Billyball bombed tonight in Yankee Stadium.
Billy Martin and his Oakland A's brought all their infuriating, semilegal, guerrilla-warfare baseball tactics into Yankee Stadium this evening.
It availed them not. New York won the opening game of the AL championship series, 3-1, on Graig Nettles' three-run double off Mike Norris in the first inning, plus the six-hit pitching of winner Tommy John and saviors Ron Davis and Goose Gossage.
Perhaps any team other than one that had been managed previously by Martin would have been upset by the A's tactics. Some players, you see, are just a mite disturbed by grease balls, scuff balls, knockdown pitches, high-spikes slides, obscene bench jockeying, corked bats, hotdogging and -- tonight's specialty -- stalling to enrage a pitcher.
In fact, the A's stalled the razor-sharp Davis out of the game.
With one on and one out in the eighth, Cliff Johnson wasted eight minutes in one amazingly obnoxious at bat. He made a buffoon of home plate umpire Nick Bremigan and so infuriated Davis that, when play resumed, Davis couldn't come within two feet of the plate.
In the farce, Johnson brought a chipped bat to the plate then -- lo and behold -- discovered his error, and had to meander back to the bat rack. Various petty time-wasting arguments ensued with Bremigan looking as at sea as a substitute schoolmarm in a class full of hellions. The A's knew they could get away with it because Bremigan was equally befuddled by similar ploys Sept. 4 in Baltimore.
Oakland's reward for its characteristic rule-bending was the entrance of Gossage, who got Tony Armas and Mickey Klutts on harmless grounders to second.
"I was ready for Billy's tricks," Gossage said. "I've played for him and I wouldn't put anything past him . . . inside or outside the rules. I spent last night anticipating all those things so that they wouldn't bother me."
Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was furious at Bremigan's inability to curb the A's.
"By (American League President) Lee MacPhail's own admission to me, two of the lowest rated umpires in the league are working in this game," Steinbrenner said. "Why don't we have the best umpires here? Why have a rotation basis system where the worst have an equal chance to get here? Did I bring up five guys from Columbus (AAA) and put them in here just so they 'have a chance to be in the playoffs?'
"MacPhail should bear the full brunt of this fiasco. I don't blame Billy for pulling this stuff. I blame the umpires for letting him get away with it."
"I thought Bremigan did a wonderful job," Martin said.
So did Bremigan. "You had to get the idea that Johnson was stalling . . . I've seen them do that in Baltimore," Bremigan said. "But an umpire's hands are tied. We're pawns. The only thing we can do is, if the hitter refuses to bat, instruct the pitcher to pitch and then call that pitch. But Johnson never refused. He just dawdled and argued."
"The solution," Steinbrenner said, for once probably correct on a semitechnical baseball point, "was to let Davis throw one pitch and call it a strike. That would put an end to it once and for all."
Until this richly weird scene -- with Davis kayoed by a batter who wouldn't bat -- this was a quiet, unassuming little playoff game.
The loudest fireworks before the eighth were set off in the right-field upper deck in the seventh inning by persons unknown, who were ingenious enough not only to sneak full-fledged skyrockets into park, but to set off a dozen of the rascals, lighting the air far above the park. A bad precedent, perhaps, but certainly novel.
The only other event worthy of a yellow tabloid headline was a bleacherite's spectacularly accurate throw with a baseball that hit Oakland right fielder Armas squarely in the back. Again, a bad precedent, but unusual.
The packed house of 55,740 in Yankee Stadium on this pleasant 53-degree night gave Martin a standing ovation before the game; the Yankees greeted him in a manner of their own: with three game-deciding runs in the first.
A's starter and loser Norris has a reputation for being excitable and occasionally rattlebrained. The day of the All-Star game in Cleveland, Norris got a speeding ticket, a parking ticket and missed a plane flight. This evening, he had the first-inning jitters bad.
With one out, Larry Milbourne singled to right and Dave Winfield walked. Reggie Jackson then banged a hard grounder a yard to second baseman Dave McKay's left.
A baseball team's weakness will always reveal itself, sooner or later. But the A's could never has guessed that theirs would be exposed in the very first inning. Oakland has the best outfield in baseball, but also the worst infield. Jackson's hopper was no easy double-play ball; it was, however, exactly the sort of play that separates the quality double play combinations from the rest.
McKay and shortstop Rob Picciolo turned the play adequately; which is to say, not well enough. Jackson beat the relay to first base by one to two feet -- a millisecond margin -- to keep the inning alive.
After Jackson stole and dangerous Oscar Gamble walked, Nettles arrived, dragging his .194 career postseason average, and his one-for-17 slump against Milwaukee behind him like a albatross.
When Norris got ahead 0-2, Nettles looked dead again. But the smart 37-year-old played a guessing game, looking for a screwball away to poke to the opposite field. He got it, splitting the swift Oakland outfield for a double up the left field alley with Gamble scoring all the way from first with a shoulder-into-the-catcher slide into home as Nettles stood on second and cheered.
"I don't hit to left much; that's just a trick stroke that Billy taught me years ago," needled Nettles.
Asked how it felt to get the game-winning hit, yet not be the day's big story, Nettles deadpanned: "Why aren't I?"
Also a bit neglected in the Billyball shuffle was John, the man whom Martin had said the A's were so certain to beat that the Yankees should "pray for rain." John struggled through six tough innings, thanks to his sinker ball getting grounders in every crisis. He left, claiming a minor twisted ankle.
"Billy said it was a break for Oakland that I was pitching because I wasn't one of our best pitchers," said John, coyly. "Gee, if they haven't seen our best guys yet, then I guess they must be in a little bit of trouble, huh?"
Yes, indeed. Perhaps it takes first-hand knowledge of Billyball to know how to beat it. This evening, the A's tried to play their version of baseball by aggravation and winning through intimidation. To their chagrin, they discovered that while Martin may have invented the genre, he forgot to take out a patent.