Fair enough. Despite a .239 batting average, May is still hitting homers (17) and driving in runs (59). Palmer has 12 victories and a 3.11 ERA; Belanger has played 52 straight games and handled 218 chances without an error; and Rightfielder Singleton is fourth in the league with a .315 batting average. Centerfielder Al Bumbry is batting .296, and until he pulled a muscle in his right thigh last week and went on the disabled list was enjoying his best season since his .337 Rookie of the Year campaign in 1973. Pat Kelly came over from the White Sox to praise the Lord, play left field and put together the longest hitting streak in the American League—19 games. And although living legend Robinson has only 46 at bats, he beat the Indians one night with a three-run homer in the 10th inning. "An extraordinary thrill," he says. "I hope we win the pennant by one game so I'll know I contributed. Sitting out in the bullpen makes it kind of hard."
Robinson has turned third base over to Doug DeCinces, who spent last season trying to live down the tag of The Man Who Replaced Brooks Robinson. This season his hitting, fielding and confidence are all up. "I had to learn that I was Doug DeCinces, not Brooks Robinson, and to play my own game," he says. "If I made an error people would say, 'Brooks would have had it,' as if he had never made an error in his life."
While the Orioles have successfully blended the old and the new, the Yankees, heavily favored to repeat as American League champions, have not. The addition of Jackson and Gullett did give the Yankees better personnel, but it has not made them a better team. Inconsistent pitching has hurt the Yankees on the field, and personality clashes have ripped their clubhouse. As one critic joked, "When the Yankees go out for dinner, they reserve 25 tables for one." Jackson hit well enough to be the only free agent voted into the All-Star Game, but his arrogance and unexpectedly poor defense have irritated his teammates, particularly the too, too sensitive Thurman Munson, and his mere presence has bothered Martin. The manager's biggest problem, though, has been his relationship with Steinbrenner. In fact, the only thing the two have in common seems to be a complete dislike for each other.
Steinbrenner almost fired Martin in June after Martin, enraged by Jackson's nonchalance in the field, had a brisk dispute with Jackson in the dugout during a nationally televised game at Boston. As Steinbrenner watched on his TV set, Martin tried to fight Jackson. The irate Steinbrenner confronted Martin two days later and apparently was prepared to fire him until Jackson, of all people, and Munson pleaded with him on the manager's behalf.
Martin's most recent crises are a result of a breakdown of team discipline and his failure to coax the Yankees into first place. Certainly Steinbrenner's moods have had an adverse effect on Martin. "I feel like those guys on death row," he said one day, fully expecting the ax to fall. "The first time you get fired you think nothing can be that bad again. But each time it gets worse. It was bad in Minnesota, but it was worse in Detroit and even worse in Texas."
Martin survived that day, probably because the Yankees beat Kansas City. But the next night Steinbrenner seemed to lay the groundwork for Martin's immediate dismissal by pompously announcing seven criteria by which Martin would be judged. The first, of course, was the team's won-lost record. But the rest appeared rigged so that Steinbrenner could get rid of Martin even if the Yankees did not lose another game the rest of the year. Does he work hard enough? Is he emotionally equipped to lead men under him? Is he organized? Is he prepared? Does he understand human nature? Is he honorable? In fact, Martin has been accused of being deficient in most of these areas at one time or another, but this has never prevented him from being a winner.
It was apparent to all the Yankees that Steinbrenner wanted Martin fired and replaced with a less volatile person. But he said he would leave the final decision to General Manager Gabe Paul.
Such was the state of the Yankees when the Orioles showed up Tuesday night. The consensus was that while it probably was too early to knock New York completely out of the race, Baltimore could knock Martin out of his job by winning at least two of three games. Martin's position was so precarious that even his nemesis. Weaver, felt obliged to come to his defense. "How can Billy be blamed if Jim Palmer pitches a shutout?" the Baltimore manager asked.
Martin has always insisted that his players and the fans support him, and that night they proved it. Before the game the crowd of 32,000 gave Martin a standing ovation when he came out to present the lineup card to the umpires. It took the Yankees a while longer to act on his behalf. Singleton's mammoth 437-foot three-run homer and Ross Grimsley's pitching had the Orioles ahead 4-2 as the Yankees batted in the ninth. But then Cliff Johnson tied the score with the Yankees' first pinch-hit homer in two years, and New York won 5-4 in the 10th on Jackson's home run.
The next night Steinbrenner changed his position again, saying on TV that Martin would almost surely finish the season. "It doesn't matter," said a Yankee before the game. "Billy is going to be fired at the end of the year no matter what he does or how well the team plays." New York did not play well. Smith hit Catfish Hunter's first pitch into the upper deck, Murray and May slugged back-to-back homers off Hunter in the eighth, and the Orioles—behind Palmer—won 6-3.