The New York Yankees, the best team money can buy, lost the American League pennant last week. Actually, it was the 1957 pennant, which was being displayed at a New Jersey department store when someone stole it. But the way the fans were howling and the newspapers gossiping, you would have thought that George Steinbrenner's million-dollar minions had lost the 1977 flag as well.
Heavily favored to repeat as American League champions, the Yankees were off to their worst start in 10 years, losing five straight games and possessing for three days the worst record in the major leagues. But the losses themselves were not what was making the early-season Yankee performance so befuddling. After all, even a club loaded with all-stars can be expected to have slumps. The confounding thing about the team was the way everyone connected with it was taking the defeats.
To the amazement of onlookers, Steinbrenner did not storm into the dugout during the 8-3 loss to Toronto that was New York's fifth in a row and set fire to Manager Billy Martin. Catcher Thurman Munson and Rightfielder Reggie Jackson did not beat each other bloody with their Most Valuable Player trophies. Nobody jumped the team. In fact, instead of turning on each other, the volatile Yankees were saving their invective for the official scorer. Big deal.
Despite this docile behavior, the preseason prognostications for the Yankees still seem appropriate: 1) A team that won the league championship last season, then added free agents Reggie Jackson and Don Gullett, bought DH Jimmy Wynn and traded for Shortstop Bucky Dent should be even better this time around; and 2) If it is not, look out.
Spring training showed how tumultuous the Yankees can be. New York sportswriters went to Florida looking for controversy, and the Yankees nearly wrecked themselves trying to oblige:
First of all, there were contract disputes involving Munson, Third Baseman Graig Nettles, Leftfielder Roy White and Pitchers Dock Ellis and Sparky Lyle. Nettles even left the team for a few days, and Ellis remains unsigned.
After being asked to sharpen his all-round game with better bunting and more bases on balls—reasonable requests of a leadoff batter—Centerfielder Mickey Rivers asked to be traded; later in the spring he was benched twice for not hustling.
Jackson did not feel properly welcomed by his teammates and grumbled privately that he may have made a mistake by signing with New York.
Martin felt Steinbrenner was putting too much emphasis on winning spring-training games, and Steinbrenner raised hell when Martin did not come to an exhibition on the bus with his players.
Everyone was criticized when it was learned the Yankees had voted no World Series shares for their bat boys. As an afterthought, they awarded the boys $100 each, but their Cincinnati counterparts had received $6,591 apiece.