ST. LOUIS -- Here's how managerial moves are made on the New York Yankees. Every so often when the mood strikes him, George Steinbrenner brings a few of his favorite employes -- Gene Michael, Billy Martin, Bucky Dent, Woody Woodward and Lou Piniella -- into a large room, where he's already set up a line of chairs in the middle of the floor. Then, George puts on a recording of "The Colonel Bogey March," and all the little toy soldiers begin to walk around in a circle. When George stops the music, everyone scrambles for a seat. Billy, who spends a lot of time close to the ground anyway, has gotten quite good at it.
The stock market collapse wasn't the worst news to come out of New York on Monday. Jason's back! (Maybe he'll manage this season in a hockey mask.)
Unable to resist grabbing a little cheap publicity, George switched managers for the 14th time in 15 years, and named Billy manager for the fifth time: Fred and Ginger marathon dancing in the dark.
Upon hearing the news, Reggie Jackson smiled sardonically and pronounced the relationship "a fatal attraction." Can't live with him, can't live without him.
"What's next?" Reggie mused. "Will George name me president of the team?"
(Your move, Sly.)
Billy is said to be just warming the chair for Bucky Dent. But who among us would argue that when Bucky's judgment day comes, Billy won't be the one who succeeds him? (Billy's over/under is nine. Same as Morris the Cat.) George and Billy, they're in it for the long haul, a couple of guys in a cow costume doing cabaret. Sen. Sam Nunn said of the leadership in Iran, "They're generally insane, except for those occasional lucid moments when they're merely stupid." Memo to George: If the shoe fits . . .
Why would George do this? Why pursue this vigorously incoherent policy? Why antagonize your players by recycling this abusive, combative man who time and again has proven he has no respect for the rights and dignity of the individual? It's not like he's only been in one barroom brawl. There's a history here. You could look it up. His whole career has been a deposition proving his mentor Casey Stengel's evaluation 15 years ago: "He can manage everyone but himself." So why?
Because George genuinely likes Billy, and admires his ferocity. George talks about reclamation, but the truth is Billy appeals to George's dark side.
Because George needed a manager, and Billy is available. He's always available to George. Yes, Piniella was fired -- all the Yankees' managers are fired, no matter what the prepared statements say -- but he wanted out, too. Except Billy, nobody enjoys working for George. They do it for the money.
Because he can. Because he has the power to do outrageous things, and the easiest way to flaunt that power is to exercise it in this cynical, contemptuous manner.
Because he's in a panic. The Mets sold 1.1 million more tickets than the Yankees this season, and George clings to the misguided notion that Billy is the sort of vigilante that New Yorkers identify with. In fact, George knows nothing of New Yorkers. If he truly wanted to please them, he'd fire himself.
Because in his heart of hearts George remains the assistant football coach he was at Purdue and Northwestern. He thinks 11, not 162; he thinks you can -- and should -- win them all. All these years in baseball haven't tempered his fanaticism. He equates losing with weakness. You weren't beaten, you quit. And he thinks what the Yankees need is someone to bully them. I don't know who George would hire if Billy wasn't available. Maybe Frank Kush. Maybe Richard III.
It's a short-term strategy, but Billy is a short-term guy. Your town is in trouble. Billy rides in with a fast gun and cleans out the bad guys. But it doesn't take long until the townspeople realize the solution was worse than the problem. He lasted one season with the Twins, nearly three with the Tigers, almost two with the Rangers, two with the A's and two-and-a-half, one-half, one and most of one season in his incarnations with the Yankees. He's always productive in short bursts, and soon George rewards him with a vacation. Unlike most of us who get a couple of weeks, Billy's vacations last a couple of years. The question now is whether Billy has any bullets left in the gun, or if he's just going to use the barrel to club people over the head?
My guess is that Billy lasts no more than this season, if that long. If there's a pool, put me down for Sept. 20, so Bucky can familiarize himself with the personnel for the 1989 season. (All bets are off, however, if George fires Billy, then names him interim manager until naming him permanent manager again in October, leapfrogging Bucky altogether and saving having to break the kid's heart by firing him.)
They're not jumping with glee in the Yankees' clubhouse over this switch. The Yankees liked Piniella, who in his two-year tenure won more games than all but three other active managers. Don Mattingly, the best player in baseball, said, "Nothing Lou did hurt us in any way. He put the best players on the field every day and made the right moves."
Many of the Yankees who know Billy from past administrations don't like him. Give the rest of them a couple of months.
Yogi used to say, "It ain't over 'til it's over." But with George and Billy, even then it ain't over, is it?