Steinbrenner has given Martin a team that everyone expects will win. And no one expects it more than Steinbrenner does. The owner's biggest concern is what he calls the "falloff" Martin has suffered after his initial successes in three previous managerial jobs. After winning a division championship with Minnesota in 1969, Martin was fired. Then he finished second and first with Detroit in 1971 and '72 but was dismissed the next year with the team in third place. He took Texas from sixth to second in 1974, but was fired in '75 with the team in fourth. He was hired by Steinbrenner two weeks later.
"I got Martin because he is what we needed at the time," Steinbrenner says. "His record has been one of instant success, and I knew he could put it together in a hurry. But there's always been a drop, and it's my job to see that it doesn't happen again." And Steinbrenner is in a good position to do that, because Martin's previous firings have been as much an indication of his inability to get along with front offices as they have been a result of his teams' declining performances.
It looked for a while last week as if his falloff with New York had come sooner than anybody expected. After Catfish Hunter shut out Milwaukee 3-0 on opening day, the Yankees stopped hitting and a dream that New York's rivals had been having all spring seemed to be coming true. According to that wishful thinking, if the Yankees got off to a bad start, their explosive personalities would set off a disastrous chain reaction, with the players squabbling among themselves and Martin locking horns with Steinbrenner and eventually getting the ax. One defect in the big-blowup scenario was New York's easy early schedule, which included six games with Milwaukee, last in the American East in '76, and four with expansion Toronto.
But the Brewers and Blue Jays proved to be anything but pushovers. After their opening victory, the Yankees lost eight of nine. During that stretch, they were defeated in a succession of relatively low-run games by such undistinguished pitchers as Jerry Augustine (twice) and Bob McClure of the Brewers and Dave Lemanczyk and Jerry Garvin of the Blue Jays. In the only loss not sustained at the hands of Milwaukee or Toronto, the Royals beat the Yanks 5-4, holding them hitless for the final eight innings of a 13-inning game.
By the time the slump had run its course, the Yankees, whose $1.5 million starting lineup is composed entirely of former all-stars, had the worst record in baseball, Hunter was on the 21-day disabled list with an injury sustained in his first start, and Gullett was 0-2. Ellis, Ed Figueroa and Ken Holtzman had all pitched well enough to win, but the hitters had not hit ( Jackson, Chambliss, Munson and Nettles were all batting less than .200), the runners weren't running (they had only six steals in 14 attempts) and the fielders weren't fielding (they had 11 errors to their opponents' six).
The low point was reached after the second of two losses to Toronto early last week. "I'm awful relaxed," Martin said mockingly. "Wouldn't you be relaxed if your house was on fire?"
In the next two games—also against Toronto—the Yankee bats finally hit some pitches. That was no surprise; it was bound to happen sooner or later. What was surprising was that the Yankees had survived the slump without rancor arising in the clubhouse or front office. And they broke it with a lineup drawn out of a hat by Jackson, which, among other oddities, had Rivers hitting fifth and Chambliss eighth. In reeling off five straight victories over the Blue Jays and Indians, the Yankees averaged eight runs and 13 hits. In the streak Munson and Jackson had eight hits apiece, and Chambliss broke out with two doubles, a homer and five RBIs in an 8-6 victory over Toronto. Three days later he had a bases-loaded double and a three-run homer in a 10-1 defeat of Cleveland.
Martin said he would stick with the new lineup as long as the Yankees won, but he did not much like it. He is anxious to unveil the batting order that he thinks will put the Yankees back in the World Series. It will not make Jackson or Munson particularly happy, but it pleases the manager. Rivers would lead off, followed by Munson, Jackson, Chambliss, Nettles, left-handed DH Carlos May, White, Willie Randolph and Dent. Against left-handed pitching, which New York saw seven times in its first 12 games. DH Wynn would bat fifth, with Nettles dropping to sixth.
Like fine furniture, no matter how the lineup is arranged it looks awfully good. At least as long as the Yankees are thinking team baseball. "People talk about our egos and our salaries," says Munson, "but they forget we're also players who have had success and care for what we do. Pride doesn't allow you to let down. When you start getting killed on the field and booed by the fans [ Jackson was greeted by chants of "Reggie! Reggie!" during his first Yankee Stadium game, but was roundly booed in the subsequent losses], pride takes over."
It had better take over for good, because if it does not, the inevitable confrontations will make the spring training furor look like a love feast.