IN THE GRAND old song, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," there's a line that says that it's "root, root, root for the home team,/If they don't win it's a shame." Unfortunately, there are places today where the home team's not winning is considered not just a shame but also malfeasance and perhaps treason. The most well-known of these is New York, where the Yankees -- baseball's answer to soap opera -- are currently playing out the extraordinary drama of The Man Who Didn't Want to Be on the Home Team.
Ed Whitson, a right-handed pitcher, joined the Yankees at the beginning of the 1985 season as a free agent, lured to New York by a five-year contract paying $4.4 million. He proceeded to lose six of his first seven decisions, and soon came to realize that he'd made a $4.4 million mistake. Hard- core Yankee fans waited hours outside the dressing room to scream insults at him. Someone scattered long nails on his driveway. He got reams of hate mail. And of course he was booed mercilessly on the mound and out in the bullpen.
After he lost his first game this year and was cruelly booed again, his manager, Lou Piniella, decided to give Ed Whitson a break and let him do his pitching away from home. Henceforth, at least for a while, he was to start only in road games. Last Monday night he had his first such outing, in Kansas City, and won. Afterward, he said happily, "I'm going to sit back for a couple of days and absorb this one."
It's possible that at just that point Ed Whitson was entertaining thoughts of spending an entire summer pitching in the heartland. We've never quite figured out where the heartland is or whether it exists, but if it does it's surely the kind of place where people don't put nails on your driveway and the letters you get aren't unsigned or written in block letters. It's probably a place where a pitcher can give it his best and then, win or lose, be surrounded by polite autograph-seeking kids and friendly folks who clap him on the back and say, "Nice game, Ed. Come again real soon." Perhaps Ed Whitson was even dreaming of an entire career with the Yankees in which he would pitch only on the road, and when he retired would be honored with an Ed Whitson Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium -- which he would address via closed-circuit TV from Dallas-Fort Worth or Kansas City.
If Ed Whitson was dreaming such dreams -- and who could blame him if he was? -- he was rudely awakened by Lou Piniella, who announced Tuesday that in view of his fine first performance, Mr. Whitson's exile would be prematurely ended and he would pitch Saturday in New York. We don't know what Ed Whitson said to himself when he heard that news; it was probably milder than what he'll hear if he loses this weekend.