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They are neither Bronx nor Bombers these days. They play in a ball park in another New York borough, which makes every contest a road game. Neither in muscle nor numbers will their hitters remind anyone of a Murderers' Row. The manager has his job as a consolation prize, and the team leader changes from day to day like the locker-room supply of T shirts. No beer baron or TV network pays the salaries; the principal owner is yet another man enmeshed in legal trouble relating to Richard Nixon. Resentments that lingered in the wake of early-season trades and a position change have waned, but a disgruntled pitcher quit only last week.
All of which, for some American League fans with long memories, might be good news about the New York Yankees if the team were suffering for such handicaps rather than challenging for its first title in the last 10 years. As the days dwindled down in the ferocious divisional race, New York was rolling with a momentum reminiscent of the pinstripers of old—those guys who won 29 pennants and 20 world championships.
When the week ended, New York led the American League East with an 80-67 record, 2� games ahead of Baltimore and 3� in front of Boston, both of which had blown chances to stop the implausible Yanks in their home ball yards. The Yankees beat the Red Sox twice—and a Fenway Park jinx that had stung them 20 times in 21 previous games—before moving on to Baltimore. There, rebounding from a dispiriting one-run loss in 17 innings, the Yanks took two games from the Orioles.
In contrast to the seasons in which New York used to wrap up the pennant by Mother's Day, the Yankees accomplished their march through Boston, Baltimore and Detroit last week with no little luck and some of the least likely heroes in any season. For all of that, however, the team was neither awestruck by its success nor put into a snit by the occasional defeat. After a 6-3 loss Friday night to Detroit, a last-place club that mysteriously had socked it to the Yanks 11 times in 16 previous meetings, the locker room was calm. And this though the Tigers had rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Doc Medich, New York's top pitcher.
"I can't afford to dwell on this thing," said Medich. "We've just got to stay loose, come back tomorrow and play again. Our club doesn't get uptight. The feeling now is that it's just another day we'll have to wait to win the pennant."
On Saturday the Yanks blew a four-run lead but ultimately emerged with a 10-7 victory. And on Sunday they won 10-2 to complete their week on the road with a 6-2 record.
Cool professionalism is but one change wrought in the erratic Yankees by low-key Bill Virdon, who saves his emotional bombast for umpires even when his ego is on the line. Virdon was the second choice of Owner George Steinbrenner as the team's manager. Steinbrenner (who has been fined $15,000 for illegal campaign contributions and has severed his working connection with the team) offered Virdon the job when he could not get Dick Williams from Oakland. Moreover, the job was to be Virdon's only until such time as Williams would be available. With Virdon now a strong candidate for Manager of the Year, that stipulation is a delicious irony.
Virdon himself says, "I really never thought about it. I was going to manage in Denver and it got down to where would I rather be, in the majors or in the minors. It's not too bad being considered No. 2 to Dick Williams. Anyway, the Lord says he has little use for a coward."
Ruled by that philosophy, Virdon made the most dramatic Yankee move of the year when he replaced Bobby Murcer with Elliott Maddox in center field, the glamour position. Murcer, an Oklahoman like his idol, Mickey Mantle, had led the team in hits, doubles, homers, batting average and RBIs for three seasons and his enthusiasm at being switched to right field was less than robust. Virdon had simply decided that Maddox was a far better defensive player, a judgment since vindicated repeatedly. And Maddox has stroked consistent if not long-range hits for a .306 average.
"Murcer still doesn't like the change," says a front-office Yankee, "but he's adjusted to it the way any professional athlete making $120,000 a year would. Besides that, didn't we have a guy named Ruth who played right field? There ought to be some glamour playing that position."