It is an obscure historical footnote, but George Steinbrenner once served as an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue. But it is a footnote worth recalling this spring because Steinbrenner said he intends for his New York Yankees to approach the 1986 season with "a football mentality."
He did not mention two-a-day practices, but Steinbrenner wants an efficiently run if not regimented camp. That is why he has appointed Stump Merrill administrative coach. Merrill will patrol the three practice fields with a walkie-talkie to make sure the workouts are run efficiently. It is no coincidence that Merrill has spent his offseasons coaching the offensive backfield at Bowdoin College in Maine.
"You'll see more of the football mentality," Steinbrenner said. "In football, you didn't want to go home once the season ended. You'd stay around and watch films, work on techniques. I'd spend seven hours in the film room. I learned all about attention to detail. I brought in the [Yankees] coaches three days a week this winter. They studied film on every one of our players. Sammy Ellis and Mark Connor had VCR machines at home and studied all the pitchers. This way, the coaches all come to spring training prepared. They've done the work that they normally do for the first two weeks."
And Steinbrenner has imposed other rules. He said no major-league coach will be allowed to hit practice balls to infielders or outfielders. That job will be for the minor-league coaches, he said. Coaches such as Gene Michael and Roy White will work behind the player who is taking fielding practice.
This also happens to be the first training camp for Lou Piniella as manager of the club. One of Piniella's trademarks as a player was his attention to detail. He could not pass a mirror without picking up a bat and checking and tinkering with his batting stance.
Piniella is quick to say, "This is not a football camp. It's a baseball camp." But Piniella will stress fundamentals, especially since Billy Martin blamed the Yankees' slow start last year on the lack of instruction in the basics during Yogi Berra's spring camp.
"I think Lou has been through enough spring trainings to know how he wants to organize one," catcher Butch Wynegar said. "I'm sure we'll get in a lot of hitting. We'll get our running in, have a good two-hour workout and get out."
Piniella's biggest concern is his pitching staff. There are 15 pitchers with major-league experience in the camp. Five are at least 35 years old: Phil Niekro, 46; Joe Niekro, 41; Tommy John, 42, and Ron Guidry and John Montefusco, both 35.
Then there are all those pitchers trying for comebacks: Montefusco from a serious hip injury, Marty Bystrom from elbow surgery, Al Holland from a miserable 1985 spent with three teams, Mike Armstrong and Dennis Rasmussen from the minor leagues and Ed Whitson from the wrath of Martin and the New York fans.
Piniella also has to convince Ken Griffey and Don Baylor that they are needed as platoon players. Both requested trades last year.
"I've been in their shoes," Piniella said. "I was in that situation just two short years ago, so I know what they're going through. When Dick Howser started platooning me in 1980 I didn't like it, but I did the best I could.
"I would rather have players who aren't content with not playing. I'll treat the players as fair and as honest as possible. I'm not going to be a softie."