All spring, Billy Martin has been baseball's man on a white horse. So, tonight, he could afford to wear his black hat into Yankee Stadium.
Martin not only donned his black gunfighter's cowboy hat with the silver feathers but adopted a gunslinger's mood as well as he swaggered into the stadium where he has known his greatest baseball triumphs and his bleakest depressions and defeats.
It wasn't one of Martin's darkest hours, but as a postscript to the personal drama, Ron Guidry and Rich Gossage combined on a six-hitter as the Yankes beat Oakland, 4-1.
With his Oakland A's in first place by six games, Martin was on the prowl for targets; it didn't take him long to find one: Dave Winfield, the $25 million free agent who is George Steinbrenner's current mercenary pride.
When the telephone rang in Martin's office two hours before game time, the A's skipper answered it with a snap: "Want to borrow some money, George?
"You know, Steinbrenner spent too much money on Winfield," continued Martin."He's not worth that much. Winfield couldn't make my starting outfield. He's lucky he's where he's at (in pin stripes). I'm not kiddin'. I'm dead serious."
From this, one might surmise Winfield is in a slump. On the contrary, Winfield is hitting .350. The last time the A's and Yanks met in Oakland nine days ago, Winfield got an opposite-field bloop hit to beat Martin. This incited Martin to say, "Winfield swings the softest bat of anybody 6-foot-8 that I even heard of."
Winfield countered, as Martin surely hoped he would, by saying, "Well, Martin ought to know about soft bats. He was a Punch 'n Judy his whole career."
Martin bided his time, then struck full force tonight.
"I gotta confess that (game-winning hit) was my fault," said Martin. "I positioned my men as if Winfield was a major league hitter. Tonight, I'm going to use my Little League shift against him. I'm going to put all three of my outfielders in shallow right field where all Winfield's little junk hits fall.
This is a case of Martin at his best, going the psychological jugular. Winfield, who can run, hit, throw and field, has only one conspicuous weakness. He's averaged 22 homers a year, and, in mammoth Yankee Stadium, figures to have a hard time hitting more than that this year. Martin's stir-up-the-trouble message is clear: if Reggie Jackson can hit 40 homers a year, then why should he make less than half as much salary as Winfield?
This evening Martin seemed determined to prove that he could foment as much trouble in the Yankee clubhouse how as he could when he hung his hat there.
"Everybody's making excuses for Winfield because left field is deep here (in Death Valley)," agitated Martin. "Well, tell him that I hit eight homers here to right field in one season, which tied the record for a right-handed hitter held by Joe DiMaggio. Does that sound like a Punch 'n Judy? Tell him I hit 15 homers that season and two more in the Series. See if he hits that many.
"Last time I looked, I think I was fifth on the all-time World Series home run list," continued Martin. "How many home runs has Winfield hit in the Series? Tell Winfield he's not in the National League anymore. He's in the major leagues now."
After setting what may be a record for placing burrs under the saddle of a supposed superstar -- all of it totally unprovoked and initiated by Martin -- Billy the Kid smiled cheerfully and aid, "Let me say for the record that I have nothing personal against Dave Winfield. I talked to his college coach once and he told me he was a wonderful person."
Before this game, Martin stood at home plate and doffed his cap to all quadrants of the park for a full minute as he got his customary welcome home ovation. However, Martin's moment of showmanship came in the first inning as Winfield came to the plate. With Winfield facing him not 50 feet away, Martin stood on the top step and motioned wildly for his outfield to come in closer.
The didn't, but the point was made. Look, New York, your $25 million giant is a Punch 'n Judy.
"Billy Martin doesn't really know me," said Winfield before the game, sounding like a sincere fellow who might be easily hurt. "He's never seen me play. So how valid can his remarks be? Everybody's trying to make this season into a combat between Reggie and me. It's not like that. We have different skills. No right-handed hitter has even hit 40 homers in this park and I won't be the first. I have to show my multiple skills, not one skill."
To all this, Reggie Jackson sitting quietly in his corner, smiled knowingly.
"Billy's a lot smarter than people think," said Jackson. "You don't see Billy jiving with me or with Willie Randolph, 'cause we're hittin' in the .190s and playin' like dogs. He wants us to stay just like we are. Billy's gonna mess with the mind of the one guy on this team who's hitting .350, 'cause he knows the dude can't get any hotter. He can only cool off. And Billy'd like to help him cool off."
However, the Martin-Winfield spat took an elegant and revealing turn this evening when Winfield, in the eighth inning, blasted a double off the base of the left field wall at the 430-foot sign to drive in the final run of the Yankee victory.
How would Martin react to being one-upped? Would he show the good grace and broad judgment of a man whose team was still 24-8?
Those who know Martin knew the answer in advance. Of all Martin's invariable traits, the most absolute is his inability to accept personal responsibility for a loss. His team may lose, but it is never his fault. Not once in a thousand games.
"Winfield hit it good, no question," said Martin. "But what it proves is that we should never have thrown him a 3-2 fast ball down the middle when first base was open and the man behind him (Jackson) isn't hitting at all. What it proved is that we must not be thinking too well."
In other words, it's the fault of young catcher Mike Heath for not calling the proper Billy Ball pitch. Or is that Bully Ball?
Martin is in his glory now, returning to New York in such a state of popularity -- his picture on the cover of Time -- that Steinbrenner stayed away from this game, remaining in Tampa on "business," probably because he did not want a public show-down of Stadium applause with Martin.
"If I felt any better, I'd get arrested," said Martin. "I donht know if I'm having more fun that I ever did, but I'm more relaxed. I'm working with people (owners) who appreciate what I do and aren't trying to use what I say and do to hurt me.
"You know, my general manager really like me, for once," said Martin who, of course, is also the A's general manager. "We're talking about giving me a raise. I figure I'll catch him in a weak moment."
Nobody is catching Billy Martin in a weak moment these days. For now, Martin plays the part of that charming guy on the bar stool in the beer ad who says, "I didn't punch that doggie."
"You have to forget the past," said Martin tonight. "I can't tell my players tonight, 'Okay, men, this is the big one. Go get 'em for the old skipper. Settle a score for me.'
"Then what would I do when we played Detroit or Minnesota or Texas?" said Martin, listing other towns where he was fired.
"If I tried to do that, I'd have one helluva vendetta going, wouldn't I?"
And Billy Martin give the smile of a man who wouldn't harm a soul, would never carry a grudge.
Remember, this is a man on a white horse.
Pretend you don't see that black gunfighter's brim on that hat rack in the corner.