True confession: The Yankees ain't that bad. As malcontents go. They're better than nothing but hardly in a league with the Oakland A's. All these guys do is talk a lot. Trade me, pay me, love me, Reggie and Thurman and Mickey are harmless sorts, and Billy the Kid hasn't punched anybody in four years, and if the Yankees win the World Series on Sunday, the outstanding player is going to be - incredible - a nice guy who says. "I'm the luckiest athlete in the world."
Lou Piniella doesn't fit. He's hitting 409 in the Series. 361 in the post-season. Out in left field he's been running into the wall. If we may call this the Silent Series - in three games, the winner has scored more runs in one inning than the loser did in the whole game, and then nothing went on - the sounds o silence have been interrupted only by Piniella crashing.
"The Yankees led 3-2 today in the fourth inning when Piniella sent his body against the boards in pursuit of a Ron Cey Hne drive. In the third Pinella had banged into the low iron railing in left chasing a Rich Rhoden double. That was the fourth time in this Series that Piniella had hit the fence.
So when Cey sent a line drive headed over the fence, and when Piniella leaped in an attempt to interrupt its flight, everybody said . well of Lou sure is trying. Down from his jump, Piniella seemed worn out Beaten again. Alas. Good guys never win.
Then Piniella reached into his glove and threw the ball back to the infield.
Cey, in his home-run trot, stopped just beyond first base, his body bent by the heavy load of disbelief. The Dodger Stadium crowd acknowledged the wonderful play with silence tangible in its disgust. And why, Lou, did you take so long to let the world know you caught the thing.
"I'd had two chances to catch others that I jumped for right at the fence - Dusty Baker's here. Steve Garvey's in New York (when Pinicella cracked his noggin on concrete and fell dazed). So this time I just said, "Damn it, I finally caught one.' I just had a good feeling and I enjoyed it a second."
Piniella is a man whose considerable grace does not reach to his untwinkling toes. He's a gentleman kindly and courteous, but that grace with his fellow man does little for his efforts in the outfield. perhaps giving himself the best of it, he said. "I'm better than adequate in the outfield I don't embarrass myself, but I'm not as good as the good ones."
Unlike Reggie, who doesn't catch everything he reaches and unlike Mickey, who can't throw it once he catches it. Piniella is a strong-armed fielder who drops nothing. It's just than in pursuit of a fly ball. Pinella's feet often trace an erratic pattern in slow motion.
No matter, In Game 3, won by the Yankees, 5-3 Piniella's first-inning single drove in the second run. And in the fifth, his infield hit moed a man to second from where he scored the Yankees' last run. Today his single to right drove in Reggie with the game's first run and he scored himself two hitters later. Two runs - and the Yankees win by two.
So now the Yankees are within one victory of winning this World Series and Lou Piniella, for one, is ready.
"This is the longest summer I've ever spent in baseball." Piniella said, sighing. He's 34, a professional 15 years. Rookie of the Year in the American League in 1969, four tims a 300 hitter in the bigs. This was his best scason 300 but it also was the season of discontent for Yankees from the owner to the manager to the right fielder to - well, everybody but Bella Abzug, it seems, and she lost the mayoral nomination.
"From the middle of August on every game has been a Big Game." Piniella said. "You think you can go home and relax and just play ball the next day. But when you get up in the morning, it's another Big Game. For the first time in my life, I'm mentally and physically exhausted."
What about the eternal soap opera the Yankees played out?
"The hassles, they didn't bother me as much as they did some other people. What we had to worry about is they changed the mood of the ball club. This is a moody ball club. When we're tense, that means we're prepared and we play well. But if we're lackadaisial, overconfident, we'll get our behinds beat."
Perhaps, then, Reggie's ambition to be a candy bar. Thurman's mad desire to be traded to Cleveland. Mickey's anxiety to go anywhere but New York. Billy the Kid's compulsion to be fired - perhaps all that worked to keep the Yankees angry enough to win everything. Even in this World Series, these ungracious guys groused about the tickets given them, causing the team president to tell the press his players ought to shut up.
"Maybe it should have bothered us," Piniella said, allowing himself to consider the spectacle as a rational univoved person might. "But it really hasn't. If this latest stuff (Reggie suggesting Billy botched the choice of pitchers: the ticket flap, and who knows what else) had been the first time, maybe it would have hurt."
Then Piniella laughed. "But it's like the eye of a hurricane. First we felt the hurricane. Then for a while we were in the eye. And now we're back in the full force of it."
Two years ago, needing an operation to correction an inner-ear problem that sent his batting average to 196. Piniella thought to quit baseball. His wife, Anita, talked him out of it. "She said I had an opportunity very few people ever have and I ought to stay with it," he said.
After the surgery, Piniella moved back to 281 in 1976 and now says, "I'm the luckiest athlete in the world. And I'm proud to be a Yankee."
And what does he think about the car?
"What car?" he said.
The Series outstanding player gets a car.
Laughter, "I've never been the MVP in any league, not even American Legion. I'm not worried about any car. I just want to win this thing and get it over with. Let somebodyelse have the car."