Like some gaunt ghost suddenly returned to vigorous life, Billy Martin came home to his Yankee Stadium haunts tonight to receive the vindicating cheers about which he has dreamed during 11 months in exile.
At precisely 8:07 p.m., Martin back in his familiar No. 1 New York Yankee uniform - but tanned, mustachioed and a dozen pounds heavier than when he last wore pinstrips - trotted to home plate with the lineup card.
For more than two minutes, until he returned to the dugout, Martin received a standing ovation from a crowd of 36,211 that had begun chanting "We Want Billy" as soon as the center-field clock had flipped to 8:00.
As Martin, 51, doffed his cap and flashed his still youthful-looking crooked grin, perhaps 50 signs emerged in the stands saying, "Martin's Here to Stay," "Welcome Home, Billy," and the like.
Only one placard demurred, one which perhaps reflected understanding of the precariousness of being owner George Steinbrenner's manager: "The '79 Martin Better Not Be A 'Lemon.'"
Bob Lemon, who guided the Yankees to a second consecutive world championship last season after taking over when Martin was fired on July 25, sat in Steinbrenner's box and sipped his first cocktail of the evening while Martin was hailed.
This was the sort of evening to make managers toss abed all night. Martin sent his ace - Tommy John - to the mound, and even coached third base himself to try to shake the champs into a strong start.
Instead, Toronto, mayhap the majors' worst team, beat his Bombers, 5-4. An unusually wild John - left in for the route by the new skipper - yielded six walks, two wild pitches and 10 Blue Jay hits, including Luis Gomez's tie-breaking, bases-loaded single for two runs in the sixth inning.
To make matters worse for Martins famous spot on the liver, Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles, who had hit a two-run homer earlier in the game, was robbed of a potential two-run game-winner in the bottom of the ninth. Jay right fielder Joe Cannon, a substitute only lately up from the minors, leaped above the wall for a saving catch.
Before his slumping Yanks took the field and lost the fifth in their last six games, however Martin basked in the glory of his return to office - discussing his rich new contract, tweaking the noses of old rivals and promising, "I'm still Billy Martin," as if anyone doubted it.
"I got a nice raise. They're typing up the contract now. I wanna sign it I can't wait. Then I can eliminate that one question that has been bugging me for 11 months: 'Have you signed your contract yet?'"
To the legions who were certain Martin would never return to Steinbrenner's employ after calling his boss "a convicted liar" last July 23, this was Billy the Kid's proof he has nine baseball lives - at least.
To those who said that he was only rehired because Sparky Anderson was removed from the job market by Detroit last Tuesday, Martin also had his comeback.
"I've got the best managing contract in baseball," Martin said to the media that came through his office in waves. "I'm making more than Earl Weaver and one dollar more than Sparky Anderson.
"No, I'm kidding . . . one dollar more than Sparky . . . How do I know what he makes? All you have to do is call the league office where they have copies of the contract on file.
"Hey, I didn't want some new-kid rookie manager in the league to be the highest-paid," joked Martin.
"You know, Sparky's not gonna win the good guy award in this league.Better give it to me. Sparky lied to me last week. Is that a good-guy thing to do? He told me he had a job in the National League, then two days later, he's in my league."
Was Martin miffed that he may have been second choice for the Yank job - a hurriedly snapped-up consolation prize?
"I never had no doubt I'd be back," said Martin. "George is as good as his word."
Such preposterous pablum was the order of the day.
Steinbrenner praised Martin as "a changed man. You know, he turned to me as we were driving the other day and said, 'You know, we aren't gonna win it all again without Reggie . . . I got to get along with Reggie.'"
That should make Reggie Jackson feel better. Last weekend in Texas the slugger reiterated and old theme when he said, "Somebody better trade for me . . . There's no way I can play for that man (Martin). I don't hate him, but he hates me."
When Martin called his first team meeting before tonight's game, 24 of the 25 Yankees on the active roster were present. The 25th - absent with permission because he is injured, yet still a symbolic cipher - was Jackson.
The Yanks noticed. As Roy White passed Jackson's empty corner locker minutes before game time, he caused 20 heads to snap around by saying, "Oh, hiya, Reggie, I didn't see you back there."
Nervous Yankee laughter greeted the realization that Jackson was conspiciously absent with leave.
In general, the Yankees seemed indifferent to who their manager might be, reiterating a cliche which in their case might actually be true: "We're a veteran team. It doesn't matter who the manager is."
Captain Thurman Munson, asked if he could live with the change, said "Well, I ain't gonna die . . . I like Billy and I liked Lem. What is it Billy's commercial says - 'I feel very strongly both ways.'
"I'm just a fat little dumb kid," said the frequently incommunicado Munson. "What do I know? But, yeah, it would probably be best if Billy and Reggie get together for a talk.'
White, the 15-year Yankee, perhaps summed up the subdued feeling in the clubhouse in the wake of the firing of the universally popular, if sometimes ineffective, Lemon.
"You learn one thing in New York," said White, speaking in parables. "When you see a murder on the street, you just keep on walking."
Certainly Lemon, the 59-year-old Hall of Famer become the gentlemanly odd-man-out in the newly resumed Bronx soap opera, emerged from this night with highest honors.
Lemon phoned Martin before game time to wish him luck. After Martin hung up, the old pitcher showed his only genuine emotion of the night.
"Lemon's one helluva super guy. I'm gonna dodge any question that might reflect negatively on him," said Martin. "When I left last year, he told me, 'Your pictures are gonna stay on the wall. This is your office. I'm just here 'til you get back. Just leave your stuff in that closet.'
"Hell, Lem even taught me a new drink and I thought I'd tried 'em all - a brandy Flip. You know, soda pop."
For his part, Lemon relinquished the reins with a disappointed shrug. "I feel like a weight come off my back," said Lemon, who has long called retirement his sweetest dream.
Without doubt, this was a day of ritual reconciliation.
Martin presented his rehiring as though all his demands had been met: the return of his buddy-pitching coach Art Fowler, the absence from his contract of any unbecoming personal-behavior clauses, and the public statement that it was his choice to come back with the team in fourth place rather than start fresh in 1980.
Nevertheless, every cynic in New York, from the cabbie to the bleacherite, knows that a manager who left his post in as weakened a position as Martin did could be rehired only if the appearance were given that he returned as a man of strength.
The publicly released terms of Martin's homecoming and the private reality of Steinbrenner's demands need not necessarily be the same. It has become routine here to regard all Yankee pronouncements as though they were Peking wall poster - public show and noise that, at best, gives mere hints of all closed-door facts.
Perhaps the evening's most astute observation came from White: "In the last four seasons, we have had four totally different atmospheres - it's been like playing on four totally different teams.
"But the main cast of characters is still there. What we have all been through has hardened us, made us immune to many things. But there are things that have happened in this locker room that will never be forgotten." CAPTION: Picture, Billy Martin strides happily to Yankee third-base coaching box. AP