The name of the game tonight was Billystall. As usual, it caused as much furor off the field as on. And, yes, the other antagonist was George Steinbrenner, who brought the troublesome issue of umpire competency in playoff games into sharp focus.
Loudly. Forcefully. Logically.
In the Oakland dugout less than an hour before Game 1 of the American League finals, Billy Martin all but predicted the fuss, not exactly what would take place but that he would find a way to disrupt the Yankee relief corps.
"The whole secret," Martin said, "is if we score early. We'll try to hop on top right away, get runs as soon as possible. Either that or try to get them to use their pen up in two games."
Plan A failed when the Yankees' Graig Nettles slammed a three-run double in the first; plan B worked in the eighth inning. Sort of. Martin probably left Yankee Stadium with less of an ugly feeling a 3-1 loss usually leaves.
"Does this sort of thing belong in a championship series?" Steinbrenner belched.
His answer: yes, if the spike had been on his foot rather than Martin's.
"Brinksmanship of the first order," he said. "He's a smart little son of a gun."
Presumably, Martin had Cliff Johnson try to disrupt the Yanks into using both Ron Davis and Goose Gossage in the eighth inning, try to work timid Nick Bremigan into the degree of confusion the A's could thrive on.
Johnson did the batting equivalent of a filabuster. He pawed the ground outside the batter's box; he even convinced Bremigan his bat was chipped and needed replacing. And it's a long, long way to the dugout. While Johnson pulled Bremigan's chain, Steinbrenner exploded.
"How do you justify playing the American League championship without the best (umpires)?" he fumed. "This thing has gone too far. The officiating needs to be part of the commissioner's office and out of the league offices. In the pressure playoffs, the guys at the bottom are not gonna make the calls."
Steinbrenner would not call Bremigan incompetent; he let the umpire's actions do that. This was the same man who let a September game in Baltimore against Oakland get out of hand with the same lack of courage, the gumption to tell one of Martin's stallers to get in the box and hit or order the pitcher to throw and call whatever arrives near the plate a strike.
Steinbrenner had an analogy to the present system of rotation for umpires working the league championship and World Series, a system that by definition fails to allow the best umpires to work the most important games.
"What I should do," Steinbrenner, being deliciously severe and telling, "is bring up 20 guys from Columbus (the Yanks' top farm system) and say: 'You haven't had a chance all year. Here's one. You get up to bat.' Or I reach down to Nashville, pick somebody up and say: 'You bat in this championship. (Bob) Watson's had the fun.'
"What a bunch of crap."
In fairness, we'll call Bremigan to the stand, let him give his side.
Yes, he said, Cliff Johnson probably did arrive at the plate, with Dwayne Murphy on first and one out, with the intent "to delay the game. But I can't prove it. And Davis probably took the bait and got distracted."
But Johnson never REFUSED to step into the batter's box. That is Bremigan's point.
The bat, Bremigan said, was in fact chipped, and he walked along with Johnson to the dugout to get another to hurry him along. "I can't make him move faster," the ump said.
Bremigan added: "I would like to see the rules changed and see the umpires have the power to hurry batters. I think umpires should be allowed to let the pitcher pitch and call the pitches strikes if he suspects the batter is deliberately delaying.
"Now, the rule says the umpire can do that only if the batter REFUSES. In the case of Johnson, he never refused to get into the batter's box and was moving toward the box."
Nick, it says in the rules the batter shall take his position in the box "promptly." It's the ump's job to enforce that, shoo him in there. Otherwise, a Martin will force the farce that happened tonight. Davis blew his cool, after striking out three of the first four A's he faced, and Gossage had to come on and tax his arm on four batters.
Why wasn't I allowed to warm up during the delay? Davis wanted to know.
"Davis had every opportunity to throw as many warm-up pitches as he wanted to when I was at the bat rack with Johnson," Bremigan said. "I was not at home plate, and couldn't stop him. And wouldn't have, even if I was at the plate then."
And Martin's opinion of the umpiring?
"I thought they did a wonderful job."
Except for what they did not do when somebody from the stands threw a baseball that hit right fielder Tony Armas in the back.
"In Oakland, when a fan threw beer on Willie Wilson in left field," Martin said, "I made an announcement to the effect that we didn't appreciate it. When I did the same thing tonight, he refused, because he said the fans would only get worse if he had the announcement made."
Bremigan agreed that was his judgment.
For once, he was right.