Billy Martin is alive in Oakland, but he thinks he's in heaven.
The manager of the Oakland A's, who will be 52 on Friday, is back where he was born to be -- leading a young, scorned team into first place and clawing his way into the brawl, trying to find somebody to kick or gouge.
The final proof that Martin's life is back on its accustomed track came here Saturday when the scrawny Martin disabled the American League's leading home run hitter, Otto Velez, in a bench-clearing fight.
"Is Otto all right? I didn't mean to hurt him," said the solicitous Billy the Kid, over and over, like a gunfighter trying not to appear anxious to find out whether his victim is dead, whether he can add another notch to his gun.
Saturday was a big day for Martin who, since he turned 50, could claim only two conquests in combat: a smallish sportswriter and a marshmallow salesman.
But, since returning to his home here, where he grew up as a poor, fatherless Berkeley High bad boy, everything has gone right.
After being fired for the fifth time in his career, Martin finally latched onto the lowest rung of the managerial totem pole on the last day before the start of spring training this year.
At that time the marriage between Martin and owner Charles O. Finley seemed one of inconvenience with Martin desperate for any job and Finley cynically ready for a self-aggrandizing stunt. Las Vegas laid odds they wouldn't last a season together.
Now, the A's, losers of 108 in 1979, have the AL's best record (18-11). Martin, proudly unregenerate, is the reason. Once again, he has begun his perverse managerial metamorphosis from butterfly to worm.
These are the days when Martin is most brilliant, most charming, least self-destructive. Those who have seen him in pinstripes in recent years -- gaunt and haggard from tension, drink and fury -- would not recognize him now in bifocals studiously on the tip of his nose.
"Billy Martin is the best manager and the most unhappy person in baseball," says San Diego Manager Jerry Coleman, Martin's teammate on the 1950s Yankees.
"Baseball has been his whole life, and she has been a rough mistress. When I saw him a couple of years ago, he looked 70 years old, like a small rodent who had been backed into a corner.
"Now, he's starting fresh again. That's when he's at his best."
An hour after Saturday's battle with the Toronto Blue Jays, all the A's were still in their clubhouse, waiting like delighted little boys to see the replay of their donnybrook.
"What I want to see in this (replay of the) fight is which Blue Jay kicked my guy (Dave Revering) in the head when he was down. We think we know who it was -- one of their bullpen guys. We'll get him. Next time there's a fight, if he's smart, he'll stay in the bullpen, 'cause we'll be looking for him.
"Let me say again that I wasn't trying to hurt Otto. I like Otto. It wasn't me that didn't like him in New York and wanted him traded, it was Steinbrenner.
"I just grabbed Otto from behind by the arms so he wouldn't get hurt, 'cause I like him. But we both got knocked to the ground and he hurt his shoulder."
The A's, laugh nervously. Who is going to be the team hero of this film? And who is going to look like a chump or a coward? Reputations are going to be made, or lost, in the next minute.
Third baseman Wayne Gross tells Martin that one of the Blue Jays has sworn to get Martin for ordering that Woods be drilled. "But," vows Gross, "he's going to have to go through a whole lot of people before he gets to you, Billy." Several A's nod agreement.
The pitch hits Woods. He charges the mound. Just as he gets to Landford, Gross comes flying out of nowhere and blasts him with an NFL-style shoulder tackle. Four A's clobber Woods from four directions.
Then it happens. For two seconds, the camera pans across Billy Martin wrestling with Velez.
Time and again, the replay slows down to isolate. The A's can't believe what they see.
Martin has Velez around the head, then throws the other arm under the 210-pounder's crotch and suddenly Martin has Velez over his shoulder like a sack of flour and is ready to bodyslam him to the earth like a pro wrestler.
"Look at Billy kicking Otto's rear," yells Gross.
"The biggest guy on their team," says another.
Then, just before the moment of truth, the camera pans away. A delighted smile crosses Martin's face: there's no proof one way or the other.
This is the Martin Method in all its glory: baseball as guerrilla warfare -- the surprise attack, give no quarter, ask none.
Already, the so-recently pathetic A's have pulled off a double steal and a triple steal. They are four for four on suicide squeeze bunts and three for four on steals of home (two of them in one game.)
"I was here for the Last Hurrah," says Gross, "and, after nobody was left, I was left.
"I never thought times could get that hard. When I first heard Billy was coming, I was like everybody else -- excited, but very doubtful. Like everything else around here that might be good news, I figured it was just smoke.
"Billy's coming has changed everything. We were looking for somebody to teach us. He's so intense.
"The first day he told us, 'If you don't want to win, get your stuff and get out. If you don't give your best effort, you're gone. But, if you bust your hump for me, I'll bust mine for you.'"
To the A's, objects of derision, Martin has been a leader in the wilderness of self-doubt about their own abilities.
"He told us, 'Anybody can steal home plate, even though it's supposed to be the hardest thing in the game," recalls Gross. "And, in the first game of spring training, Jim Essian, the slowest man on the team, stole home. g
"We've been like a bunch of kids with new toys ever since," says Gross. "He's teaching every minute. He's moving guys half a step, he's calling pitches or putting on plays. He can predict whole sequences of pitches and plays.
"We're sayin', 'Yeah, all right, Billy.Do it.' All he asks is 2 1/2 hours of concentration every day. That's not much. But you better give it to him. He goes nuts over mental errors. He'll look you right in the face and yell, 'Get your head in the game. This is a job.'"
Where others have seen dispirited bush leaguers with destroyed confidence, Martin has seen a nucleus of hope. That's all he needs.
"Because Martin is so unpopular outside his own players, and because he's had so many feuds and fights and grudges over the years," says Coleman, "not many people are willing to admit what a great manager he is.
"In my opinion, he's ahead of the league. No one can touch him."
Almost everywhere he has gone, Martin has looked for the same ingredients -- defense up the middle to support his pitches, speed, contact hitters who can execute the hit and run, and players who can be prodded or terrified into playing fundamentally solid baseball.
He thinks he's found them all, in raw form in Oakland. By moving Rob Picciolo to second base and putting disgruntled Mario Guerrero at short, Martin has two natural shortstops on defense and two slap-hitting speedsters on offense.
By putting Tony Armas in right field and Dwayne Murphy in left, flanking fleet Rickey Henderson in center, Martin has three natural center fielders in his excellent outfield.
Martin has, of course, brought in his cantankerous old reprobate of a one-eyed hard-drinking pitching coach, Art Fowler, to teach the whole pitching staff how to doctor the ball illegally.
Despite giving up 20 runs in one game, the A's have the AL's best team ERA (3.10) with an almost unbelievable 1.77 ERA in their last 12 games.
"Charlie Finley has treated us just super," says Fowler. "He hasn't come around yet."
Everything Martin has touched has turned to gold, so far. He had five decent starters -- potentially the club's strength -- and all have stayed healthy. One, perennial air-headed phenom Mike Norris (career record 12-25), has responded to Martin's shape-up-or-ship-out with a 5-3 record and an ERA of 0.36.
That isn't the best mark of the team, however, Rookie relief discovery Jeff Jones hasn't been scored on in 13 1/3 innings while allowing three hits and three walks and striking out 13.
"It's easier to manage men who want to be managed," says Martin. "A manager is like a good cook in a kitchen mixing the ingredients in a salad, or a teacher who wants to see his class make A's.
"I taught in New York, but not too many listened. The players have bigger ears here," says Martin, who holds meetings before every game.
Oakland has welcomed Martin back with attendance that is up by 80,000 -- more than double '79.
"If you were a WPA baby and you had to fight for everything, you'd be cocky, too," Martin tells the adoring East-Bay fans.
"Growing up here, I was so poor I remember my mother standing in food lines. I vowed that would never happen again."
"I had one suit as a kid and when my uncle died, they buried him in it. My biggest thrill in baseball was the suit and the suitcase they gave me when I signed."
That fiesty urchin persona plays well here. Oakland has known the true Martin ever since, as a Yankee, he would come back here in winter and get thrown out of industrial basketball leagues for sucker-punching opponents.
"Billy will never change," says an old friend here. "He'll still be 'horning' (sucker punching) people when he's 80."
"You have to remember," says Coleman, "that most of Billy's boyhood friends are in San Quentin."
Martin, to be sure, is far from the place he wants to be -- the manager's office in Yankee Stadium.
There, he had a sumptuous office with a bathroom bigger than his entire bare office here.
There, if he wanted a postgame drink, he had it in a mahogany-paneled lounge with murals of Babe Ruth and photos of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and even a couple of himself.
Here, the lounge looks like an elementary school cafeteria with cinderblock walls and folding chairs and folding tables.
At least in a baseball sense, this is the first tank-town stop on the way back to the big show from which he has been exiled.
On Martin's office wall is a poster that says, "There can be no rainbow without a cloud and a storm."
This is the edge of the continent, the Shangri-La-like paradise of bridges and sunsets where lost souls congregate, looking for one last chance. Two months ago Martin was among them.
Now, Martin has a team in first place, a mother and two sisters in town, two biographies of his life on the stands and a third one on the way. Even his new commercial gives him the last word.
"I take the Pepto-Bismol for my upset stomach, see," grins Martin. "Then I say, "That's good, by George.' Then I realize what I've said and say, 'By George . . . . ugghhh.'
"Then I hold my stomach like I'm really going to get sick.
Martin is happy. His team has just won in the bottom of the ninth, helped by two hunts he has called. His team also has won the fight, and he has KO'd the cleanup man of the foes.
"Bobby Mattick (Toronto manager) says, 'Don't be so sure Martin wasn't trying to hurt Velez,'" Martin is told.
Suddenly, Billy the Kid flares up. "Ask that SOB how many fights he's ever been in.
"Bobby Mattick . . . Bobby Mattick," says Martin, thinking back over the years. "In 1945, Mattick came to see Berkeley play baseball. He signed a kid named Bill VanHewitt.
"But he didn't sign me. He said, 'Kid, you'll never make the majors. You're soo small.'
"So," says Martin, a grudge settled, another slight taken care of, "you see how smart Mattick is."
Billy Martin heads for the door.
He puts on his tinted sunglasses.
"I didn't really mean to hurt Otto," Martin says as he gets on the elevator, though no one asked.
"Now," he says, "I've gotta go fight a plate of spaghetti."