The New York Yankees are a worried, angry and, at times, even a melancholy team.
All the players ask is that they make it through spring training without blowing themselves to smithereens in controversy. The Yanks can't wait for the bell to ring so they can tear the wings off the first Blue Jay, Oriole and Angel.
"It would sure help to get off to a fast start," said Graig Nettles Sunday. "Maybe we could shut a few people up."
Yet, two days later, Nettles, the American League home run champ, jumped the team and went AWOL, protesting that his three-year, $420,000 contract was one of the lowest on the team, and should be renegotiated.
That is the sort of contradiction that has made the Yanks so fascinating this spring. They know where all the land mines are planted, yet they jump on them, anyway.
The New York players claim that both public and press are so anxious to see their potential juggernaut of a team self-destruct that they are lending a hand in the process.
"I belive people want to destroy anyone who is to top," said Yank captain. Thurman Munson. "The things people yell at us I can't believe. Everybody seems to want to pick us apart and pit us against each other.
"We are going to be under the microscope all season," said Veteran Roy White. "People will pick at every scah."
The Yankees already have a staggering number of open wounds, all festering publicly.
Five Yankees, led by Chris Chambliss and Dock Ellis, are unsigned. Ellis has warned he is about to declare war on management.
"I think they want to trade Ellis," said Nettles.
Manager Billy Martin and center fielder Mickey Rivers, a pair of combative, emotional tinderboxes, are in their second year of mutual torment. A testy ceasefire is now in effect.
The list of Yankees who should not be invited to sit next to each other at dinner parties is arm long. Pitchers Ellis, Sparky Lyle and Ken Holtzman all have had run-ins with Martin. And they're just the ones who talk about it.
Like Nettles, even the Yankees who have contracts, aren't happy.
"I'm one of the guys that helped build a decent situation here for these new guys to move into," said Nettles earlier this week. "But they've gotten all of the money.
"It's not how you perform on the field that seems to count," said the normally quiet Nettles. "It's how controversial you are, how much you complain and threaten. The money goes to the crybaby."
That crybaby image is part of an enormous Yankee public relations problem.
The public could forgive the Yankees when they bought Catfish Hunter on the 1974 free-agent market. The 1976 Yankees were still a scrapping, stealing team that was popular.
But when owner George Steinbrenner added Reggie Jackson and Don Gullett to his big-bucks brigade, fans en masse screamed 'unsportsmanlike conduct."
The Yankees have helped make themselves visible targets. Munson missed offseason banquets he was scheduled to speak at. Martin consistently tried to alibi for the Yanks' four-game loss to Cincinnati in the World Series.
The New Yorkers seem to have cornered the market on baseball's fractious personalities. Knowing that hardly a Yankee knows how to keep his mouth shut, the press has camped on the Yankee dugout steps to take seismograph readings. No tremor goes unreported.
"First it was Reggie and Billy and me," said Munson. "Everybody egging us to go at each other in the papers. Then it was Mickey, then Sparky. And now it's Doc.
"But they're all wrong. Nothing's going to happen."
Munson and Jackson are now on a bender of mutual admiration. "I don't know if Thurman is a nice man or not," grinned Jackson, referring to Munson's famous grouchiness, "but he can really play the game. We respect each other."
Ironically, the Reds and Yanks met here Sunday in what was billed as the fifth game of the World Series - a grudge match. It was the team's first meeting since last October and the only one possible until next October.
Jackson walked up behind the Reds catcher, Johnny Bench, who was standing by the batting cage, and whispered, like a little boy teasing his father, "If I get on, I'm stealin'."
"Yeah," said Bench, cutting his eyes over his shoulder and acting unimpressed. "I've seen your dash."
Both teams were at ease agitating each other beforehand. But the game itself had an undercurrent of serious one-upmanship. For the legion of Yankee loathers here in Redsland it was an amusing afternoon.
Steinbrenner sent word to use every starter who could walk. Only Nettles, who had a score hand, balked. Ex-Red Gullett opened on the mound for New York.
Steinbrenner even woke reluctant reliever Lyle with an 8:45 a.m. Sunday phone call to convince him to end his holdout. Lyle signed, then pitched his first spring inning against the Reds.
"Our owner doesn't think this is the fifth game of the series," said Nettles. "He thinks it's the seventh game. He wants to win this more than anything."
The Yankees played to their October form. Munson, running on a swollen, taped ankle, was thrown out stealing, thrown out at the plate, and dropping a pop-up.
Willis Randolph was doubled off base and Paul Blair was picked off. Jackson, playing with a sore throwing arm, dropped one fly ball to him saw Pete Rose tag and take third.
The biggest embarrassment, however, was the last. With a man on second in the bottom of the 10th inning and the score tied, 3-3, the game-winning hit was lined on one hop to Jackson in right field. Though the Reds' runner pulled a thigh muscle rounding third and hobbled home, the sorearmed Jackson never threw. Head down, he calmly ran toward the Yankee dugout with the ball in his hand."Reggie," said Rose, "got to the clubhouse before Champ Summer got to home plate. I know he's got a bad arm, but what do people think about a game ending like that?"
Was it hot-dog or bonehead play? Or it was Jackson showing up the meddlesome owner in the box seats, who has been nagging his team to win every exhibition game as if it mattered?
In either case, it did nothing to reverse Jackson's pregame complaint that he hadn't been asked one question all spring about baseball."
The 1977 Yankees are destined to be one of the most famous of all the Bronx teams. That much already is certain, win or lose. The five-man pitching rotation - average salary around $175,000 a year - could be the best in Yankee history with Hinter, Gullett, Ellis, ED Figueroa and Holtzman. It also could be the team's Archilles heel.
Dugout rumors say that after 3,083 innings Hunter is burned out, just a 500 pitcher. Gullett always has been prone to injury, Ellis prone to trouble. Holtzman, who has been hit hard here, may have lost the last of his always suspect motivation.
The New York batting order is so strong that the defending American League home-run champ. Nettles, will bat seventh against lefthanders.
The bench is so preposterously deep and strong that the Yank with the highest career batting average - Ron Blomberg (.302) - is virtually the squad's 25th man.
The club's career home-run leader with 290 is Jimmy Wynn, the toy cannon who led the National League in walks last year. Wynn has to fight three-time .300-hitter Lou Pinella just to get off the bench as the part-time righthanded DH.
The Yankees have more speed, more power, more pitching, more defense, more depth, and more right-handed hitting than last year's run-away pennant winners.
And more problems.
"I've thought about being a Yankee for years," Jackson said in a somber mood. "There's no joy in it."