"We have not blown many ball games this year, and that's because of Sparky," says Manager Ralph Houk, who also chews Red Man, not necessarily out of admiration for his star. "He can protect a lead."
Twice against the Tigers, Lyle entered games at the beginning of the ninth inning to preserve one-run leads. Rob Gardner, the first pitcher he replaced, was leading 2-1 and had a two-hitter in progress. Steve Kline, whom he succeeded the next day, had pitched eight innings of shutout ball. Lyle held the Tigers both times, which was fine, but how must the two starters have felt about being removed when they were doing so famously?
"I think I could have finished the game," said Gardner, "but I certainly wouldn't have been as spectacular as Sparky was."
Kline was even more emphatic. "Ralph was right in taking me out. There were a lot of lefties coming up. It would have been the right move even if they hit two homers off Sparky."
Such generous talk is nothing short of blasphemy in the starting pitcher club. But some of Lyle's most vocal rooters are, it turns out, the Yank starting pitchers. And Sparky did put out the fire last week. Of the three wins over the Tigers, he saved two and received credit for the other in relief of Fritz Peterson. In five innings pitched, he struck out seven and gave up no runs. Lyle had either a win or a save in the last eight Yankee victories by week's end.
The Yankees got him in March from the Red Sox in a trade for Infielder-Out-fielder Danny Cater. It is a deal the front office hastily brings to the attention of critics of another, less rewarding transaction—Pitcher Stan Bahnsen, now a 15-game winner, to the White Sox for Third Baseman Rich McKinney, now a minor-leaguer.
"You never hear about Lyle and Cater," Houk says in a tone perilously near a whine. "All you hear about is Bahnsen and McKinney."
Still, McKinney's failure at third served to introduce yet another improbable hero to the new Yankee worshipers—Celerino Sanchez, a 28-year-old rookie who, for reasons still unclear (even to the Yankees), wasted eight years playing in his native Mexico. Sanchez' sudden success as the Yankee third baseman can only be an embarrassment to big-league scouts everywhere. It remained for a newspaperman, one Tomas Morales of Mexico City, to alert the Yankees to this forgotten man. Other major league teams had expressed interest in Sanchez, but his team, the Mexico City Tigres, was reluctant to part with him without proper compensation. Sanchez had to threaten to quit the game before the owners would agree to let him go to the Yankees for a minor-leaguer, Ossie Chavaria, and a nominal sum, estimated at $25,000.
Still, Sanchez did not win a place on the Yankee roster in spring training, although he was hitting well. "We hadn't seen much of him," team Vice-President Bob Fishel explained. "Besides we'd put such a tremendous price on McKinney, we had to play him."
When McKinney flopped, Sanchez was finally summoned from Syracuse, where he had hit .327 in 43 games despite a leg injury which still troubles him. The Yankees thought of Sanchez as a bat; what they got, at least initially, was a glove. Although he started slowly, his batting average is now in the .270 range, which is high country in the power-poor AL East. But his fielding has most endeared him to the Yankee hordes.