"Every year is like being traded: a new manager and a whole new team." --Graig Nettles, New York Yankees captain
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., March 2--This week, M*A*S*H decided that suicide was painless and took its own life in the interest of its art.
Another famous situation tragicomedy, Y*A*N*K*S, is still running.
Y*A*N*K*S, with George Steinbrenner, is now in its 11th season as our downbeat national illustration of the degenerative effects of materialism.
Billy Martin and George and This Year's New Free Agents are back together again in the most predictably unpredictable prime-time sport series of every season. The team that's proved winning doesn't have to mean anything is back for another frenzied lurch toward the spotlight.
What makes this Yankee year noteworthy is the possibility that the mainspring of this dubious saga may finally snap. Last season, New York finished one game out of last place. This year, with just a little luck--bad luck, that is--the Y*A*N*K*S could complete the job and finish at the bottom.
That, truly, would be the end of an era.
For the second straight winter, Steinbrenner has taken the wheel of his S.S. Pinstripe and navigated wildly.
His most conspicuous decision was to hire Martin for the third time. Once, Martin seemed mysterious, independent, intuitive. Now, he appears commonplace, dependent and predictably self-destructive.
In Oakland, Martin had a situation that was, in almost every respect, ideal for his personal and managerial rehabilitation. Right on schedule, in three years, he exhausted his tolerant owner's patience, burned out his pitchers and alienated his team with his capricious tirades and denunciations.
Martin and Steinbrenner have joined in a mutual exploitation pact. Martin needed a job. Steinbrenner needed a gate attraction. Martin has already paid for his salary in box office. "Season tickets jumped as soon as we signed Billy," said Steinbrenner. If Martin, now in his seventh managing job, can put the balky jigsaw puzzle pieces Steinbrenner has given him into a pennant picture, well and good.
If not, nobody's easier to fire than Martin. It's an act that no longer even needs an explanation. Steinbrenner has four past major league managers here as coaches; Don Zimmer and Jeff Torborg are 1 and 1A in the After Billy derby.
Steinbrenner, of course, sees roses. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Martin in the Yankee dugout this week, the owner said, "We have a great relationship. Nobody's in between us now to misinterpret what we say.
"I like what I see," continued Steinbrenner. "I think they were embarrassed by the way they played last year, and ashamed. They should have been. By September, we were frustrated and quit.
"What we needed were a couple of take-charge hitters, and we got 'em in (free agents) Steve Kemp ($3 million) and Don Baylor ($3.5 million). Kemp is determined, like Munson. A real grunt. Baylor has physical charisma and leadership, like Reggie (Jackson)."
Steinbrenner has presented Martin with a spectacularly imbalanced team. The only thing the Yankees didn't need was a DH, since that position had 28 home runs and 109 RBI in '82. So, George III got DH Baylor. Out in the cold is Oscar Gamble, whose per-at-bat production was fabulous last year. "Oscar had chances to carry us last year and he didn't," said Steinbrenner.
Naturally, Gamble is in the spring's first snit. Welcome home, Billy.
"They keep saying I'm going to play, but they don't say where," said Gamble. "If I'm not going to play, I want to be traded. This is my option year. I'm 33 and I ain't got time to sit. I want to play or be gone."
The Yankees have too many outfielders, too many DHs, too many mediocre first basemen and one-too-many left-side infielders. All this will require intelligent juggling and stroking of egos.
"It's an instance of the law of diminishing returns," said Roy Smalley, who brought three gloves to camp, trying to be the good guy who'll play anywhere. "You need depth on a team, but you don't need star depth."
"I can talk to them, let them know their different roles and where they stand," said Martin.
In case there's a fan left in the world who doesn't know it, this sort of honesty with players about their status is the one thing that Martin has never been able to do at any of his stops.
Most important, the Yankees have a flimsy five-man starting rotation. Ace Ron Guidry, after a 14-8 season with a 3.81 ERA, looks like a typical power pitcher trying to adjust to the approach of his 33rd birthday.
Behind Guidry are Dave Righetti and Shane Rawley, both 11-10 last season. Righetti, the wildest pitcher in the majors last year, has never thrown 210 innings or won 14 games in a season, including the minors; he does have top potential. Rawley, a converted reliever with a 31-41 record, is a gamble; he's a bit injury-prone, has never pitched 170 innings in a season in his life and has three complete games in the majors.
Behind these three, pickings are slim. Doyle Alexander, whom Martin berated in '76, was 1-7 last year. Jay Howell has a 6.96 big-league ERA and, at 27, has a long and nondescript track record. Bob Shirley is Steinbrenner's free agent "sleeper"; he's 53-74 in his career, was 8-13 last year and has never completed more than four games in a season.
Even with Goose Gossage, the Yankees, 19th in baseball in ERA last year, could easily have the worst pitching in their division.
"The Yankees are America's Team in baseball--love us or hate us," said Baylor.
To a degree, that has been true in recent years. For Yankee haters, watching last season's team, with its $9-million payroll, finish with a 78-84 record --one game ahead of the Blue Jays--was a joy.
Now, however, the Yankees face a harsher problem. They have pulled out all stops--hired Martin, signed three more free agents, run their pay scale near $400,000 a man. Yet, all in all, they appear to enter 1983 as just another dull, middle-to-bottom-of-the-pack team--the Bronx version of the Cleveland Indians or Detroit Tigers.