It is difficult to decide how to view the current anxiety of the stumbling New York Yankees: with sympathy for their classy players or with amusement and some malicious relish toward their tacky brass.
On the field, the Yanks are as stylish and impeccably professional as their historic pin stripes. But in their corporate suite the Yankees, with their consistent gaucherie, have become synonymous with a sort of slapstick bush league chic -- the marriage of high wealth and low taste.
Friday night came the latest Yankee pie in our face.
Here is a team whose nine most prominent players are nothing other than blatant cash grabs: free agents Tommy John, Luis Tiant, Rudy May, Rich Gossage, Reggie Jackson and Bob Watson, plus bought-for-bucks Eric Soderholm, Bobby Murcer and Jim Spencer.
Yet, when the Yankees lost, 5-2, here Friday night to Baltimore -- a team with only one modestly priced acquisition, Steve Stone, in its whole organization -- the New York bosses bleated "foul" with a groundless broadside at an innocent umpire.
"Baseball men who saw the play told me the ball was clearly caught," said owner George Steinbrenner, referring to Murcer's trap of a bloop hit by Doug DeCinces, in a mimeographed statement released minutes after the game. Even the New York Post, which exists for gentle headlines like "Baby Eaten by Police Dog as Crowd Laughs," took public umbrage at this sour grapes alibi.
"(Umpire Durwood) Merrill made his call while hustling toward the play," said the Post. "Steinbrenner made his statement from his Tampa home, 1,400 miles away."
If anything, TV replays showed that the call was eyelash-close, debatable even in slow motion, and that Merrill had raced out so quickly that he was practically on top of Murcer.
It is ironic that Steinbrenner should have sought the opinion of "baseball men," since, despite two world championships, it is still moot whether he himself is in that catagory.
In all his baseball dealings, Steinbrenner has shown the strengths of a brilliant but heavy-handed businessman while demonstrating few of the redeeming graces of the sportsman. Typically, his decisions on policy have been intelligently calculated. But his dealing with people like blasting Merrill have been calloused and counterproductive.
In fact the Yankees' biggest enemy as they try not to get the heebie-jeebies with their lead shrunk from 11 games to 3 1/2, may be their peripatetic and impatient owner.
When these Yankees and Orioles meet, two strong formative personalities are always lurking just out of sight but never out of mind. Steinbrenner, who has built the Yankees with dollars, and Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver, who has built with decades of baseball judgement. Both are putting their handiwork and their 2 cents worth on display during this eight-game war.
The Yankees are constructed of talent, bluster and intimidation. The Orioles are woven of pitching, patience and strategic sleights of hand.
Steinbrenner's exhibit A -- his plum, his illustration of you get what you pay for -- is Reggie Jackson, superstar.
Here Friday, Jackson showed how for better or for worse, he indisputably has taken over the leading Yankee role.
He's been given all the rope a man could imagine, and, thus far, he has been hanging the rest of the league with it.
"Us get caught?" Jackson said, incredulously, in a mood of almost euphoric self-confidence. "Do we look like the Red Sox to you? No way. People would be talking about me the rest of my life if I let that happen.
"When you're the top gun, or however you want to phrase it, you've got to act like it . . . the way Muhammad Ali says, 'I am the greatest,' You know he's kidding. And you also know he isn't kidding."
So how about some impromptu Ali poetry, Jackson was needled.
"Let's see," Jackson said, in the mood for any lighthearted challenge, as he paced beside his locker in the throes of composition.
"The Orioles came to the Bronx in Reggie's town -- 161st and River," Jackson said slowly, trying to make the jump from the familiar ground of dugout metaphor to rhyme. "They were trying to run the Yankees down . . ."
Then, the muse left Jackson's shoulder, a classic case of writer's block. Hmm, what goes with river'", Jackson muttered with sheepish good humor.
"You're a line short," Jackson was teased.
With that, the laughing Jackson ran out of the Yankee clubhouse, cleats clattering, fleeing from a couplet as he never would a curve ball.
While Jackson and Steinbrenner typify the way the Yankees face a problem with a blunt home run, a bushel of money (like buying Aurelio Rodriguez this week), or tirade, Weaver epitomizes the sly way the Orioles sidle up to a task.
Weaver has been busy here, planting his seeds of doubt, which he hopes will grow into oaks of Yankee worry.
"Sweep?" Weaver snapped when asked if the Orioles need to do spectacularly well head to head against New York. "If we just split the eight games, I think we'll have a helluva shot at winning it all.
"I know damn good and well that we'll play at least .600 the rest of the way against the schedule we've got. And if we don't play close to .700 from here on in, I'll be one surprised S.O.B."
That is called turning the screws tighter.
"The Yankees know that playing .500 from here on isn't what it's about," Weaver said. "Maybe not even .600. These are two good teams that are going to win a lot of games."
Weaver pretends to be unable to count to 10 even with the help of his fingers, but nobody is better at playing the speculative numbers game -- just so the implication of those statistics is that the pressure and weight of expectation are on the opponent.
This is the man, hopelessly behind two years ago in September, who said, "The Yankees have to keep playing well because if we win our last 15 games . . ."
Weaver's dance of the veils never ends. A fellow of the simplest and soundest fundamental baseball ideas, he insists on surrounding himself with the mystique of temper, or exotic strategy or unpredictability.
His latest fillip is to pretend that, although he and the Orioles have agreed to money terms for his contract in 1981 and '81, he is encountering grave difficulty in the wording of this as yet unsigned document. Something, he says, about "huaranteed death benefits if somebody walks up to my car and shoots me like they did Lyman Bostock."
Weaver would set his own hair on fire if he thought it would keep him from being taken for granted.
For the moment, the whole Yankee team is glancing over its shoulder at this curious aggregation of Ayalas, Crowleys, Lowensteins and Sakatas that is gaining on it like a .700 freight train.
Just three weeks ago, New Yorkers were discussing the pitching match-ups for their AL playoffs against Kansas City. The poor, bedraggled Birds -- the flukes of '79 -- were forgotten.
Now, suddenly, Weaver and his troops have the mighty Yankees mystified and thrashing about.