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It was 18 years ago this spring that the Yankees got rid of Billy Martin. He was a bad influence, they said. Nobody saw him land a punch at the Copacabana nightclub when a bunch of his teammates got involved in a scrap with some fellows celebrating the end of their bowling season, but it was Martin's birthday party, and since he had a record for brawling, much of the blame landed on him. Then, the next month, he was in the middle of a big scuffle with the White Sox at Comiskey Park, and was thrown out of the game. Three days later the Yankees sent him to Kansas City for Harry (Suitcase) Simpson. In the clubhouse Mickey Mantle cried. Casey Stengel told Martin, "Well, you're gone. You're the smartest little player I ever had."
In the cheerless cavalcade of the playing career that followed, Martin lasted no more than one season with any team: Detroit after K.C., then Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Minnesota. The late Jimmy Cannon wrote the foam about Martin that all the baseball people blew off their beers: "Now to Cincinnati in another league. And Billy Martin is positive he has come home at last. He always is."
A few years later, when Martin got a chance to manage, he won a division championship for the Twins and was fired, all in his first season. He won a division title with Detroit, but couldn't last out another year. Then Texas. He was Manager of the Year last season. This is his second full season with the Rangers. "It's been a truthful relationship here with everybody," says Martin, a man who prizes truth. "I have a real foundation here. I think I'll stay here for the rest of my career." So now Texas. And Billy Martin is positive he has come home at last. He always is.
The problem is not just that Billy Martin gets in fights and becomes a pugnacious embarrassment for more civil men. Were he merely truculent he would have long since been cut loose from baseball. The problem is that he is a terribly complicated personality—not necessarily sophisticated-complicated, more ironic-complicated. He is a kind of Sir Walter Scott knight errant cast loose into this strange modern world of compromise and convention, where duels are frowned upon and damsels in distress can be put on waivers. Despite all the Donny-brooks, Martin is a man of sweet sentimentality. He believes in absolutes—some might say simplicities—and he is nurtured by the fundamentals of chivalry, which he introduces into conversation as readily as he might order breakfast or argue with an umpire. Words such as loyalty, honor, truth, love, belief and pride surface regularly; and in his universe, where such absolutes rigorously figure, we should not be surprised that Martin also finds liars, back stabbers, cowards, bullies and other blackguards lurking about, anxious to do him in. When in fact they do cross him, he does the only thing left for him to do in his well-defined world, which is to pop them in the chops or, where bosses are involved, to supply the lexical equivalent. Frank Lane, a man never known for being demure, admits that Martin is in a league all his own. "When I've talked like he does," Lane says, "I've always made sure I was talking on a five-year or seven-year contract."
Yet Martin also possesses powerful qualities of organization, inspiration, evaluation and attention to detail that make him nearly peerless among managers. Counting a minor-league season managing Denver in 1968, he has taken four teams with losing records and turned them instantly into winners. This bespeaks more than a touch of genius. Since his abrasiveness draws attention, he also sells tickets, which managers and coaches almost never do, whatever the sport. The enraged citizenry of the Twin Cities and Detroit responded with classic organized American hysteria to his firings—printing up buttons and bumper stickers and indignantly registering their opinions on radio call-in shows. So we can be sure there will always be a home for Billy Martin.
Wherever he goes, Martin wants things his way, and he is not bashful. While it is politic for most baseball managers to utter platitudes about the managerial dependence upon the athletic talent at their disposal and to allow that they can really only do a little bit here and there—a suicide squeeze twice a season, that sort of thing—Martin believes that the manager should be the force about which the team revolves. Copernicus, you may recall, had similar public-relations difficulties with the Establishment over what revolves around what. "A manager can change the outcome in anywhere from 20 to 50 games," Martin proclaims heretically.
Twenty to 50? Why, you're talking about one out of almost every three games.
"Sure," says Martin. "That is, if he's the kind of guy I am, who handles everything himself. I'm not talking about the managers who just make out the lineup cards. I call everything myself. Infield in, halfway, back; all the pitchouts; whether to throw through or not. I call a lot of the pitches, too. There's someone out there looking at me before every pitch."
Charley Dressen failed to impress his players with a similar view of self-eminence: "Stay close, boys, and I'll think of something." But while Martin has quipped that the secret of his profession "is to keep the five players who hate you away from the four who are undecided," he has really been quite popular with his minions. What he did learn from studying Dressen—who once, furious and fully clothed, followed the naked Martin into a shower to get the last word—is that confidence need not be confused with majesty.
But if Martin picked up this or that from Dressen and some of the others he played for, Stengel, his patron, is the lone Influence. Indeed, on the days when a breeze blows, so that Martin's dark blue Ranger jacket billows in back above where he jabs his right hand into the rear pocket, a man can take off his glasses, and it seems once more that it is the bandy-legged old man going out to lift Lopat for Page, not merely his favorite prot�g� about to lift Bibby for Foucault. Lift: that is precisely the word. Any hired hand can change pitchers, replace them, signal to the bullpen; but a man does not truly become a manager until he can lift a pitcher. Billy Martin lifts pitchers.