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TAKING ONE FOR THE TEAM
2003-07-30 13:40
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.


When Nomar Garciaparra attempted a sacrifice bunt Saturday in the ninth inning a tie game many observers---including his own manager, Grady Little—were left bemused. (Nomar popped out.) Actually, Sox fans must have been steamed, while Yankee fans were relieved. Nomar had already hit a homer and a double on the day and he’s sacrificing?

''The first thing I did was look up and see if the full moon was out yet,'' Little said.

This reminded me of another famous bunting episode. Of the Yankee variety. Involving none other than Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson. And Boss George Steinbrenner. This was in July of 1978 when Reggie-Billy-George-(Thurman) was in Year Two of the rollercoaster ride.

George had been all over Billy as the Yankees underachieved through the first half. By mid season, between George and Reggie and the booze, Martin was at wits end. Ed Linn put it nicely:

"Has any man ever been as obsessed with a woman as Billy martin was obsessed with remaining the manager of the New York Yankees? His features were drained and haggard. He wore a look of utter exhaustion. He had stopped eating. He had not stopped drinking."

After the All Star break, Boss George took the team over. Munson went out to right, and Reggie became the full-time dh. Recently acquired Gary Thomasson would play left; Mike Heath would catch. Martin, beaten, just went along with it. Reggie Jackson was not pleased.

Martin had a hard-on for Jackson and played with his star by refusing to hit him in the clean up spot. It was an ego-driven tug-of-war that had been going on for a year and a half by then. Jackson was a shell of his former self in the field, but he could still hit.

On July 17th, the Yankees were at home playing the Royals. They lost the first game of the series the night before (and three of the previous four), against Larry Gura, the former Yankee. Reggie had not played against the lefty. Before the game that day Reggie met with George for 90 minutes. He asked to be traded. (He was not.)

Turns out Reggie started that night, and batted clean-up. (Thank you, George.) The rub is that Paul Splittorff, a lefty, was pitching. Martin wouldn’t trust Reggie to hit Splitorff if his pants were on fire.

Cut to the chase: The game is tied at 5 in the ninth inning. Munson leads off. Reggie tells him he’ll bunt him over if he reaches first. Thurman tells him not to get ahead of himself.

Now Reggie had only been asked to bunt once before in his Yankee career. It was in late 1977 during the stretch run against Boston. Reggie made two spectacular defensive plays in the game. He was asked to bunt late in the contest and he fouled off a few attempts. Eventually, he worked the count full and then hit a moon shot to end the game. Perfect call.

So naturally, Munson singled up the middle to start the inning against KC. Reggie is already thinking bunt, and so is Billy. Al Hrabosky, another southpaw, was pitching. The first pitch wass up and in for a ball. Brett moved in at third and Martin took the bunt sign off. But Reggie tried to bunt the next pitch anyhow. He missed badly.

Dick Howser, the third base coach calls time and comes down and tells Reggie that Billy wants him swinging away.

According to Ed Linn:

Reggie says, “I’m gonna bunt.”

“Yeah, but Billy wants you to hit.”

“I want to bunt.”

Reggie tried to bunt the next pitch again. Awful. 1-2. Now Martin is furious. Reggie bunts the next pitch foul. The catcher makes the catch, but it doesn’t matter. Strike three, yer out. It was the first out of the inning. Reggie came back to the bench, removed his glasses, and waited for the fight that didn’t come. At the end of the inning, Gene Michael, then a bench coach, told Reggie his night was over.

The Royals scored four runs in the 10th. The Yanks came back with two of their own, and with two on, Cliff Johnson, hitting for Reggie, flied out to end the game.

Martin stormed into his office and immediately smashed a clock. This wasn’t any player who disrepected him: this was Jackson.

Ed Linn reported:

“I have never been angrier in my life,” Martin said in a loud, strident voice. “I’m the manager, and if he comes back, he does exactly what I say. Period. I’m not making $3 million. I don’t disobey my boss’s order. Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”

Reggie’s reply? “I can’t win. No matter what I do, I come off as the big, greedy money-maker and he’s the tough little street fighter.”

Jackson was suspended for five days (one being an off-day). Billy got worse. But the Yankees won five straight without Jackson, and the Red Sox lead was down to ten games. The night before Jackson came back, Martin was drinking with Bill Veeck after the game. Veeck got around to telling Martin how George had called him several weeks earlier about trading managers---Billy for Bob Lemon. Martin, popping pills by this point, kept drinking.

When the Yankees flight to Kansas City was delayed that night, Martin stumbled over to beatwriters, Jack Lang and Murray Chass and talked on the record. Reggie and George were eating him alive. “The two of them deserve each other,” Martin said. “One is a born liar and the other’s convicted.”

And that is what got Bill Martin fired for the first time.

Fortunately for Nomar, such drama is light years away. Even in Boston.

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