AUGUST 21, 1972
In his first couple of seasons as manager of the Somerset County ( N.J.) Patriots of the independent Atlantic League, Sparky Lyle would grab a bucket of balls and throw batting practice. His players hated it. "I was always running the damn ball in on them, moving it around," says the former major league lefthander, who just turned 58. "I wasn't trying to. It's just that I still can't throw a straight ball to save my life."
Having a live arm and a deceptive slider enabled Lyle to spend 16 seasons with five big league teams and become the first reliever to win the American League Cy Young Award (as a New York Yankee in 1977). But his career had little to do with his learning of the job in the Atlantic League. He happened upon that gig because he needed a truck and knew that John Vukovich, a former Philadelphia Phillies teammate, had gotten a good price from a dealer named Steven Kalafer. At the time that Lyle called to inquire about a vehicle, in 1998, Kalafer was looking for a manager for his fledgling Patriots. "How about it?" Kalafer asked Lyle.
"Why not?" said Lyle, who also bought the truck.
Lyle, who retired after the 1982 season because his slider had lost its pop, had been out of baseball to that point. After spending what he calls "the best five years of my life" working with Mickey Mantle as a greeter at an Atlantic City casino, he traveled the country making personal appearances, mostly at card shows. "I didn't make motivational speeches," says Lyle. "I was a storyteller." During his last year in the majors, with the Chicago White Sox, he was asked to teach a young pitcher his slider, which was the only pitch Lyle ever threw. "The kid—I don't even remember his name—basically told me to get lost," says Lyle. "I never had any desire to manage or coach after that."
But Kalafer's offer sounded intriguing, and Lyle approached it with his normal gusto. "I got thrown out of 13 games that first season," says Lyle. "I yelled and screamed and MF'd the umps to death. I had a lot to learn." He learned it. Last season Lyle led the Patriots to the Atlantic championship, getting tossed only three times in the process. As of Sunday the 14-14 Patriots were in last place in the South Division of the eight-team Class AA-caliber league, and Lyle had been run twice. Managing frustrates him sometimes, but he has come to enjoy calling the shots and would like to do it at a higher level. Just don't hire him to pitch BP.