High above the Major Deegan Expressway, the Angel, Reggie Jackson, hawks Reggievision to fans heading for Yankee Stadium. The billboard is a larger-than-life reminder of the lack of vision that sent Jackson, and the crowds he drew, packing.
Coming soon: a new billboard in the Bronx. No. 1, Billy Martin, larger than life, looking over his shoulder and Reggie's on the highway. "Billy's back!"
The symbolism couldn't be more clear.
Only logic says it's strange that someone would hire a man he pressured into resigning in 1978 and fired in 1979. Everyone you talk to seems to think it was inevitable that George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin would get back together. Some even think it will be different this time.
Why is Billy back? "Maybe the man wants to win," Billy said.
In 1982, the Yankees finished fifth in the American League East, 16 games out of first place. Their attendance was 2,041,219, almost 600,000 less than 1980, the last complete season.
"No manager had a chance since Billy left," said Bill Fugazy, Steinbrenner's close friend. "George compared everyone to Billy... George feels there's a tremendous amount of talent on the team and no one really used it. I was sitting with him during the 1980 playoffs in Oakland. I think he felt, 'Here's Billy taking this rinky-dink team to the playoffs.' He was shaking his head and saying, 'Only Billy Martin could do this: there's nobody at short, second or third.'"
Why is Billy back? "I think George felt he had to do something crazy, absolutely crazy to elicit interest," one baseball owner said. "Attendance was off. If he can get himself on the back page of the New York Post and the New York Daily News, that he feels is a tremendous accomplishment. He doesn't care if they're saying he's an idiot or a madman. Half of them will say, 'George is doing right,' half will say, 'He's wrong.' But 100 percent will be saying, 'George.'"
Steinbrenner thrives on the tumult. So does business. Two years ago, when Billyball was the basis of the A's marketing campaign, they filmed a television commercial starring Martin as a ticket vendor. Martin sells tickets, which is why an offer from the Cleveland Indians this fall included an attendance clause (they thought he would bring in 300,000-400,000 fans).
"Don Zimmer came up to me the other day and said I was one of the few managers in baseball people come out to see," Martin said. "I also think people came out to see Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel."
In every city where Martin has managed, ticket sales have increased the year he arrived. In 1979, the A's drew 306,763. Martin's first year, they drew 842,259, an increase of $2,551,564.71 in ticket sales. After he was fired, a local newspaper ran a contest asking fans to name the next manager. Martin won.
This year in New York, there will be Billy billboards and Billy bumper stickers and a "Billy's back" T-shirt day. Billy will be on the cover of the media guide, the yearbook and countless ticket-marketing brochures. "I guess I am somewhat of an attraction," Martin said.
"He's capable of bringing in $500,000 in ticket sales," said one team official. "We certainly think we're going to do 2.5 million attendance this year."
So how much is Martin worth to the Yankees? No one who's talking knows for sure. Initial press reports said he had signed a five-year contract worth $400,000-$450,000 a year. Sources close to the Yankees say Martin will receive $250,000 each of the first three years, with the Yankees paying about $125,000, $140,000, $155,000 and Oakland paying the rest.
The last two years, they say, Martin will receive $170,000 and $185,000. But, they say, the deal includes a five-year personal services contract with the Yankees to begin after his managerial career ends.
Why is Billy back? "He was not in tremendous demand," said Jerry Reinsdorf, part owner of the Chicago White Sox.
It wasn't supposed to come to this. History was not going to repeat itself in Oakland because, A's President Roy Eisenhardt said then, "he has the ability to control his destiny."
Martin was home: adored. Eisenhardt will not discuss what went wrong. Clearly, it is neither his desire, nor to his advantage, to criticize Martin.
The turning point came Aug. 19. According to Ed Sapir, Martin's agent, the A's rejected a request for a $100,000 loan to cover a tax problem (a lien had been put on Martin's salary). Sapir maintains Martin's contract was signed with the understanding the relationship would last 10 years, though only five years' salary and the use of a house for 10 years were specified in the document. The loan was to be borrowed against his sixth-year salary.
The A's have repeatedly denied that there was a sixth year in the contract. "Billy is bound by the four corners of the contract," the A's said at the time.
That night, Martin trashed his office in the stadium and berated Eisenhardt over the phone. Though the damage in the office was repaired by the next morning, the relationship was not. "The problem went from inchoate to choate at that point," Eisenhardt said in October.
Outfielder Dwayne Murphy believes the problems began in spring training when "we didn't work as hard as we should have. The conditioning wasn't there and that had a lot to do with all the injuries."
The A's never got going. "We made mistakes you never thought of," he said.
In August, Martin benched Murphy after a missed catch. "He was trying to use me as an example, if we kept playing the way we do, he would bench people," Murphy said.
Martin's emotional pyrotechnics -- singling out players for criticism, his impatience with young players, his tardiness -- began to wear. "He can motivate for a couple of years," Murphy said. "But they get tired of the bull."
Pitcher Steve McCatty, who likes Martin, said, "It's hard playing for the guy. You're always looking over your shoulder to see if you are going to get chewed out. Others like Billy's system -- he backed them to the hilt."
On Sept. 15, in the second game of a doubleheader in Toronto, Martin decided he could take no more and left the bench. "We were losing, 9-0," Murphy said. "By the ninth inning, it was 9-9. It upset a lot of guys to see him give up when the guys were going through hell all year. I didn't appreciate it."
Murphy said "there is no bad blood" between Martin and the Oakland players but he can think of only two or three who are upset he's gone. "They're going to miss him but they're glad he's gone," McCatty said. "It's hard to play under that pressure... With the team we had and Billy Martin as manager, if nothing changed, we wouldn't have won. They couldn't play for him."
The A's decided it was time for a change. On Oct. 20, they fired him. On Jan. 11, the Yankees hired him. "If we're going to win, it'll be under Billy," outfielder Bobby Murcer said. "We've got no excuses."
There are those who say (straight-faced) that it will be different because Martin will have direct access to Steinbrenner this time. "There was always somebody in the middle," Martin said. "George would say something and by the time it got to me it would be an entirely different story. I would say something and by the time it got to George it would be an entirely different story. It's like the guy who runs a red light and tells the story a week later and the light is yellow. He tells it two or three more times and it was green and he believes it."
Bob Lemon, who replaced Martin in 1978 and was replaced by him in 1979, said, "I don't think either one has mellowed. But you're going to learn from experience. And they've had enough experience."
Dick Wiencek, an old friend of Martin's and the A's director of scouting, said, "They need each other at this point. Billy's got the Yankees in his heart and George needs him. They're competing with the Mets. The ball club hasn't jelled. There's no question about Billy's baseball ability."
"I've never known him to start trouble," he added. "It just seems to follow him." Pause. "I've known him to finish it."
Eddie Chiles, owner of the Texas Rangers, believes no manager "can make all that much difference in the performance of a baseball team." He said Martin is the best "provided he stays on the job and works hard."
Another owner said, "Billy may be the best manager from the time the game begins until it ends. But he's an organization wrecker. They couldn't control him in Oakland and they couldn't have been nicer to him."
McCatty never doubted it would come to this: "The guy's a Yankee. They talk about Dodger blue blood. Well, Billy has pin stripes all over him."
How long will it last this time? "As long as George wants it to," he said.
"George missed him," Fugazy said. "George was bored last year."
Happily ever after. Again.