If it isn't Chicago, it will be Seattle. If it isn't Seattle, it will be somewhere else, heaven help us maybe New York again. Some baseball team will find itself desperate enough to do anything to turn itself around, and Billy Martin will ride into town, his guns fully loaded and his cartridge belts strapped across his chest.
We've seen this movie before. The town is under siege by bad guys who've already killed the sheriff. There are decent, law-abiding townspeople who are appalled by the thought of bringing in a coarse, vicious gunfighter to clean up the mess, but what choice do they have? So they hire him as sheriff, then they look the other way while he goes about his business. They keep hoping that when he's done, he'll go away, too. But he doesn't, and he won't. He likes it there. The power suits him, and soon he's terrorizing the town even worse than the bad guys before him. Morally compromised, the citizenry ultimately gets rid of him the only way he understands, violently.
In the end it's poison.
Don't tell me that all that matters is how good Billy is between the lines, because he's always eager to cross those lines and step into the alley. He's a cocked fist aimed at a tender spot. It's not like Billy doesn't listen; he just doesn't listen long.
Yet teams never learn. Their rationale is always the same. " Fill in the blank: Bob Lemon, Bill Virdon, Yogi Berra, Gene Michael, Tony LaRussa, Chuck Cottier and surely persons to be named later was a nice guy, but the players were taking advantage of him. We needed someone a little tougher, someone who would come in, crack the whip and get the maximum out of the talent we have." Invariably, the message is that nice guys finish last, and Billy Martin wins, so let's get Billy. Billy Martin isn't a nice guy. I believe him when he says in that commercial he didn't punch no dogie. I think he shot the dogie.
Yes, he wins. He won the division in his only season at Minnesota in 1969. He won the division at Detroit in 1972 and finished second and third his other two seasons. In his only full season at Texas, 1974, he finished second with a franchise that never had gotten that high before. He managed the Yankees to two World Series in a row, winning in 1977. He won the division at Oakland in 1981.
But at what cost? He never lasts long at any place he manages, and when he leaves it's always bloody. The Twins fired him after he won the division. What kind of character reference is that? Martin's reputation is that he will win in a hurry, that he can squeeze one pound of toothpaste out of a 12-ounce tube. But what do you do with an empty tube? He won 91 games his first season in Detroit, and 71 two seasons later. 'Bye. In Texas, he was 15 games worse his second year than his first and got the heave after 95 games. He was gone after three years in Oakland, finishing 45 games worse in the third season than the second. What can you say about him in New York? He has been hired and fired four times now. He's like a bug there, and just when you think he's finally squashed, you lift your shoe and he's off, scrambling for a hole in the wall.
If it isn't a marshmallow salesman, or a traveling secretary, or someone's husband, it's one of his players he's punching. Once he went for it on national TV, with Reggie Jackson during The Great Bunt Confrontation. Most often though, it's very late at night in a bar, as it was with Ed Whitson. Of course, it's never Billy's fault. Somebody tried to show him up, or somebody said something to him, or somebody took something he'd said the wrong way, and the next thing you know somebody's taking a swing at him. A man has to defend himself, right?
It's a mistake hiring Billy Martin to manage. He may be worth 20 games his first season and 5,000 more people in the stands a night. But whatever he gets you now, he'll cost you double down the line. His method is to isolate a few players on the team, turn them into scapegoats and turn the others against them; you play Billy Ball in a bunker. He tried to ruin Reggie's life and career, and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams with Whitson, who may as well be put in a takeout-food container. He ruined a promising Oakland pitching staff of Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Rick Langford -- callously overworking their young arms. He squeezed 1,046 innings and 83 complete games from them in 1980, then in the strike-shortened 109-game season of 1981, he squeezed as hard, getting 694 innings and 56 complete games. When Martin was fired, all that was left of them was pulp.
As time goes by Martin seems smaller, thinner, even more haunted. His is an open book with relentless chapters of excruciating self-destruction. Anyone can read it, and everyone has, and still there are teams that covet him. Someone will tumble for him. If not the hair-sprayed LaRussa, then Cottier; if not him, someone else. Billy Martin isn't long for the TV booth. There's always somebody out there willing to pin a badge on Billy's chest and worry about the bullets later on.