Thursday, May 16, 2013

Quote of the Day (Billy Martin, on Being ‘Baseball’s Bad Boy’)

“I've got the reputation for being baseball's bad boy and I don't deserve it. But I think I'd make a good manager. For one thing, I know how to handle men. That's the secret of managing. For another, I know enough about the game, not fundamentals, but executing. I think I could get the most out of players with common sense and psychology. I'm fiery enough that I'd have their respect. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll ever get the chance and there's nothing in the world that can change that." –Billy Martin, onetime New York Yankees second baseman (and future manager), quoted in Baseball Digest, June 1961

Somehow, I doubt that my maternal grandparents get much eternal rest in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y. It’s mostly because of two other residents of that final resting place who, if they are anything like what they were in life, are kicking up a ruckus. One was Babe Ruth; the other, Billy Martin, born on this date (as Alfred Manuel Martin) in 1928 in Berkeley, Calif.

Both Yankees had troubled childhoods, growing up almost feral on the streets of their cities, with fathers effectively out of their lives. They managed—barely—not to get into worse trouble as adults because of their talent for baseball. Each, wildly undisciplined off the field, wanted desperately to manage once their playing days were done. Despite fearing that his reputation as “baseball’s bad boy” would get in the way, it was Martin, not the Sultan of Swat, who got the chance to manage—and then some: five times with the Yankees alone.

Martin, unlike Babe Ruth, possessed only average skills as a player, but he raised the level of his game in the post-season. While only batting .257 in 11 big-league seasons, he hit .333 in the World Series. "If liking a kid who will never let you down in the clutch is favoritism, then I plead guilty," Casey Stengel said of his team’s sparkplug. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the one year that the Yankees didn’t make it to the World Series during Martin’s playing days was 1954, when he was serving in the military.)

I have a theory that, in his managerial stints with the Bronx Bombers, Oakland A’s, Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins, Martin was the closest that the modern age has come to the fiery skipper of baseball’s New York Giants, John J. McGraw. The link between the two was Martin’s manager with the Yankees—and the closest he ever came to a father figure--Stengel—who, as a part-time assistant to McGraw, learned much that he would put into practice on his own. 

McGraw loathed what he saw as the change (instigated by the coming of Ruth) toward power hitting and away from the “Scientific Baseball” of pitching and craftiness that he preferred. Even as he installed Reggie Jackson as his cleanup hitter in the last several weeks of the 1977 season (a move that carried the Bombers to the pennant), Martin resented the attention that came the slugger’s way. 

In his autobiography, longtime manager Tony LaRussa described Martin as a baseball genius but tortured soul. On the plus side of the ledger for the on-again-off-again Yankee skipper: his use of pitchers (most notably, of course, in Oakland in 1981, when his entire young staff of righthand starters experienced shortened careers as he relied on them for complete games). When he wasn’t exhausting arms, he was exhausting patience levels. While his teams invariably improved immediately under his tutelage and prodding, at least some players would begin to tune him out—and, before long, fights would break out, and he’d be out of a job.

In Martin’s favor: an ability to outwit opponents, to engage his players and fans in not just exciting, but daring baseball. His clashes with some players--Jackson, Ed Whitson, Dave Boswell--were legendary. Others, however--Rod Carew, Willie Randolph, Thurman Munson, Willie Horton among them--swore by him.

The tempestuous Martin’s life ended characteristically, in a one-vehicle accident following Christmas Day carousing with a friend. He saw so much about himself--his fiery temperament, persuading players to execute the fundamentals--but never learned how to apply "common sense and psychology" to his own case.


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