Everything was peaceful here this morning, just as it has been for a dozen days. The smell of fresh-cut infield grass hovered over the Yankee diamond; a mild breeze, just strong enough to make the flag salute, brought a crispness to the rituals of spring training.
"Everything's been a pleasure, so far," said grinning third-string catcher Johnny Oates. "Of course, our new manager hasn't had to manage yet. The guys who'll need some handling haven't arrived yet.
"And," concluded Oats with a laugh, "the boss hasn't come down."
Gene Michael, tht new manager, sat alone in the Yankee dugout. He could have been any skipper sitting in any dugout for the last century. "I've just gone from three-piece pin stripes to doubleknit pin stripes, that's all," says Michael, the general manager last year. The man called Stick has had no adjustment to make here. Always self-deprecating during 11 modest seasons, he enjoys the stories told against him here.
His favorite is of the time that Whitey Ford managed to affix a small, live frog to the inside of the cup of Michael's athletic supporter. As the Yanks sat in a meeting, everyone knew about the frog, except the slimy creature-loathing Michaels, who had not noticed the tiny, terrified animal.
Graig Nettles picked up a bat and, handle first, tapped Machael on the cup. Gradually, Michael sensed the presence of his new friend. Suddenly, with a scream, he set a world record for the sitting high jump. The Yankees delightedly point out the light fixture, 12 feet in the air, on which they vow that Michael hit his head as he disrobed in midair.
That's been the tone of this spring training, the familiar atmosphere of low pressure and high jinks, slow pace and no tension.
That is, until today.
"The man is here," said Yogi Berra, walking past Michael.
"Which man?" asked Michael.
"Which man do you think?" retorted Berra.
"You mean George is in the clubhouse? Michael asked, in the same voice you might use to say, "You mean the Visigoths are in my backyard?"
Steinbrenner entered the dugout. In tow, he had Lee Iacocca, chairman of the Chrysler Corp. Steinbrenner wore him like a charm on a bracelet.
"What do you think?" Michael called out to Steinbrenner.
"I think you're doing a horsefeathers job already," boomed Steinbrenner, in approximately those words. "Here . . . Lee Iacocca meet Gene Michael, my manager."
Michael shook hands, then assumed a discreet position a few feet away, in case either Steinbrenner or Iacocca might want to know some vital information, like Jim Spencer's weight ("He's 206, George, Lightest ever.")
As soon as Steinbrenner plopped his canary yellow pants on the dugout bench, the old traditional baseball world was, once again, stood on its head. All those controversies that are synonymous with this new baseball era, and taht are epitomized by Steinbrenner, leaned to the fore. Like a machine gun, he rat-a-tat-tatted at his favorite subjects, creating a small eddy of temporal news on every topic he touched.
To warm up, he acknowledged for the first time that his 1980 manager, Dick Howser, did not "resign" as advertised, but was fired. "I should have said, 'Dick, you're fired,' just like everybody else does it," said Steinbrenner. "Instead, I tried to let him get all his business deals lined up, let him resign with dignity. Next time, I'll just say, 'You're fired.'"
"Now he tells me," moaned Michael. "You're not going to start that policy right away, are you?"
Every Yankee here knows the real reason Howser accepted the humiliation of being muscled into resignation after winning 103 games. The quid pro quo for his silence and acquiescence was that Steinbrenner not fire his coaches. Howser couldn't save himself, but he held the gun of bad public relations on Steinbrenner and saved the jobs of his friends.
Getting some heat on his fast ball, Steinbrenner next flipped Reggie Jackson, the slugger he met for two hours yesterday to talk contract. Jackson left the meeting crowing that Steinbrenner had offered him a lifetime deal that included a postbaseball position with Steinbrenner's ship-building company.
"Somebody has misinterpreted something," said Steinbrenner. "No one has invited Reggie into my business. I said that I would like him to be a permanent part of Yankee tradition. Let's not talk any more about that subject," growled Steinbrenner, thereby ensuring that 10,000 more words will not be written about it in New York.
After a salvo at the Orioles ("They should be the favorites this year. They've got the pitching"), Steinbrenner settled in for some serious badmouthing.
"So many things make me mad," he said. "I see (Detroit's) Steve Kemp was awarded $600,000 at arbitration. We can't keep having these arbitrators who work in the garment district come in and decide baseball salaries. They have no idea what they're doing. Whoever negotiated our current arbitration setup with the players did a lousy job.
"That's why losing arbitration to (Rick) Cerone irritated me. I said to (GM) Cedric Tallis, 'That's the first ungrateful player who ever took me to arbitration.' And Cedric said, "Well, maybe the second." I looked around the room and Michael was about to slink down out of his chair. I'd forgotten that my own manager was the only other player who'd ever taken me to arbitration (in 1974 -- $64,000 versus $56,000)9 Luckily for Gene, he lost." a
"I've always said that we were overmatched against (union boss) Marvin Miller," continued Steinbrenner. "Maseball sent in its general managers -- its 'baseball men' -- to go head to head with a trained labor and business man. iIt wasn't the owners who gave the game of baseball away. It was the GMs. They were lambs that Miller led to the slaughter. Now, the owners have to get more involved and get some of it back.
"But, today you've got to be a mircle worker to get back anything from a union. You've got to prove you'll go out of business tomorrow if the workers don't accept cutbacks. And who's the man in American history who's unique for doing that?" quizzed Steinbrenner.
"Iacocca," he said with a thumb jerk at his buddy.
"This year (the labor war) is going to be different," vowed Steinbrenner, who, along with Houston's John McMullen and Baltimore's Edward Bennett Willaims, led the internal owners revolt last May tht averted a strike by adopting a soft line. "If it takes a strike that wipes out the whole season, then that's what it'll be. If they're looking for the Yankees to bolt they better look somewhere else."
It had been a long, silent winter, the Yankee Caesar was chock full of words for everyone. To Cerone, whom he called an ingrate a week ago, he yelled, "Hello, Brutus," adopting the needling nickname the Yankees have given him.
Only one Yankee had the power to silence the Man.
"How do you feel?" hollered Steinbrenner to Ruppert Jones.
"Like a million dollars," answered the center fielder.
"Good to hear it," beamed Steinbrenner until the words sank home.
"Oh, God," he muttered. "Not him, too."