Saturday, October 10, 2015

This Day in Yankee History (Royals Sweep Series, Boss Sweeps House)

Oct. 10, 1980—The New York Yankees’ third consecutive loss in their best-of-five American League Championship Series did more than disappoint fans hoping for more after a superb 103-win season. It also pushed principal owner George Steinbrenner into his usual fume-and-fire cycle against a manager.

Dick Howser, a highly respected coach with the team for a decade, had managed to deliver success and serenity—two qualities never appearing simultaneously under predecessor Billy Martin. But, through no real fault of his own, he had broken two of the 10 Commandments of dealing with The Boss: “I am the lord thy owner; thou shalt not have any strange owners before me” and “Thou shalt win the World Series.”

The Lord taketh away, and the Lord giveth. Steinbrenner’s public execution of Howser, occurring at a press conference where the owner continually urged the media gathered in his office not to let the nearby spread of sandwiches go to waste, resulted in an ironic, devastating column by Dave Anderson, “Food on a Table at the Execution,” that would garner the veteran New York Times sports columnist a Pulitzer Prize.

It should not have ended this way for Howser. That year, several of his players—including Reggie Jackson (batting .300 for the only time in his career), Willie Randolph and Rich Cerone, replacing the deceased Thurman Munson at catcher—had career years. Moreover, the manager came to use Ron Davis as his set-up man while getting more appearances for Rich Gossage by confining him to one inning, rather than two or three, as had been done previously with “Goose”—an evolutionary step toward the notion of the closer.

More miraculously, he had taken an aging team that had ended up placing fourth in the American League East only the season before and pushing it into the postseason--an outcome that other professionals in the league thought near-impossible.

Just getting to the division title had been by no means assured for the team. During the two seasons under Steinbrenner when the team won the World Series, 1977 and 1978, the Bronx Bombers had won 100 games. In 1980, that same record would only have assured them a tie with the Baltimore Orioles, so they had been pushed to win three more games—a special achievement.

But in a short series, anything can happen—particularly in the best-of-five format that held sway in the playoffs at the time. The Yankees had lost their first two games in Kansas City, victimized by a George Brett homer in Game 1 and a sharp start by Dennis Leonard and save by Dan Quisenberry in Game 2.

But perhaps the pivotal play in that latter 4-2 loss came in the eighth inning, when Randolph rounded third on a hit by Bob Watson. Third-base coach Mike Ferraro, confident in the second baseman’s speed, sent him home. It was almost guaranteed to succeed, especially since left fielder Willie Wilson overthrew the cutoff man. But Brett, backing up, was able to catch the ball and throw a perfect peg to the plate to get Randolph out and end the Yankee threat.

Cameras caught an ominous image in the stands: Steinbrenner, sitting next to general manager Gene Michael, shouting Ferraro’s name as he turned to Michael. Clearly, if the Yankees didn’t win, the coach would pay with his job.

In the third game at Yankee Stadium, Gossage gave up a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning by serving up a three-run homer to Brett, who put an exclamation point on a year in which he came close to becoming the first batter since Ted Williams to bat .400.

From the moment the series ended, Steinbrenner was steaming, proclaiming his embarrassment at being swept. His anger at Howser, which may have been ignited during the season when the manager had cut short one of the owner's phone rants by saying he was busy, flared up further when Howser said that, as a former third-base coach himself, he, like Ferraro, would have sent Randolph home under similar circumstances.

For several weeks, Steinbrenner seethed before settling on a strategy. Finally, he fired Ferraro and offered the job to Don Zimmer--all without consulting Howser first. A manager who can't name his own coaches has been effectively neutered. Howser refused to go along. 

A month later, Steinbrenner called the press conference to announce that Howser was resigning as Yankee manager in order to pursue a not-to-be-missed real estate deal in Florida. 

"Were you fired, Dick?" one of the assembled scribes asked.

"I'm not going to comment on that," the now-former manager answered. He didn't have to. Everyone knew what had really happened.

Howser's demeanor demonstrated his quiet but real dignity and pride. Steinbrenner should have realized that earlier in the year, when the rookie manager showed that, while he might not be the firebrand that Billy Martin was, neither was he a cream puff.

Back in May, when Luis Tiant dropped the ball on the mound after the manager came to lift him for a reliever, Howser fined the veteran pitcher for “showing me up.” The message was heeded in the clubhouse: Howser was not to be trifled with.

Howser didn't pursue his phantom "real estate deal" for long. A year later, he ended up replacing the man who had beaten him in the playoffs, Kansas City's Jim Frey. Over the next couple of years, he gradually took the team further and further: two consecutive second-place finishes in the American League West, then a divisional title in what was expected to be a rebuilding year, and, at last, a World Series championship in 1985.

At the All-Star Game the following season, Howser felt sick and confused. Subsequent tests revealed a brain tumor. He died from the disease in June 1987. 

In a way, Steinbrenner ended up paying--to his mind, grievously indeed--for his bullying of Howser. The Yankees ended up back in the World Series the following year, when Bob Lemon took over midway through the season for Howser's replacement, Gene Michael. But, after jumping out to a two-games-to-none lead, the team ended up losing the World Series with four straight losses to the Brooklyn Dodgers--an even more ignominious end than the year before. The Yankees would not end up in the postseason again until 1995, and not earn another World Series trophy till the following year.

I have thought of Steinbrenner much in recent days with the Yankees being eliminated from the playoffs. Manager Joe Girardi would have been fired long ago for that failure. Heck, had The Boss been running the show back in 2008 instead of his (relatively) more patient son Hal, Girardi would have been canned after his first, also-ran season as manager with the Bombers. Of course, that would have meant Girardi would not have been around to take the team to their most recent championship the following season.

In my younger days, anger vied with irony whenever I thought of Steinbrenner. In the 1980s, he and Donald Trump came to epitomize for much of the nation what they erroneously saw as the blustering, overbearing, rude nature of New Yorkers--including a distinct distaste for losing. Indeed, both probably came to their career nadirs around 1990: Trump, when he was caught cheating on his first wife and it appeared his creditors would pull the rug out from under him; Steinbrenner, when he was suspended from baseball for hiring a gambler-turned-blackmailer to feed him derogatory information about a player with whom he was feuding, Dave Winfield.

In time, however, Steinbrenner came to look good by comparison with Trump. He was more interested in promoting the Yankee brand, not his own; he never felt the need to continually brag about how much he was worth; and he never became the star of a reality show, let alone a Presidential candidate.

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