When Butch Wynegar's parents learned two weeks ago that their son had been traded by the last-place Minnesota Twins to the American League-champion New York Yankees, their reactions were completely opposite.
Wynegar related that his mother, concerned for her son's virtue, told him: "Oh, Butch, you're not going to have to go to that animal farm, are you?"
Wynegar's father, concerned for the state of his son's baseball career, was overjoyed, bursting out: "You'll be awesome in pin stripes."
Just a month before, when Roy Smalley was dealt from the terrible Twins to the mighty Yankees, his uncle, Gene Mauch--the dean of big-league managers--felt a similar anxiety and ambivalence.
"I didn't say anything about it until I'd talked to Roy," Mauch said. "I was going to feel about it exactly the way he felt. He said, 'When you get right down to it, what's wrong with putting on the pin stripes?' That stumped me for an answer."
Historically, there has been no greater good fortune in baseball than, in the bloom of midcareer, to be traded from the worst team in the sport to a rich, high-paying club that has been in four of the last six World Series. It's a blessed fate, a career reprieve, almost beyond fantasy.
When the team in question is also the Yankees--arguably the most famous athletic assemblage in the history of the planet--then such a trade should be the happiest professional news of a player's life. The potential for fame, wealth, a place in history, postcareer employment, not to mention the benefits to performance of being surrounded by excellent players, is almost incalculable.
To be a Yankee is--in the words printed on the T-shirt that Goose Gossage wears under his uniform--"Almost an Unfair Advantage."
Yet, it is a fact--perhaps, in the long view, the strangest fact in baseball today--that major leaguers are not sure the price of being a Yankee is worth the cost in potential humiliation and lost dignity.
Both Rod Carew and John Denny, in their free-agent years, said flatly that they would not play for owner George Steinbrenner at any price. "I can't be bought," said Carew. On his return to New York this year as a California Angel, Reggie Jackson said: "I didn't want to prostitute myself to come back here. I didn't want to bow down to the guy."
To be a Yankee in the '80s is a badge of pride, as it traditionally has been, but also a mark of something akin to shame. Throughout their profession, players who sign or re-sign with Steinbrenner's Yankees are seen to have made a difficult moral choice. They have sold more than their baseball services; they have given up a piece of themselves.
"Here, aggravations come with the adulations," said captain Graig Nettles succinctly. "They shouldn't have to, but they do."
Yankees know, from nine years of history, that any flaw in their play, or even in their utterances, may leave them open from Steinbrenner to public chastisement, direct insult in front of their teammates, benching or a trade to the nether world of the second division. Few of the normal, century-old civilities of the sport apply to the Yankees.
All spring, ever since they were summoned to a punitive early season training because of their October sins, the Yankees have been grumbling seditiously.
"Everybody's ticked off here," said Oscar Gamble to the New York press. "Ernie Banks is the only person who would be happy to be on this team."
"What you're going to see here soon is major-league burnout," said courtly Tommy John to the same writers, referring to a morning workout after a night defeat.
"Pretty soon, they'll have us sleeping in the seats after games," said Goose Gossage, snarling.
"Billy Martin was right when he told me that George will pat you on the back one day and the next day he'll kick you in the . . . " said Dave Revering, who was traded days later--to the Toronto Blue Jays.
When fans chanted an obscenity at Steinbrenner, losing Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry said: "That was the only fun I had all night."
"When the going gets tough, George gets out of town," said Dave Winfield, whose charitable foundation is suing Steinbrenner for $2.8 million.
The moods of veteran Yankees change with the twists of the team soap opera.
"I'm probably the wrong person to ask about what it's like to be a Yankee; I usually have peace of mind," said Guidry in a recent interview with The Washington Post. "The controversies tend to stay away from me. You build up an immunity, a resistance to it. You just don't let it affect you.
"I'm afraid there's no place that I'd go where I would pitch the same as here. I might not try as hard," added Guidry, the solitary Cajun with the 86-28 record since August of '77 who was a free agent last winter. "I've had success here where it counts the most . . . Players sometimes seem to grow or shrink when they change uniform. My success, it's a little bit me and a little bit them. I'm not playin' ball with the city or with George. I'm playin' with these guys."
"It's a real honor to play in this uniform," said Rudy May, echoing many Yankees. "It's the only one that hasn't changed over the years; just the material's a little different than when Ruth and DiMaggio played. I got in some trouble over the winter because I rejected a trade to Kansas City. I didn't want to be no Kansas City Royal.
"Here, you always know the man (Steinbrenner) is going to put the best team out there he can. Look at the injuries we've got, and we aren't that bad right now. Wait until we get healthy, put the hammer down and pull out into the fast lane . . . But, let me tell you," concluded May, "it's tough playing here, tough living here and tough playin' for George."
Contrary to popular belief, recent Yankee teams have had good-to-excellent morale. The reason is elementary, but often overlooked. All veteran players of proven quality tend to form an unspoken baseball fraternity; the stars of one team often hobnob more easily with the stars of a rival team than they do with their own second-stringers. Despite all their personnel changes, the Yankees remain a veteran all-star team with interchangeable parts.
"Sometimes, I look around at all the names on this team and I feel just like I did at my first all-star game--like I don't belong and I wish they'd just give me a locker hidden away in a corner," said, of all people, Gossage.
"It doesn't take much to get used to someone who's had success," said Nettles.
As a result, Guidry said, "We never let the controversies in here get to us on the outside. It changes at that door (to the field)."
"This year, it's been tougher because there have been so many changes. For the first time, we've had a lot of unrest inside the clubhouse," Gossage said. "It's been unsettling. This is a first-class place; they take care of you. But, if you don't produce, you're gone in a hurry. George is impulsive. A lot of players say, 'I don't want to be subjected to that,' but I'd say that you still have control over your own destiny here."
Perhaps Nettles, the captain, has the clearest sense of the odd Yankee mixture of personal determination and manipulation from above.
"Overall, playing here is fun," he said. "You get the recognition of being part of the most popular team in the world. You're a celebrity in New York City. But it sure would be a lot more fun without all the controversies. Half of 'em are entirely made up by the front office. The press here is glad to go along, but, if it took more to get those back-page headlines, I think they'd do more. Unfortunately for the players, we have to put up with that type mentality.
"The team nucleus is still here--(Willie) Randolph, (Bucky) Dent, (Lou) Piniella, Gossage, John, myself. But once you get rid of those last half-dozen or so of us who understand what winning is all about, they may be in trouble around here . . . Years from now, I'll think back on a lot of good times with great ballplayers, and, also, on a lot of undue, unwarranted aggravations that were caused by George."
Were all the regularly scheduled brouhahas of the last five years an inevitable part of the chemistry of the Martin-Jackson-Steinbrenner era?
"It was never really that," said Nettles.
Then it was deliberately fomented by Steinbrenner?
"He's the producer of this play."
Told of Nettles' evaluation that he orchestrates, or, at the least doesn't discourage attention-grabbing controversies, Steinbrenner said: "I don't like the comparisons of this team to a zoo or a circus. But it's also true that it's no longer enough just to play the game and ignore everything else. You can't pay a man $500,000 (Nettles' salary) on the basis of that alone. We need to hold the public's interest."
New Yankees view their future with both a piquant blend of innocence and concern over the imminent loss of that innocence.
"It's a wonder anybody ever heard of me, playing in Minnesota," said Wynegar, who sides firmly with his father regarding his being a Yankee. "Now, I'll be respected for the talents I do have. With good players around you, you don't feel the same burdens, so you play better. In Minnesota, I dreaded coming to the park.
"The first night here, I had to go to the mirror and look at the Yankee uniform. Even the (road) gray looked great. It was a thrill. That night, I went 0 for four, but I got to catch Gossage. I was in heaven."
For Wynegar, Smalley and several other new Yankees, these are the best days.
"I have not even seen Mr. Steinbrenner yet," said Wynegar.
"Neither have I," said Smalley, "although, when I started off one for 30, I expected to hear from him anytime."
For the Yankees, baseball is never just the game they learned to love as children, then master as adults. It is an emotional battleground in which they suddenly go from hot to cold. As Gossage puts it, when you're a Yankee, "It can be chile tonight and hot tamale." Friday: The Play Never Closes