George Steinbrenner, who has twice hired and twice fired Billy Martin as manager of the New York Yankees, was asked yesterday whether he wants to take Martin back a third time.
"You've got to want Billy," Steinbrenner said of Martin, who was fired Wednesday as manager of the Oakland A's. "Whether we get together or not is another thing. But he's a New York guy. He's a Yankee. All those things augur well. But I just don't know. I can't really say."
Steinbrenner said, "My problems and Billy's problems are nothing that can't be surmounted. We've gotten closer in the last two or three years. I'm not saying I'm definitely going to go after him, but you have to rate him as one of the best."
Martin was fired for the sixth time in his managerial career Wednesday, 1 1/2 years after making Billy Ball the rage of Oakland; two weeks after finishing 25 games out of first place. By the end of the season, the A's had given the Yankees and the Cleveland Indians permission to talk with Martin.
Gabe Paul, the president of the Indians, has met with Martin's agent, Ed Sapir, a municipal court judge in New Orleans, to express his interest. Paul said he did not know whether the Yankees also were interested. Paul was the general manager of the Yankees when Martin first became manager in 1975. "Macy's doesn't tell Gimbel's what they're doing," he said.
Steinbrenner said he had spoken with Sapir a week ago and expected to talk with him again in the next week. He also spoke with a friend of Sapir's yesterday, he said, "about what's happening out there.
"Everybody gets older, everybody matures, everybody learns," Steinbrenner said. " . . . My relationship with Billy is a good one, despite our problems. I'm a little bit tougher on him than most. But you can't argue with statistics. I was going through the baseball register looking under managers. It's astounding how few have winning percentages."
Neither Martin nor Sapir could be reached for comment. According to Sapir's office, he left New Orleans to meet with Martin and was not expected back until Monday.
Steinbrenner, who has not spoken with Martin since the A's played the Yankees in New York in July, said the firing "came somewhat as a surprise to me."
Not entirely, of course, because "we had heard Billy was contemplating a move," Steinbrenner said.
"The decision was not dropped on him (Martin) like a bombshell," Roy Eisenhardt, president of the A's, said.
Relations with the A's began to deteriorate this season when Martin's request to renegotiate his contract was turned down by Eisenhardt. Martin threw a tantrum and trashed his stadium office. He also reportedly berated Eisenhardt in a telephone call.
"The problem went from inchoate to cohate at that point," Eisenhardt said.
At one point late in the season, Martin became so disgusted with his team's performance that he left the bench, saying he had seen enough.
Eisenhardt declined to discuss the specific reasons for the dismissal and stressed his fondness for Martin. "I told Billy this," Eisenhardt said. "Many of the things that have to be done to reverse last year were not within his control to rectify. His strengths are his weaknesses. His intensity rolls off the backs of the modern ballplayers like water off a duck."
Those familiar with the situation say that a familiar pattern began to emerge. Historically, Martin has fared best with a young team, one so anxious to win that his players willingly accept his emotional pyrotechnics. The more successful and secure players become, the less tolerant they are of his methods, including publicly singling them out for blame.
Eisenhardt said, "I don't want to go into knocking our team last year. Because of changes in the economics of baseball and the pressures put on players and front office personnel and the changing motivation of players, sometimes in order to make a fundamental change in the attitude of a ball club there has to be a change in leadership."
Asked what he thought Martin would do, Eisenhardt said, "I don't know. It seems he has three choices: New York, Cleveland and taking some time off. I wouldn't be surprised if he did that."