Somewhere in the brawl that passes for his life, Billy Martin's one shining skill -- his ability to manage a baseball team -- gets lost in the shuffle.
Between his hard drinking and his sucker punches, between his firings and his fibs, between his pleas for public sympathy and his attacks on his enemies, the part of Martin that is of true value gets overlooked. Instead of seeing what is right with Billy, we are distracted by all his fascinating foibles.
For once, in this hour when the Oakland A's manager has set another record -- most consecutive victories to begin a season, 11 -- let's forget the fallible man, who's hard to swallow, and look only at the manager, who brilliantly melds baseball analysis and intuition.
Ever since he arrived a dozen seasons ago -- winning a division flag as a rookie, then getting fired in the offseason -- the notion has taken shape that it was almost an indictment of baseball that Martin could be so good at it.
Baseball would like to see itself as a stage on which the pure of heart are rewarded, while the folks who still have a few rough edges don't fare quite so well. Since Martin may hold the record for rough edges, his invariable success in making bad teams good and good teams great has been preplexing to innocent moralists who have wandered unawares into sport.
Mae West, asked about her legendary "good luck," said, "Goodness had nothin' to do with it."
That's the way with Martin.
The hallmark of his managing is not judiciousness, since he never has demonstrated any; no manager ever has been so willfully self-destructive. Nor is Martin's strength in administering managerial justice to his players; his clubhouse methods always have been autocratic and harsh. Martin is not a handler of men; he has his hands full handling himself.
On the contrary, Martin's genius is confined to a narrow area: the playing of the game itself; he knows both technicalities and tactics as well, perhaps, as any man ever has.
In Oakland, at present, there's a fad called "Billy Ball," which, supposedly, is the game the A's play: Stolen bases, suicide squeezes, bunt hits, beanball brawls, spitters by the gross, baseball as guerrilla warfare. To see Martin as the purveyor of one narrow slice of the whole game is to do him an injustice. There is no such thing as Billy Ball. There is only baseball. And Martin teaches whatever chapters in that total text serve him best.
"Billy Martin's teams don't have any particular 'style,'" Earl Weaver, manager of the Baltimore Orioles, said yesterday as though deriding such a spurious idea. "that's why he's so good. Look at the teams he's bad in Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, New York and Oakland. The first thing you notice is that no two of them are alike.
"Martin always looks at his talent first, then manages accordingly. He sees what he's got, then he starts filling in the missing parts of the puzzle. It doesn't take him long because he's got such a clear idea of what he's got and what he needs."
In Minnesota, Martin had veteran sluggers, but he won the AL West with a pair of 20-game winners -- Jim Perry and Dave Boswell -- who never showed much for any other manager. Martin employed a three-deep bullpen that worked almost 400 innings. In Detroit, Martin won the AL East with a club of long tooths so slow they stole only 17 bases. In Texas, Martin inherited a gang of children who formerly had been the infant-movement of the Washington Senators and, in one year, went from sixth place (103 losses) to second place. Martin's piece de resistance was the classic Yankee collection of 1976-77 that went to the Series twice with a lineup that loved the hit-and-run, the devilish place hit and the gutty, late-inning rally.
So, compared with his previous masterworks, the A's are a new direction, a sort of demonstration of how much can be accomplished in an environment of neat-total scarcity.
"The A's have four good starting pitchers and three excellent outfielders, and almost nobody else who'd be worth anything in trade," one AL general manager said yesterday. "Seven players are carrying all 25. If you put all their middle-infielders together in a package, I'm not sure you could get one solid player for them."
Most telling is the fact that none of those starting pitchers ever had had a .500 season before Martin arrived. However, Martin saw live, young fast ball arms and knew that his pitching coach, Art Fowler, probably could teach them all some variant of the spitball.
"That most important thing Billy taught them wasn't the spitter," said former Milwaukee manager George Amberger. "He taught them confidence. He left them in games to sink or swim, to get out of their own jams. The more they worked their way out of trouble, the more convinced they were that they could do it again."
Some baseball folk thought that Martin, bereft of a bullpen, merely stuck stubbornly with his starters out of necessity, that he was so determined to win, to prove that he was back and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner be damned, that he didn't care if he sacrificed a whole staff on the altar of his wounded pride.
Maybe yes, maybe no. Now, Martin just looks smart.
"Martin is almost unique in that he never juggles his rotation," said the Oriole general manager, Hank Peters. "Most managers, including Earl (Weaver), will plan ahead, trying to get a certain pitcher in a certain park against a certain team (like Scott McGregor in Detroit).Or else avoid a certain pitcher in a certain spot (like McGregor in Boston).
"The reason Martin can get nine innings from every starter every time out is that they always have at least four full days rest, and sometimes more Martin just says, 'It's your turn to pitch. Go nine innings, even if you give up five or six runs, then rest for five days.' It's a heck of a solution, especially if, like Billy, you have no bullpen, have only right-handed starters and [consequently] don't particularly see any advantage in juggling your rotation to take advantage of special matchups.
"It's typical," Peters said, "of the innovative ways that Martin looks at the particulars of a situation and comes up with a novel solution."
All of baseball is one large interlocking puzzle as 25 men interract with 25 others. At analyzing that puzzle, seeing a fragment and seeing how it fits into the finished picture, nobody is better than Billy Martin.
"No one in baseball, as far as I know, can completely explain all Martin's initial successes," Peters said, "anymore than they can explain why that success has never lasted too long."
These are the days for Martin the manager, driving his long-abused players who want nothing more than a brilliant task-master who will help them gain professional respect and a few bucks in the bargain.
Eventually, when these A's have had their success and digested it, they may have leisure to reflect on what manner of man has taught them more about the technical and psychological complexities of baseball than they ever dreamed existed.
Then, Martin the man will be tested once more.
Those days, however, will come soon enough. Perhaps too soon.
For now, watch these A's while they are in their glory. Few teams so bad ever had had a chance to go so far. The sole and sufficient reason is Billy Martin, the best manager God never made.