The Yankees are ready for the playoffs.
New York manager Billy Martin served his owner, George Steinbrenner, a public helping of pie in the face for breakfast, and Steinbrenner retaliated with a lunch of kicks in the pants for Martin.
Martin stuck his tongue out at his boss. Steinbrenner answered by holding his breath and threatening to turn blue, and the Yanks disgruntled pitcher, Ken Holtzman, picked the eve of the playoffs to pop off about not pitching all year.
The Yankees starting pitcher for Wednesday's opener against Kansas City (3:15 p.m. EDT). Don Gullett, finally got out of traction for a pinched back nerve. All he has to worry about is his catcher's erratic arm and his outfielder's weak ones.
While the Yankees were having a typical fun day - Roy White found out he was being benched, three more pitchers reported injuries, and Catfish Hunter complained that the Yanks couldn't find two doctors who could agree on whether or not he has a hernia - the Royals played it smart. They stayed in Kansas City.
The Royals remained away partly to snub the Yanks, who they claim have perpetrated a host of indignities on visiting Kansas Citians in the past, and to let the Bronx pitchers stew in their bitter juices as long as possible.
On any other team the barbs and near-insults thrown by Martin and Steinbrenner today could precipate a holocaust. But the Yanks enjoy playing catch with hand grenades as much as kittens love a ball or twine.
Martin made Steinbrenner choke on his first cup of coffee this morning with a barrage of sniping, self-promoting quotes in the morning newspaper.
"If we win everything," said Martin, "I think it's a must for George to come up with another contract for me. If he didn't, I'd think seriously about asking permission to talk to other clubs."
A manager on thin ice asking to renegotiate a $300,000, three-year contract that has two years to run, is like Bert Lance asking for another loan.
But Martin, already in danger of tromping on Steinbrenner's seventh commandment - Thou shalt be honorable - had more to say.
"The hell with the commandments," said Martin, referring to Steinbrenner's seven midseason criteria for Martin to shape up and keep his job. "Only One Person can give yo commandments . . .
"I haven't changed anything and I'm not going to . . .
"If I'm fired, it'll be his loss. He'll find out these guys aren't that easy to manage. If he wants to fire me, he can press a button right now.
"If he buys $50 million worth of players," "I'll beat him with another club and he knows it. If I come back (with another club), I'll make him cry."
Martin said all these things with a smile, finishing, "George knows how to take a joke now. I think I'm going to keep him for two more years."
But in cold print Steinbrenner saw the knuckles of truth underneath the soft glove of Martin's jesting. He also thought he saw Martin ingratiating himself with the public and setting the stage for a soft and lucrative landing if he finds himself unemployed before Halloween.
"I expected this to happen sooner or later," said the irate Steinbrenner. "He's crazy if he tries to take the credit for our success. This is just another example of his immaturity. Do you think that if we had not finished first . . . that he would have taken the blame?
"He's playing this thing out in the papers and that's a form of coercion . . .
[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] back to you and want more. We were warned about this when we hired him."
The fascinating chemistry between the hypercritical Steinbrenner who can't take a joke and the jokester Martin who can't take criticism, has come to a head over who should wear genius laurels.
Steinbrenner can not admit that he has dictated lineup decisions to Martin, although several Yankees have confirmed that to be the case. But today Steinbrenner came close to taking credit as closet manager.
"Martin says the team turned around after June 18 (the day Martin tried to punch Reggie Jackson on national TV)," says Steinbrenner. "That's silly. The real turnaround came on Aug. 10."
Steinbrenner then produced statistics to show that the Aug. 10 pow-wow, during which Steinbrenner insisted that Jackson bat cleanup, Lou Piniella play regularly, and Mike Torrez and Ed Figueroa pitch every four days, was the historical date for New Yorkers to circle for posterity.
Having made his point, Steinbrenner added, "I don't want to take credit for that."
While the Yankees big chiefs have played to the crowd, the millionaire Indians on the field have learned to go their way, playing for themselves and ignoring their bosses.
When Martin asked the healthy, 31-year-old Holtzman, who pitched only five innings since July 15, to start Sunday's meaningless final game, the $150,000-a-year lefty answered, "No way I'm ready to pitch now." And he didn't.
These are Holtzman's days to sit in haughty, detached judgment. He maintained all year that the Yanks would burn out their other pitchers and regret giving him an unlisted dog-house phone number.
At the moment the Yanks face the task of needing perhaps five starting pitchers against the Royals. Game 1 pitcher Gullett demands four days rest for his injury-prone back.
Mike Torrez (Game 4) has a stiff shoulder. Ed Figueros (Game 3) has not thrown in more than a week and knows not how his injured side will respond when he tried again. Hunter is definitely scratched.
Holtzman, who won 91 games in the last five years, knows he would look good right now. But he is rusty, reluctant and unavailable.
"I hope everyone's O.K.," said Holtzman today, "but if they're not, some people are going to have to look themselves in the face."
While the Yankees fermented today, bringing their vintage year for farce to a final fitting piquancy, the Royals sharpened their sprinting spikes.
Taking their cue from Cincinnati in last year's World Series, the Royals sent a message that they plan to run the Yankee arms ragged: ninth-hitter Fred Patek, the league's stolen base champ (53), will be elevated to leadoff.
KC, with 170 thefts (six starters with 14 or more), 299 doubles and 77 triples, are as expert at extracting an extra base as the Yanks are adept at allowing it. In 10 games this season (split 5-5), the Royals stole 13 bases in 14 attempts off catcher Thurman Munson.
The Yanks have removed Roy White and his Venus De Milo throwing arm for Pinella in left field, letting Cliff Johnson become designated hitter.
New York's left field is huge and Piniella is as slow as White is quick. Sweet Lou cannot throw what he has not caught.
The only Royal who may have trouble looking in the mirror is gambling manager Whitey Herzog. Why, many people ask, is Paul Splittorff (16-6) starting the first (and if necessary the fifth game) while ace Dennis Leonard (20-12) waits until game 3 for his only start.
In a move the Yankees would never understand, the Royals, including Leonard, have stood unanimously behind their manager's southpaws-only-in-Yankee-Stadium theory.
Only Splitorff's mother has broken ranks. "Paul can't start the first game," blurted out Bettye Splittorff today. "His record's not good enough."
"She's a terrific mom," said Splittorff, "but she doesn't know a thing about baseball."