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Those were the days

Bronx Zoo set standard for spring training melodrama

Posted: Friday March 2, 2007 11:15PM; Updated: Monday March 5, 2007 5:28PM
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Upon joining the New York Yankees in 1977, Reggie Jackson famously declared himself
Upon joining the New York Yankees in 1977, Reggie Jackson famously declared himself "the straw that stirs the drink."
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In recent years, one of the annual rites of spring for the New York media has been to proclaim the return of The Bronx Zoo. This year, Mariano Rivera's expiring contract, the absence of Bernie Williams, and the Alex Rodriguez-Derek Jeter affair have prompted New York writers to invoke the name of the old Zoo. You can hardly blame them.

As David Falkner noted in his fine book about spring training, The Short Season, "There is probably no other single body of prose in the English language in which writers seem quite so hard-pressed to come up with something, anything, than the collected newspaper accounts of spring training over the last half century."

We all know the standard spring training stories: the promising rookie, the aging veteran, the holdout, the wacky clubhouse prankster, the late-arriving star. The wilder the story, the better. In 1985, SI published the remarkable tale about uber-phenom Sidd Finch, a pitcher whose fastball was clocked at 168 mph -- wait, no, that actually was too good to be true. But four years later, Jim Abbott, a one-handed pitcher for the Angels, made a splash in the Cactus League. It seemed stranger than fiction, yet Abbott went on to enjoy a productive career. In '86, veteran reliever Rollie Fingers walked away from a chance to extend his career with the Reds when he refused to lose his trademark mustache. "I'm not about to shave it off just to play baseball," he said. Then in 2002, outfielder Derek Bell chafed at the prospect of having to compete for a position with the Pirates (even after hitting only .173 the year before).

"If there is competition, they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they're going to do with me," Bell told reporters. "I ain't going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is [a competition], then I'm going into 'Operation Shutdown.'" Bell's big league career was shut down before the end of the spring.

But this is tame stuff when compared with the glory days of The Bronx Zoo, which began in earnest in 1977 and ran in full-force through the early '90s. Despite the intense media coverage the Yankees generate nowadays, The Bronx Zoo is a thing of the past. The reason is simple: The maestro of mayhem, George Steinbrenner, is no longer visibly running the show. The last true gem he offered was in '99 when he called pitcher Hideki Irabu a "fat, pussy toad." Without the Boss, well, it just ain't the same.

"Spring training is like opening night in the theater," Steinbrenner once said. "There is nothing like it, nothing!" The Boss was famous for guaranteeing his manager's job security during the spring. In 1982, he said, "Bob Lemon's going to be our manager all year. You can bet on it." Lemon was fired after 14 games. In '85, Steinbrenner said, "Yogi [Berra] wil be the manager this year ... A bad start will not affect Yogi's status." The Yankees started the season 6-10 and Berra was canned. In '90, the Boss said, "Bucky Dent will be the manager all year. I'm very strong on loyalties." After 49 games, Dent was history.

The arrival of Reggie Jackson in 1977 is what really kicked-off the Bronx Zoo. Jackson was the owner's pet, flamboyant and outspoken. "I didn't come to New York to be a star," he said after signing, "I brought my star with me." But Jackson was not welcomed with open arms in the clubhouse. Team captain Thurman Munson was instantly envious of Jackson, as was manager Billy Martin. That spring, Jackson sat down with Robert Ward, a writer from Sport magazine, and made the infamous comment that he was "the straw that stirs the drink." Though the article was not published until months later, it accurately portrayed a spring training camp full of drama.

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