Gator: My Life in Pinstripes
George Steinbrenner’s voice boomed through the clubhouse like a drill sergeant’s at a marine corps boot camp. George always wanted to let you know how he felt. Sometimes he wanted to cuss at you. He liked it if you cussed back at him. He wanted to motivate you. To him, the cussing and the motivating were one and the same. It happened to so many guys, so many days. Especially this season. But this wasn’t just any other day during the 1978 New York Yankees season. This was hours before the biggest game of the year. One of the biggest games in Yankees history. Arguably one of the biggest games in baseball history. George being George, the loudmouthed, pushy, in-your-face owner of the Yankees, he wanted to have words with his starting pitcher before the game. That starting pitcher was me. And I wanted none of it.
“WHERE’S GATOR!?” he bellowed.
It wasn’t a question so much as a demand. If he wanted to talk to you, he expected an audience. In a couple of hours, we were set to play a one-game tiebreaker to decide the American League East. This was the first tiebreaker since baseball adopted divisions in 1969. And it wasn’t against just any team. It was against the Boston Red Sox.
The game was straight out of a Hollywood script. Forget all of our internal mayhem from that season—the constant drama surrounding Reggie Jackson, the departure of our fiery and disagreeable manager, Billy Martin, and more. Boston against New York transcended all of that. There was the historical aspect: the Curse of the Bambino and the Red Sox spending decades, over half a century, nipping at our heels. There was what had happened this year: baseball’s “Boston Massacre,” in which the Red Sox led the division by fourteen games during the middle of the summer, only to give it away. Then, in the final week, they won eight in a row to tie it back up on the very last day. We were both 99–63. A coin was flipped, and the tiebreaker would be played at Fenway Park. A 163rd game in a 162-game season. One game to settle it all.
My teammates didn’t know where I was. Neither did our manager, Bob Lemon. Only one person in the clubhouse, our trainer, Gene Monahan, knew where I was hiding out. I had snuck into the training room to take a nap. I lay down beneath the training table, and Geno threw a couple of sheets over it so nobody could see me. People popped in and out of the office asking Geno if he had seen me. Geno shrugged and said he hadn’t. When George got around to asking him, Geno said I might be collecting my thoughts out on the field. So off George went, furiously stomping around the dewy Fenway grass in search of his starting pitcher. Meanwhile, I was sound asleep.
I knew George would be coming for me. But I didn’t need anybody screaming at me. I knew exactly how big this game was; nobody had to remind me. So I didn’t read the papers. If I was watching TV and a story about the game came up, I’d change the channel. I knew the entire country would be watching. Red Sox broadcaster Ned Martin said it best. “If there is anything going on in the world today,” he mused, “I don’t know what it is.”
There were a bunch of reasons I could’ve been worried. Probably should’ve been worried. The Red Sox were every bit as good as us. The ninety-nine wins apiece said it all. Normally, ninety-nine wins would have won the division running away. Their lineup may have been the best in baseball. And they were red hot, winners of eight in a row. Moreover, the game was being played on their turf, Fenway Park. I was pitching on three days of rest, as opposed to my customary four. I knew I wouldn’t have my best stuff.
But every step that had led me to this point in the season told me to ignore all of that. If you get caught up in it, you’re likely to forget what your job is. I was brought up to be self-reliant and patient, something my long road to the majors reinforced, like crossbeams in a renovation. That’s the reason I was here. That I was able to take a nap underneath the training table two hours before the first pitch should tell you everything you need to know about how worried I was.
The 1978 Yankees season might have been the most famous soap opera in baseball history. The lead actors in the drama: owner George Steinbrenner, who fought and fired his manager, Billy Martin, after Billy told the press that Reggie Jackson and George deserved each other—one’s a liar, the other’s convicted. The manager who feuded with his players, suspending Reggie for five days after a game against Kansas City in which Reggie defied Billy by attempting to bunt. The players who butted heads with one another. The hurt feelings and catfights. The drama had a full complement of characters. Come to think of it, I’m not sure whether it was a soap opera or a three-ringed circus. And it all took place on the biggest stage in sports, New York City, and on the most popular team in the history of America’s national pastime. The fireworks and explosions rocked the entire country, on the front and back pages of the newspapers, on television, and on sports radio.
In the span of a couple of years I had gone from relative anonymity—a good old boy from Lafayette, Louisiana—to become the ace of the pitching staff. I knew the team depended on me, as much as anybody, to win. On the other hand, I was never the source of the team’s drama. The reasons varied, but other folks—from Reggie to Billy to George to Sparky Lyle—were central figures of the discontent. I didn’t have a beef with anybody. I tended to keep to myself and focus on doing my job in the best way I knew how. But that didn’t mean I didn’t observe what was going on. I was never far from it, but because I wasn’t personally involved, I felt like I had the right distance to get some perspective about not just what happened but why it turned out the way it did—with us winning it all. You see, I’m not sure we would have won the World Series if all of that didn’t go down. We may not have won if Billy remained our manager. We may not have won if our guys had issues but didn’t hash them out.
The postmortems of the 1978 team centered on one fundamental question: How the heck did such a dysfunctional cast of stars and misfits manage to win it all? An ESPN miniseries about the team was called The Bronx Is Burning. Reliever Sparky Lyle wrote a book about the team, called The Bronx Zoo, that spent half a year on the bestseller lists. And so forth. In other words, you wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that we had no business winning the World Series. You’d expect the story of the 1978 Yankees to be a narrative of a dysfunctional team going down in flames.
But that didn’t happen. The way I see it, the 1978 Yankees didn’t win in spite of what went down that season. We won because of what happened. A team that is willing to fight—even one another—can go one of two ways: into the toilet or into greatness. A team that is afraid of conflict can settle into complacency. That was not us. We were a team with the potential to be great. And I believe that out of all the craziness, we became a team that was both talented and fearless. We were hungry. We were relentless. We were fiercely competitive. And we came together as a team over the course of the season. I believe we were the smartest, most complete baseball team around. Far from dysfunctional, we did all the little things it takes to be great. And nowhere was all of that better demonstrated than in that play-off game against the Red Sox.
The day before, Sunday, October l, the last day of the regular season, I was thinking about pitching on the next Tuesday in the first game of the play-offs, against Kansas City. We had won six in a row. Boston had won seven in a row. We led them by a game, so all we had to do was win our last game, against Cleveland, or have Boston lose, and we’d be in the play-offs. We were rolling, and we were playing against one of the worst teams in the league. But we lost the game 9–2. And when Boston beat Toronto 5–0, we were tied at ninety-nine wins apiece.
After we lost, I walked past Bob Lemon in the dugout and said, “I’ll pitch tomorrow.” I felt I had earned the right to decide that for myself—and the team. I had the most wins in baseball, twenty-four, against only three losses. My earned run average was the lowest in baseball; my nine shutouts, again, the most in baseball. Everyone told me I was a shoo-in to win the American League Cy Young. At that point, if I asked for the ball, I got it.
The only thing was, typically pitchers get four days of rest between starts. Pitching against Boston had me on three days of rest. And I had thrown my prior two starts on short rest, too. That was both good and bad. I had proven I could handle it. We won both games, and I had thrown a complete game each time. A total of eighteen innings, with six hits and just one run. But consecutive starts on short rest also meant my arm was even more taxed than usual.
The main thing I needed to think about was how the short rest would affect me. If the good Lord gave me the ability to throw ninety-five miles per hour, I would. At the same time, I knew I wouldn’t be able to throw a hundred pitches at ninety-five. Maybe fifty or sixty pitches. That one less day of rest, for a power pitcher, meant a lot. But I knew I could still get people out, even the mighty Red Sox, at ninety-two miles per hour. I just had to be smart about what to throw, and where, and when to dial it up and down.
The only thing more important than me knowing all of that, though, was that my teammates did. Our catcher and captain, Thurman Munson, never said much to me about it. He spoke up about matters when he needed to and otherwise didn’t say squat that didn’t need to be said. He didn’t have to pat me on the butt and tell me to do this or do that. But he had faith in me, and I had faith in him, and together we knew we could navigate our way through it. And the players behind me on the field knew I wouldn’t be throwing as hard as usual—so they adjusted their positioning. And as much as anything, those savvy adjustments won us the ball game.
Pitching in Fenway Park had never bothered me, honestly. Because of the Green Monster—the close, towering wall in left field—Fenway has a reputation for being tough on left-handed pitchers. But I knew I couldn’t change the way I pitch because of the wall. Letting it get into my head, and trying to switch things up from what had been working for me all year, that’s what could hurt me. In a one-game play-off, everything is as much mental as it is physical.
I didn’t do anything different to prepare because I had no time. By the time we lost on Sunday, and I decided that I’d pitch against Boston on Monday, there was nothing to do but get a good night’s sleep and try to do what I had done all season. And what I had done during the season first and foremost was to put my mind at rest. In the last month I had pitched against Boston twice. Both games were complete game, two-hit shutouts.
The first of those two, at Fenway, was part of what would be called “the Boston Massacre.” Boston was nearly unbeatable at home that season, winning fifty-nine games and losing just twenty-two. Four of those losses came during that series. A four-game sweep of Boston, in Boston. It was unheard-of. You don’t do something like that to the Boston Red Sox in their park. I read later that we hadn’t swept the Red Sox in Fenway since 1949. We’d entered the series trailing them by four games in the division. We left it tied.
But it wasn’t just that we won those four games. It was how we won, and the mental edge that we took from it. We scored forty-two runs in those four games. They put up only nine. They committed twelve errors in those four games. We made only five. We didn’t just sweep them. We kicked their behinds. Because of that, we weren’t afraid to play them over there, when they won the coin flip for the tiebreaker. It’s not that we felt invincible—I know I didn’t. But we sure had confidence that we could beat them. They were more afraid of us than we were of them. Never in my career had I gone into Boston with the same confidence I had going into that game.
That wasn’t the issue, though. The thing was we just didn’t like ’em. But we had a lot of respect for the Sox, because they had a damn good team. As did we. It was a shame one of us had to lose.