I feel like a DJ at the radio station, taking requests from listeners (or in this case, faithful readers) about articles they would like to see written in this space. Last week, we received a request for a “Card Corner” centered on Sparky Lyle and his 1978 Topps card. Well, Shazam, here it is!
Not that this is a rough assignment; Lyle will always be a favorite subject of this writer. First, he was a terrific pitcher, a true fireman who often came into games with runners on base and was usually asked to pitch multiple innings. Few relief pitchers of the 1970s performed this role more vitally than Lyle. Second, Sparky was a fully certified baseball maverick, an outlandishly colorful figure with a great sense of humor and an enormous propensity for pulling the practical joke. How could a writer not love penning a few hundred words about someone like this?Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.
We all remember Lyle as a Yankee; some of us even remember his early days with the dreaded Red Sox. But how many of us realize that Lyle was originally linked to another American League East team? It was the Orioles who signed him in 1964, one year before the institution of the major league draft. The Orioles, however, failed to protect Lyle after his first professional season and lost him in the old first-year draft, a draft that would soon became as obsolete as bonus babies and the reserve clause. The Red Sox pounced, claiming Lyle and assigning him to Winston-Salem of the Carolina League. After two years of minor league seasoning, the Sox brought him to the big leagues in 1967.
Lyle’s rookie season coincided with Boston’s “Impossible Dream” of winning the American League pennant. It’s easy to overlook just how important Lyle was to that championship team; in 27 late-season appearances, he pitched to an ERA of 2.28, struck out a batter per inning, and even saved five games in the heat of a dizzying pennant race. The Red Sox didn’t include him on the World Series roster, but it’s debatable that they would have even reached the postseason without their only effective left-handed reliever.
Lyle should have had a long career in Boston, but the Red Sox did not fully appreciate his talents. That’s about the only way to explain their unfathomable decision to trade Lyle to the Yankees for Danny Cater, a singles-hitting first baseman of modest propositions. Cater was an OK first baseman, a decent hitter for average with a good glove, but he was really nothing more than a platoon player. Why give up a 26-year-old left-hander with a great arm and a superhuman slider for a 31-year-old journeyman and a middling minor league shortstop named Mario Guerrero? It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now.
The Yankees benefited immediately from the Red Sox’ shortsightedness. Lyle became the Yankees’ relief ace practically from Day One in 1972; he would lead the American League in saves and games pitched, while maintaining an ERA under 2.00. He would become an un wanted sight to AL hitters, mostly because of a fantastic slider that rivaled Ron Guidry and Steve Carlton in its greatness. Guidry threw his slider harder, but in his prime, Lyle threw his slider with more movement, more of that down-and-to-the-right bite. When thrown for strikes, it was practically unhittable for left and right-handed batters alike.
Lyle remained the Yankees’ unquestioned closer until 1978, when Topps happened to release one of his best cards ever. Most of his earlier cards were the standard fare, posed shots and up-close portraits, but this one gave us Lyle in action. The photograph captures two traits of the Lyle delivery: the manner in which he reared back to throw the slider, and the quirky way that he curled his glove toward the batter. Unfortunately, as good as the Topps card was, the 1978 season turned out to be one of Lyle’s most difficult. That winter, George Steinbrenner decided to bring Goose Gossage to the Bronx as his latest big money, free agent prize. The arrival of the Goose rendered Lyle a high-priced middle reliever, with rare opportunities to save games. With Rawly Eastwick and Dirt Tidrow also pitching out of the pen, Lyle became an afterthought at the times.
Unhappy with his muddled role, Lyle asked for a trade. After the season, the Yankees sent him to the Rangers for a package of prospects and young veterans, led by prized young left-hander Dave Righetti. In the long term, it would become a prosperous deal for the Yankees, while Lyle would begin the inevitable descent that afflicts most players. Now in his mid-thirties, Lyle never recaptured the form that he displayed from 1972 to 1977.
When Lyle left the Yankees, so did some of the fun. He was their primary prankster, the man who squatted on birthday cakes, scared Phil Rizzuto with a werewolf mask, and did a Bela Lugosi imitation while rising from a casket that had somehow been delivered to the clubhouse. Lyle was such a clubhouse cutup that I would never have imagined him becoming a coach or a manager. So, after working as a commercial actor and casino greeter for awhile, he did the unexpected in 1998, becoming the manager of the Somerset Patriots, a team in the independent Atlantic League. Lyle apparently knows what he’s doing, having won five league titles in a span of just over a decade.
I guess some guys are just good at whatever they try. First, Sparky was a great pitcher. Then he dabbled in writing. His diary, The Bronx Zoo, is one of the best baseball books I’ve ever read. And now he’s establishing a reputation as a highly effective minor league manager. It makes you wonder what he might do if given the chance to manage a big league club, maybe even the team known as the Yankees.