The Yankee Way
For the Love of the Game
In one way or another, I’ve been involved in the game of professional baseball since I was first drafted in 1972. That’s more than forty years. In that time I’ve seen a lot of changes in the game, everything from stadiums to salaries, from equipment to egos.
One thing has remained constant.
I’ve always loved the game of baseball.
And that doesn’t mean that I loved the game only when I was participating in one of the eleven World Series championships I was blessed to take part in. I loved it when I was an eighteen-year-old warm-weather city kid freezing my butt off and enduring one of the worst slumps of my life in what seemed the frozen tundra of Thetford Mines, Ontario. I loved it when I was a twenty-two-year-old kid watching Chris Chambliss lead off the bottom of the ninth in game 5 of the American League Championship Series (ALCS) against the Royals with the loudest 372-foot home run ever hit. That ball carried the Yankees back into the Series for the first time in a dozen years and triggered the wildest celebration I have ever seen. I even loved the game when the dreaded Boston Red Sox did the unthinkable and climbed up off the mat and won four straight against us in the 2004 ALCS. Fifteen days later, I was still in love with the game when, at the age of fifty, I became the first black manager in New York baseball history.
And yes, even in the early morning hours of June 18, 2008, when Omar Minaya was too upset to say the words “You’re fired,” I still loved the game and still wanted to be a part of it.
I would have loved the game and the city of New York even if I’d never advanced to play anywhere beyond the sandlots of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The taste of a cold Champagne Cola drunk outside of Jimmy’s Grocery Store to celebrate the first victory with the Bullets (my first youth league team) might not be as memorable to some as a champagne shower in the bowels of old Yankee Stadium, but for me the memory is just as fresh.
The saying goes that the heart knows what it wants. From the first time I saw and heard Mets games on the radio and television, I knew exactly what I wanted to do—play that game and have my name called. I can still hear the voices of Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson, still feel the powdery tang and the stale snap of baseball card chewing gum, and still hear the echoes of me and my buddies haggling over trades as I coveted my Donn Clendenon, Tommie Agee, Roy McMillan, and Jerry Koosman cards. No day was better than the ones I spent at Shea Stadium as a kid. Money was always tight around the Randolph house, so we had to do some turnstile jumping and take advantage of some of the charity programs that offered neighborhood kids free tickets. Regardless of how I got in there, looking down on that green diamond was like looking down on the carpet of some Taj Mahal compared to the dust and clumps I was used to playing on.
You’ve got to love a game and a city a whole lot to forsake one of the blessings that your parents bestow on you. I was mostly a well-behaved child—and my parents wouldn’t have tolerated anything but—yet I told everybody that my name was Mickey.
I have old friends who still call me Mickey. When I’m in Houston, I’ll often leave tickets for my dear old friend Lou Rodriguez, who lives in Texas now. As soon as I heard a voice calling, “Mick,” from behind home plate in Minute Maid, I knew Lou was in the house. When I was at Tilden High School, I even signed myself “Mickey Randolph” on forms I had to fill out. I wouldn’t be surprised if I signed my name as Mickey on my first driver’s license.
“That’s what we thought your name was for years,” said Joe Laboy, who I played ball with from age thirteen, and who is now an appliance salesman.
I thought Mickey was a cool name. I was a Mets fan, sure, but you have to be flexible in life, and Mickey Mantle was a New York baseball icon. Like the real Mick, I was a switch-hitting shortstop back in the day, until I went all-righty when I was about thirteen. Even though he was a white man from Commerce, Oklahoma, and I was a black kid from Brooklyn, New York, even though he learned to hit against a battered tin shed and I learned to hit against a graffiti-covered project wall, in my mind we were practically blood brothers, bound together by our stances and our speed and my overactive imagination.
I first met the real Mickey in the spring of 1976 when I came over to the Yankees in the Pirates trade. He walked in the clubhouse, blond and brawny as ever, with the blacksmith forearms and the big smile. What are you supposed to say when you meet a baseball god? I don’t know how I greeted him, but I’m sure I stammered a lot. I definitely didn’t tell him that I imitated his stances or that I claimed his name for my own. It would’ve been way too embarrassing. Now that I think about it, Mickey must have loved the game as much as I did, and I think he would have understood why I claimed his name off the waiver wire.
My teachers and my family didn’t call me Mickey, but around Betsy Head Playground it was all I heard. Betsy Head was my home away from home as a kid. Set in the heart of Brownsville, the ten-acre park was built in 1915 with money from a British philanthropist named—guess what?—Betsy Head. The park won awards when it opened, but Betsy wouldn’t have been too pleased to see it fifty years later. The place was full of broken bottles and garbage, and when you dove for a ball you needed to make sure you didn’t land on a syringe. It takes a lot of love to stretch your body out on such a potentially dangerous surface, but a base hit is a base hit and it was my job to prevent them.
The park had a Little League field at one end and a full-size field at the other, with intersecting outfields. The infields made Thetford Mines look pristine. There were enough rocks to start a quarry, and there was no such thing as a true bounce. If you could catch ground balls at Betsy Head, you could catch ground balls anywhere. I took bad hops in the face, head, you name it, but it made my hands good and it made them quick. Back then we didn’t even pay any mind to the conditions of the field. Betsy Head was where my teams played. It’s not as if we had a lot of options. Besides, being on the Betsy Head infield beat almost every alternative. As my friend Phil Davis said, “Sports was the way we got away from the real devils in life. Between that and church and school, we didn’t have time to get into the devils that were out there.”
I also played a lot of football when I was a kid. The surface was usually asphalt, and my position was always quarterback. Our neighborhood team was called the 19ers. The name made perfect sense. We got our shirts at a place called John’s Bargain Store—the local five-and-dime. We bought every football shirt John had on his shelves. The only problem was that they were all the same number: 19 (drove those fledgling defensive coordinators nuts). We used to barnstorm around Brownsville, challenging other teams to games, and though you can’t look it up, the 19ers did not lose very often.
I liked basketball too, but baseball had a hold on me all its own. The first book I read was The Jackie Robinson Story, and before I was even on chapter 2 I think I knew I wanted to be like Jackie, wanted to play in the big leagues. (Who knew I would wind up playing his position?) I’d watch every Mets game on TV and do batting stances in front of a full-length mirror in between innings and after the game. If I didn’t have a real bat—and I usually didn’t—the curtain rod would work just fine. Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Roberto Clemente, I did them all, and Rod Gaspar too. Years later my wife, Gretchen, told me that when we were younger she would often sit on a bench in the projects at night and look up at my apartment and see the silhouette of me doing Donn Clendenon and Jerry Grote and all my other stances in the window. She was completely loyal even then.
And I was loyal to the game despite all the pressures to stray from it and my idealized version of what an athlete should be. My stance show started early and went late, except if I had a game the next day. If I had a game, I was in bed early. I knew nothing then about big league ballplayers’ carousing or after-hours exploits. To me, if you wanted to be an athlete, you didn’t drink, smoke, mess around with drugs, or hang out in the projects. You went to bed, got your rest. You made sure you were ready to play the next day.
And I was.
My friends would call up to my window (“Yo, Mickey, c’mon out with us”) and apply every wrestling hold of peer pressure they could, but I never weakened. I just went to bed.
For the love of the game, I traveled all over Brooklyn and the city playing ball, on too many teams to count, from Our Lady of Mercy to Funelaria Cruz. The coach I remember most was the late Galileo “Gally” Gonzalez. Gally reinforced my love of baseball through close contact with his. He didn’t want to have anyone on his team who didn’t think the same way he did—that baseball was a great gift we should all cherish. He was a stocky man with a gravelly voice, graying hair and a mustache, and the leathery, sunbaked skin that so many baseball lifers have. He wanted to win every game. Bad. He yelled at us all the time and cursed in two languages. His practices were nasty. He’d make us play in close on the Betsy Head infield and then would smash grounders at us. You got smacked in the head, you shook it off, kept going. There was no other choice, really. Gally brought a football mentality to coaching baseball. He didn’t believe in softies.
There was a kid on our team once—I don’t remember his name—who didn’t take to Gally’s hard-driving ways, and after getting reamed out by Gally one day, he stood out in right field, crying. No one said a word as Gally strode slowly out toward second base, then into the outfield. The poor kid must’ve been petrified. I tensed up as I watched Gally walk out there like a sandlot sheriff. I wondered how rough on the kid Gally was going to be. I hoped he might sympathize with him or at least cut him a break. Hoped that Gally would finally back off a little.
Gally arrived in front of the kid. Backing off, apparently, was not in his mind-set.
“If you are going to cry, you better leave right now, because I don’t want no crybabies on my team,” Gally said.
Gally wanted to make you a man. He wanted to make you tough. I was almost always the youngest guy on the team, and one of the smallest. He cut me no slack, made me painfully aware that my love of the game could bring me joy or pain and sometimes a bit of both at the same time. Looking back at it now, I think Gally sensed how much I loved playing ball, thought I had potential, and was determined to be harder on me than anyone.
When I’d go off to play ball on a Saturday morning, there were times I wouldn’t be back until the end of the day, so my mom would make a sandwich for me. She packed it up nicely and put it in a brown paper bag. I was very protective of my sandwich. It made me feel good knowing it was there, that my mom made it for me. One day Gally walked down the bench, reached down, and snatched the lunch bag out of my hands.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I shouted. “That’s my sandwich!” This was way out of character for me to speak to an adult this way. But I was shocked by Gally’s actions and reacted accordingly.
“I’m giving it to somebody else,” Gally said.
“You can’t do that. That’s mine. My mother made it for me.”
Gally looked at me with a half-sneer. He paused a minute, my sense of violation building by the second.
“ ‘Oh, my mother made it for me,’ ” he said, mocking my voice. “The little momma’s boy wants his sandwich.”
He still had my bag in his hands. He showed no sign of giving it back and, in truth, seemed to be enjoying this. I didn’t know what to do or say. I started to cry, and that was all Gally needed to see, because as we know, he had no use for crybabies. So then he made fun of me for crying, in front of the whole team. I felt completely humiliated. He was wrong to be doing this to me. The contents of that bag were much more important to me than the nutritional value of the bologna and two pieces of bread. I didn’t care how much Galileo wanted to get into my head or toughen me up. This wasn’t fair. He was stealing my lunch, not to give to another kid who was hungry—that would’ve been different—but just because he knew how important it was to me and somehow saw that as a sign of softness. Part of me wanted to storm off and never come back and play for him.
That day, it turned out, would come soon enough.
I will say this for Gally: there definitely was a method to his madness. He wanted me to be able to handle anything. He wanted me to go out there with a full suit of emotional armor so that nobody, no turn of events, could touch me. In his mind, love of the game could have been a weakness, could have made me too soft. Loving the game was one thing, but loving to win was another. The two often go together, but not always. I didn’t have to be taught either kind of love, and in time the two became nearly inseparable.
Gally didn’t want to win two out of three, or three of four. He wanted to win every game, and he’d be all over our butts if we didn’t comply. Gally was a Billy Martin of the barrio, hypercompetitive and feisty to the core. He believed that winning was a habit, same as losing. He never let up. For that reason, I’m not sure he ever forgave me for what I did when I was fifteen years old.
I knew a guy from the Tilden Houses named Frank Tepedino, who was the groundskeeper, the man who tended to the flowers and mowed the grass and kept it looking really nice. We had our share of run-ins with him, because we were forever hopping his chain-link fence to get onto a little patch of grass to play ball. Mr. Tepedino, the uncle of a Yankee first baseman by the same name, got tired of chasing us off, and one day he called a few of us over. I thought we were really in for it this time.
“I coach an American Legion team called Cummings Brothers Post,” he said. “If you guys love to play so much, why don’t you bring your bats and gloves and come down for tryouts this Saturday? We have a good team, and we play a good level of competition. I don’t know if you know the Parade Grounds, but that’s where we play our games.”
The Parade Grounds was a complex of ball fields in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It was where Sandy Koufax and Frank and Joe Torre and all the Brooklyn greats played. I didn’t know much more about it, except that I would be there that next Saturday. I got up early, took a subway and a bus, and went to the tryout. When I stepped into the complex, I felt as though I had come upon a whole new baseball world. The fields were smooth and manicured. They had lines and dugouts. They had on-deck circles! Compared to what I was used to, this was Shea Stadium. Hell, this was Shangri-La.
From that moment, I knew that I wanted to play there.
The tryout went well, and soon I had a new team and Cummings Brothers Post, a fraternal organization established in honor of two young brothers who died in World War I, had a new shortstop and leadoff man. It wasn’t just the field I liked. It was that the competition was better, and more than anything, it was a place where big-league scouts were known to come by and watch you play and, if they liked you, maybe even give you one of their little calling cards.
It was a great opportunity, the only trouble being that now I would have to deal with the wrath of Galileo Gonzalez. He had nurtured me and toughened me—he had stolen my sandwiches. Now somebody else was going to benefit from that. I knew Gally was going to like this about as much as losing a doubleheader. But I had to talk to him. I found him in Betsy Head Park. Like a guy about to break up with one girl because he had fallen for another, I was really nervous as I walked up to him.
“Gally, can I talk to you for a minute?” I began.
“What’s going on?”
“Well,” I said, “I tried out for a team in the Parade Grounds. They want me to play for them, and I think I’m going to do it.” Gally’s face went blank at first. He took in what I said for a few seconds, and then his face quickly turned flush with anger. He didn’t want to hear anything more.
“Why you going there?” he said. “Why? They don’t want you. They don’t want no kid from the projects. They’ve never wanted no kids from here. Why you wasting your time? Why would you leave our team to go play for strangers?”
He didn’t call me Benedict Arnold. But he might as well have. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to soften the blow. I just tried to speak from the heart.
“I’m sorry, Gally,” I said. “I don’t want to leave my friends. I don’t want to leave you and my team. But the Parade Grounds is where the best players from Brooklyn have always played. You know that. You know it’s the place to play and where the competition is the best. I’m sorry. I am really sorry, but I just think I have to do this.”
He mumbled something and then turned and walked away. It was the last conversation I ever had with Galileo Gonzalez.
Now, understand that loyalty is huge to me. Was then and is now. The idea of being disloyal to Gally and my teammates weighed heavily on me, but when it got down to it, I knew I had to go. My dream was to make the big leagues. Cummings Brothers was going to give me more games on better fields against better players. It was going to get me out there in front of the scouts—the white men with their sun visors and clipboards and beach chairs who could make my dream happen. For years I’d seen guys who were great players—better players than me—who didn’t want to leave the neighborhood and never wound up going anywhere. These were guys I admired and looked up to. They stayed in the neighborhood, and then their baseball careers stayed in the neighborhood too. As terrible as I felt about leaving, my gut was telling me that this was something I had to do.
And you know what? I never regretted it.
All these years later, it’s very humbling to think about that time of my life and to think about my good fortune, to wonder why I was the lucky one, why I was the one who made it to the big leagues when guys like Joe Laboy and Blackie Ortiz and Georgie Cruz—my baseball brothers—did not. These were friends I played alongside for years, guys I learned from, guys who could really play the game. Georgie Cruz could pick it better than me at shortstop, better than just about anybody I ever saw. Joe Laboy could do it all, and Blackie Ortiz, well, he may have been the best of all. Blackie was an undersized first baseman, maybe five-foot-seven or -eight, but he had the quick and powerful wrists that all great hitters have, and he could hit the ball out of anywhere. Blackie was a hell of a ballplayer. The Mets invited him to a tryout at Shea Stadium, and he did really well, even had a scout tell him he was definitely pro material. The Mets asked for his schedule, then found out almost all of his games were at Betsy Head.
Scouts didn’t go to Brownsville. It was too dangerous. Blackie never got drafted. He’s been a motorman for the New York City subway system for twenty-five years.
I’m not discounting the work I put in to make it to the majors, because I put in a ton of it. I was as dedicated to the sport as a kid could be. But there’s more to it than that. I believe God had a plan for me, and I believe I have been incredibly blessed to be able to follow that plan. I believe I had the good fortune to stay healthy, to stay clear of trouble, to be able to make good decisions. But the most important blessing of all was to have a loving family who gave me the rock-solid grounding I needed to get ahead. When you have parents who tell you that you can do whatever you set your mind to, and who really believe that, well, it makes all the difference.
Even though I was like most professional players and eventually had to deal with salary issues, free agency and collusion, the demands of media and ownership, and all the rest that goes into the business side of the game, I never lost my childlike enthusiasm for the simple (or not so simple, really) act of fielding a ground ball, feeling the bite of the seams as a ball left my hand, the almost no-sensation feel of a well-struck line drive, and the sound of my spikes as I dug around first base and headed toward second. That’s why I wanted to coach and eventually manage. I wanted to teach the fundamentals, the finer points of the game, share my experiences, and help mold the next generation of players, but mostly I couldn’t give up the thing I loved.
I believe I will get another shot to manage in the big leagues. I really do believe it will happen, and when it does I will take everything I learned from my first go-round with the Mets and be the better for it. Whatever happens, whatever I do, I will keep going to work and getting after it, the way my parents did in the fields.
They did what they had to because they loved us. If it weren’t for them, I never would have had the amazing opportunities and experiences I’ve had in the game.
For me, dignity and respect don’t come merely by winning. They come by doing your best, always, no matter the circumstances. They come by persevering and by paying more attention to the process of life than the box score of it. Dr. Martin Luther King, one of my heroes, expressed it quite succinctly when he wrote this:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ ”
I DON’T SWEEP STREETS. I work with ballplayers. I do it with everything I have and all the passion I have. Before every game I managed with the Mets, during the national anthem, I would close my eyes and recite a special Bible verse of my mother’s: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Those ten words have a remarkable ability to center me and fortify me. Moments later, the pitcher would be looking in and the leadoff batter would be in the box, and it would absolutely be the best time of the day. A baseball game was about to begin, and more lessons were about to be learned. What could be better than that?
I don’t know if it is possible to love something too much, and maybe some people could say that my intensity and passion were responsible for both the highs and lows I experienced in each of my roles in the game. I will say this: I’d rather be hanged for my errors of commission than my errors of omission. Put another way, I’d rather lose because I cared too much than because I didn’t care enough.
I’ve also heard people talk about spreading the love. Well, I’m blessed in that regard also. My wife, Gretchen, who I literally fell for in the sixth grade when I tried to impress her by leaping a fence and wound up flat on the ground and needing seven stitches to boot, has been my most loyal supporter. She’s seen countless games, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that she knows nearly as much about the game’s tactics and history as just about anyone else I know inside and outside of the game. My son Andre played the game and spent a few years in the Yankees’ organization. My daughters Taniesha, Chantre, and Ciara were all good athletes and put up with having an absentee father for much of the summer. We all are grateful for what baseball has meant to our lives. Andre and I still go to a few games, and most recently, we attended Mariano Rivera’s moving and well-deserved retirement ceremony. Though the new Yankee Stadium is a far different place from the old Shea Stadium I first attended, I felt that same thrill rising up from my stomach when I caught sight of the ball field. Green is the color of hope, I’m told, and every time I see a field I’m filled with the sense that all things are possible.
The pages that follow detail many of the things I love about the game of baseball—the people, the places, and the events that I recall. Some of them are painful, but that’s one way to measure how much you care.
I also know this beyond a doubt. I am many, many times blessed. My career has spanned the explosive growth of baseball, and I have made a living and provided a life for my family far beyond what my mother and father, sharecroppers in the 1950s in South Carolina, could have ever imagined for playing a boy’s game. My mother was working the field picking cotton for fourteen to fifteen hours a day while carrying me inside her. She did what it took. For a long time, even after I was a major league All-Star, my father worked his regular day job and then climbed into his gypsy cab to troll for fares.
I paid attention to my parents’ work ethic and commitment, and I learned. And I think that more than anything is what got me through that rough year in Thetford Mines. I ended up hitting only .254, but I led the league in walks (110) and runs (103) and stole 38 bases and wound up being an All-Star second baseman for a team that won the Eastern League championship. And then things—good things—started happening very fast. I hit .339 in a half-year in AAA ball. I was a midseason call-up by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in that organization I found the big brother I’d never had, Willie Stargell, and got my first taste of postseason baseball. A few months after that I was traded to the New York Yankees.
And so began a baseball journey that continues to this day, my years carved out in 162-game installments. My years with the Yankees’ organization spanned several generations of players whose names both longtime and new fans could easily recite along with me. The roster includes names like Berra, Jeter, Rivera, Piniella, Martin, Rodriguez, Lyle, Gossage, Brosius, Dent, Nettles, Martinez, Williams, O’Neill, and the list goes on and on. Whether I’m recounting the thirty-six different shortstops I was paired with, the heaviness of my heart at the loss of Thurman Munson, or the inspired wackiness of Mickey Rivers and the other residents of the Bronx Zoo, I want you to feel the passionate intensity that I brought to the game and my role, however small, in the Yankees’ success story. I know that my scoring three times in an ALCS game pales in comparison to the three home runs Reggie Jackson hit in a World Series game, but that was my role.
I’m a table setter and proud of it. I’d like you to sit down and enjoy the spread I’ve prepared for you. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
A Winning Start
On the evening of July 29, 1975, the night I became a big-league ballplayer, I was so excited, I probably couldn’t have remembered the lyrics to “Happy Birthday.” I had to keep it simple, and these were my thoughts: I had just turned twenty-one. It was a Tuesday. Life was good.
Unless you’ve spent a lot of time in what passes for a clubhouse in a minor league ballpark, you can’t appreciate how different it is to set foot in a major league clubhouse. That’s especially true of one that has been done up by a successful franchise. The ’75 Pirates were defending National League East champions. They played in what today we think of as baseball’s version of the housing projects—an Astroturfed, multi-use doughnut of a stadium known as Three Rivers—but their clubhouse was like a penthouse suite in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in comparison to what I was used to.
Staying in a hotel was also a far cry from the accommodations Gretchen and I had found in Triple A. With the exception of one trip to Puerto Rico when I was a youngster, I’d spent almost all of my time in New York City. Adjusting to life away from home wasn’t always easy. Still, I was able to perform pretty well in my first season of pro baseball, hitting .317 in the Rookie League and dealing with my new second base position without much trouble. I moved up to A ball the following year, at Charleston back in my home state of South Carolina, not even fifty miles from my birthplace of Holly Hill. I hit with much more pop (8 homers, 6 triples, and 25 doubles) and stole 43 bases, earning the promotion to Thetford Mines. By the time I escaped the cold and the ruts and the asbestos, I was mentally stronger and ready to take on the challenge of Triple A ball. I was also a married man.
I proposed to Gretchen in the middle of the 1974 season, during a road trip to West Haven, Connecticut. She came up from Brooklyn. I snuck out to a jewelry store and bought a ring, then went back to the hotel. I didn’t get on one knee or anything dramatic like that, but I popped the question to the girl I’d loved from the first time I saw her. The way my season was going, I was a little surprised she didn’t say no. We got married just before spring training, and then I headed down to Bradenton. I had a good spring, and when camp broke Gretchen and I headed north for Charleston, West Virginia, home of the Charlies, the Pirates’ AAA affiliate. The Charlies were famous for their logo—a smiling baseball with a derby hat and a cigar. In the local paper, the Charleston Gazette, the ball would be smiling if the Charlies won and frowning if the Charlies lost.
I was in town long enough to be amused by Charlie, but not much longer. My stay lasted ninety-one games and taught me a couple of valuable life lessons:
1. Do not live in a redneck trailer park if you are an African American.
2. Be careful where you get caught speeding.
I’m not sure what Gretchen and I were thinking, but when the Pirates broke camp and we ventured north to set up our first home together, we wound up settling on a mobile home in a tiny town outside Charleston called Rand, West Virginia. It’s not far from the Kanawha River, a place that has since gained fame for being the hometown of NFL star Randy Moss. With a small salary and our first child on the way (we worked fast), we wanted to live as economically as possible. We accomplished that. And we got what we paid for. Maybe less. Our first clue that we hadn’t selected wisely, housing-wise, was finding out that our next-door neighbor slept with his shotgun.
The second clue was that not only was there no welcome wagon to greet us, but almost nobody would even speak to us. The newlyweds from Brooklyn might as well have been completely invisible.
Trouble wasn’t long in coming. While I was off on an early-season road trip, Gretchen was resting in the trailer when she looked outside and saw a mangy and suspicious-looking man with a white German shepherd prowling around not far from the window. She lowered the blinds and quickly called me, managing to reach me in the clubhouse. I heard the panic in her voice. I told her to stay calm and said whatever I could think of to help that process. Gretchen wasn’t calm at all. How could she be? She was pregnant and all alone in a trailer park with a prowler outside her door.
What words were going to fix that?
As she lay there, she heard the door knob begin to rattle, first lightly, then much more vigorously. Now the prowler was trying to force his way in. Now he was one flimsy lock away from who knows what?
Gretchen was terrified. All she could think of to do was scream, and that’s what she did, as long and as loud as she could. Our neighbor with the shotgun—he actually was the one person who was very nice to us—heard her screaming and burst out of his trailer, shotgun cocked and loaded.
“Hey, get away from there!” he bellowed, and with that the prowler and his white German shepherd were off into the woods.
In the morning, I called the club’s general manager and told him what happened. He asked where we were living.
“You are living in that redneck trailer park?” he said, alarm rising as he spoke. “We’ve got to get you out of there. That’s no place to live.” Somebody from the team came right over and drove Gretchen to a hotel. When I got back, we packed up and said good-bye to the trailer park forever, making sure we stopped to thank our guardian-angel neighbor with the shotgun.
Gretchen and I and the baby on the way settled into a nice routine off the field. On it, I was having my best year yet, hitting close to .340, leading the league in hitting for most of the first half of the season, playing a good second base, stealing bases without being caught even one time. One notch from the majors now, I began to think for the first time about getting the call, about what that would feel like. The Pirates were in a pennant race, so I figured that at the end of the year, when rosters were expanded, they might bring me up to give me a little taste of the majors.
One day late in July we were on a road trip in Rochester, New York, when Steve Demeter, our manager, asked me to come to the ballpark early. I was apprehensive. I didn’t know what the issue was. I rifled my brain for possibilities. I was still rifling when Steve sat me down in the little square visiting manager’s office.
“Willie,” he said, “you are going to the big leagues. The Pirates want you on the big club. You’ve got to get to Pittsburgh as soon as you can.”
I all but froze at the sound of his words. I thought he was joking. I really did. Never did I think I’d be called up in the middle of the season. Steve had been a career minor leaguer; his cup of coffee in the major leagues was not even half full, consisting of fifteen games in 1959 and 1960. He extended his hand and wished me the best.
As soon as I left the office I found a pay phone and called Gretchen.
“Hey, Gretch, it’s me. Guess what?”
“What?” she asked.
“You better start packing, because we’re going to the big leagues,” I said. The next sounds I heard were shrieks of joy.
It was time to move again, for the best reason of all. I took a bus back to Charleston, we loaded up my Ford LTD, and we took off in the wee hours of the morning. We headed north on Interstate 79, bound for Pennsylvania, a 169-mile trip to the big time. My head was dizzy with excitement and anticipation.
The excitement stopped when I saw a blue blinking light in my rearview mirror.
I looked quickly at the speedometer. I was going eight or ten miles over the speed limit on a dry, empty road at two in the morning. I was hoping this was just a routine stop. My heart was pounding. I pulled over.
A big, jug-eared policeman appeared at my window, shining a flashlight into my face and into the car. He had a big hat and a jowly, no-nonsense face.
“License and registration,” he said.
“Right here, Officer,” I said, quickly producing them. I felt like I was in a movie. A bad one.
“Where you goin’ so fast this time of night?”
“I’m a ballplayer for the Charleston Charlies, Officer. I was just called up to the major leagues and have to get up to join the Pittsburgh Pirates as soon as I can.”
He wasn’t impressed. Even a little bit. Maybe the guy was a Phillies fan. I don’t know. My father used to call cops like this in the South “High Pockets.” The cop seemed to be in love with his authority and with the fact that we were scared.
Mr. High Pockets told me he was going to give me a speeding ticket and that I had to follow him to the station house to pay the ticket.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Officer, if you want to give me a ticket, I’ll be happy to pay it, but if you don’t mind, we have to get to Pittsburgh. My wife is pregnant and tired. I have a game tomorrow. Can’t you just give me the ticket and I’ll mail in the payment?”
He glared back at me. Uh-oh. He looked ticked off that I had the gall to even make the suggestion.
“That’s not how we do it around here, son. You follow me to the station. Now let’s go.”
He got back in his car, and we followed him to the next exit, onto a windy side road, then onto a dirt road that had more craters than the moon and was not much wider than a base path. I mean, the trees and bushes were practically sticking into our car. It felt as though we were on that road for a hundred miles. With every mile, my feeling grew stronger and stronger that we would never be coming back. It felt like Deliverance, except we were in a car, not a canoe.
At one point I was a split-second away from slamming on the brakes, throwing the car into reverse, and hightailing it out of there as fast as my LTD could go. I’ll admit it: as a young black man in that situation, I couldn’t help thinking about lynchings and back-alley beatings and all the atrocities perpetrated on black people in previous eras. I half-expected a big old sheriff to come out of the woods and say, “You in a heap of trouble now, boy.”
I turned to Gretchen.
“Why do I have the feeling he wants to kill us?” I laughed nervously. Gretchen didn’t laugh. At all.
After half an eternity, we finally got to the station. I had no idea what town we were in, and still don’t. The car was caked in mud. In front of us was a dilapidated brick station house, not much bigger than a one-car garage. There was a chubby officer seated at a skinny desk in the front and two small holding cells in the back. A drunken old man was in one of them. The other one was ominously empty.
Maybe they’re saving it for us, I thought.
The jug-eared officer handed me the speeding ticket.
“Cash only,” he said. I wasn’t going to do any more debating. I just wanted us out of there. I pulled out $30 and handed it to him. I had a feeling the two officers would be dividing it up and going to a saloon. At that point I didn’t care. We got back in the Ford and somehow found our way back to the interstate. Every mile that we put between ourselves and the station house brought another wave of relief.
Gretchen and I arrived in Pittsburgh just before dawn. The Phillies were in town, and there was a ball game later that night. I never saw a trailer park or the inside of a station house in the boondocks again. I was in the major leagues now.
BACK IN ’75, I had no real thoughts about how off-the-field factors would play into winning. I was too excited to think about much else besides how I’d realize my dream. I looked around and saw the uniforms hanging in the lockers: Willie Stargell’s number 8, Richie Hebner’s number 3, Dave Parker’s number 39. Finally I arrived at the locker that belonged to me. There was a uniform waiting on a hanger, number 18, sparkling white double-knits with black and yellow trim. My name was across the top of the back. I ran my fingers over the letters. I wasn’t beyond the “R” when a shiver ran down my spine.
The only thing that made my first day in the big leagues less than perfect was that the greatest Pirate of them all, number 21, Roberto Clemente, was not a part of it.
The first Latin superstar, Clemente was a hero to me and a lot of the kids I played with growing up. He had a game all his own, with a great arm and that slashing swing and the way he’d slide into bases, almost as if he were flying into them. He had so much passion for the game, and I loved that about him too. I loved it when the Pirates came into Shea because chances were, you were going to see number 21 do something spectacular. I was drafted six months before Roberto died in that New Year’s Eve plane crash while making a relief mission to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. It would’ve been an incredible honor just to meet him, never mind wear the same uniform.
A couple of hours before game time, I found out that I would not have to wait long to make my debut. Rennie Stennett, the regular second baseman, had sprained his ankle. Danny Murtaugh, the manager, posted the lineup, and my name was at the top of the order. That’s how I found out I was playing. Danny was a sour, rotund man who was much more into chewing tobacco than being the welcome wagon. He wasn’t big on motivational speeches or niceties, or talking to rookies for that matter. Call me into his office and give me a pep talk, tell me he was glad to have me with the big club? Ask me how I liked playing for his son in Triple A? Forget it. My name was in the lineup and that was all I needed to know, and all he wanted me to know.
Besides, he had bigger fish to fry than a pan fish like me. We were in the middle of a pennant race, and that first game was against the Phillies, who trailed us in the division. I felt like the new kid at school, anxious but not nervous, knowing that if the Pirates thought enough of me to bring me up, I belonged on the field. Becoming one of the guys wasn’t even on my mind. If I did have any nerves, they were put to rest immediately by getting involved in the action early. I was in the middle of a 6-4-3 double play in the first inning, off the bat of the hard-hitting but lead-footed Greg “The Bull” Luzinski. I came up to the plate for the first time a minute or two later. As I heard myself introduced and walked toward the box, everything seemed big and bright, as if a million megawatts of power were bathing the stadium in light. Three Rivers looked like the Roman Colosseum to me, and I felt like a gladiator. I was surprised I wasn’t more nervous. I just felt completely alive and tuned in to the moment. All my senses were on overdrive, soaking up every bit of the experience.
The pitcher for the Phillies was a left-hander, Tom Underwood. He was a smallish guy like me who was drafted the same year as I was, a good pitcher, though not overpowering. I got a good pitch to hit and drove it to center, but Garry Maddox caught it on the fly.
Two innings later, in the bottom of the third, I came up with two on and nobody out. I settled into the box, got into my crouch. When Underwood wound and delivered, I was right on it. I swung and made solid contact, rapping a single to center field. As I ran to first, the Colosseum looked even bigger and brighter than before. I turned the bag, then retreated to first and found myself face-to-face with the muscled physique of Dick Allen, the Phillies’ first baseman. He was looking straight at me.
“Nice going, kid,” he said.
“Thank you, Mr. Allen,” I said. Dick Allen looked like a black Paul Bunyan to me. I was not just in awe of him, I was mesmerized by him. I kept looking at the rippling muscles in his arms and forearms. If I’d had a pen and paper, I might’ve asked for an autograph right there at first base. Also, this was a guy who could have very easily dismissed me as a nobody and here he was talking to me.
Dick Allen had a borderline Hall of Fame career. In his fifteen seasons, he would hit 351 home runs and drive in 1,119, while hitting .292. He was back with the Phillies at the tail end of his career, a guy who’d been the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1964, a seven-time All-Star, and winner of the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award with the White Sox in 1972.
“Never let anyone play your position,” Allen said. “It’s your position. Treat it like that. Play every day, kid. Don’t ever take a day off.”
“Thanks, Mr. Allen,” I said.
I took those words to heart, and for the bulk of my career I owned the second base position, particularly with the Yankees. In spring training, we call it winning a spot on the ball club, winning the battle for a particular position. That’s the first kind of winning that you have to do when you’re a major leaguer. Yes, you want to win games, but you also want to contribute as much as you can to the team’s success, and that means being out there on the field playing. Sure, you have to understand your role on the team, but I’m not sure too many guys really accept that they are backups or reserves. You have to believe that you belong out there, that you own that spot in the lineup. Just because you own it doesn’t mean that it can’t be taken from you, just like Gally took my sandwiches. You shouldn’t ever take it for granted that your name’s going to be on that lineup posted in the dugout.
The other thing about winning that I took from Dick Allen’s statement was this: have some respect for your elders in the game. The flip side of that is that veterans can, and I think should, feel the responsibility to pass on to younger players some of the values that are important to how you play the game and how you go about winning. Call it old-school schooling, but I was raised in the game and deeply influenced by older guys, many though not all of them African American, who felt it was their duty to help a young guy out.
On that Pirates team, Willie Stargell, who in 1976 was thirty-six years old but had been in the big leagues for fourteen years already, took on that role for me of big brother. And he was a big brother, but with an even bigger heart. Like a big brother, Willie taught me some good and painful lessons. The painful stuff wasn’t so bad, really, but Willie thought it was fun to beat on me—punch me in the biceps, put me in a stranglehold—all those big brother–like kinds of moves. The man was strong, and my arms were little pipe-cleaner kinds of things in comparison. Even though I was from the big city, which earned me one of the nicknames that Willie anointed me with—“Slick”—I still had to learn how to conduct myself like a major leaguer off the field.
“Pops” schooled me in how to dress, where to eat, what wines to order with meals. It wasn’t exactly like I was attending the Willie Stargell Finishing School, but it was close. And you have to remember, this was the mid-1970s: disco was in full swing, and the clothes we wore—well, the less said the better. Fortunately, I wasn’t too much of a trendsetter on my rookie salary of $16,000, so no jumpsuits, crocheted suits, or anything else too Superfly. I did like hats, or “brims,” as we sometimes called them. I remember one time I was in downtown Pittsburgh, eyeing an applejack hat, when I caught sight of Larry Demery, a young pitcher, in the window’s reflection. He stepped out of a turquoise green Lincoln Mark IV, complete with opera windows, a vinyl landau roof, and the Continental spare tire hump. You would have thought he was a pimp, given his platform shoes, knee-length suit coat, and fedora. Demery wasn’t alone in his fashion statement. I can remember Pops wearing a fur coat, Dave Parker and a few others with their man-purses, and the outrageous Dock Ellis looking like he stepped out of a clothing ad in Ebony magazine.
What I remember about that Pirates team and those first experiences in the major leagues was how the guys seemed to have an on-off switch. In the clubhouse, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Gloria Gaynor, the O’Jays, and other groups were playing on the boom boxes and guys were dancing around. Guys made regular visits to the clubhouse bulletin board to see what Willie Stargell and his camera were up to. Willie loved photography, and he would take pictures of guys at weird angles and then post them on the board so that others could enjoy the laugh and post a funny caption. That was our early form of social media, I guess. Willie caught me from below once and took a photo that earned me another nickname—“Goose Neck.” Seeing myself on that bulletin board, a midseason call-up, did make me feel like I belonged—even though a distorted, skinny-necked image of me was hardly flattering.
Come game time, though, while we weren’t deadly serious and expressionless, we had a more focused kind of fun. That team was loose and fun-loving, but we also knew how to win. One win in particular stands out. In late September, we beat the Cubs, 22–0, at Wrigley. Fewer than 5,000 fans sat in the stands, and not nearly that many at the end, when Stennett finished off the best hitting day of any player in the twentieth century with an eighth-inning triple.
That made him 7-for-7, at which point Murtaugh told me to go in and pinch-run for him.
Talk about being a caddy. But I didn’t mind. It was cool to have a front-row seat for history. I celebrated later in downtown Chicago, with my version of a night of debauchery: I went to a liquor store and, despite Willie’s tutoring, bought a bottle of Mogen David wine. I guess I hadn’t made the connection between ordering good wine in a restaurant and buying it in a store.
I went back to my hotel room, watched TV, and drank the bottle. I got a buzz on, and the next morning I had the first hangover of my life. That was it for me and Mogen David wine. I went back to my choirboy lifestyle.
On the last day of the season Murtaugh stopped by my locker. He was typically expansive.
“Ever play third base?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I said.
“Well, you’re playing it today,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
Half the regulars were out, resting for the playoffs, nursing their own hangovers from the final Saturday night of the season. Soon enough I had a sour stomach myself to deal with.
I handled my first chance okay, but the rest of the day . . . well, let’s just say I wasn’t asked to star in any how-to-play-the-hot-corner instructional videos. I caught the ball well enough. But the first basemen standing across the diamond—Willie Stargell in the first half of the game, Ed Kirkpatrick in the second half—looked like they were on the other side of the country. I airmailed the ball over their heads twice, then compensated by throwing a grounder to them on my next chance. We finished the day with seven errors. Three of them were by the rookie third baseman.
Raise your hand if you are surprised that I never made another big-league appearance at third base.
As much as that hurt my pride, I wasn’t too down about it. After all, we’d won the division and were heading to Cincinnati to take on the Big Red Machine in the playoffs. If you’re not old enough to remember the Reds of that era—and that year in particular—let me tell you this. They won 108 regular-season games. They won their division by 20 games. They were led by a Hall of Fame manager named Sparky Anderson. With the Yankees, we had the Core Four—Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera—who all have a shot at making the Hall of Fame. The Big Red Machine’s eight players most frequently thought of as members of the Big Red Machine included baseball’s all-time hit leader Pete Rose; three Hall of Fame players in Johnny Bench, Tony Pérez, and Joe Morgan (and Rose, whose on-field achievements are Hall of Fame–worthy); six National League MVP selections; four National League home run leading seasons; three NL batting champions; twenty-five Gold Glove winning seasons; and sixty-three collective All-Star Game appearances. The starting lineup of Bench, Rose, Morgan, Pérez, Concepción, Foster, Griffey, and Gerónimo (collectively referred to as “the Great Eight”) played eighty-eight games together during the 1975 and 1976 seasons and lost only nineteen.
Talk about winners.
And talk about exciting. Even though I knew that I wasn’t going to get a start in any of the games, I still had that kid’s night-before-Christmas feeling going through me. Stepping out onto the turf at Riverfront Stadium, with bunting draped all around the stands, the crisp October air, and early fall coloring everything with a special light, I’d arrived in one form of baseball heaven.
Still, I don’t want to idealize things too much. Yes, we all wanted to win because winning was important to us, but we had other motivations as well. In 1975 the minimum salary for a major league baseball player was $16,000 per year, with an average salary of just under $45,000. If you won it all that year and your team voted you a full share of the winner’s proceeds, you’d get just over an additional $19,000. If you lost in the World Series, you’d earn an additional $13,000 or so. I’m no math whiz, but with the help of a calculator, that $19,000 winner’s share was 42 percent of the average salary. If you were a guy earning the major league minimum, winning the World Series and getting a full share would mean you could double your yearly salary. Now, I’m a New York guy, and I know about bonuses and salaries and Wall Street and all that, but getting that kind of money on top of your salary is pretty strong motivation for winning. Pride is one thing. Being able to feed your family is another. To be fair, allowing for inflation, that $16,000 was equal to nearly $70,000 today, and $45,000 translates into the buying power of approximately $165,000. But the percentages remain the same whether you’re talking about 1975 or 2013 dollars.
As much as I loved the game, baseball was how I made my living, like every other major leaguer. I was thrilled to be in the playoffs, as were my teammates, but I heard something said with greater frequency as the season wound down: “Don’t be messing with my money.” That’s a polite rephrasing, but you get the point. I need this playoff check. I might have to get a job in the off-season (which a lot of guys did) if I don’t get that check. I want Christmas money to buy toys for the kids. I might want to take a vacation. I’ll have to make some adjustments in the house and maybe do some renovating. That postseason money was huge for us.
The positive side of what some might think of as greed is this: guys back then held each other accountable. If a guy wasn’t giving his all, or he was making too many errors of aggression that were contributing to losses, the veterans would get on him with a not so subtle and not so gentle reminder. Putting this in context helps you to better understand that old cliché about a lot being at stake in the playoffs. I didn’t want to get a job in the off-season to make ends meet. I was a young player, newly married, and I took my responsibilities as a husband and provider seriously. Like any regular wage earner concerned about who’s getting overtime and who isn’t, we had a deeply vested interest in getting to the playoffs and succeeding once we were there.
Of course, reality set in pretty quickly. We got swept in three games by the Big Red Machine, being outscored 19–7 in the process. As I mentioned, there are a lot of formulas for winning, and one of them says that pitching matchups are crucial to success—the righty/lefty matchup being one of the most highly touted of them. For that reason, Danny Murtaugh decided to go with three left-handed starters—Jerry Reuss, Jim Rooker, and John Candelaria—hoping to slow down left-handed-hitting Joe Morgan and Tony Pérez. Playing the so-called percentages didn’t work, obviously, but I already knew that playing by the book didn’t guarantee results.
What I didn’t know was that I was going to learn another lesson. Not everybody expresses their competitive desires in the same ways. Put another way, being a winner sometimes means being selfish. Like Dick Allen pointed out to me, you’ve got to want to keep your spot. That means sometimes playing when you aren’t at your best. That might be considered selfish, but there’s a fine line between self-interest, self-sacrifice, and the desire to win.
Maybe it isn’t fair to cite Dock Ellis as an example of how self-interest can come across in the wrong way. After all, today Dock is probably as well known for his claim that he threw a no-hitter—one in which he walked eight men but still gave up no hits—under the influence of LSD. Dock was his own man and went his own way both off and, apparently, on the field. The truth, though, is that he was a hell of a good pitcher too. You don’t go 19-9 and 15-7 in consecutive years like Dock did in ’71–’72 unless you’ve got some good stuff. In ’75, after a couple of mediocre years, Dock was slowed by injury a bit and only went 8-9. Still, he wanted to pitch in that series and made no bones about the fact that he wasn’t happy with Danny Murtaugh’s strategy.
Dock had a fit, and if he had proven anything in his big-league career, it was that you could never predict what he would do next, especially when he was angry. About three weeks after I was called up, Dock directed a clubhouse tirade at Murtaugh and was suspended without pay. During the 1971 playoffs against the San Francisco Giants, Dock was incensed because the bed in his hotel room was too small, so he went and found another room. That was nothing compared with the time Dock pitched such a fit with a Riverfront Stadium security guard in Cincinnati that he had to be subdued with Mace.
Dock was so enraged at Murtaugh about not getting a start that he protested by sitting in the dugout with curlers on, refusing to report to the bullpen. It reminded me of the stories I’d heard about the 1971 All-Star Game, when Dock was named to start for the NL against Vida Blue and said he wouldn’t do it, because there was no way baseball would let “two soul brothers” start in the All-Star Game. Baseball did indeed let two brothers start, and Dock wound up being the losing pitcher in the only All-Star Game the National League lost between 1963 and 1982.
He finally backed off in game 1 against the Reds and pitched two innings in relief in an 8–3 loss. Murtaugh called him in the next day and told Dock he had to apologize to the team.
Dock said okay, and Murtaugh called a meeting.
“I talked to Dock,” Murtaugh told us, standing in the center of the clubhouse. “We’re a team. We stay together no matter what. Now Dock’s got something he wants to say to you guys. Dock.”
With that, Murtaugh took a step back and Dock took a step forward. The curlers were gone. Everyone’s eyes were on him. I was ready for contrition.
We got something else entirely.
“You all look like a scared bunch of mother[bleep]ers,” Dock began. “That’s what I see in here. Guys who are scared. Guys who won’t play or don’t want to play because they’re candy-asses who don’t want to play against no Big Red Machine.” I looked at Murtaugh’s face, and he looked as red as Pete Rose’s hat. His body was almost quivering. I was afraid he might choke on his chaw of tobacco.
Dock continued. “Al Oliver is playing his heart out, and the rest of you look like you want to be hiding in the bathroom. What a bunch of pussies.”
Murtaugh had heard quite enough of Dock’s “apology.” He stepped up next to him, his squatty body pushing right up into Dock’s.
“All right, goddammit, that’s enough, Dock. You haven’t shown me a friggin’ thing. Nothing at all. You bail out on the team and sit on the bench in goddamn curlers, and now you are saying guys don’t want to play? You got no right to talk to anyone that way, you son of a bitch.” And then the five-foot-nine, fifty-seven-year-old Murtaugh called out the six-foot-three, thirty-year-old Ellis:
“C’mon, Dock, it’s you and me. Just give me three minutes.” Murtaugh put up his fists.
“Sit your little ass down, mother[bleep]er,” Dock said.
With that, Don Lefferts, one of Danny’s coaches, charged Ellis and, I’m not kidding, had to be restrained by five guys. Murtaugh tried to get at him too. Dock was screaming and cursing—almost everybody was it seemed.
I stood by my locker, shell-shocked. All I could think was, Oh my God. I can’t believe stuff like this goes on in the big leagues.
I had no idea then, but Dock’s display would serve me well in the coming years after I joined the Yankees and played through the “Bronx Zoo” years. At the time Dock went off, I was pretty surprised, but I later saw it in another light. Dock didn’t go about it the right way, but he was trying to say that he wanted the ball badly because, as a starting pitcher, that’s your job. He wanted to pitch, and I wanted to play. He bitched about it, but I didn’t.
Which of us was more eager to win? Did his more dramatic performance mean that he cared more than I did? If I didn’t throw my helmet down in disgust when I thought I was a victim of a bad call, or if I failed to come through in the clutch, did that mean I cared less than Dock did? Or later, as a manager, if I didn’t get run from a game, did that mean I didn’t have my players’ backs or care enough about them to protect them when they went off? Questions like these would stick with me throughout my career; I still struggle with them today.
I was very fortunate that my first experience in the major leagues was with a winning team, a playoff team. But little in this game, or in life, is black and white. I wasn’t in the Reds’ clubhouse, so I have no idea if they had the same kinds of internal tensions and blowups that the Pirates had in that series. From the outside, they looked like a cohesive group of All-American-type guys. Pete Rose was lovably pugnacious, Johnny Bench the quintessential boy next door, Tony Pérez the cool, laidback Hispanic guy. But who knew what boiled and bubbled beneath that surface appearance? Teams weren’t subjected to the kind of media and social media scrutiny that they are today, and the money wasn’t as great as it is now, so fans seemed less interested in the kind of dirt that doesn’t cover an infield.
All I know is that when I was a fan and a player in the ’70s before I got to the big leagues, the Reds and Athletics were the dominant teams in major league baseball. The Oakland A’s of that era seemed to be the complete opposite of the squeaky clean Reds. That’s all been talked about and documented before, so I’m not going to go into a whole lot of detail here, except to say that the spectrum with “creative tension” at one end and the “united clubhouse” at the other is often held up as an ideal. Both ends of this spectrum, though, may be myths. All I know is that talent can overcome a whole lot and winning on the field can cure a lot of what ails an organization off of it.
And I also know for certain that being on a championship-caliber ball club as a young player had an impact on me as a player, coach, and manager down the line. At the time, though, I was too busy enjoying the winning feeling, and then too eager to rid myself of the hateful feeling of having failed to win it all, to really give it much thought. Now that I’ve put some distance between myself and my playing days, some larger patterns emerge. I’ve moved beyond the simple “winning is good, losing is bad” duality, though I’ve got to say—there are times when I wish it could still be that simple.
I’m a big sports fan, so I hear things like this all the time. Best golfer to never win a major championship. Greatest player to never win a Super Bowl, an NBA Championship, a World Series ring, the Stanley Cup. As much as I love the game, I think my relationship with it would have been different—maybe not terrible, but definitely not as good—if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to be involved in so many championships in my professional career. As you’ll recall, Gally Gonzalez helped to fire the newly formed clay of my desire to win into a hardened vessel—kind of like a trophy with a figure of Mickey Mantle at bat atop a wooden base. Things weren’t like they are today with the “everybody’s a winner, everybody deserves a trophy” mentality. I coveted prizes for victory both then and now.
What fascinates me about winning is that as much as there are certain formulas for winning in baseball—and here I’m talking about how to build a championship-caliber ball club, not just how to win an individual game—not everyone agrees completely about how to build a winner. Sure, most would agree that being strong up the middle of the diamond is important, but exceptions come to mind—not every winning team has that combination of skills. Some teams stress pitching and defense. Others want to mash and bash. I can be really simple about all this and say that you have to score more runs far more often than your opponent does, but we also know that there’s more than one way to skin that cat.
Every player who fields the ball has to make the transition of getting the ball out of the glove and into his throwing hand. You do that ever since you first picked up a ball and glove, repeating that simple act thousands and thousands of times, and it becomes second nature. As a middle infielder, the longer you play the game the higher you climb up baseball’s ladder and the more quickly you’re expected to be able to make that move. A strong arm can make up for some of the bobbles that inevitably result when you move from fielding a ball to throwing a ball, but a lot of those bang-bang plays that don’t go your way might be a result of a fractionally too slow transition.
As ballplayers, we have to make all kinds of other transitions, just as everyone has to do in their lives. Besides being exposed to winning organizations early in my career, I believe that another reason why I succeeded in the game was that from the very beginning of my career I made transitions. Good fielders have soft hands, which means that they give in to the force of a batted ball and don’t fight it with force. I know that the idea of a player being “soft” usually has a negative association, but I use the word in a different way in this context. Knowing how to make transitions and developing a temperament that balances giving in to the ball with going after it are important skills to achieve success.
If Willie Stargell had me enrolled in his finishing school, then my trade to the Yankees was like going off to college and making that pivotal transition from something known and comfortable to something unknown. Not that the Pirates weren’t a first-rate organization. I just wasn’t with them long enough on the major league level to really absorb as much as I needed to. I had headed off to Caracas, Venezuela, to play winter ball and wasn’t there but a week or two when my mother called to report that the papers were full of stories about a rumored deal that would bring me to the Yankees. That was the first I’d ever heard of it. I had done pretty well in the minor leagues, and the Pirates had made it clear they thought highly of me. I believed I was going to be in Pittsburgh for the rest of my career.
The rest of my career in Pittsburgh ended up being a few more weeks.
The Good with the Bad
Whether I was going home on the F train to Brooklyn as a teen or driving over the George Washington Bridge back to Jersey as an adult, winning and losing clung to me like the dirt on my slide-stained uniform—alternately an emblem of pride and a symbol of baseball’s original sin. Heaven and hell. I’ve been to both in my days in New York baseball, but in either case, given a choice of where to play, there was no place I would rather have been than my hometown.
Fortunately, I was able to put some distance between myself and thoughts of New York City and the trade rumors that were swirling around me. I went to Venezuela to play in the Winter League, still believing that I needed more work on my game, especially if I was to master all the techniques necessary to play second base effectively in the major leagues. I enjoyed playing in Venezuela, but didn’t like being away from family. If I wanted to succeed, that meant making sacrifices. This was the era before telecommunications expanded—back in the late ’70s, only CEOs or the CIA made regular phone calls to Latin American countries. So when word came down that Gabe Paul, the Yankees’ general manager, was calling from New York to talk to me, I immediately suspected that some kind of coup was going on.
“Welcome to the Yankees,” Gabe said. “You’re coming home.”
I was almost as numb when I heard Gabe’s words as I was when Steve Demeter had told me five months before that I was going to the big leagues. I hadn’t really put any stock in the trade rumors. Now I found out they were not rumors at all. Faster than you can say Bobby Richardson I was a New York Yankee second baseman. I was going back to New York City. I couldn’t wait to tell Gretchen. The Mets were my team as a kid, but New York is New York. I was going to play my next big league game in front of my family and friends, in the newly renovated Yankee Stadium. I liked the sound of this a lot.
“Thank you, Mr. Paul,” I said.
The official account of the trade states that on December 11, 1975, the Yankees traded George “Doc” Medich, a twenty-seven-year-old pitcher who had won forty-nine games in the previous three years, in return for Ken Brett, Dock Ellis, and me. Given Dock’s playoff explosion, it was no surprise that he was dealt. Despite my excitement about being able to play in New York, I was a little bit hurt. The Pirates were the team that drafted me and nurtured me in my first years as a pro. They were one of the finest organizations in Major League Baseball and were on a run of success that any team would envy—from 1970 to 1980 they would win their division six of those years. From 1965 to 1975 the Yankees failed to win their division. You take the good with the bad was what I’d been raised to believe. Now I was going to have to put those words to the test.
You can look at a trade one of two ways. One team doesn’t want me. Or another team does.
The Pirates had been like my first girlfriend, and now she was rejecting me. All the way back in high school they had been one of the original teams interested in me. They weren’t my only suitors back then, but our courtship had gone on for a long time.
By the time I was a senior at Tilden High School in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the spring of 1972, scouts from seventeen big-league organizations had come out to see me play. I didn’t keep track, but Herb Abramowicz, the athletic director and head baseball coach, did. He knew who was there, and why, and it had nothing to do with the amenities. The Tilden field didn’t even have a dugout. We just sat on a bench along a chain-link fence, with the guy closest to the plate always wearing a glove, so he wouldn’t die by foul ball. Five or six feet behind the fence on the third-base side was the school building itself. (No, there wasn’t a lot of foul territory to cover in the big city.)
The Twins were regulars at my games. Their scouts would set up behind the third-base fence. The Mets came out too. Their scout was named Len Scott, and he was the one I was the happiest to see. The Mets, after all, were my team. Everyone else was scouting me as a shortstop, but Len Scott told me the Mets liked me as a catcher, even though I was a welterweight. I didn’t catch too often, but I gunned down a couple of base runners and made some good blocks one game when Len was there, and I guess he never forgot that. Whenever Len came to Flatbush, Coach A and I would have the same conversation.
“Coach, can I catch today? I really want to catch,” I’d say.
“No, you can’t. You’re my shortstop. You are not a catcher.”
Herb wasn’t just a good coach. He was as protective as a father, forever looking out for me. He always batted me leadoff instead of my usual number-three spot when scouts were at the game, so they’d maybe get to see an extra at-bat. No matter how often I pestered him to let me get behind the plate—I liked the equipment and loved being involved in every pitch—he would never let me sway him.
“I’m not going to let you get hurt catching for one team when sixteen other teams see you as a middle infielder,” he said.
Herb would get annoyed at the scouts all the time because every one of them wanted to run me before the game, time me from home to first. “You’re going to wear the kid out before he even plays,” Herb complained to a scout once. “Why can’t one of you time him and be done with it?”
“That’s not how it works, Herb,” the scout replied. “We all have to clock him for ourselves.” I can still see Herb walking away, shaking his head, grumbling beneath his bushy mustache about how silly it was for me to run over and over again, as if all the stopwatches were different. If they had just asked, Herb would’ve told them: “Hell, yes, he can run.”
I saw more of one scout than anybody else. His name was Dutch Deutsch. He worked for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a square-jawed, square-bodied man with dark hair, an aluminum beach chair he’d set up behind the plate, and the salt-of-the-earth demeanor that most baseball scouts possess. If you ask me, scouts are some of the best people in baseball, and some of the most knowledgeable. They run around from ball field to ball field, and where I’m from, they are often doing it at 42-degree games in April, all in the hope of finding the proverbial diamond in the rough. They’re underpaid and overlooked, doing what they do because they love watching games and finding players, a task that’s much harder than most people realize. Scouts aren’t scouting how good a kid is now; they are scouting how good he can be, where he is going to project a few years down the road. There is a big difference. How do you know when a player is going to stop improving? How do you get a read on who will be able to hit a big-league curveball and who won’t? It’s tricky stuff. In 1984 the Mets had the number-one overall pick and drafted Shawn Abner. They passed on Mark McGwire. Eight years later, the Cincinnati Reds took an outfielder named Chad Mottola and didn’t take a shortstop named Derek Jeter.
So you never know.
The first time I met Dutch Deutsch was before one of those frigid early-spring games. He came up to me beforehand, introduced himself, and told me he was looking forward to seeing me play.
“Thanks for coming out,” I said. We talked for a minute or two, and then he handed me his Pirates business card. I’d never held a business card before. Not too many people who I knew in Brownsville were walking around with them. (Gang members didn’t typically use them much either.) When Dutch Deutsch gave me his card, it was almost like a portal to another world, a big-time world.
A big-league world.
In my impressionable, seventeen-year-old mind, it meant that maybe I could be a Pittsburgh Pirate one day, that maybe my long-held dreams could come true.
This is for me? To keep? I thought as I ran my finger over the yellow background with the swashbuckling Pirate on it. It took me back to all the times I’d stood in front of the mirror and done my Pirate stances: the great Roberto Clemente, with his big leg kick and his slashing swing; Matty Alou, with his hands choked almost halfway up the bat; and Willie Stargell, with his signature twirl of the bat, which looked like a matchstick against his big body.
Dutch wasn’t a big talker, but I always knew when he was there, and always made extra sure to do everything right when he was. He didn’t need to sell me on the Pittsburgh Pirates one bit. It probably seems from another millennium to long-suffering Pirate fans, but the Bucs of that era were in the hunt every year. They weren’t only the defending World Series champions, they were a regular rainbow coalition, and I liked that about them too. They had star players who were white (Richie Hebner, Steve Blass, and Bob Moose), black (Stargell, Al Oliver, and Dave Cash), and Latin (Roberto Clemente, Manny Sanguillén, and Vic Davalillo). They had Dock Ellis in the rotation and Dave Giusti in the pen. The Pirates won ninety-six games and the NL East that year, 1972, and had a ton of young talent in the pipeline.
On June 6, I officially joined the pipeline.
That was the day of baseball’s annual June free-agent draft. The Pirates’ top pick was a shortstop named Dwayne Peltier, a big, blond-haired California kid who looked as if he’d stepped off the cover of a Beach Boys album. I heard he got a $60,000 signing bonus. Six rounds later, the Pirates called my name, with the 167th pick of the draft, right after the A’s selected a pitcher from Alabama named Clarence Harrell and the Orioles selected an outfielder from Georgia named Nathaniel Clayton. I never met Clarence or Nathaniel, but I’m sure they had the same dream I did.
There wasn’t much press about the draft in those days. This was long before webcasts, and even before ESPN became the worldwide leader in sports news. Nobody was blogging about who the Expos or Angels should take with their first picks. Scott Boras wasn’t compiling dossiers to prove why the youngsters he was advising were worth a gazillion dollars. Mr. Abramowicz found out about the Pirates’ selecting me from a newspaper reporter. About 1:00 PM, just after lunch, he called me into his office. It was a cramped, windowless space bulging with file cabinets and training equipment and desks covered with game schedules and papers. The air smelled like liniment.
“Congratulations, Willie,” Herb said. “Dutch Deutsch and the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted you on the seventh round today.” He reached across his desk to shake my hand. I don’t think I even moved. I let the words sink in for a minute. The Pittsburgh Pirates. Seventh round. After all those years playing for funeral homes and grocery stores and the Junior Mets, I just sat there and smelled the liniment and thought about what it might feel like to put on a big-league uniform, a Pirates uniform.
“Thanks, Coach. Thanks a lot. This is great,” I said. If my reaction sounds low-key, well, it was. It was a major moment in my life, definitely, but as I sat there in Herb’s office I can’t tell you that it felt like some watershed event. I was happy for sure, but I knew this was just the beginning—that there was a lot of work to be done and a lot of people to convince. Having your name called was no guarantee. Hell, ten of the guys chosen on the first round that year—including Dwayne Peltier and a catcher the Mets coveted much more than me, Richard Bengston—never made it out of the minor leagues. I don’t remember getting giddy or cutting out of school or getting carried around on anybody’s shoulders. Honestly, I thought I had a good chance to be drafted and would’ve been more surprised if I hadn’t been. Maybe I was trying to affect some professional detachment, wanting to act cool.
Mostly I just wanted to start playing some ball.
The next step was to sign a contract. I didn’t have an agent or a clue about how these things were supposed to be handled, so I followed the Pirates’ lead. Dutch made it clear from the beginning that I wouldn’t be anywhere near the Dwayne Peltier bonus neighborhood. More likely I would be in the loose-change neighborhood. I didn’t care. I wanted to sign. The Pirates knew that.
And the Pirates took advantage of that.
Shortly after the draft, Dutch Deutsch showed up for one of my games at the Parade Grounds. He acted as if he’d been there before, and I am sure he had, scouting the Torres or Joe Pepitone or John Candelaria, another Brooklynite the Pirates took that year (on the second round). There were close to 1,000 fans in the stands and a couple of guys in suits along with Dutch Deutsch. I was playing an American Legion game with Cummings Brothers Post. Dutch came over and shook my hand and explained that he was hoping to sign me quickly so I could get right down to Bradenton, Florida, to get started in rookie ball. Of course, I’d already been drafted, but I was still eager to put on a good show that day, maybe earn myself a few more bucks. I trotted out to short in the first inning. I was very aware of being watched. I paid close attention to my form, got down nice and low on the grounders in warm-ups, and fired my throws to first.
I didn’t have to wait long for my first chance. With one out in the top of the first, a routine grounder came pretty much right to me. I got in front of it. Got set.
And then I let the ball go right through my legs. I turned and looked behind me and saw the worst sight an infielder can see: the ball you booted bouncing into the outfield. Oh geez, of all the times to commit a horrible error. I didn’t think it would make the Pirates retract their draft choice, but it definitely wasn’t the impression I was looking to make.
“He looked like the Golden Gate Bridge on that one,” one of the suits said. I learned about this comment from my old friend Joe Laboy, who was in the stands alongside them. Joe immediately took charge of the Neighborhood Defense Network.
“Hey, you know how many rocks are on that field?” Joe said. In my first at-bat, I blistered a line drive to right-center and got a triple out of it. Joe naturally wanted to make sure it was fully noted.
“Look at that kid run!” Joe exclaimed. It probably wasn’t the most subtle attempt of a representative of mine to do my bidding, but it was the first.
It was the strangest day I ever had at a ball field. At the end of each inning, I’d leave the dugout and walk over to a nearby car where Dutch and the suits were waiting, spikes click-clacking on the asphalt. We’d talk for a minute or two, then I’d clack back to the game. I remember doing this about half a dozen times. Maybe it was only two or three times, I don’t know, but in my memory I see myself doing more clacking than hacking that day.
Mr. Williams, the father of my friend Gordon and my baseball coach, was there to advise me. My father—who almost never could get time off from work to see my games—was there too. The car was pretty crowded. We—well, Mr. Williams—went back and forth over the course of a few innings. With each passing inning I could sense that Dutch Deutsch was getting increasingly antsy about getting this done. (Scouts are always ready to get naive kids to put their John Hancocks down. It’s not evil, just business. And the kids? Like me, they always want to sign. Level playing field? Nope.) The Pirates were offering me $5,000 to sign. Dutch was ratcheting up the pressure.
An ultimatum? It was short of that, but not by much.
“I’ve got this contract right here—a contract for you to be a professional baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Do you want to play ball or not?” Dutch paused and let me digest the weight of the moment. He looked serious and almost threatening. “I have a flight back to Pittsburgh in a couple of hours. I’d really like to have this signed contract in my hand when I do.”
I felt my insides tighten. My whole future, my life dream, was tied up in those papers in Dutch Deutsch’s hand. Do you know how many times I drove by Shea Stadium when I was a kid, staring at it from the back window until it disappeared from view? Do you know how often I told myself, I’m going to play in that park some day? I wished that I had more time to think. But I didn’t. I was not going to play a game of chicken with a professional baseball team. I was not. With the grudging approval of Mr. Williams, I grabbed his pen and the contract and signed my name—not Mickey—and became a member of the Pirates organization.
We shook hands, and I headed back to the field. Mr. Williams saw Joe Laboy and gave him a hug. “Your buddy is a professional ballplayer,” Mr. Williams said. I’d played ball with Joe for a good piece of my life. He looked as happy as if he’d been drafted himself.
And how did I feel? I felt great. Five thousand bucks? My father didn’t make a whole lot more than that in an entire year. I wasn’t fretting over the money Dwayne Peltier got. In the Randolph orbit, this was some serious dough. As soon as the check came in, I bought my parents a console TV, and I bought myself a blue suit at a discount clothing store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Somewhere there is a photo of me in that suit, all 100 percent polyester of it, probably thinking I should be on the cover of Esquire, or at least Ebony.
A couple of days later, the suit and I headed for Bradenton and the compound they call Pirate City. I hadn’t even graduated from high school yet, but my grades were fine and my tests were done, so the Tilden administrators let me go a couple of weeks early—though it took a lot of badgering on Coach A’s part to get it done.
“What’s the purpose of high school? Isn’t it to help kids get ahead and get a job?” Coach A argued to the resistant administrators. “Well, he’s got a job, so why not let him get started at it?” The Pirates were more understanding when it came time for me to leave Pirate City for a few days to go back to Brooklyn for graduation. I was the first in my family to graduate high school. It would’ve crushed my mother if I’d missed it.
It’s hard to believe anyplace could be hotter than summer in Bradenton, on the humidity-drenched west coast of Florida. We put in full days in the broiling Florida sun, and the sweat never stopped pouring off me. I didn’t have any weight to lose, but I lost it anyway. On day 1 there was another adjustment to make: I was no longer a shortstop. The Pirates already had a promising shortstop in their system, Craig Reynolds, who they drafted first in 1971. Now they had a bunch more money tied up in Peltier. The left side of the infield was getting crowded.
They told me they thought my arm was better suited to playing second. I was an all-city shortstop and I took a lot of pride in that, but Mr. Abramowicz had already forewarned me that they might want me to switch positions, and short of them making me a peanut vendor, his attitude was: wherever they want you to play, go play it the best way you know how. Ernie Banks changed positions. So did Mickey Mantle. Was I supposed to tell the Pirates, “Sorry, guys, I’m going back to the ghetto”?
Like a dutiful soldier who doesn’t ask questions and does what he’s ordered to do, I took on the task of becoming a second baseman. I did have some thoughts about Jackie Robinson playing the same position, and in my head I ran down the list of other guys who had made it into the Hall of Fame at that position. I wasn’t thinking that I might join them someday, but I wanted to know what the standards for excellence were. I knew that second basemen typically weren’t expected to hit for much power or really be any kind of major offensive threat. Turning the double play, being rock-solid overall defensively, and maybe stealing a few bases were all more important.
I did a little bit of research, and the one name that stood out for me, because he was a Pirate and because one home run he hit was such a part of baseball history that I couldn’t help but have heard of him before, was Bill Mazeroski. He’s still the only player to hit a walk-off home run to win Game 7 of the World Series. Most of the names on the list solidified my ideas about what an ideal second baseman should be. To me, the one exception was Rogers Hornsby. In his twenty-three seasons, he had 2,930 hits and 301 home runs, and he hit .358. Impressive numbers for anyone playing any position. Like I said, I didn’t have my sights set on topping those numbers, but it was good to know what the gold standard was. Later on, Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs would be considered a strong offensive second baseman. Just to put into perspective how good Hornsby was, in seven fewer seasons Sandberg had 2,386 hits and 282 home runs and hit .285, a full 73 percentage points lower. Amazing.
A Pirates coach, Gene Baker, was instrumental in helping me make the transition. He was there in rookie ball, and I was too green to know it but the man was a Negro League legend. To me, he was this older black gentleman, a very dignified man who was worthy of my respect simply because he was a coach and my elder. Later in my career, when I became a bit of an amateur historian about the Negro Leagues and was more conscious of the role that black players following Jackie Robinson played in the game, I was even more impressed with Gene Baker. He had a nice major league career with the Cubs and the Pirates. He also became the first African American manager in organized baseball when the Pirates named him to head their Batavia team in the New York–Penn League. In 1962 he became the second black coach (after Buck O’Neil) in the major leagues.
He spent hours working with me, hitting me hundreds of ground balls, talking about positioning, helping me with my footwork around the bag, and demonstrating the kind of dedicated approach to teaching that later on made me want to be a coach. He passed on in 1999, and I regret not ever getting in touch with him to really thank him for all that he did for me.
I also owed a thank-you to God and my parents. I don’t know if it was my natural athleticism or what, but I immediately felt comfortable with playing the position. I felt like I’d been there all my life and had never played shortstop. The Pirates really knew what they were doing because in no time my natural assets, quick hands, and quick feet helped me develop the rhythm needed to play second base. That doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard at it, because I did, but seeing some positive results early on made it easier to do that.
ON THE DAY I was officially introduced as a Yankee, in the winter of 1975, Dock Ellis and I had a snowball fight outside the Stadium. We winged a few at each other—Dock wasn’t wearing his curlers, and he wasn’t on LSD as far as I know—and then I went up to the Yankee offices to see Gabe Paul. Gabe had a contract for me to sign. I still had neither an agent nor any idea of my value to the Yankees. I was terrified to negotiate and ready to agree to almost any number the Yankees threw out there.
Maybe I wasn’t as naive as I was when Dutch Deutsch first signed me, but I was still pretty green.
The contract Gabe put in front of me was for $19,000, the major league minimum. When he put the paperwork on the desk, he looked at me sternly, as a schoolmaster would.
“Don’t look at the hole in the doughnut. Look at the whole doughnut,” he said.
I thought about asking him what he was talking about, but decided not to. I did as he asked and regretted it almost immediately, especially after I told Dock about what happened. Dock was his typically restrained self.
“You stupid son of a bitch!” Dock said. “You are a goddamn fool! You think the Yankees made this trade to get my tired ass? To get Ken Brett? No, you idiot, they wanted you. You were the key to everything. And now Gabe Paul talks to you about doughnuts and you sign for what they put in front of you.”
Because of my naïveté, I was woefully underpaid that year and as a result remained underpaid for most of my career. Few people have any tolerance for ballplayers complaining about money, and I don’t blame them. Who wants to hear a fiscal tale of woe from someone in the top 1 percent of the income chart in this country? The fact remains, however, that for the industry I was in, and for a guy who made six All-Star teams, I got shorted pretty regularly. Most of that was nobody’s fault but my own, for not recognizing my value and negotiating accordingly. I know people in other businesses, and they tell me that the same thing is true in any business. When you’re starting out, companies take advantage of a lot of new hires, especially those in their first few years in the business. If you don’t negotiate hard and get what you really deserve at the start, you’re always going to be operating out of a deficit the rest of your career.
But when I was a victim of the owners’ collusion to keep salaries down in the late 1980s, it was definitely not my fault. I was a free agent, a pretty attractive free agent, and for a long time there wasn’t a single offer to be found. How does that happen exactly? My highest salary for a season was $1.1 million. Again, you won’t hear me pleading poverty, because that would be offensive to people who really are struggling to support their families, but when you see one guy after another come to the Bronx and score a huge payday and then leave again, without ever winning anything, you start to wonder when it will become your turn.
When it goes on long enough, it starts to eat at you.
When I reported to Fort Lauderdale in the spring of 1976, though, money was the last thing on my mind. I was there to win a job and went about it in my usual way: I shut up and played ball. I didn’t want to be rude or disrespectful to anybody, but I also wasn’t going to be carefree and frivolous. And no matter what Dock Ellis told me about being the key to the whole deal, I sure wasn’t taking anything for granted.
The first guy to puncture my armor was the late Catfish Hunter. He was another player I grew up watching, and I could hardly believe I was sharing a uniform with him now, after he became George Steinbrenner’s first big free-agent catch. Just to put things in perspective, in 1975 Catfish would earn $640,000. He was one of four players in six figures that year, and Ken Holtzman, another free-agent signee, was next in line at $165,000, followed by Graig Nettles and Thurman Munson at $120,000 each. Catfish was a big fish obviously.
No one on that ’76 team held that salary against Catfish. Everybody loved the guy. He was one of the best teammates you could ever have, and a needler without peer. He had the rare gift of being able to deliver his barbs without anybody getting mad at him, partly because of his homespun, North Carolina farmer drawl, but mostly because there was never any mean-spiritedness behind what he said. He saved some of his best lines for Reggie, his old teammate from Oakland. After they came out with the Reggie! Bar, Catfish said, “It’s the only candy bar that when you unwrap it, it tells you how good it is.”
I’ll tell you what sort of guy Catfish was. In that first spring we were playing an intrasquad game. Catfish was on the mound. First time up, I got a good pitch to hit and drilled a line-drive single. Second time up, I got another good pitch to hit and lined a double to right-center. I stood on second base, feeling as good and confident as I ever had as a ballplayer. I came out of that game thinking, Wow, if I can hit like that off Catfish Hunter, I think I’m going to do all right.
Only later did I realize that Catfish served those cookies to me on purpose. “Cookie” is ballplayer slang for a hittable, batting-practice fastball. Catfish wanted to help out a kid teammate, help him get properly baptized as a Yankee. He was a highly prized and highly paid pitcher. His spot in the rotation was secure. What did he have to lose by boosting a rookie’s confidence? Nothing. What did he have to gain? An even more confident second baseman who could contribute to wins. A smart move on his part. I never got a chance to thank Catfish for that, but I know that’s exactly what he was doing.
It was during those early days in spring training that I came to know our manager, Billy Martin, a whole lot better. I know that a lot of other players don’t hold Billy Martin in very high regard, but I do. I guess it was because he and I played the same position and had the same “take no prisoners, this is war” approach to the game that from the very beginning he seemed to respect and like about me. I’d heard of Billy growing up when he was the manager of the Twins teams that featured Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew. I’d seen footage of him as a Yankee player making a nice play on a ball that Jackie Robinson hit over the mound. Billy ranged over, made a shoestring catch, and with that the very quick Mr. Robinson was out.
When I went to the Yankees, I was pleased to be managed by a man who was a part of the second base brotherhood. I thought I could learn a lot from him, and I did. In some ways, Billy was like that inexplicable father who has four sons but seems to favor one of them and gives the other three a lot of crap. I can’t explain why that was really, but Billy always treated me well, asked about my family, and reserved his bad-tempered behavior for others. As trivial as this may sound, we both had wives named Gretchen and maybe that made it easier for Billy to remember mine and to ask about her.
The first time I saw Billy Martin was that first spring training with the Yankees. He was hitting ground balls to some of the infielders; to Billy, even routine practice was to be approached with intensity. I could see him bearing down with that fungo bat in his hands, and I tried to match his intensity. As the session progressed, Billy started to hit the ball harder and harder at me and to my right and to my left. I was determined to not let him get one past me. We were both sizing each other up, and I believe we came to the same conclusion. I was as tough as the calluses that developed on that man’s hands from all those ground balls he tried to rocket past me.
I also knew that Billy liked small ball—bunting, moving guys over, stealing bases—and that was my game as well. That first spring training, I walked in there not thinking that the job was mine, but also not really thinking about how my competition for the position was going to be. I was just focused on getting the job done, doing the little things that I needed to do to play the game the right way. I think that my not thinking about what my possible role was going to be and focusing on just playing the game the way I’d been taught made that first Yankee spring training less intimidating than it might have been.
That was especially helpful to me at the start of that first year on the Yankees, when I went hitless in nine at-bats before getting my first American League hit, and my first big-league home run, off Jim Palmer. It came in our fourth game, in Baltimore, in support of Danny Murtaugh’s favorite pitcher, Dock Ellis, and helped me relax as we returned to the Stadium two days later.
It was April 15, 1976, the grand reopening of the renovated Yankee Stadium. The sunshine was brilliant. When I walked down the tunnel into the dugout and looked out on the field, it looked as if it had been dipped in gold. I gazed up at the massive upper deck and thought, It looks like it goes all the way to heaven.
I had a couple of dozen family members and friends on hand to mark the occasion, and there were dignitaries there as well: Mrs. Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford. Bob Shawkey, who started the first game in Yankee Stadium when it opened in 1923, threw out the first pitch in the remodeled Stadium too. We all came away happy. The Yankees won, 11–4, and I went 2-for-4 with two runs scored and a stolen base. I wound up hitting .400 in April, and with Billy Martin batting me eighth and looking out for me, I adjusted comfortably to the baseball rhythms in the Bronx.
The thing that strikes me now about that first game in the then-new Yankee Stadium was how the Yankees’ ceremonies were always such great combinations of drama and history. Having just recently attended the retirement ceremony for Mariano Rivera, I can say that the organization continues to excel in that regard. More on Mo and that wonderful night in the Bronx later on, but as a young player, I don’t think I appreciated as much as I do today the fact that Mrs. Babe Ruth was there the first time I put on the home pinstripes.
So many people have asked me about “the Yankee Way”—the organization’s sense of tradition and its effect on the mind-set of players. Going back to my comparison of the Willie Stargell finishing school in Pittsburgh with the Yankees as “college,” here’s where that analogy falls apart. Yes, I did receive more of an education with the Yankees, but it wasn’t as though, after getting that phone call from Gabe Paul, or when I showed up for spring training, I was handed a syllabus for the course or a handbook of student conduct that I was to follow.
We talk about “intangibles” in sports all the time and use that word because it describes things that we can’t easily pin down statistically or physically, that we can’t define in precise and measurable ways. When I joined the Yankees, no one sat me down and explained, say, the ten things I had to do to follow the Yankee Way. Some of it I picked up by observation, and the rest I just kind of sensed. I know that’s not a very good explanation of the Yankee Way, but in some intangible way things did feel different in the Yankee clubhouse and on the field in that stadium.
Today we might talk about it in terms of branding, but back then I just felt that putting on that uniform, which had been unchanged for more than half a century except for wool and flannel being replaced by polyester blends, made me a part of the history and tradition of the organization. Compare what I was wearing in my short stint with the Pirates to the Yankee uniforms. Those buttonless jerseys and the elastic-waistband pants may have been fly in the disco era, but looking back on that and the uniforms of other teams like the Padres and the Astros and some others, I have to wonder, “What the hell were they thinking?” Baseball’s appeal to the fans has always been about its history, and those attempts to make players look contemporary now seem kind of laughable. At the time I didn’t mind, but when I joined the Yankees—and even later when I managed the Mets and was involved in changing the mind-set and culture of the organization—I understood even more what I had sensed in my first full year in the big leagues.
Being a New York City native, I’d heard and read about Mr. Steinbrenner taking over in 1973 as owner of the Yankees. He had talked about changing the Yankee culture and restoring the team to its historic legacy. I knew that he was a very ambitious guy, and he was a presence during spring training. During one spring training years later, his office was housed inside a trailer parked outside the ball field. I’d see him walking into and out of that thing, like a construction foreman minus the hard hat and the rolled-up blueprints, and was struck by how he carried himself. I can’t say he strutted, but he was kind of like those ships he’d made his money with—he cut through the air with a businesslike demeanor that said, “Out of my way.” By then I’d been with the team for a few years, but I still treated him the same way I had during my rookie season—like a school’s principal. When I saw him coming my way, I’d alter course and sail off in another direction. When we did finally meet, I was as polite as I could be, just as my parents had taught me, and he was definitely Mr. Steinbrenner, and not George and not the Boss, to me.
George Steinbrenner might have seemed like a meddling micro-manager, and we didn’t always like his rules about facial hair and hair length and all the rest of that, but in retrospect, I can see why he was doing the things he was. Later on, when I left the Yankee organization, I felt a difference. How much that Yankee tradition contributed to winning, I can’t really say, but I know that history and its effects linger. Knowing that you were stepping to the plate where all those greats had dug in as well might not translate into hitting twenty points higher, but it did have an effect on how you felt about yourself.
One part of the Yankee tradition didn’t have the effect on me that you might think. Monument Park was originally a tribute to Miller Huggins, the manager who died suddenly in 1929. Like a lot of other ballparks, the original Yankee Stadium had a flagpole that was in the field of play. With the center-field fence standing 500 feet away from home plate, it wasn’t like that flagpole was wreaking havoc on outfielders and knocking down fly balls. Eventually, various other Yankees got plaques like Huggins did, memorial plaques went up on the fence, and the fence was moved in to 461 feet. By the time I played there in 1975 the monuments were outside the field of play and the center-field fence was now 417 feet from home. I cite all these facts because I have no factual basis for the reason why I never went out there. Visiting players would go there, my teammates would, fans could tour the monuments, but I never went through there. Maybe it’s my country boy roots and my ancestors’ superstitions getting hold of me, or maybe it was all just my way of showing respect in a different manner, but I would have felt like I was tromping around in a cemetery to go back in there. It’s not that it felt disrespectful to go in there, but the idea of doing that also felt a little creepy to me. That’s all on me and doesn’t reflect on anyone who has anything to do with the Yankees, but I was a bit squeamish about that place. I’d peek out there and look at the plaques from a distance, but that was it. Sorry if that disappoints anyone.
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the left-center-field alley, especially when the fences were so far back, was called Death Valley. I clearly remember having a discussion on the bench that first game at home in ’76 and us saying, you don’t want to hit a ball out there. No way it’s going to go out. Of course, Danny Ford of the Twins hit one out there, to the exact spot I was thinking was Death for Fly Balls. Shows how much I know about things supernatural.
In a lot of ways, the Yankees of 1976 were a team in transition. Six new pitchers were added to the staff, Mickey Klutts and I joined the infielders, and four new outfielders joined the team. Not a complete overhaul, but a significant infusion of new talent. From 1960 to 1964, the Yankees had gone to the World Series each year. From 1965 to 1975, their best finish was second in the newly formed American League East in 1970 and 1974. That was a long drought by Yankee standards. The ’75 club had won eighty-three games but finished twelve games out of first place behind the Orioles and the Red Sox. Billy Martin had come on board as manager in August 1975, George Steinbrenner had owned the team since ’73, and Gabe Paul had become the GM in ’74.
In spite of so many changes—and this was a pattern that would repeat itself—one of the constants was that no matter how much chaos later ensued, when the first pitch was thrown, we were ready to play. I was among the guys who were really into it. Even though throughout the league and throughout the country we were celebrating the bicentennial, you couldn’t have told by me. That is, not until the All-Star Game in Philadelphia. All the major sports held their All-Star Games in that historic city in ’76. President Gerald Ford threw out the first pitch, and I had the honor of being named to the squad as a rookie, joining my teammates Thurman Munson, Chris Chambliss, Mickey Rivers, and Sparky Lyle on the roster. A knee injury kept me from playing—Bobby Grich of the Orioles started and was replaced by Phil Garner—but being among guys like George Brett, Rod Carew, Carl Yastrzemski, and Carlton Fisk, to name just a few, was an honor and a privilege. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was on the mound, and just seeing that guy, somebody who created such a media sensation with his gyrations as well as his stuff on the mound, was something I’ll never forget.
By the time we beat the White Sox at the Stadium 5–0 in our last game before the All-Star break, we were nine and a half games up, nineteen games over .500 at 50-31, and I was having a great time. I felt like I was doing what I was expected to do—using my speed to get on base and be a disruptive force once on. I was hitting .273 but had 39 walks and was 24 out of 30 in stolen base attempts. I had struck out 24 times, which I wasn’t too happy about. As a contact guy, I prided myself on not striking out, and I was determined to do better at that the second half. I ended the year with 39, so I did cut down on them some.
I learned more baseball from Billy than anyone I ever played for. To this day, when people ask me who my favorite manager was, I say Billy Martin. I enjoyed playing for him. That doesn’t mean he was the best manager, and some of the things he did over the course of a game sometimes defied reason or were clearly a product of Billy’s healthy ego. Going to the Yankees, I knew Billy had a reputation for not liking young ballplayers, but he went out of his way to help me, and one of the first lessons he taught me was never to take any guff from anyone.
I wasn’t very far into my rookie year when Billy one day told me to follow him out of the clubhouse and down the hallway beneath the right-field stands. When we got near the indoor batting cage, he turned and brought me to a little corner. Hanging from a board on the ceiling was a speed bag. I had no idea what Billy was up to.
“This will really help quicken and strengthen your hands,” he said. And then he gave me a demonstration, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop, his hands flying, the bag dancing. It was an amazing exhibition. You’d always hear stories of skinny little Billy beating up the marshmallow salesman and big guys like Dave Boswell, his pitcher with the Twins, but if you ever saw him on the speed bag you wouldn’t have been surprised at all. Man, his hands were strong, and they were fast. I wasn’t there when Billy decked Boswell, but I heard every detail about it.
There were many more valuable lessons that Billy Martin taught me on the field. If a guy was coming into second base high and hard, Billy showed me the perfect retort: you drop down with your throw to first. It’s amazing how getting buzzed by a fastball is all most runners need to learn not to mess with you. It was a good piece of baseball wisdom, and I didn’t have to wait long to apply it.
We were playing the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of May 1976. The Orioles’ newly acquired slugger, Reggie Jackson, was on first base. Reggie had a well-known swagger, and the muscles to back it up. I knew he’d played defensive back at Arizona State, and that’s about how he looked. As he took his lead, Reggie hollered to get my attention. I turned and looked at him. He smiled, a look that had a lot more menace to it than friendliness.
“Hey, rookie, you better look out, because I slide real hard,” he called out. Reggie kept staring over at me, the smile now a glare. “Look out, rook. I’m coming at you.”
I tried not to pay him any mind. Or rather, I tried to act like I wasn’t paying any mind. Reggie Jackson, of course, could’ve knocked me into left field if he wanted to, but I don’t scare easily. If you showed fear where I’m from, people would take advantage of you. I was also Billy’s well-schooled pupil, and I had his voice trailing through my head: don’t back down from anybody, ever. Don’t let anybody intimidate you, ever.
Well, after the last of a series of increasingly hostile Reggie-glares, wouldn’t you know the batter hit a grounder to third baseman Graig Nettles. I raced to cover the bag, preparing to turn the double play—with Reggie on my mind. And here he came, thick thighs churning, arms pumping, coming at me hard, as promised. I straddled the bag and waited for the ball from Nettles. My heart was pounding. So was Reggie, toward me. When he was almost on top of me, I caught the ball, pivoted in front of the bag, and fired the ball to first, three-quarter underhanded. My throw would’ve made the late Dan Quisenberry proud. It pretty much headed right for Reggie’s forehead. So he did the only sensible thing.
Hit the dirt.
By the time he got up, our double play was complete and Reggie was screaming.
“You crazy little son of a bitch! Who the hell do you think you’re throwing at?” That was the gist of it, though there probably were some other select expletives Reggie worked in too.
I tried to suppress a smile, not entirely successfully. Over Reggie’s shoulder, I saw Billy in the dugout. He wasn’t suppressing anything, beaming and nodding like a proud papa, watching his kid grow up before his eyes. Reggie slowly dusted himself off, muttering and glaring all the while. I trotted toward the dugout, not gloating, but privately enjoying the way it played out. It may not have been the moment I officially knew I had arrived in the big leagues.
But it was close.
I also knew that I still had a lot to learn, and I was fortunate to have several mentors along the way. Playing for the Pirates had shown me one way to have a winning atmosphere, but as my time with the Yankees lengthened I’d learn that the Pirates’ way wasn’t the only way.
What fascinates me the most about winning is its improvisational nature. Before you start scratching your head wondering how I could throw in a five-dollar word and concept like that, bear with me. I mentioned in the introduction that I am a lover of jazz music. I have a collection of more than 10,000 recordings in various genres, and among my personal heroes is the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. For a while, I considered calling this book A Love Supreme, in honor of his 1965 album of that name. But if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have been doing justice to Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and a few others. Those guys are all geniuses, obviously, but if it hadn’t been for the influence of another one of my personal heroes and baseball mentors, Roy White, I might not have ever gotten to hear and appreciate “The Trane.”
Roy White spent his entire baseball career as a Yankee outfielder, from 1965 to 1979. When I came along in 1976, Roy took me under his wing a bit. To me, Roy was the epitome of 1970s cool. He worked a full Afro, studied the martial arts (karate to be specific), and loved jazz. He was a veteran, of course, and though there were certain new guy–veteran things that went on in most clubhouses (more on some of that later), Roy and I hit it off. I was still a youngster and easily influenced, and I took up karate and later tae kwon do because of his influence.
Mostly, though, Roy impressed me because of his demeanor, a product of that Eastern martial arts composure. I’d see Roy sitting there, listening to his jazz recordings, looking at peace with the world, unaware of the chaos going on around him. Roy was cool in another sense—he was just one of the most tranquil, easygoing guys in the world. That’s not to say he wasn’t competitive, but he went about it in his own laid-back way.
Even when Roy was angry and exploded, he still did it with his unique coolness. In ’77, Roy was struggling quite a bit at the plate. He was hitting line drive after line drive, and they weren’t dropping. That’s sometimes harder to deal with than not making good contact. To that point, Roy had never gone off the way some guys would have done, slamming helmets, swearing, busting bats, and what have you. Instead, Roy would come back to the dugout looking like he’d just retrieved the newspaper at the end of the driveway. He’d sit on the bench, calmly observing the game, and then trot back out there once the inning was over.
Well, on this particular night—I believe it was against Baltimore and the soft-tossing lefty Scott McGregor—Roy had had enough. He hung a rope on a slow-breaking ball that went right to their shortstop, Mark Belanger.
Very calmly, Roy walked to the end of the dugout, shelved his helmet, racked his bat, and then delivered a series of chops and kicks to the water cooler. In a few seconds, the device was leaking all over. Roy turned back around, his face blank, and took his seat on the bench as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The rest of us were too shocked to say anything immediately, but later on in the clubhouse Roy got some third degree and ribbing.
Come to think of it, maybe that was Roy’s bit of improvising. He hadn’t planned on taking out that watercooler and casting us all in a Bruce Lee action movie; he just went with the moment. That’s not exactly what I’m talking about with improvising and winning. What I am saying is that you can strategize a team’s structure and go into a particular contest with a game plan, but it’s always going to be the adjustments and variations, pitch by pitch, out by out, and game by game, that make winning the game and winning championships feel like a jazz ensemble playing with a melody.
It’s also good to have a mix of players around—young guys like me and veterans like Roy and the others—to play off one another. Technically, I was still a rookie, but I wasn’t much into the “rookies are dogmeat” program. If somebody said, “Hey, rook, go get me a cup of coffee,” or, “Hey, rook, carry my bag,” that didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t want people telling me what to do, and I wasn’t going to take crap from anyone. It’s a good thing I never went to college and tried to join a fraternity, because the minute they started with the hazing, I would’ve been in people’s faces in a big way. What can I say? When I feel slighted or feel that somebody’s trying to get over on me, I don’t like it one bit. I was a serious-minded twenty-one-year-old who was busy making his lifelong dream come true. Lightening up didn’t come easily to me. It didn’t come easily at all, though the captain, Thurman Munson, did his best to break me down.
One afternoon early on he came into the trainer’s room and saw me in the whirlpool getting some therapy for a cranky knee.
“Hey, get out of there, rook,” he growled. “You got no business being in the trainer’s room at your age.” I might have smiled. Might have.
Thurman had the personality of sandpaper (large grit). He showed his warm, fuzzy side about as often as Halley’s Comet comes around. What I completely failed to pick up on was that when he gave you grief, that was his version of affection. The message finally got through during a batting-practice session about a month into the season.
I was in the cage, getting my hacks, when Thurman chased me out.
“That’s it, rook. Five is all you get.”
I reluctantly stepped out and watched Thurman and a couple of other veterans take eight swings. I was not happy about being shortchanged. I jumped back in, and after my fifth swing, again I heard the voice of Thurman Munson.
“Get out of there, rook. You’re done.” Now I was really ticked off. They were messing with me. They were screwing me out of at-bats. If they thought I was going to roll over in the face of this blatant double standard, they didn’t know me at all.
“What do you mean I’m done?” I said. “I only got five. All you guys got eight. What’s up with that?” I paused. “I am not getting out of the cage.”
“Get out of the cage,” Thurman said, stepping toward me.
Almost instantly, I bowed my back and took a step forward, as if I was ready to go with him. The idea of me, a skinny rookie, mixing it up with Thurman Munson, a strong, beefy veteran, was ridiculous, but what can I tell you? I was a headstrong kid.
He came right over to me, right in the cage. Batting practice got very quiet.
I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. I braced myself. A terrifying thought crossed my mind: Am I about to get punched out by Thurman Munson? Almost in my face now, Thurman looked straight into my eyes. His fists didn’t move, which was a major relief. “Relax, would you?” he said. “If I didn’t like you, I wouldn’t get on you, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
From then on, Thurman and I were great buddies. I was able to get beyond the bark and the bite and see him for the softhearted man he truly was. I was the new kid, the baby, and he made me feel special. He gave me a hideous yellow T-shirt with green block letters that spelled R-O-O-K on the front. I cut off the sleeves and a bit of the neck, and wore it under my uniform most of that season. It’s still in my dresser at home, a fraying reminder of one of the best ballplayers I’ve ever shared a field with.
As rookie years go, I couldn’t have asked for a whole lot more. I hit .267 and stole 37 bases and was named a reserve second baseman in the All-Star Game. I couldn’t play because of a chronic knee problem. It wasn’t worth risking injury, so I was one those “we’ll only use you if we really need you” guys. That really was the only downer the whole year. For the whole season, the knee kept me out of more than thirty games.
We dominated the AL East, winning by ten and a half games, and maybe what was most impressive about that was that we were a much better team on the road than at home, going 52-27 away from the Stadium. That was because we had tough-minded pros like Thurman, Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Roy White, and Chris Chambliss, though the guy who really made us go was John Milton “Mickey” Rivers, our center fielder and leadoff hitter. It seemed like every time you looked up, Mickey was doing something to get the team jump-started.
ONE OF THE CONSTANTS during my first few years with the Yankees was our annual playoff confrontation with the Kansas City Royals. Some people are shocked when I say this, but at the time, and still looking back on it today, in some ways those series against them were as big to me as the World Series itself. We went at each other regularly, and we went at each other hard. We built up a mutual respect, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of animosity between the two teams. To this day, if I see George Brett or Hal McRae or any of the other Royals of that era at some function or another, the reception is always cool.
Who can blame them for being pissed off at us? From 1976 through 1980, we faced them four times in the American League Division Series. We beat them three out of those four times. Maybe the guys who booked their golf tee times, the fishing trips, and the hunting expeditions liked us, but the players themselves sure as hell didn’t.
Today “win or go home” has become a cliché, but those were the prospects we faced on Saturday, October 9, 1976. We’d split the first four games of the series, each team winning one game at home and one on the road. Back then, the games were split 2-3. We started out on the road, so that meant that game 5 was at the Stadium. After an eleven-year wait for postseason baseball, you can bet Yankee fans were in full throat as the first pitch was thrown shortly after high noon. Because this was a five-game series and it wasn’t the World Series, most fans probably don’t remember what a classic, taut game that was. Even today, given all that I’ve witnessed and participated in, that game was the most nerve-racking I ever experienced.
The Royals jumped ahead immediately in the first, scoring two runs. Ed Figueroa was on the mound for us and got the first two outs. Then George Brett doubled, and big John Mayberry homered. Talk about a quick strike attack. In the bottom of the inning, we scored two and eventually were leading 6–3 heading into the eighth. That’s when George Brett homered to tie it. The Yankee fans went a little bit nuts, throwing debris on the field and eventually holding up the start of the ninth inning. The PA announcer was pleading with them to stop. Billy was so angry that I thought he was going to run upstairs and read the fans the riot act, and quite honestly, I’m surprised the umpires didn’t pull the Royals off the field and make us forfeit the game.
Mark Littell, a twenty-three-year-old reliever who hadn’t given up a run in the series, was on the mound. He stayed out there through the delay, every now and then throwing a warm-up pitch. Littell had been one of the best relievers in the league all season, pitching to a 2.08 ERA and giving up a single home run in 104 innings. I don’t know if he had ever dealt with circumstances like this before.
Our hottest hitter in the series, Chris Chambliss, led off the bottom of the ninth. Littell’s first offering was a fastball up in the zone, out over the plate. Chris stayed back and then jumped on it. It sounded good, really good, when he made contact, driving a high fly ball to right-center. Sitting in the dugout, I wasn’t sure if it was going to carry over the fence or not. We all sprung off the bench toward the steps to follow the ball’s flight. McRae, playing right field for the Royals that night, raced back to the track, to the wall. He leaped.
When he came down, I thought the ball might be in his glove. It was hard to tell. McRae stood ramrod straight against the fence, center fielder Amos Otis alongside him. McRae’s glove was empty. The Yankees were American League champions, after a twelve-year hiatus. Chris threw both arms overhead as he neared first base. Almost instantly, fans began pouring onto the field by the thousands. It was a scary and out-of-control scene, just total bedlam. As Chris tried to make his way around second, the bedlam got much worse, Chris getting knocked down, throwing his forearms, trying to fend off fans and get around the bases. All I could think of was that he had to touch all four bases for the home run to count. If he didn’t do that, the homer would be nullified and we’d go into extra innings.
Of course, by the time Chris got halfway around the bases, the plate had already been dug up and hauled off. There was nothing left to touch but the dirt.
I ventured onto the field to try—futilely—to run some interference for Chris. I couldn’t get near him, so I turned to head back toward the dugout steps. Above the din I heard a familiar voice.
“Larry! Larry! Over here!” I looked into the crowd, and there in the middle of a mob of fans by the railing of the box seats, next to the dugout, trying to get down to the field but being restrained by a security guard, was my father. I’ll never forget the look on my dad’s face. It was an equal mix of ecstasy and terror, for he’d never been engulfed in such chaos before, or been strong-armed by a rent-a-cop.
I raced over to the railing and told the guard, “That’s my father. Let him go! Let him go!” The cop was reluctant at first, as if he wasn’t sure if he believed me.
“Trust me. He’s my father,” I said. Finally, the cop released his grip. I helped my father get over the railing, and he came down on the field. We walked down the dugout steps together, then up the runway to the clubhouse, where the celebration was already raging. My father wasn’t a baseball man, and I know that he thought that all the time I spent playing ball as a kid was time I could’ve spent much more productively. But now he was here with me, surrounded by the spray of champagne and the whoops of joy and George Steinbrenner hugging everything but the clubhouse pillars, and it was great to have him there.
We’d made the transition from winners to losers, finally getting the Yankees to the playoff promised land of the World Series. There we would face Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.
It was a thrill to be in the World Series for the second straight season, but it was even more special because I would be playing against Joe Morgan, a guy who I tried to emulate when I was in high school. Back then, everybody had a thing against the Reds. They were so good, and they were all about the competition. Players didn’t fraternize much back then anyway, but I remember being on the field with Joe at All-Star Games and in the World Series and being struck by one thing. I’m taller than this guy? I couldn’t figure out where all his power came from. He had this kind of slappy swing, something I tried out myself when younger, but the ball just jumped off his bat. He had that timing mechanism, where he flapped his arm like a chicken wing before the pitcher delivered, and he was a little fireplug. I’d check the box scores to keep up with Joe’s numbers, but I knew that we were very different kinds of players.
Outside the game, Joe and I never got real close and became what I call cordial friends. But the intensity of my imagined rivalry diminished once he stopped playing. Joe served as a kind of mentor/counselor once I decided that I wanted to manage. He had the same aspirations as I did, but in broadcasting, where the opportunities were less fraught with the politics of the game and perceptions than managerial positions were. He was invaluable to me, and I can’t thank him enough.
I have to thank him and the ’76 Reds for another reason. We suffered a bicentennial beat-down at the hands of those guys. Sure, we took some satisfaction in having returned the Yankees to the Series, but that whipping left a bad taste in all our mouths. Only one thing was going to rid us of that—some World Series champagne.