Sweet Lou will join the Cavalcade of Stars in the YES booth this year. Wonder if they’ll pair him up with Paulie O? That’d be worth watching.
[Photo Credit: New Jersey Star-Ledger]
Here’s something to keep you warm on a cold winter day, the late George Kimball’s essay from our book “Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories.” It’s all about the old ballpark, Billy Martin, finks and phonies, brawling, and, of course, drinking with Bill Lee.
By George Kimball
There are things you learned about the old Yankee Stadium once it became your place of work that never would have occurred to you as a kid going to watch a game there. Making your way from the visiting- to the home-team dugout, or to the pressroom where they fed us and the adjacent quarters where we wrote our stories after games, involved negotiating an elaborate system of labyrinthine tunnels that could have been a large-scale Skinner box. A dim-witted scribe could spend hours trying to find his way around down there, but once he did figure it out, he’d be rewarded with supper, or maybe a beer after the game.
And since we only made two or three trips a year to New York, we were always making wrong turns, ones that inevitably brought us face-to-face with one of New York’s finest on a security detail. Some of the cops had been drawing this plum assignment for years. Others, newer to the job, couldn’t tell you how to get from A to B any better than another sportswriter could. They should have handed out road maps with the press credentials.
But the overriding memory of all those hours spent wandering around beneath the House That Ruth Built remains the smell. If you grew up in suburbia, it wouldn’t have meant much to you at all, but if you’d spent much time in a big-city tenement or in the stockroom of a grocery store or ever wandered beneath street level in a restaurant that abuts a subway line, the permeating odor of Decon, the rat poison, would have been familiar.
My friend, John Schulian, must have recognized that smell too, because at some point in the late 1970s, he came up with a description of Billy Martin so apt that it should have been chiseled on Billy’s gravestone: A rat studying to be a mouse.
The funny part of it was that, while Martin had carefully cultivated an image of a guy ready to fight at the drop of a hat, he wasn’t actually very good at it. If you look at the fights he won, they were usually against marshmallow salesmen or mental cripples (Jimmy Piersall was just months away from the loony bin when Martin beat him up under the stands at Fenway in 1952) or a guy who was even drunker than he was (Dave Boswell at the Lindell AC in 1969). Sometimes he’d gain the advantage with a well-timed sucker punch, and sometimes he’d just think he had the advantage, as was the case in St. Louis in 1953, when he picked a fight with a short guy wearing glasses. (The guy, Clint “Scrap-Iron” Courtney, turned out to run against stereotype.)
If you watched him carefully over the years, he was careful to pick his spots. When Martin went at it with somebody bigger or tougher than he was, it was usually in a setting where he knew it would get broken up right away. In fair fights—and there weren’t many of them—he almost always got his ass kicked. (See: Martin vs. Ed Whitson at the Cross Keys Inn, Baltimore, 1985.)
I’d been at Yankee Stadium the night Thad Tillotson bounced a pitch off Joe Foy’s helmet in 1967. “Watch this,” I told my then-wife when Tillotson came to bat a couple of innings later. Sure enough, Jim Lonborg drilled him in the back, both benches emptied, and when they finally pulled them apart, there were Joe Pepitone and Rico Petrocelli rolling around in the dirt.
I was also at Fenway Park the day in 1973 when Stick Michael missed a bunt on a suicide squeeze. With Thurman Munson barreling in from third toward Carlton Fisk, whom he didn’t like much anyway, the result was somewhat predictable. Both benches emptied after the collision, and even as they dragged Munson away, Fisk and Michael were going at it. Boston lefty Bill “Spaceman” Lee said the whole thing looked like a bunch of hookers swinging their purses at each other. Everyone save Thurman Munson thought that was pretty funny.
So, by the time Billy Martin came back to manage his old team, Red Sox–Yankee rhubarbs were nothing new. Their history long predated the return of Number One. I’d seen them start for good reasons and for bad reasons, and sometimes they’d started just because they were Yankees and Red Sox. So, when another one broke out on May 20, 1976, I wasn’t surprised. You could see this one coming a mile down the road. It was like watching a fight develop in slow motion.
Lee had a 1–0 lead with two out in the bottom of the sixth. Lou Piniella, at second, represented the tying run; Graig Nettles was on first. With the count 2–1 on Otto Velez, Spaceman threw a sinker on the outside of the plate, and Velez stroked it into the opposite field. It was hit so hard that when Dwight Evans grabbed it on one hop, it briefly crossed my mind that he might even have a play on Nettles at second. That’s when I looked down and saw Piniella rounding third, and he didn’t seem to be slowing down.
Evans may have had the best arm in the American League back then, and not even a good base runner would have challenged him in this situation, but Piniella was, at this point, committed and kept on coming. Evans threw in one fluid motion, a strike to the plate, and had him by at least ten feet. If it had somehow been a closer play, maybe what happened next wouldn’t have happened at all, but now it was inevitable. Out by a mile, Piniella’s only chance was to run right over Fisk, barreling into him so hard that he might dislodge the ball. Fisk, aware of this, was determined to make the experience painful enough that Lou would think twice before he ever tried it again.
As tags go, it was pretty aggressive. Fisk may even have tried to tag him in the nuts—and with his fist, not his glove, holding the ball. Naturally, Lou came up swinging, and in what seemed barely an instant, there were fifty or sixty guys in uniform going at it in the middle of the infield. Or that’s the way it seemed. Actually, some of them took a bit longer getting there than others. Traditional baseball protocol in these situations calls for the occupants of both bullpens, even the ones intent on serving as peacemakers, to make a mad dash all the way to the infield, where they are to then grab one of their opposite numbers and wrestle for a while until the smoke clears.
Logic would suggest that it would be a lot simpler to just pair off out in the bullpen, particularly since, in its new configuration, Yankee Stadium’s bullpens shared a common gate. So, when the fight started, everybody from both bullpens jumped up simultaneously to race in to where the action was. Tom House, then a Boston reliever, told me that when he got to the gate, Catfish Hunter was gallantly holding it open for him.
“See ya in there, kid,” said Catfish as House trotted past.
Fisk and Piniella were rolling around on the ground following the collision when Lee, who’d been backing up the plate on the play, spotted Velez trying to be third man in.
The first guy to hit Lee was actually Mickey Rivers, who must have been taking boxing lessons from Billy Martin. Mick was running up and down behind the scrum, looking like a guy playing Whack-A-Mole as he lashed out at the back of every Boston cap he could spot. (Somebody watching on television later told me that Ken Harrelson, in his blow-by-blow call on a Boston station, said “Rivers is just basically just running around sucker-punching everybody!”)
The next thing I saw was Nettles grabbing Spaceman from behind, seemingly lifting him over his head, and body-slamming him. I don’t know for a fact that he was trying to throw Lee on his left shoulder, but that’s how he landed. (Nettles claimed later that he was just trying to drag Lee off Velez, since Rivers’ punch hadn’t done the job.) Lee was 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, almost the exact dimensions of Muhammad Ali, but truth be told, he couldn’t fight any better than Billy Martin could, even though he did have an impressive one-punch KO on his résumé.
That had occurred in a winter league game down in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, several years earlier. When Eliseo Rodriguez charged the mound, Lee reflexively stuck his hand out in self-defense and, to his own surprise, knocked Rodriguez cold. Only when he read the next morning’s papers did he realize that he’d knocked out the island’s former Golden Gloves light-heavyweight champion.
The return bout took place in Caguas a week later. Rodriguez and two of his relatives were waiting when Spaceman got off the team bus. They beat him up and rammed his face into a light pole for good measure.
“I did get a nice new set of teeth out of the deal,” said Spaceman.
With Lee now apparently out of commission, Fisk and Piniella separated and Rivers dragged away by several Yankees, things seemed to calm down in a hurry. That’s when Lee made the mistake of getting up.
In his college days at USC, Bill had played summer ball for the Alaska Goldpanners with Nettles’ brother. Until a few moments earlier, he had considered Graig a friend. Now, he was screaming incomprehensibly as he staggered toward the New York third baseman.
“I think,” Lee said later, “it might have been the word ‘asshole’ that set him off.”
In Nettles’ defense, what he probably saw was just a crazy man charging at him. In any case, when Lee got close enough, Nettles cut loose with a right cross, and when Lee tried to block it with his left, he discovered that he couldn’t lift his arm above his waist. The punch caught Spaceman flush in the face and dropped him in his tracks.
A few months later, Ali and Ken Norton fought in almost exactly the same spot, and in fifteen rounds neither one of them landed a punch as hard as that one.
Oddly, I don’t remember Billy Martin throwing a single punch in that brawl. Maybe he found Don Zimmer and the two of them sat it out.
Once order was restored, both Nettles and Lee were ejected. (Neither Fisk nor Piniella were.) In Lee’s case, it was somewhat moot. Before the Red Sox finished batting in the next inning, he was on his way to the hospital.
He would later describe the episode by saying “I was attacked by Billy Martin’s brown shirts.”
There was clearly no love lost between the dope-smoking Spaceman and the whiskey-swilling Fiery Genius. There were unconfirmed rumors, before and since, that Martin had personally placed a bounty on Lee, but there were enough Yankees players who intensely disliked Lee that they probably didn’t need any encouragement from Billy Martin.
Obviously, the fight hadn’t been started just to get at him, said Lee, “but once it did start, it sure seemed like there were a lot of guys in pinstripes trying to find me.”
It might be noted here that, going into that game, Lee ranked as the number three Yankee-killer of all time, with a lifetime percentage against the Bronx Bombers bettered only by those of Babe Ruth and Dickie Kerr. Ruth, of course, had stopped pitching even before Harry Frazee sold his contract to Colonel Ruppert, and Kerr, pointed out Lee, may have accomplished the greatest pitching feat of all time—winning two games in the 1919 World Series with five guys playing behind him who were trying to lose.
Bill Lee’s career didn’t end that night, but it’s fair to say he was never the same pitcher again. He had won seventeen games in each of the previous three years, but he never won as many in a season again. He had torn ligaments and a separated left shoulder, and nearly two months would go by before he pitched again. Between 1973 and 1975 Lee had thrown fifty-one complete games. In 1976 he would throw just one.
Nobody knew this that night at that ballpark, of course. All we knew was that Lee had been taken away in an ambulance, but when the team bus pulled up in front of the New York Sheraton an hour and a half after the last out, there was Spaceman, waiting in the lobby.
Since I was then writing for a weekly and didn’t face a postgame deadline, Lee and I had earlier made plans to terrorize a saloon or two in Greenwich Village that night, and now, with his arm and a sling and sporting a black eye, he was determined to keep the appointment.
“Come on,” he said. “We’re still going to the Lion’s Head, aren’t we?”
Stan Williams, the Red Sox’s pitching coach, had other ideas. “Come on, big boy,” he said to Lee as he grabbed his good arm. “No curfew for you tonight.”
So, with Stanley as our tour guide, we went bouncing on the Upper East Side. I vaguely remember visiting a gin mill with a hospital motif—the ER? the Recovery Room?—where the waitresses were all dressed like nurses, or dressed like nurses wearing white miniskirts, anyway.
Either the sight of a bona fide patient had scared all the nurses away or we’d moved on to another joint. Thirty-three years later, all I can swear to is that, a bit after 3 AM, we were the last three customers in the bar, and Lee had been chasing shots of VO with the Demerol they’d given him in the real hospital, or maybe it was the other way around, but anyway, just then the saloon door swings open and who comes walking in but—think about the odds of this for a moment—Lou Piniella, all by himself.
As soon as he saw us he was all over Lee like a long-lost brother: “Gee, Bill, I’m so sorry. If I’d ever known this was going to happen . . .” I think tears may even have welled up in his eyes. And, of course, he bought us all a drink, and then another one.
The sun was coming up by the time we left, Sweet Lou in one direction, and Bill, Stan, and I back to the hotel. In the cab, I remarked to Lee that Piniella was a pretty nice guy after all, and that he had seemed properly contrite over the outcome of the affair he’d initiated at home plate that night.
“What else was he going to say?” Spaceman sighed wearily.
“There were three of us and one of him.”
Out on an early morning foraging run, a solitary rat darted across the sidewalk. We all saw him, but nobody said a word.
Over at Cardboard Gods, our pal Josh Wilker previews the 2011 Yanks by harkening back to the good ol’ days:
In the Yankees’ 1970s dynasty, the most visible figure and self-appointed leader was Reggie Jackson, and the actual team leader was Thurman Munson, but Lou Piniella was, at least to me, the definitive Yankee. Consider his game-saving play in the bottom of the ninth of the one-game playoff in 1978. After a one-out single by Rick Burleson, Jerry Remy hit a fly to right that Piniella lost in the sun. Instead of panicking, he pretended that he was preparing to make a routine, nonchalant catch, then when the ball came down in front of him, he happened to be close enough to it to stick out his glove and snare it on one bounce. Burleson, fooled along with everyone into thinking that Piniella would make easy work of Remy’s fly ball, had stayed close to first and was only able to make it to second base, unable to score on the long fly out produced by the following batter, Jim Rice. The Bucky Dent home run from earlier in the game has always gotten far more attention as the pivotal moment in the game, but Piniella’s play was vital, too, and was more representative of the Yankees for its infuriating combination of smarts, skill, guts, and good luck (Dent’s improbable gust-lifted pop-up leaning much more heavily on the last of those elements).
How, sweet it was.
The Topps Company produced 11 different cards of Lou Piniella as a Yankee, ranging from a capless 1974 traded card to his final 1984 card, but the one shown here is my favorite. Part of the wondrous 1980 set, the card shows Piniella near the completion of one of his typically sweet swings. Looking at the position of his bat, it appears that Piniella has just used his patented opposite field swing to drop a line drive (or a bloop) into right field. Action cards are always the most desirable to have, but especially when they give you a snapshot of a player doing something for which he is best known. And I’ll always remember Piniella best for that flat, line-drive swing that often seemed pointed directly toward right field.
I feel a little bit sad now that Piniella has retired from the game, a game that he has served for 50 years, in a decision that was expedited last month. We had all expected that “Sweet Lou” would finish out the season with the Cubs before stepping aside, but his elderly mother’s illness mandated that he retire immediately. Family comes first, a decision made easier when the Cubs are hopelessly lost in the National League Central. It’s not as if Piniella was abandoning a team in the midst of a pennant race; if anything, he may have given the franchise a lift by allowing the Cubs to evaluate their interim manager, the unusually pronounced Mike Quade, as a potential fulltime replacement for 2011.
In some ways, Piniella was one of the last of a breed: the colorful and fiery manager. He spoke bluntly with the press–often too bluntly–and argued fervently with umpires–sometimes too much so. But with those qualities, he brought some old-fashioned personality to the table, a mix of John McGraw and Billy Martin, with a little Fred Hutchinson tossed in for good measure. (Hutchinson was simultaneously loved and feared by his players. After giving up a game-ending home run, one of Hutchinson’s pitchers refused to walk back to the dugout to face his manager. He instead walked toward the center field exit.) So many of today’s new managers are cut out of the same mold; they engage in politically correct managerspeak, afraid to ever criticize their players for poor play, and they stand motionless, even emotionless, in the dugout, while passively observing the game in front of them. I have trouble telling many of the new breed managers apart from one another: Manny Acta, Bob Geren, Ken Macha, Brad Mills. I know that they’re all intelligent baseball men, but they’re also so bland, so indistinct, so seemingly interchangeable.
I guess maybe they have to be that way, especially if they don’t have strong major league playing resumes to fall back on, like Piniella. Managers have never had it more difficult than they have it today. The salaries of the players dwarf their pay so many times over that they have been rendered virtually powerless. They can’t publicly scold their players, whose egos simply will not permit it. And they’re afraid to say anything minutely controversial in their interviews with the press, out of the fear that their words could be misconstrued or twisted into the latest installment of a never-ending soap opera.
Piniella was different; he just didn’t care about repercussions. As a longtime player, he had a body of work to fall back on, 18 seasons as a big league outfielder, in case his players sassed him. Unlike previous targets like John Boles and Fredi Gonzalez, he had played the game at the highest level, with a couple of world championship rings as proof. Piniella didn’t worry about becoming embroiled in controversies; if anything, he seemed to embrace the excitement brought about by the conflict.
Now sometimes Piniella went too far. He picked fights with reporters when they posed legitimate questions. He kicked dirt on umpires, something that no arbiter, no matter how incompetent, should have to endure. He could come across as a spoiled, petulant child, like he did two years ago when he carried on about the “suffering” the Cubs had to endure having to play in the Hall of Fame Game in mid-June while in the midst of a pennant race. So yes, Piniella could take his act of fire and brimstone too far, sometimes making himself smaller in the process.
Yet, on the whole, Lou Piniella as a manager was good for baseball. He taught hitters like few others I’ve ever seen, with his prized students including Don Mattingly and Edgar Martinez. Though he often lacked patience with his pitchers, he motivated most of his players, through his energy and his constant call for professionalism. He won a ton of games along the way, culminating in an unlikely world championship for the 1990 Reds. He had a degree of success everywhere, with the one exception being Tampa Bay, where only Joe Maddon has found the way. And let’s not forget that he brought some much-desired verve and allure to the dugout, where the manager is still the boss, even if some want the players to be.
Good-bye, Lou. Enjoy that retirement. But don’t lose that personality.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.
Not so long ago, Carlos Zambrano made a scene in the Cubs dugout. The incident made headlines, nothing new for the troubled Zambrano. What struck me watching the replays was the look on manager Lou Piniella’s face. He didn’t just looked startled, as this large man stomped around the dugout yelling, steam practically shooting out of his ears, Piniella looked old. After all, this is a manager who is legendary for his temper tantrums. But now, he looked timid.
I suppose it is the right time to go. Sweet Lou has enjoyed a fine career as a player and manager, and he’ll always be welcome in the Bronx. He was one of George’s guys, and one of our own.
Congrats, Lou, on a wonderful career. Come by anytime.
[Photo Credit: Kennerly.com (Lou in 1966, playing for the Portland Beavers)]
The past 10 days have seen an immense range of stories leapfrog to the forefront of New York sports fans’ collective consciousness. In no particular order, with some analysis and commentary mixed in…
• The Yankees slashed prices for the primo seats, an altruistic move that still leaves many of us thinking, “You know, you have your own network, and it’s on my cable system. I’ll contribute to your bottom line that way and I won’t feel like I got stabbed in the wallet.”
• Alex Rodriguez did everything necessary in extended spring training and returned to the lineup Friday. He punctuated the return with a home run on the first pitch he saw, thus fulfilling his job as the media-anointed savior of the team’s season. He proceeded to go 1-for-10 with two strikeouts in the remainder of the series, and perhaps fearing aggravating the hip injury, didn’t hustle down the line to run out a ground ball, thus reclaiming his role as the team’s most prominent punching bag.
• The Yankees lost two straight to the Red Sox at home and have lost the first five meetings of the season. (Sound the alarms! Head for the hills! There’s no way the Yankees can win the division without beating the Red Sox! Except that they can, and they have. In 2004, the Yankees went 1-6 in their first seven games against the BoSox, ended up losing the season series 8-11 and still finished 101-61 to win the American League East by three games.)
• Joba Chamberlain 1: His mother was arrested for allegedly selling crystal meth to an undercover officer. Following Chamberlain’s own brushes with the law during the offseason, it stood to reason that the tabloids attacked this story like starving coyotes. It’s remarkable that he was able to pitch at all given the negative attention he received.
• Joba Chamberlain 2: Flash back to Aug. 13, 2007. Chamberlain struck out Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff in a crucial late-inning at-bat to end the inning and in the heat of the moment pumped his fist in exultation. Yesterday, following a three-run home run in the first inning that gave the O’s a 3-1 lead, Huff mocked Chamberlain’s emotional outburst with his own fist pump, first while rounding first base, and again when crossing home plate. Apparently, Mr. Huff holds grudges. Thanks to the New York Daily News’s headline, “MOCKING BIRD” with a photo of the home-plate celebration, this story will have wings when Baltimore comes to the Bronx next week. Even better, as it currently stands, Chamberlain is due to start in the series finale on Thursday the 21st. Get ready for a rash of redux stories leading up to that game.
• Mariano Rivera surrendered back-to-back home runs for the first time in his career last Wednesday night, a clear signal that something is wrong. Maybe.
• The team as a whole. The Yankees are 15-16 through 31 games, and some rabid fans (the “Spoiled Set,” as Michael Kay likes to call them; the group of fans between ages 18-30 that only knows first-place finishes for the Yankees) are calling for Joe Girardi’s head. As in the above note on the Red Sox, some context is required. The Yankees’ records through 31 games this decade:
2000: 22-9 (finished 87-74, won AL East)
2001: 18-13 (finished 95-65, won AL East)
2002: 18-13 (finished 103-58, won AL East)
2003: 23-8 (finished 101-61, won AL East)
2004: 18-13 (finished 101-61, won AL East)
2005: 12-19 (finished 95-67, won AL East)
2006: 19-12 (finished 97-65, won AL East)
2007: 15-16 (finished 94-68, won AL Wild Card)
2008: 15-16 (finished 89-73, missed playoffs)
2009: 15-16 (finish TBD)
No one is going to make excuses for the team with the billion dollar stadium and the highest payroll, least of all your trusted scribes here at the Banter. Looking at the last three years — including 2009 — it should be noted that similar issues of injury, age, and woes throughout the pitching staff have befallen the Yankees.