Billy Martin is in again, recycled as manager of the New York Yankees. And it also may be decently said that the move comes as a bit of a surprise to George M. Steinbrenner, Yankee owner. This belief was voiced yesterday by one of the best Yankee sources outside of Steinbrenner himself.
"It was 1,000 to 1 that George would ever take Billy back. He was of no mind to do so," this insider said.
How, then, did it happen? Simple. Events conspired to beat those odds.
His Yankees had become personally repugnant to Steinbrenner, sometimes known as "Win-'em-All George." There was his team-pennant winners, World Series champs, possessors of the finest pitcher in baseball and the best relief pitcher, one of the greatest third basemen and perhaps the best catcher, all this in addition to Reggie Jackson-flopping around in fourth place. And still sinking in the Southwest.
It was enough to outrage the competitive Steinbrenner, who was bridling, anyway, at this own inactive role on the sidelines since the season opened. This season, not even one swooping appearance in full cape to deal with a Yankee problem. He longed to return to center stage. Ergo, fire Bon Lemon and rehire Martin, That would project Steinbrenner again, and wake up the Yankees.
It also would be an image-maker, enabling Steinbrenner to pose in the robes of the righteous. Had he not promised Billy would be back in 1980 when he fired him last summer? And was he not a man of his word.? Nothing wrong with rushing the schedule a bit, was there (applause)?
The fact that he also had been sending out clear and constant signals that Martin was by no means sure of getting his job back could simply be overlooked. But Steinbrenner often had stated that Billy's behavior patterns in purgatory would be a factor in his ultimate decision.
He said he was much annoyed, too, that Martin had taken that swing at a sportswriter in Reno and that there was now a lawsuit. Couldn't have things like that, Steinbrenner said.
If he wasn't looking for an out, it appeared so.
Martin had a contract with the Yankees through the 1979 season, and after that at Steinbrenner's pleasure. He is driving that long Lincoln that is part of his current deal with the Yankees, but he doesn't seem to have the title to it, only the keys.
Martin, a baseball realist, has no misgivings about what he is getting into this time, in addition to Steinbrenner's record for quick reactions. For beginnings, he is taking over a team that has been sad sack for the past two months. Rich Gossage is on the shelf, and what remains of the relief pitching invites abuse. Catfish Hunter hasn't won a game this year, Reggie Jackson is hurt.
Although Martin's scuffle with Jackson got the publicity in the past, the biggest problem was owner Steinbrenner, who looks over the shoulder of all Yankee managers. A couple of extremes can be used to tell about this. The best defense against Steinbrenner is to win all 162 games. You keep sending in a pinch hitter who gives you a .300 average, and with Steinbrenner it was a poor choice 70 percent of the time.
There are some Yankee players who require personal attention to their wounded feelings, but Martin always has been good at that. Ed Figueroa now is complaining to everybody that he does't start enough, he had no trouble with Martin. Billy and Jackson never really disliked each other, and Jackson now helps to keep order on the Yankees. Billy always satisfied the grumbling Mickey Rivers by getting him salary advances, and there was no other problem with Yankee personnel. For all his volatility, Martin was good with players.
Steinbrenner's ownership has been a boon to the Yankees and to the entire American League. He has restored the old war cry of "Beat The Yankees," which has been good for attendance. His charities are well known, and he is generous. Well known, too, is that he can be brutally heavy-handed.
This season be called on e Yankee pitcher "scared to death," without much feeling for the poor guy, and sent him back to the minors. The chap since has rejoined the Yankees and is one of their best pitchers.
Thre was another pitcher Steinbrenner called into his Yankee Stadium office three years ago. "You're gutless," were the words he used to young Ron Guidry, who became the best pitcher the Yankees have had in decades, and without whom Steinbrenner would not be known as the successful owner of the world champions.
Bob Lemon's low-key approach to managing was what the Yankees needed in their turmoil of 1978. Steinbrenner does not think it is needed with the team in a won-lose crisis, not a conflicting-personality situation. Time now for Billy Martin's kind of stimulation, not Lemon's keep-cool approach.