We'll make a detour or two along the way today, but patience will be the reader's friend, for in the end we shall reveal who is to blame for Billy Martin's firing. The Untold Story. It begins near a cornfield in central Illinois . . .
If the steady maturation of corn thrills you, the farmland of Illinois is a wonderful vacation spot. The stands of corn sweep for miles in majestic tribute to nature and the John Deere Co. A sportswriter, recently sentenced to two weeks there, made an emergency run to the bookstore, where he found sustenance in a paperback entitled "The Best Team Money Could Buy."
It is by Steve Jacobsen, a newspaperman who, the author's note tell us, "has covered the Yankees from when they were five-time pennant winners, through the humbling years, to their present state of lordly champions." What the note didn't say, and what was fascinating to discover, is that Jacobsen, by quoting a player, was the speechwriter for Billy Martin's exit line.
The Chicago papers were full of Martin, perhaps because of the local angle. The once and future Yankee manager chose Chicago's O'Hare Airport as the stump for his stemwinder on the virtues of Reggie Jackson, the self-proclaimed straw that stirs the drink, and George Steinbrenner, who when it comes to stirring is more a telephone than a straw.
"One's a born liar," Martin was saying in the papers, "and the other's convicted."
Though a sportwriter spent his day watching the corn grow, he yet recognizes nice phrasing and rhythm. In this latest act of self-destruction, an act we might call Martinizing, for it happens about as often as we send a suit to the cleaners, Martin provided us a good line, not in the same sentimental league with "Say it ain't so, Joe," yet flaming enough in its anger to be memorable.
So memorable, as it happens, that the incarcerated sportswriter remembered reading it in his companion book by Jacobsen. "The Best Team Money Could Buy" is a 359-page diary of the Yankee's 1977 season. It is a veritable handbook of psychoses. Turn to any page and someone's overheated rhetoric will be there. The book at this moment has fallen open to Page 205, on which to owner Steinbrenner is saying, "Either this team is going to make a great comeback, or it will be known forever as 'the team that choked.'"
Steinbrenner said that to the team at a special clubhouse meeting. Then, just to show he's a swell guy whose gruff demeanor hides a heart of gold, he gave each player $300. Reggie Jackson, salary is $700,000 a year and who says he's a multimillionaire businessman, was happy. "I mean, how nice can you be?" Jackson said. He was serious.
Anyway, Martin's born liar-convicted suicide speech sounded familiar and, sure enough, there it was on Page 34, the entry dated March 26, 1977. Jacobson writes of Steinbrenner's impulsive anger and his plea of guilty to the felony charge of making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. Then:
"As one player put it in the midst of the tumultuous season: 'Billy has lied to me, I know that. George has been convicted of lying. So how do you know who ato believe around here?'"
Martin simply put Reggie's name in place of his own, brightened the quote and tightened it. He migh have made a good editor. As it was, he flunked Steinbrenner's rules of gentlemanly behavior. Those were the Seven Commandments handed down by the owner to Martin during the '77 season, commandments designed to transform Martin from the world's oldest adolescent into an upright adult. Better Steinbrenner had tried to put the Empire State Building in his pocket.
The wonder of all the Yankees' shenanigans is not that the went ahead in '77 and won the whole shebang. Chaos was proven harmless. That's because baseball is a team game only in definition, not in reality. Synchronized movements are essential to success in basketball and football, soccer and hockey. But a baseball team can win the World Series on collective individual efforts. Thurman Munson may call Reggie Jackson "a . . . liar" (Page 120), but he'll drive him in fromsecond.
So chaos that might destroy the "feel" necessary to operate interdependently in true team games is of small import in baseball. "Pete Rose is the most individualistic player in baseball," Johnn Bench once said. "All he cares about are his statistics." Pause. "What we need are nine guys like him."
The wonder of the Yankees is not that they won in '77, but that they might win again this season. You'd think two years of chaos would wear those guys out. But, curiously enough, they have endured a succession of injuries, a suspension to Jackson and the firing-hiring of Martin - and still have as good a won-lost record as a year ago. Should the Red Sox come unraveled, as they did in '77, we might see chaos justified.
If choas earns a good name from this, it owes a beer to Reggie Jackson, who first at Oakland and now at New York has been the pre-eminent figure in baseball's foremost locker room asylum. He is the straw that stirs the mud. With his hat alone, he earns admiration. That is not enough. He must be told he is loved, told loudly and often, and if not told, he shouts to himself reminders of his greatness.
And not many pro athletes take kindly to a peer's braggadocio. Listen to me,' Jackson said to Mickey Rivers (Page 145), 'arguing with a guy who can't read and write."
"Better stop . . . readin' and writin'," Rivers said, "and start . . . hittin."
Jackson, then, is often a source of turmoil, as he was when he defied Martin's order to bunt and drew a five-day suspension for the act of arrogant insubordination.
It is wrong though, to blame Jackson for Martins firing. For some reason, Martin can't handle life outside the white lines of a baseball field. He has found ways to be fired without Reggie Jackson's help and he would have found a way this time. Jackson's insubordination only gave Martin reason to utter the words on Page 34.
Therefor, we should blame Steven Jacobson.