In the month since Thurman Munson's funeral, the New York Yankees have been allowed to slip quietly out of baseball's hurly-burly pennant spotlight.
The conventional epitaphs for a world champion that loses its crown have been swallowed, since they seem trivial in the presence of real eulogies and real grief.
Gradually, however, the Yanks are facing the reality of this season of disaster and are looking ahead to a future that seems increasingly difficult. Their past is painful to dwell on, but their future hardly looks better.
True to form, the Yanks, especially Manager Billy Martin, have managed to put their Bronx snarl back in place.
"I'm still trying to win the pennant," growled Martin this week, oblivious to the facts of being in fourth place, 14 1/2 games behind Baltimore. "Anything can happen. All hell can still break loose."
No one is exempt from saying silly things, it was once written, but the misfortune is to say them earnestly. That may be Martin's abiding specialty.
"I wish I'd been here all year (as manager)," Martin snapped. "Then (Earl) Weaver's rear end would be in fourth place. Next year, he won't have a chance."
Martin, of course, has chosen to ignore the Yankee misfortunes -- a list of calamities that perhaps surpasses the afflictions of any defending champ before them.
One glance around the New York clubhouse shows a shattered and transformed team. Munson's empty locker is only a symbol of all the absent faces and careers that are at an end. The comeback Yankees of last September seem a decade away.
Sparky Lyle has been traded. Graig Nettles now occupies Lyle's corner cubicle. "This is the transient's locker," says Nettles, who is playing out his option. "I'll be gone soon."
Catfish Hunter, the first Yankee millionaire free agent, is just a ghost, playing but the string until he retires. Last year, he won the final game of the World Series.
Don Gullett has been absent all year, his career probably finished by shoulder miseries. Ed Figueroa, a 20-game winner last year, has had surgery and may never be as sharp again.
Cliff Johnson has been discarded in the wake of a shower-room scuffle with Rich Gossage that rendered the Goose useless for three months. In the last weeks, Gossage has gloried in being the most unhittable of his career -- but who cares?
Mickey Rivers is gone, his leadoff and center field duties taken by hobbling old Bobby Murcer with his preposterous $1 million for three seasons no-cut contract.
The established Yankee faces all seem to be looking toward the exit gates. Bucky Dent, the Series MVP, is a potential free agent and the Yanks don't seem willing to pay him the $250,000 a year that he wants and thinks that someone will be giddy enough to pay him.
Dent, usually the most cheerful of Yankees, is glum, having endured a separation from his wife, Stormy -- the price, perhaps, of his poster boy celebrity last winter.
The team which just a year ago had one of the strongest collective, personalities in the history of the game now has no team character whatsoever, it is amorphous, constantly in flux.
Odd, itinerant denizens of baseball's netherworld of eccentrics, aging stars and colorful characters have floated through the clubhouse all season -- Jay Johnstone, Jim Kaat, George Scott, Lenny Randle, Oscar Gamble.
Owner George Steinbrenner constantly crows about the products of his winning farm system, but everyone he tabs for Yankee greatness turns flop. Prize catcher Brad Gulden is hitting .177 since being handed the starting job, Brian Doyle, hero of the '78 series, has a .176 mark. They beat catching prospect Jerry Narron's 144.
Vital starting pitchers Jim Beattie 5.14 ERA and Ken Clay (5.19) the two best young arms in the Yankee chain -- have careers that seem to be going backwards, thanks in part to Steinbrenner. This week he publicly called Clay "gutless" after he squandered a 5-0 lead. But Yankees are accustomed to Steinbrenner's tongue-lashing techniques.
Perhaps the embodiment of the Yanks, as usual, is Reggie Jackson.
"I'm just playing as a professional now," he said. "The people here boo my butt off constantly. They like to rip me. It's beating a dead horse to say it, but all I can do is my best.
"But I could sure like baseball somewhere else a lot better than I do here."
He and Martin still loathe and avoid each other. Jackson said, "They better trade me" the day Martin was rehired and reiterated that request last month after a harsh booing. On the day Martin returned as manager, Jackson's name was put on the waiver list.
However, Jackson realizes that the Yanks have reached the point where they have so many problems that they cannot consider getting rid of their few stable stars -- Jackson, Gossage, Ron Guidry, Tommy John.
"I've never seen a team have as many injuries as this one," Jackson said. "We have pitchers that don't exist -- they are just names on lockers and million-dollar contracts. They're never on the mound -- Gullett, Figueroa, Hunter."
You can't give a championship team a total face-lift. All you can do is pluck the eyebrows and touch up the makeup. If the good bone structure isn't there, you can't fake it.
This team can't afford to start replacing its clean-up hitter (Jackson). "I know that," Jackson said. "They've already reached the point where they need starting players, not just reserves.
"They need a center fielder. They need a catcher. They may need another starting pitcher. They need right-handed hitters badly, including a right-handed designated hitter . . ." said Jackson, who last year referred to the Yanks as "we."
"That's a lot of 'needing' for a team that's in the same division with Baltimore, Milwaukee and Boston.
"And," added Jackson with raised eyebrow, "they may need a shortstop and a third baseman, too, before long. Steinbrenner has made Bucky mad by criticizing his contract request, and Graig s never liked him.
"There's no way Nettles is going to sign before the season's over. If he's waited this long he's going to go through with it and see what he's worth."
Nettles and Dent aren't the only Yankees on the edge of free agentry. Jim Spencer, Roy White, Kaat, Scott, Randle and Don Hood are, too.
"They've got to decide about a lot of people," Nettles said, also using that ominous third person plural pronoun. "I want to know who's coming back before I decide. If they're going to let Bucky go, maybe I should go, too."
Steinbrenner adapted the philosophy that "the future is now" to baseball -- signing expensive free agents willy-nilly, just as George Allen traded draft picks in Washington.
It will be interesting to see if the long-term strangulation effects will be the same. Already the Yanks look like an extreme example of an Over the Hill Gang.
It is a final irony that the Yankees are finishing their season with heads high -- winning for example, 5 of their last 22 games.
"The horses (leaders) haven't quit," Jackson said.
These victories may be booby-tranped. The Yanks are in danger of misjudging the true vulnerability [word illegible] their position. When Martin says that "no one will have a chance next year," is he falling for his own bluff?
Martin has always been hired as a rebuilder of troubled teams, a man more than willing to give the axe to old deadwood. He has never before, however, presided over the building of a world champion, been fired when that creation was at its height, then been rehired to oversee the dismantlement of his own handiwork.
The Yankees were originally assembled as checkbook champions. Now they are the ones who are strapped to the free agent rack.
"The rich are driven by wealth as beggars by the itch," wrote a poet. The Yankees in their dealings with players have made money the ultimate measure of loyalty. The New Yorkers may now be suffering an across-the-board itch that no amount of cash can scratch.