But the interesting side of Martin is his dark unpredictability. He exudes a scent of danger, as Sonny Liston did in private and Norman Mailer does at a literary function. One waits for a stroke of irratio­nality, a physical move. And Mar­tin is well aware of this, since he gives imitations of sportswriters avoiding his eyes and shuffling their feet.

But when he strikes out, he is not beyond smoothing it over with diplomacy. When Bowie Kuhn killed the Vida Blue deal, Martin said the decision was “worse than Watergate,” a comment that must have driven Steinbrenner to dis­traction, considering his recent history. But Martin viewed the remark as his inalienable right: “This is America. You can say what you please. Kuhn’s decision had nothing to do with ethics — it had to do with money. If we got Blue and three minor-league players who couldn’t play for $200,000, nothing would have been said. Ethics weren’t involved.”

Billy the Kid has his code, and those who cross him will be dealt with. This time around, one feels he’ll survive because he respects Paul as a peer, not some bump­tious millionaire who bought a club as a toy to tinker with. Paul is a church elder.

One also feels Paul must re­ciprocate, because this complex individual has imprinted his per­sonality on the club, making it function like so many Billy Mar­tins. Martin also must be viewed as an alchemist, since players such as Rivers, Chris Chambliss, and Ga­mble are playing the best ball of their careers. Dock Ellis has re­discovered his arm, and Lyle has reignited his old spark. The result is that the Yankees are breezing toward a pennant despite a titanic hole in their infield and an outfield with arms so weak they would be granted immunity to play catch in the Hall of Mirrors.

But what about all that self-sa­crificing, Semper Fidelis razzma­tazz? Is this the message we want to give to the burghers out there? Take heart. When asked if he still drinks with his players, Martin replied with a side-pocket grin, “I’m from the Abe Lincoln school. You know what he said about General Grant? ‘Find out what he’s on, and give it to everyone else.’ Maybe that’s what the other owners should do — find out what shit I’m on and give it to their managers.”

Are you listening, America? We’ll tell you — “Billy Boy is here.”


Medeski, Martin, & Wood

Sci-fi jungle-boogie-ing jazz experimentalists John Medeski (keyboards), Billy Martin (drums), and Chris Wood (bass) take over the Temple for what should be a long, weird Undead Festival highlight. Set one features the trio. During set two, a guest musician will replace one MMW for each song. And set three consists of MMW plus guests. Marco Benevento (organ), So Percussion, Anthony Coleman (keyboards), Marcus Rojas (tuba), Oren Bloedow (guitar), Vernon Reid (guitar), and Miho Hatori (Cibo Matto) will be among those awaiting a call from the bench.

Thu., May 10, 8 p.m., 2012


‘Hum: John Medeski, Marc Ribot, Calvin Weston & Billy Martin’

Who needs a bassist when you’ve got a quarter-century foundation? Highlighting organist/pianist John Medeski’s collab-studded week at the Stone—including a reunion with one-time mentor, drummer Ra-Kalam Bob Moses—is a legit downtown supergroup that could have (and might have) appeared in this configuration at any point in the past two decades with as little flourish. The quartet of one-time Lounge Lizards includes tons of mini-networks, including Medeski and drummer Billy Martin’s 19 years of sparring (and redefining mainstream jazz) as the M’s in Medeski, Martin, and Wood, as well as Martin’s own decade-plus of double-drummer tumult with G. Calvin Weston. Jazz awaits.

Fri., Nov. 6, 8 & 10 p.m., 2009


‘Ropeadope 10th Anniversary Party’

Esteemed jazz-rock label Ropeadope celebrates its tenth anniversary with a show benefiting artist/producer Scotty Hard (pictured), who was struck by a car in February. Expect a heated New Orleans-style jam session, with keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Billy Martin (of Medeski Martin & Wood), guitarist Charlie Hunter and his longtime sax partner John Ellis, and New Orleans trombonist Big Sam Williams. Boston soul-jazz trio Otis Grove kicks things off.

Wed., June 10, 9 p.m., 2009


Darn That Dream

It seemed like an apocryphal moment. Summer of 1998, Medeski, Martin and Wood were playing Town Hall and the patrons looked a little different from your usual JVC Jazz Festival crowd. Scruffy, neo-hippie-ish Phishheads and the like danced away in the side aisles as the trio bounced through its set of jazzy grooves. Only a few years earlier, the group had announced its populist intentions to jazz elitists by interpolating Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself” into Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” and now they were reaching a big new audience, selling out without actually selling out. Many of us in the jazz community had longed for a moment like this. We were weary of jazz’s consecration as an institutional art. We longed for those days when the music felt organic and dangerous and, well, not so goddamned middle-class. As the trio launched into Horace Silver’s “Cape Verdean Blues” to fans who included folks dancing—dancing!—it seemed as if we’d found it. During the keyboard solo, John Medeski dug deep into the gospelly chords, Billy Martin and Chris Wood dropped out, and just as suddenly as the sermon began, he went into an inspired series of raucous free-jazz dissonances. To me, this was just getting better and better. I smiled at my hardcore jazz-loving friend, who grinned back. But then someone in the aisles yelled, “Stop fucking around!” It appeared there would be a few speed bumps on the road to real crossover.

And there were, but not enough to keep MMW from harvesting the constituency that they have barnstormed across the country for years to cultivate. The likes of guitarists Charlie Hunter and John Scofield and trumpeter Steve Bernstein followed suit, crisscrossing the land to bring jazz that was too wanton for the prim concert halls to juke joints and nightclubs from Boulder to Birmingham and beyond. There was the promise of a new egalitarianism in which leading jazzmen would work with rock instrumentalists and the categorical divide would blur; it would parallel the ’70s, when Duane Allman jammed with Herbie Mann, Jerry Garcia recorded with Merl Saunders, and David Grisman and Joni Mitchell led bands featuring Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny, and Herbie Hancock.

Six years later, it’s fair to say darn that dream. Some jazz bands were able to cross over into what became jam-band territory, but it was a one-way street. Despite honest efforts from Karl Denson and the Greyboy Allstars, no one from the jam-band circuit crossed back. While chops were an issue, a bigger problem was that most jamsters doted on the jazzfunk of the early ’70s, and while that music is strong enough to support several club nights at APT, it’s not going to fill the Village Vanguard for a week. In the jazz world, which had already gone through a period of ’60s hard-bop revivalists, ’70s revivalism seemed cute, but only just. At least as important, the incentive for the jammers was slight at best. The jazz world was increasingly marginal and exclusionary; it was much more fun and rewarding to play for large numbers of dancing flower grandchildren than to jump through hoops to appease a few snots.

The concept of an effective fusion of jazz and instrumental rock didn’t die, however—it was just lying low. In stark contrast to the broad populist strokes of the jam circuit, a cadre of musicians in Chicago were paving a better road. The latest generation of improvisers from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians were finding their way into bands with post-rockers from the Thrill Jockey and Drag City circles and vice versa. Both circuits had an abiding love of austere lyricism and minimal grooves. From this fertile alliance have sprung bands like Chicago Underground Trio, Gastr Del Sol, Sticks and Stones, Town & Country, and Tortoise. The complaint most commonly thrown at Tortoise about their latest CD, It’s About You, is that they sound like a jazz band. Maybe they’re just fucking around.


Rocks in the Shape of Billy Martin

I know a place in the Mojave Desert where there are rocks in the shape of Billy Martin. I visit the rocks every year to commemorate the return of spring. It makes perfect sense to me that the rocks are in the desert and not a mountain range or forest because the gone-but-not-forgotten Yankee manager was a kind of dugout djinn, an electrical force who materialized to kick funny dust in the other guy’s face and then vanished until he had to do it again.

Where did he go since we last saw him? Where all legends go—back into the desert, that big sandbox that holds America’s deepest secrets. Significantly, the baseball diamond—which began on a sandlot and invokes forever—is America’s most appealing attempt at taming the desert. Yet perhaps not for much longer: With consistently low television ratings for the national pastime, who knows whether it will be overtaken by the shifting sands?

It’s not difficult for me to get to the Mojave, since I live in Los Angeles, just a two-hour drive from the vast stretches of frozen time that shape the temperament of this momentary metropolis. I like the Mojave, where the glitter is refracted not in the sheen of a limousine, but in flecks of obsidian and pyrite and quartz, the Mojave, where the silence is not the thunder of an unreturned phone call, but the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the springtime.

I know I am close to the Mojave when the radio stations fade from Grammy Award winners to Christian advice shows and I start receiving transmissions of other bearded evangelicals, primarily Z.Z. Top. The sun is out, my top is down, and the traffic thins. The native urge to drive fast naturally assumes command. This is fun for motorists and highway patrolmen, but not for that other Mojave denizen the endangered desert tortoise, for which one must occasionally swerve to avoid crushing as it lumbers across the pavement. Who says California has no history?, I wonder, as I watch a baby version of one of the world’s oldest reptiles clamber onto the freeway shoulder and make for some tiny blue flowers.

I cruise on and then—oh joy! another scenic distraction—my first Joshua tree! Now this is the true Mojave! Hi, big guy! The Joshua tree was given its biblical moniker by pioneering Mormons who thought the frenetically gesticulating plant was nature’s way of saying, “This way to the Holy Land.” Of course, they were right. But to them, the Holy Land was the future site of Salt Lake City. As far as I’m concerned, the Joshua tree is not telling people to go someplace else; it’s pointing the way to other Joshua trees, whose petals are unfurling now to catch the morning sun. It’s pointing to the rest of the Mojave, and sometimes, if you look hard through the shifting bars of light, even a coffeehouse.

Inside, a cross-section of desert locals belly up for cheap espresso—rock climbers, handymen, end-of-the-line types who are stranded here because of DWI busts and the ensuing revocation of their drivers’ licenses. I hang for a little while, but spring has sprung and I don’t want to miss the fragile wildflowers that have popped open in a frenzied response to the heavy winter rains. I order a double shot and head for Joshua Tree National Park to see all the colors of the season and check in with my favorite cactus, which isn’t really a cactus at all.

Deep inside this bizarre preserve, which is carpeted with the ecstatic vegetable, I park my ragtop, grab a bottle of water, and hike up a trail. I pass more campers from Europe than from America, and continue up and down a trail that is lined with paloverde and ocotillo and cholla and sage. The desert sand verbena is in full bloom, and it looks like orange spaghetti strewn across the tops of the low-lying bushes that hug the path. In a little while, I reach my destination, a Joshua tree that is about 200 years old and somehow makes me feel as if I were sitting in my maternal grandparents’ rock garden, where the daffodils and crocuses shot through the Midwestern thaw every March.

I sit down on a warm granite boulder and gaze up into the Joshua tree as the sun pulses behind. “Hey, you,” it says, an alfresco support group minus the sob stories and cigarettes. “We knew you’d be back. We’ve been waiting. Calm down. Stop running. Tommy Hilfiger is not the heartbeat of America. I am. Bring me the arm of Fernando Valenzuela. Do you know that the gringos have stolen his stuff?” What about Hideo Nomo?, I wonder, but the tree goes on.

“Yes, this is what the old ballpark looked like before cactus lamps, before all-night mini-marts, before 24-hour Bible theme parks, before rivers were forced to flow backward in order to build a showcase for Wayne Newton. So slather on the jojoba oil and step up to the plate. We’ve got a fastball with your name on it. And don’t worry if the game goes into extra innings. You’ll have plenty of time to get home because, well, this is home . . . which is why we don’t count strikes here, we don’t even keep score . . . By the way, how come they got rid of 10-cent beer night?”

As the sun sets behind the Joshua, I realize that that’s the best thing about the desert: Just when you think that it explains everything, it turns around and admits that it’s clueless. It takes a big piece of geography to do that; I toast the Joshua with my canteen and hit the road.

On my way out of the kingdom of the Joshua tree, I make my customary stop at the rocks in the shape of Billy Martin. I’m a little concerned. Has the latest swarm of earthquakes disturbed them? Apparently not; like Yankee Stadium, they haven’t moved. The petrified Billy Martin is still here, gazing across the sands at the dream team, forever signaling a game-winning hit-and-run, and, as always, waiting for a drink.


What Our Pulses Say

He calls his songs “control songs,” though they generally tell us how little control we have over our lives. His new CD is called Togetherness, though its lyrics suggest that he doesn’t believe such a state exists. David Garland’s persona is a core of unrelievable pain hidden beneath a layer of naive optimism covered by a veneer of bemused cynicism. He acts so simple, but the clues about that inner complexity fall thick and fast. And finally in the last few months he’s back concertizing again after a hiatus of several years, during which we’ve only heard him as that DJ on WNYC who loves science fiction music, space-age bachelor pad music, and anything else peculiar. The return is long overdue.

Take “This Is Love,” one of his best songs. It’s an ode to dating, set to a tune of nursery rhyme simplicity: “What’s your name? What’s your number?/Is it Sue? Is it five?” But he’s not as accommodating as he pretends: “You just looked at your wristwatch/Never mind, I’ve got time.” Finally he mentions casually, despite the ominously biblical language, “They will smite you down/But then I will come by and I’ll pick you up.” From his chipper tone you don’t know whether he’s picking you up to comfort you, or just to take you on a date likely to be a further ordeal. He’s caring and considerate, he’s selfish and self- absorbed. In short, he’s just like all of us. Well, I shouldn’t speak for you.

But this Everyman knows that love is far from the only thing we’re motivated by. In “Play Within a Play,” an actor and actress begin a conventional dialogue of troubled passion over a seething tango, then switch direction in mid-gush:

He: My family wants, my job wants, and you.

She: I want to be best at whatever I do.

He: My personal past forms my point of view.

Then they look at each other: This is no love scene! The pulse in our wrists has much more to say.

Much more to say, indeed—Garland’s genius is for filling in with music what the lyrics leave unsaid. Who else would underlay the following poignant story of faded love: He wears his wristwatch. She wears her jacket. Under the blanket. They’re never naked. They’ve almost forgotten how. With chords luminous in their sense of mystery and potential discovery? Or with singing over and over again the phrase, “Hey, watch my pony—he’s falling down,” to an accordion-and-toy-piano refrain not a bit sad or ironic or cutesy, just calm and comforting. Of course his pony is falling down. How could it be otherwise?

That’s why Garland has done for the pop song what Robert Ashley has done for opera. The lyrics are often too oblique to make sense—”Seeing my surface I witness the contours/each imperfection is structured just right”—but they distract your attention, feeding you partial truths, while the music circles back behind your unconscious and zaps you with the Real Truth, the ineffable inevitabilities of being human. It can do that because Garland has a superb melodic sensibility. Listen to “Happy Ending”—it’s a silly enough rock song on first hearing, but the way the harmony pirouettes around the tonic key, slipping back in at the right moment, reveals a sophistication that he’s scrupulous about never showing off.

His voice itself is the same way: so warm, untrained-seeming, and conversational you don’t notice its exquisite control. Just the guy next door singing to you about his job until he leaps gracefully into a high register or idly wanders down to a low B-flat below the bass clef. The CD (on Ergodic) sports quite a cast of electro-gizmos and Downtowners (Guy Klucevsek, John Zorn, Bobby Previte, and others among the latter), but for this lite gig at Tonic he stripped down his arrangments for trio. Will Holshouser did an expert job on accordion, and Brian Dewan (also a superb songwriter, Garland tells me) brought a sturdy virtuosity to an electric zither, an instrument I wasn’t prepared to be nearly so impressed by.

Garland’s trio was followed by Billy Martin, who opened with an athletic and impressively punchy solo piece for two thumb pianos. Martin then brought out the Komodo Whirligig Orchestra, actually five people each playing a gourd or wood block with a mallet. For half an hour those mallets tapped out Martin’s Stridulation for the Good Luck Feast in 13 movements, each movement marked by subtly different rhythmic strategies. Not very high in entertainment value, but within his breathtakingly austere limits Martin showed considerable rhythmic ingenuity, and, to my pleasant surprise, the full-house audience in this rock bar listened as quietly as rabbits. Yet another young American composer stripping music down to start over from zero: watch out.


The Yankees: Good Enough to Hate… Again

Good Enough to Hate… Again
May 30, 1977

For the Yankee Hater, it was a mounting dilemma: an endless parade of pin stripes rounding bases, a monotony of pin stripes blowing heat past banjo hitters, a ho-hum succession of pin stripes Hooverizing ground balls in the infield. The New York Yankees — the souped-up 1977 version of the Hated Yanks — haven’t quite got their death-rays stoked up yet. First they lose eight of 10, then they win 14 of 16. But the old feeling is back. The cold dread that stalked every national-league kid when he proclaimed that this year the Yanks were dead tunas and might as well not show up. Of course, the Hated showed up, of course they won, and of course there was misery all around. And now, after all these years, the Yankee Hater is whistling by the graveyard once again, for when these new Hated are good, they are very, very good.

Perhaps not good enough to fit the definition of what old crotch Jacob Ruppert — the Hated Yank owner who bought the Bambino from the Bosox to the Bronx in 1920 to begin the Bombers’ 29-pennants-in-44-years domination of hard­ball — used to croak was his idea of a perfect afternoon: “When the Yankees score eight runs in the first inning and then slowly pull away.” But close enough.

What was worse was what pitcher Mike Torrez said. Only recently escaped from the Finleytorium, it was Mike’s first start for the Yanks. He went five innings, no-earned runs. The press, figuring “the Woolly Bear” was the “story” for the evening, crowded around his locker. It’s possible, even probable, that Torrez was thinking of the $200,000 a year he stands to pick up from Yank owner George “Bottomless-Wallet-But-No-Cheek” Steinbrenner, but he said it anyway. He said: “Gee whiz, there really is something about putting on the Yankee uniform. It’s the feeling you get when you look down and see that NY. And those pin stripes, those pin stripes really give me a tingle.” Phil Rizzuto, the shrill shill, happened to be passing by. His ears perked up at the mention of pin stripes. He took one look at Torrez, a dark and handsome type, and said, “Holy cow, he looks great in pin stripes. Just like a Yankee.”


Shit. Can you believe that? That kind of crap was what made hating the Yankees one of the great passions of my life. I suppose I was fated to hate the Yankees: The first game I ever went to was on May 12, 1956. It was my birthday, and my grandfather, after three years of constant badgering, took me to Ebbets Field; an old John McGraw man, he had been holding out. But on this day, just for me, Carl Erskine pitched a no-hitter. The afternoon would brand me a national-league rooter forever and, by definition, a Yankee hater. Once, in 1966, through a haze of acid, I ran down Sunset Strip screaming that the Hated had finally finished in last place. The clones who took their transistor radios to Chavez Ravine to listen to Vin Scully tell them what my ex-beloved Dodgers were doing on the field didn’t understand what I was talking about.

I hated the Yankees for most of the same reasons I thought everyone must hate the Yankees: the cloying “great to be a Yankee” litany, pin stripes, the numbness of winning constantly (especially against the Dodgers), the Protestant front, the dullness of the American League, no blacks, the phrase “Yankee co-owners” used to describe Topping and Webb, Frankie Crosetti banking all those world-series shares, you name it.

But mostly I hated their fans. All accountants and success worshipers, I felt; if there was ever a group you could build a fence around and say, “These people have no soul,” Yankee fans were it. The worst thing about them was the “excellence” rap. They smirked and talked about Bobby Richardson, or Tony Kubek, or Cletis Boyer. They said, “They play the game the way it’s made to be played. They’re the best. It’s beautiful to watch the best.”

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Sure. The Babe must have really been something. I too cry when Gary Cooper (in Pride of the Yankees) says, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” I always root for Italians, so DiMag and me would have gotten along. But the paragons of excellence we got stuck with were the nark look-alikes Ford and Mantle. Now they call them Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and paint them lovable, but they still could ruin a pot party. They’re so blond. And these were the guys Rizzuto — in an obvious case of WASP worship — said “looked just like Yankees.”

There was triumph when the Yankees fell. Hey, Riz­zuto — didn’t guys like Roger Repoz, Ray Barker, Jerry Kenney, Jake Gibbs, Frank Tepedino, Lu Clinton, Ken Johnson, Jimmy Lyttle, and Bill Burbach look like Yankees? They wore pin stripes too. Why didn’t you get any of those “great to be a Yankee” testimonials from old Horace “Ass Out” Clarke? So what if the sight of flashing spikes made him faint? He still led the club in hitting in 1967 with a smashing .272. It wasn’t his fault “Butch Cassidy” Mickey struck out 113 times and hit .245, or that “real” Yankee Tommy Tresh didn’t have what it takes to be a star and hit .219, or that old Charlie Smith — a Met castoff the Yanks got for what was left of abused Roger Maris — hit .229 and did less than play the hell out of third base. It wasn’t Horace’s fault, not all of it. But the Yankee fans, the fickle few accountants that stayed, still booed his West Indian ass off. They said Horace — decidedly non­-Yankee (he played calypso records in the clubhouse) — was “the symbol of the Yankees’ decline, the embodiment of the fall from excellence.”

It was a bum rap. If there was ever a case of the turkeys coming home to roost, the Yankee Misery Decade was it (during 44 Dynasty Years, the Yanks won 4292 times, lost 2643 for a .619 percentage; the Misery Decade, 1965 to 1975, netted them a stunningly ordinary 888 to 881 won-lost record). The Yanks had been fucked in every respect. They were owned by CBS, the first ball club to be owned by a conglomerate. It was fitting that the network bought the club in a “diversification” move (they also picked up Fender guitars at the same time) in 1964, the last year the Yanks won. The CBS smartguys knew so much about their product that they failed to psyche out that the “co-owners” had been looking to unload for a while and hadn’t spent any money on new players in years. It was also fitting that the Yanks would stagger through the early stages of the Misery Decade as an aging white team. They had been, after all, one of the last clubs to play blacks. They passed on such obvious stars as Vic Power — too flashy, he caught balls with one hand, how jive — before they settled on the benign Elston Howard, who couldn’t even run.

By 1969, when the Mets won, there wasn’t much point to hating the Yankees. Sure, there were a few cackles left. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four affirmed what Yankee haters always suspected. Mickey Mantle really wasn’t such a saint after all. If he stayed out of saloons two nights in a row, maybe those “crippling” injuries wouldn’t have been so “crippling,” and he would have been able to hit those 1000 homers he was always supposed to hit. The Mike Kekich–Fritz Petersen wife swap, fabulously un-Yankee, wasn’t bad either. But the club didn’t present enough cheek for a solid Yankee hater to spit in; they were the invisible team.

Now, of course, that’s all fodder for the stat freaks. The anonymous losing of the Horace Clarke Memorial Misery Decade stopped with last year’s pennant. Today you can’t pick up a goddamned magazine without seeing trillionaire Reggie Jackson’s candy-man mug. Pin stripes are all over the Howard Cosell–inspired “Game of the Week” bullshit-athons. The pack, as they say, is back.

On paper, at least, this has the makings of a great Yankee team, certainly with the most fire power since the 1961 Mantle-Maris hammer brigade. Squat Man Munson and Quiet Chris Chambliss are, with George Brett and Rod Carew, among the best “pure” hitters in the league. Nettles and Jackson are the premier sluggers (they hit 59 homers between them last year). Willie Randolph, who’ll quite likely wind up better than Bible-thumping Bobby Richardson if his knees hold up, is developing into a class lead-off man. Mickey Rivers will never hit below .300 and always takes the extra base. Toy Cannon Wynn, if he gets going, and Slabby Carlos May are the best left-right dh combo around. Roy White is an accomplished .290 hitter.

Speedwise, with Rivers and Randolph, there’s enough. The defense, despite the outfield’s lack of top-notch arms, is more than adequate. Nettles, Dent, Randolph, and Munson are contenders for Golden Gloves. And how can you argue with a pitching staff that has Catfish (if well), Eddie Figueroa (who’s won 36 games in two years), Torrez (a probable 20-game winner with the Yanks), Gullet (if he doesn’t get hurt), and Kenny Holtzman (he’s not com­pletely finished; if he is there’s Ron Guidry) for front-line starters. Not to mention Sparky Lyle and the grossly underrated Dick Tidrow in the pen.

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Clearly, this is a team worth hating. No lie. Go to any bar and guys’ll tell you how much each player’s making, even if they don’t know what he’s hitting. After all, who do the Yanks think they are, buying themselves world-series rings? They got Catfish (3 million), Reggie (3 and a half), and Gullet (a little teeny two and a half), through the free-agent route that’s probably going to end up destroying the historical progression of the game. The total contract money of the Yanks’ 25-man roster is nearing 15 million. Just about every player has one of those leisure-suited agents who stands the hair in Dick Young’s armpit on end.

Then there’s the guy who pays: George (Watergate) Steinbrenner the third (no less). How can you help but hate a team that’s owned by a hick from Cleveland who’s been convicted of giving illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign? And then making the employees of his ship­building company lie about it to cover up his bloody tracks? Steinbrenner, who got the team from CBS on a fire sale — the only baseball franchise that ever decreased in value — passes the bill for his generosity with hot-dog outfielders and crook presidents on to the kid baseball fan. Until recently, he had been pressing a mind-boggling $4.50 general admission price for kids to sit in the stratosphere third deck. It was a mere three-fold rise over last year’s prices. George, it seems, didn’t like the practice of kids buying cheapo seats and then moving down to boxes in the fifth inning. He sought to exile such rabble to the bleachers so they could get a good view of Mickey River’s asshole and not much more. To top himself, the felon — who recently was reported by Liz Smith “in a corner” with Spiro T. Agnew — had his ushers haul down a banner in the bleachers that said, “$4.50 is a shutout.” It was a “political banner,” the Yank brass said. And everyone knows politics and baseball don’t mix.

If that’s not enough, there’s always Yankee Stadium itself, everyone’s favorite political-patronage $200-million boondoggle. It’s probably not the Yanks’ fault part of the $2 million dollars once ticketed to improve the neighborhood around the stadium got rerouted into buying $300,000 of equipment now owned by the team. In the irrational, beer-sweat-stained mind of a ball fan, you could wind up hating the Yanks for it.

But somehow, despite it all, the Yankee hater likes this team. He could even root for it.

Jimmy Wynn, Chris Chambliss, Roy White

Besides, there isn’t much choice. Oh, the Mets. How I have suffered and gloried in you… You scumbags. There was the day, opening day Baseball Season of our Lord, 1963, that I cut ninth grade, got on the subway with my bed-sheet “Let’s Go Mets” banner, and rode up to the Polo Grounds. It was a day of hope. The team had lost 120 games the year before, but now they had added the stellar Al Moran, the stunning Tim Harkness, and my favorite, the Duke, late of Flatbush. Unfortunately, they had retained the fucking terrible Charley Neal, who took the first pitch of the game, a little dribbler down the third baseline, and threw it 125 feet over Frank Thomas’s head, at first, into the stands.

I persisted, however, and in ’69 was so richly rewarded. But no more. The franchise has been going downhill since Mrs. Payson died. And her executor, the prig Grant, has turned perhaps the most beloved team in the history of sports into a blot.

It was a shock to discover that the “People’s Team” was racist, but after the “Cleon Incident” — in which the laconic Met leftfielder was made to publicly apologize for a little spring training hankypanky — there was no way around it. The Mets never had any speed or hitting because they didn’t want any blacks. For a while first baseman John Milner was the only black on the team; no wonder he never became a star. Then came the Jet flap, in which M. Donald conspired to force the football team over to New Jersey. And the refusal to sign free agents. It seems as though the team is happy to finish third; they haven’t made a significant effort to upgrade the squad in five years.

Now all that neglect is coming home. They can have clubhouse meetings with Grant forever. It won’t help. They’re out of power. The Yanks will outdraw them two to one this year. The best thing that’s happened to the Mets recently was the rain-out of the Mayor’s Trophy Game. It avoided all those terribly obvious comparisons between the two teams. The Mets will finish last and alone this year. It’ll take a Misery Decade before they turn it around.

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The Yankees are now the home team. Warts and all, they look the part. The only good thing about last year’s series was the red-neck Cincy fans making a big deal about how neat their little Astroturf was compared to the Yankee Stadium grass. They were intimating that the Yankees, representing an evil and dirty place, were an evil and dirty team. It seemed like the Yankees, for the first time, embodied what New York is really all about. It doesn’t hurt that they start six blacks, one of their most important pitchers is a Puerto Rican, the manager is Italian, and they even have two Jews (if you count Blomberg).

And they don’t (Torrez’s statement aside) look or feel “like Yankees.” Mickey Mantle, Blonde Bomber, used to go down to the old stadium’s “Great Moments Room” to listen to tapes of DiMag’s great plays. Reggie Jackson, the team’s first black “Big Guy,” doesn’t even know the room exists. Jackson came to New York because, like they say, there’s not enough mustard in the world to cover his sausage, but the Big Apple has the most.

The majority of the players, however, are here because Steinbrenner pays the best. Only Munson and White of the starters were “developed” in the Yankee “system” (in contrast to the ’61 team, for which only Maris wasn’t from the Yankee farm). Somehow, despite Steinbrenner’s Nazi dress code (no long hair) that guards against creeping Rizzutoism, Jimmy Wynn, a classy guy who’s been through Houston, L.A., and Atlanta in the past 10 years, says, “I don’t exactly feel like a Yankee. No. What’s a Yankee? I feel like a ball player who is employed by the Yankees, which is good because there happen to be a lot of good ball players employed by the Yankees right now.” The end of the reserve-cash-money hassles, the free agents, made baseball a grown-up game, and the Yankees, a group of fabulous mercenaries, are the game’s most grown-up team. That’s good because, like Wynn says, the Yanks are good. In fact, an accountant of a Yankee fan might say “excellent.” The kind of Yankee “excellence” even a Yankee Hater could love.

When you “cover” a team, you’ve got to get out to the park two hours before the game. Not that you’ll see anything particularly new. Yogi will be fungoing grounders to the infielders just as he’s done for the better part of the last 10 years. He will have four baseballs in his back pocket, making his body look even more like a plumber’s than the days when he was hitting all those homers in the clutch. A kid will be in the stands screaming, “Hey Yogi, hey, hey Yogi, hey Yogi” as he tries to make Yogi acknowledge his existence. Yogi won’t hear the kid (after all, he’s heard millions of kids just like this one; now it just goes in one ear and out the other; and will continue to hit fungoes to the infielders. And the kid will yell, “Hey Yogi, hey Yogi, hey Yogi… hey Yogi, you suck!”

The purpose of getting to the park two hours before the game is that you can fill your notebook with “Seen and Heard Around the Cage and Clubhouse” items. That means you stand around the batting cage and wander into the dressing room trying to overhear what the players are saying to one another. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear Reggie Jackson call to Don Baylor of the California Angels, “Hey, applehead, dickface… how you doing?” Or Thurman Munson say, “Which cocksucker took my towel?” Because it’s a cinch most players aren’t going to say much when they know you’ve got your pen in the cocked position.

So you hang around. Baseball writing is much like the game itself, a collection of tiny details painted on a wide but well-defined canvas. To do it well is a gradual process of building up confidences, making small talk, and ca­taloguing impressions. It was easier in the old days, when baseball was the plum of the sports desk, when there were three teams and seven newspapers in New York, when the great writers Daniel, Schecter, Smith, and Young traveled with the teams on trains, and when the Yankee players still lived in the Bronx.

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Now baseball writing is in decline. Much of the talent has been siphoned off to other sports, where you don’t have to file 162 times a year and spend two days in Boston, then get on a plane and fly to Anaheim. Papers, cognizant of the “bread-and-butter” relationships writers often develop with players, began switching assignments often. So now the continuity of the daily coverage is rather jumpy, and imprecise. Most of the better young writers don’t get to cover one team for extended periods of time. So the players see plenty of guys they don’t know getting more and more suspicious, giving more and more “nothing.”

That makes the “Seen and Heard Around the Cage and Clubhouse” stuff important. It also gives you plenty of items for the three-dot columns you have to file on off-days or rain outs. Hanging around the Yankees, you might learn:

…Jimmy Wynn has the most colorful underwear on the team. Over a recent three-day stretch, he wore: yellow with brown polka dots, denim, and brown cross-hatching with blue polka dots. All bikini briefs… Graig Nettles’s license plate, as does his glove, says “E- 5,” the official scorer’s notation for error on the third basemen. Nettles, who is off to a better start than usual, being above 200 in May, has been reminding people of Roger Maris. He looks like him, plays like him — intense, a brilliant but underrated fielder, super power, low average; also he is what the players call a “red-ass,” a crackerism for prick… There is a story around about the time a reporter came over to the Catfish and asked him if he could do a magazine story. The Fish, a friendly aw-shucks guy who writers liken to a hockey player for his omnipresent use of the word “fuck,” said, Sure, just send me a copy. The guy did. The Cat hit the ceiling when he saw he had been profiled in a raunchola stroke book; the Baptist in him was outraged. He went upstairs to Steinbrenner and said, “They got me between the beavers, what’s my family gonna say?”George, a noted prude, thereafter issued an edict that all mag interviews had to go through him… Another Catfish-media story concerns the time someone brought the tobacco chewer the lyrics of a Bob Dylan–Jac­ques Levy song, “Catfish,” as recorded by Roger McQuinn. The Cat took one look at Dylan’s rhymes and said, “It ain’t me, boy”… Yogi smokes Lucky Strikes… Big Lou Pinella said the other day, “Shut up or I’ll stick your head up the Farrah Fawcett”… Sparky Lyle, a beauty, has been said to buy a guy an enormous cream birthday cake, sing “Happy Birthday,” and then sit down in the cake bare-assed. He also once rose from a coffin, “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins” style, at a team meeting… Pete Sheehy, the Yank clubhouseman, has had the job for 51 years. That means he’s picked up the jock of the Babe, the Iron Horse, Joltin’ Joe, King Kong Keller, the Mick, the whole schmeer. But he doesn’t have any stories. Ask him, and he just smiles. Around the clubhouse they say that’s how you keep a job 51 years: Don’t tell stories… The best bodies on the team are Paul Blair, Reggie, Don Gullet. Catfish and Carlos May are the most noticeably out of shape… Some Yanks were saying maybe its better Steinbren­ner got shortstop Bucky Dent to complete his “all all-star” lineup instead of waiting for injured rookie Mickey Klutts to come around. Who wants a shortstop named Klutts?… When Joe Pepitone first used a hairdryer in his locker, Mickey Mantle, that good ole boy, loved to run his sweaty hands through Bensonhurst Joe’s do. Now even the batboys have stylers… Some say the real purpose of the famous “out of a hat” lineup Martin used to shake the Yanks out of their early slump was to move Mickey Rivers out of the lead-off slot as diplomatically as possible. Mickey pissed Martin off by refusing to learn how to drag bunt during the spring. His refusal to try to draw walks has caused fans to scream, “Way to wait him out, Mick” after Rivers pops up on the first pitch. Considered by writers to be “okay, but you can’t shut him up once he gets going,” Mickey has also been known to “miss a sign or 10″… After the game, the Yanks usually get some food brought in. All carbohydrates. The other day Don Gullet ate a potato-salad-on-white-bread sandwich… After watching Ron Blomberg run into a few walls, some baseball people have sworn, “He can’t be Jewish”… The Yank locker room hasn’t been the same since the departure of Dock Ellis. He was the most outspoken guy on the team. Against Steinbrenner — “l’ll talk about the man’s personal life.” Against anything. But a good guy. He was the club player rep. Now that’s he’s gone there isn’t any team leader. In fact, the Yank clubhouse emits no vibe at all… If basketball tends to make white country boys act like black city boys, baseball goes the other way. Almost all the slang is cracker. There are black expressions like “zacky” (which is old now). It was used to denote a smelly guy whose “mouth smell zacky like his ass.” But ball players use towny talk like “horseshit” over jive “bullshit.” Willie Randolph, of Livonia Avenue, borough of Brooklyn, says, however, “I think horseshit is bullshit”…

Some players, however, won’t fit into “Seen and Heard…” These guys are stars, guys you “write.” Yanks Reggie and Munson are the “stories.” You’ve got to talk to them, even it they sit on the bench.

Reggie’s the easiest, you can always talk to him. But what do you talk about? Everyone already knows he has a $3.5 mil contract, 100 shirts (many of which have Bill Blass labels on the outside), 11 cars (give or take a Ferrari), likes Weather Report and Herbie Hancock–style jazz, is into encounter groups, loved “living with the hippies” in the Berkeley Hills, speaks Spanish fluently, has the middle name Martinez, was once married to a Chicano, went to a fairly swank high school in Philly where he hung out with the faster-moving white kids, likes stewardesses, called Charley Finley “my great white father” but is thought to be cozy with Steinbrenner, is the only Yank who lives in Manhattan, gets mentioned regularly on Page Six, talks a lot about what he’s going to do for Harlem with his money, (“If I was here five years ago, Harlem would be a lot different today”), first wore Number 20 after Frank Robinson but soon changed to Number 44 after Hank Aaron, watches his home runs from the batter’s box, finally got his way and is hitting clean-up, has never hit .300, still is a very feared batter by opposing pitchers, is an overrated fielder who makes good throws then it doesn’t count, is the most popular guy on the team with the fans, will sign autographs even for cops, and finally got what he came to New York for — a candy bar named after him, the Reggie, Reggie, Reggie bar, which will be test-marketed this summer. The Reg says it will be “nutritious.”

If you missed any of that, go talk to Reg again. He’ll be glad to reiterate. When you’re switching gears from Reggie Jackson, bitchin’ ballplayer, to Reggie Jackson, folk hero, you’ve got to keep the rap flowing.

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But if the writers think Reggie is part good guy, part insecure egomaniac who tries to “write” their copy during interviews (most older white writers tend to believe black stars who showboat are egomaniacs), they are not quite sure what to make of Thurman Munson. After the Yanks’ shutout of Seattle a few Fridays ago, a daily writer asked Munson about his catching of rookie Ron Guidry. Team captain Thurm said, “Hey, fuck off, you know I ain’t talking to you, cocksucker.” To which the unfazed reporter said, “Gee, I can never get anything out of that Munson.”

Thurman Munson is a very touchy guy. He’s touchy about his name, he’s touchy about his squatty body, he’s touchy about his place in baseball history. You see, Munson thinks more about getting into the Hall of Fame than fan love or folk heroism. The only reason he made such a big deal over his contract was that he figures salaries are based on ball-playing ability, and on that score he doesn’t want anyone in front of him. Yankee players used to torture Munson by plastering the clubhouse with pictures of Carlton Fisk, the handsome lumberjack catch­er from the Red Sox. It drove Thurman nuts; he always thought Fisk got more recognition than him because Carlton had more savoir faire, not because he played a better game of hardball. As it turned out, Munson was right on both accounts.

On one hand, Munson has to the the biggest boor in the club. Asked by a young reporter if he had a minute, Chubby T threw underwear toward the kid’s face. He’s the sloppiest dresser on the team. He goes around the clubhouse snorting and beating his mitt. But then again, you won’t find many people around who still think Carlton Fisk, or even Johnny Bench (Munson’s other nemesis), can carry Thurman’s mask. He is easily the smartest ball­player on the Yankees: he doesn’t make mistakes. Not the fastest guy on the team by a long shot, he’s the best base runner. With a bat in his hands Thurm has been known to leer in the fashion of a cheap crook fingering his first tommy gun, but if he’s in a good mood he’ll go through long and detailed theories about “keeping a quiet body” and “being gentle with my stride at the plate.” Listening to him talk about going to the opposite field can be moving. A Zen student of hitting, Munson could become latter-day Ted Williams, albeit with less power.

One guy you always write is Billy Martin. Billy Martin is an American tragedy dressed up in pin stripes. He was born Alfred Manual Martin in a poor and broken home near Oakland. But it’s easier to see him out by the road in a hot-picking county, maybe Salinas, a mean little rat-faced kid throwing rotten peaches at passing cars. The cars would keep going and Martin would remember each and every one of them, figuring when he met the driver, he’d get even.

It’s ironic that Martin would wind up managing the team that seems destined to return the Yankees to the glory of the dynasty days. He played second base here for six years in the ‘5os. And despite Stengel’s love for him (Case knew a punk when he saw one, saying, “The little bugger is scrawny, is no beauty with that big schnozz but he’ll never let you down”) and his remarkable ability to play miles above his head in the World Series (far beyond his usual .260), Billy Martin was always doomed as a New York Yankee. He just didn’t “look like a Yankee” to George Weiss and Dan Topping. He always seemed to be trying too hard — those days Yankees were supposed to hustle, but not sweat. Joe D., the Yankee Clipper, never sweated — Billy Martin sweated. He also battled with his draft board, suffered from hypertension, got divorced, and fought on the field. (In fact, no player probably fought more: Martin tangled with Jimmy Piersal, Clint Courtney, Larry Doby, and once broke Cub pitcher Jim Brewer’s jaw with one punch. Brewer sued for a million, to which Billy said, “How would he like it — check or cash?”)

It was no surprise that Billy would take the fall for the Copa incident. It happened 20 years ago, on Martin’s 29th birthday. His Yankee buddies Mantle and Ford decided to take Billy out. During the show a guy was calling Sammy Davis, Jr. a nigger. Hank Bauer, the Yank Marine, didn’t like it. A fight started, and a banner headline flashed across the front of the New York Mirror blaring about Yankees in a drunken nightclub brawl. Billy never even got in a left hook but a few weeks later he was exiled to “the kissin’ cousin” Kansas City team. After that Martin played with six teams in five years, but he wasn’t much; after all, none of those teams ever got into the World Series. So Martin thought about the Yankees, and how it would be when he “got back.”

Before Billy “got back” to win the pennant for the Yanks last year, he managed three other clubs, Minnesota, Detroit, and Texas. All were dogs when Billy put the whip to them; each time he brought them home winners. He won divisional flags with Minny in ’69 and the Tigers in ’72. In ’74 he was the “manager of the year” for transforming the floundering Texas team — which had never had a winning club in the franchise’s history — into the hottest bunch of young ballplayers in the league. As a skipper, Martin plays it the same way he did barreling into second to break up a double play — spikes up. He’ll bring the infield in to cut off a run in the second inning of a scoreless game. He’ll pinch hit in the first inning. There’s no better operator “between the lines,” but then again, there’s also never been a manager who’s gotten fired three times in six years after significantly improving the play of each club he’s handled.

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It was always “the front office.” That means the bosses told Billy to do something, he told them to fuck off, and got canned as a result. Or something like that. Billy will tell you none of it was his fault: The fans loved him. The players loved him. And the owners didn’t know shit from shinola — they should have stayed in the Stadium Club polishing pinky rings. It’s true, too, that all three clubs took almost immediate dives into the toilet after Billy left. But there’s another side to this. At Texas some players balked when Martin reportedly told them to bean Elliot Maddox, an ex-Ranger then with the Yanks. Martin was supposed to have had a run-in with Maddox and was using his pitchers as button men. Billy says, “They just didn’t understand my way of doing things.”

Which is why Billy’s current tenure with the Yanks is so strange. Here he is back with the team that stole his youth, the team he’s always vowed to return to. And everyone is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Martin explains it all in his “clubhouse theory.” “Managing on the field ain’t shit,” Billy says. “It’s in the clubhouse a manager has to know what he’s doing. I go by the Peter Principle. You know about? It says everyone seeks his own level of incompetence. That I do, find that level.” Billy Martin’s level of incompetence is, of course, the punk in him, and he can’t shake it.

The writers are hip. After every game, while the players soap up and play bumper pool, scribes file into Billy’s blue cinderblock wall office to watch The Skip drink a Lite beer and glare underneath the mounted bonefish he caught off the Bahamas. (It figures fish is on the puny side but “fought like hell.”) They ask Martin about managerial decisions made and not made. Billy answers in one or two sentences, usually saying things like, “I don’t have to explain what I do to you guys.” Over the recent homestand these rituals were kind of boring. But the writers know you can’t “get” from Martin while his club is winning. You’ve got to wait for him to get mad, that’s when the copy gushes.

Two weeks ago it began. All through the media blitz over the free agents and Steinbrenner’s supposed “all all-star team” you got the feeling that despite Billy saying accommodating things like, “I’ll manage whoever they give me,” he was not happy with the state of affairs. The acquisition of Bucky Dent wasn’t his idea. He would have been happy with Chicken Stanley at short. The Chicken can’t hit worth a shit but he fields like a vacuum and tires hard — the kind of limited but hungry player close to Martin’s heart. To Billy it was a symbol of what was happening to the club. Sure they were getting great players, but Martin liked last year’s less devastating team better. That club has “a pulse”: they gambled, ran the bases, and hit line drives. They were like their manager. Now, with a multitude of riches, Billy can’t find that “pulse.” This is a rich and unwieldy crew, not Billy’s at all.

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It had been eating at Martin. And a few weeks ago the bile began to surface. In a fit of self-destruction, Billy began to call Steinbrenner out. Reports leaked that he didn’t like being called after every losing game. Then came “the 25th man” incident. After a particularly depressing loss to the Seattles on the coast, Martin screamed he didn’t know why the hell he has to play ball with 24 men while everyone else got to use 25. He was referring to the open spot on the Yank roster, one which Martin wanted filled with Elrod Hendricks, the catcher Billy said he needed to spell Squat Man Munson. He implied the “front office” had been lax in making the move.

After some headlines, Steinbrenner hit the ceiling. First he filled the 25th slot with Dell Alston who, although he was hitting some .200 points higher than Hendricks, is an outfielder and won’t do much for Munson’s wobbly legs. Then came a press release saying Martin’s statements were “inaccurate and unfounded.” A few days later, just in time for Billy’s birthday, Steinbrenner fined his manager $2500, presumably for having a big mouth.

So the lines are drawn. No doubt, it’ll be a fight to the finish. For if Billy Martin, Salinas punk, has always longed to grace a baseball field with “Yankee excellence,” so has George Steinbrenner, third-generation rich kid from Cleveland.

Steinbrenner, a rotund 46-year-0ld man with faraway eyes and a nervous manner, has been rehearsing all his life for owning the New York Yankees. He says he’s always wanted “being part of the best… what has always signified the best. A tradition of greatness. That’s what the Yankees are to me.” Now George has it; he is, just as Topping and Webb were “co-owners,” “the principle owner.” But that’s not enough.

You see, what George M. has really always wanted is to be one of the guys. Once, when he was the boss of the Cleveland Pipers, a minor-league basketball team, George became enraged at a call against his team. He charged out onto the court to protest and got saddled with a technical foul. It’s probably the only technical ever called on an owner during an actual game. George said, “Well, I just wanted to get into the game.” Steinbrenner’s later techni­cal foul, his campaign contribution conviction, came for similar reasons. To hear George tell it, he believed in Nixon and just wanted to be part of the team.

No surprise he got caught. Like Billy Martin, George has always tried too hard. Since buying the Yanks and a townhouse in the East ’60s (three years ago), Steinbrenner has been going around saying, “I’m all for New York, it’s the best city. That’s why I want to win for my city. I want to give New York the best. It’s my home.” So, like any would-be City Father, George has tried to move with others who are “all for New York.” The other night at the Garden’s Norton-Bobick fight, George was sitting in the right section: alongside Hughie Carey, John Lindsay, Felix Rohatyn, and the rest. But with the NY Yankee logo monogrammed on his tie and that faraway lonely hurt in his eyes, he seemed painfully out of place; just the way a hick businessman from Ohio is supposed to look in a crowd of New York sharpies.

George has had similar success buddying up with the Yankee players. They like his checks, but they sure aren’t going to love him. When asked if they were going to bet on Steinbrenner’s horse, Steve’s Friend, in the Derby for “sentimental reasons,” the pony-playing Yanks reacted like the idea had lice. Some say they remember George’s other attempts to be one of the guys. When he was suspended by Bowie Kuhn for his felony conviction, he reportedly sent tape-cassette pep talks to be played at team meetings.

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In the end George Steinbrenner will fire Billy Martin. Maybe because baseball owners always fire baseball managers. Or maybe because Billy Martin was born to be fired. But there’s better tragedy here than that: When two losers, no matter what their pretensions, aspire to the mantle of eternal winning, something has to give. When it dies, if it hasn’t already (the Yanks’ recent stumble started the night “The 25th Man” episode began), it will be sad. Because after Billy goes, the Yanks, like all the teams he’s managed, are likely to go into the toilet, too. And then the grace both Billy and Steinbrenner sweat after will be gone forever.

When it happens, Billy, who cried the last time he was sent out to Kansas City, will pretend not to notice. He was half-expecting it all along. He’s been in town nearly two years and still lives in a hotel over in Jersey. In fact, Billy’s already got his statement planned. “All my life,” he says, “all my life in baseball and in everything else, too, I’ve never gotten back the loyalty I gave… so I don’t care what they think. There’s only one who can judge me now, and that’s Jesus Christ in the heavens.”

But later for all that. Today, as Red Barber used to say in the days when he’d banter with Mel Allen before they both got fired to signal the absolute end of the Yankee dynasty, it was a beautiful day at “The Big Ballpark.” The sun was out, 35,000 little kids got free double-knit pin-stripe shirts with NY on them, and the Yankees killed the Oakland A’s. Jacob Ruppert would have loved it. They scored five runs in the first inning, and then slowly pulled away, making it 10 to 2 before the Oakland scrubeenies closed it to 10 to 5. Graig Nettles hit a homer and made a few dazzlers in the field. Thurman hit one, too, as well as banging out three other safeties. It put him in a good enough mood to actually “give” the writers some positive Munson stuff. Mike Torrez won his second game in a week and said, yes, it was still “great to be a Yankee.”

Outside, the kids waiting for autographs are talking about the players. Most of them wait at the press gate every day to get a look at the Yanks as they come out all dressed like normal people to get in their cars to drive to New Jersey. Just like the writers, they talk about which players you can “get” from and which will “stiff” you: Mickey Rivers, sometimes he’ll sign. Carlos May never will. Chicken Stanley’s not bad, but he don’t start so who gives a fuck about him?

Reggie, they agree, is the best. Not only will he always sign no matter, says one kid, “what kind o’ fox he got waitin’ for him downtown,” but his John Hancock is worth the most. One teenager comes up to the Press Gate every day to “get Reg.” Then he goes to Harlem and sells the auto; once he got five dollars… maybe that’s one way the Yanks can put money back into the community.

When Reggie appears in his leather-trim jacket, every­one starts chanting, “Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie.” The chant, now a Big Ballpark staple every time the Reg comes to the plate, was what gave Standard Brands the idea to call Jax’s candy bar the Reggie, Reggie, Reggie. As part of the promotion they let 140 kids in free to the right-field stands. The only thing they have to do is pretend to be part of “Reggie’s Regiment” and hold up letters spelling out REGGIE. Sometimes it comes out REGGIE and the Reg hits the ball before the kids have a chance to fix it.

Hearing his name, the Reg smiles. Everyone crushes toward him. He politely motions them to go back behind the police sawhorses. They do. Then the Reg goes down the line, signing maybe 20 “Best wishes, Reggie Jackson’s.” Then he goes into the VIP parking lot to get into his Rolls.

A guy standing with his wife says, “He ain’t so good-looking.” She looks at him and says, “He’s a whole lot better looking than you, fool.” And as Reggie pulls away toward the Major Deegan, kids run after the car, scream­ing, “Hey Reggie, hey Reggie, hey Reggie, hey Reggie… hey Reggie… you suck.”  ■