They are scarcely the Bronx Bombers of sainted antiquity, these 1972 New York Yankees. They do not so much demolish the foe with blockbusters as harry him with birch twigs. Names such as Roy White, Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer do not exactly call to mind Murderers Row, nor is the pitching staff peopled with latter-day Red Ruffings and Whitey Fords.
And yet, almost by sheer force of will, these warriors of comparably modest firepower have thrust themselves into the increasingly turbulent battle for the championship of the American League East. By playing nearly .650 baseball for the past month and by beating the then-division-leading Detroit Tigers three games out of four last week, they had risen to within two games of first place, their farthest advance in a pennant race since the championship year of 1964.
More than that, however, they have awakened their once sparse and somnolent supporters and transformed them into a howling multitude. Rooting for the old Yankees was considered bad form. It was, as one wag suggested, a bit like cheering for U.S. Steel. Rooting for recent Yankee teams was simply bad judgment—before this year, when it became a compulsion. Where once grand-slam home runs were received dispassionately, now infield hits are the source of shameless exultation.
The fans were even cheering themselves last week—an indulgence reminiscent of the self-applause of Los Angeles' faithful for being so good at attending games during the Dodgers' pioneer days on the West Coast. In midweek the Yankee Stadium message board advised the 32,610 paying customers that "the Yanks are third and climbing, but our fans are No. 1." "Yaaaay," cheered the fans. Such displays could be common in the Astrodome or at Riverfront Stadium, but at staid, patrician Yankee Stadium they can only be interpreted as a harbinger of incipient bumpkinism.
There seemed also to be some confusion among the spectators at the Detroit series as to just what sport they were watching. As the Yankees inched into tremulous one-run leads, the fans would chant in unison, "Dee-fense! Dee-fense!" a rallying cry ordinarily heard only at Knick, Jet or Giant games and one hardly suitable to tradition in The House That Ruth Built.
But the most ecstatic spectator responses are reserved for the appearances of a bland and unassuming 28-year-old left-handed relief pitcher named Albert W. (Sparky) Lyle (see cover). As in most everything, the Yankees have a rich tradition in relief pitchers—Johnny Murphy, Joe Page, Luis Arroyo. But no past hero of the bullpen was ever accorded the tumultuous receptions Lyle now accepts as a matter of course. Sparky Lyle does not merely come into a game; he commandeers it.
There is enough ceremony in Lyle's emergence from the bullpen to satisfy a matador. In the distance, beyond the right center-field fence, there opens the passenger door of a pinstripe-painted Datsun. A man enters. He is carrying a Yankee warmup jacket and is presumably stuffing his face with Red Man chewing tobacco. The fans rustle. Can it be? Their murmuring is the sound of a giant engine. It seems to propel the little car to a designated spot before the Yankee dugout. Some expectant applause. Then Stadium Organist Toby Wright solemnly plays Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance. It is Lyle's theme song. He steps out of the car, handing the jacket to a batboy lackey. As he marches with rolling gait to the mound there is...PANDEMONIUM!
Lyle professes to be oblivious to these emotional binges. "I don't hear anything out there," he said after one such triumphant entrance last week. He has a pleasant face and a broad body. "I am looking at Thurman's [catcher Munson's] chest, not the crowd. I am not an emotional person. I can't think about such things. I just throw the ball."
His deeds, not his personality—warm as it may be—are the source of his charisma. Besides four wins, Lyle already has almost 30 saves—a fantastic figure. The entire Yankee relief staff of a year ago had only 12 saves for the season. Sparky has had a hand in more than half of the Yankee victories. And his manager and teammates are no less enthusiastic about him than the most rapt idolater in the grandstand.
"Amazing," they say. "What a guy." After a win last week, Lyle's six-week-old Dalmatian puppy, Sparky, indiscriminately relieved himself on the thick yellow rug in the Yankee clubhouse. "Hey, Sparky," Outfielder Ron Swoboda called out to Lyle, "you just missed a chance for another save." Characteristically, Lyle cleaned up the mess.