Over the years, Willie Randolph has been the most professional Yankee at any position, and as a person none was more respected. He makes all the plays around second base, and it has been a Yankee maxim that you don't pinch-hit for him because he can get his bat on the ball. If there has been a better leadoff man in the American League, he has been hiding during Randolph's seven years in the league.
Again, Randolph is having one of his good years. But the other night in a Yankee loss to Seattle in extra innings, Randolph dropped a throw at second base. It could happen. Baseball experts know that. Also, Randolph popped up trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt. That, too, happens sometimes to the best and the brightest.
But from George Steinbrenner's royal box there was thunder, and the next afternoon, on orders, there was humiliation for Willie Randolph. He was out there for an offday drill, practicing how to lay down bunts. Randolph, the complete pro, was being told to get back into basic training. Were it not so monstrous it would be laughable.
The whole thing was sheer Steinbrenner, who, it was once said, learned his baseball as an assistant football coach at Purdue. The Yankees' owner also singled out five other players for more work in grade school that day. They bore the Steinbrenner imprint as miscreants in the Yankees' defeat the night before. All of them were veterans.
Randolph called the whole experience "degrading." The New York Times reported that first baseman Dave Collins said: "I'd like to get out of here." Shortstop Roy Smalley said: "I don't want to talk." Tommy John, a starter since coming into the major leagues in 1963, has been relegated to the bullpen and wants to be traded.
Steinbrenner didn't come right out and say he was the one who ordered the punishment, but the evidence is heavy against him, as is his reputation as a flip-top clubowner. When Randolph asked Manager Gene Michael why he had been told to go back for the drill session, the Times reported Randolph as saying: "When I asked Michael why I was there, he had to check the list to see if I was on it." It seemed to say that somebody other than Michael was the author of the list.
The heavy hand of Steinbrenner descended on his foundering Yankees again later in the week. He pronounced third baseman Graig Nettles "in the twilight of his career," and said catcher Rick Cerone would begin to platoon with Nettles at third base. This was "no joke," Steinbrenner declared, but there were others who would call it, 1) hilarious; 2) crazy; and 3, preposterous, even for Steinbrenner.
It raises the question of exactly how much managing is left to Michael who, unlike other managers, can never be certain who's on third, what's on first, or is even sure if I dunno is playing second. The lineups Michael submits to the umpires comes directly from on high from the chief occupant of the owner's box.
Nettles, at 38, may have slowed up but there was cruelty when Steinbrenner added: "There comes a point in everybody's life . . . where the body . . . .can't do it anymore." Later Steinbrenner tossed a lame sop Nettles' way: "But I still wouldn't mind having him as my third baseman in the World Series."
It is unlikely that Steinbrenner will have any problem about a World Series third baseman, so completely he loused up the Yankee team that won the pennant last year. He has destroyed the Yankee pin stripes as an image of excellence, not only with his interference in the management, but with his idiotic idea that this year they should be made over as a run-and-steal outfit, a regular go-go Yankee team, a scheme that ill serves their reputation as the traditional powerhouse of baseball, as a team apart.
Steinbrenner's go-go Yankees are now lollygagging in fourth place in the American League East, seven games out of the lead, and generally viewed as hopelessly out of it. As the week ends, the Yankees have hit only 86 home runs all season, and seem to be clinching seventh place in that department. Milwaukee has hit 141. In the runs scored department, look for the Yankees in 11th place, and they can't find a solid cleanup hitter. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson?
Nettles can take some comfort in the memory that Steinbrenner last winter called Jackson over the hill and let him go to the California Angels. All Jackson has done is hit 25 home runs, tying him with Milwaukee's Gorman Thomas for the league lead, for his new team that is leading the American League West.
Steinbrenner's tinkering with the Yankees has been a disservice not only to Yankee fans, but to all baseball. Fans no longer have the team they love to hate. The fact is that the Yankees, on paper, are as unexciting as they are on the ballfield. Their lineup is as uninspiring as Steinbrenner's latest idea.
These 1982 Yankees are Steinbrenner's creation. He let Jackson go in the mistaken belief that Jackson's value to a team was ended. He signed Collins for $800,000 a year in the belief the Yankees' first base problems would be solved, and he has been looking for a solid first baseman ever since. He took Smalley's big contract from the Twins, and is now dissatisfied with Smalley at shortstop.
George III recently poured it on his most expensive player, Dave Winfield, by saying: "Winfield is no superstar. He can't carry a team." Winfield has been on a batting spree ever since, and has carried the Yankees as far as any player could carry that misbegotten outfit.
If the Yankees of his creation are not working out for him, there is an old adage somewhere that offers explanation, if not comfort, for Steinbrenner. It says, in the simple language of adages, that man reaps the harvest of his (heavy) hand.