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John Papanek
April 03, 1978
Oh, Sparky Lyle's in the Yankees' camp, but baseball is an afterthought because he thinks he's being crowded out of the bullpen
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April 03, 1978

The Spark Is Missing

Oh, Sparky Lyle's in the Yankees' camp, but baseball is an afterthought because he thinks he's being crowded out of the bullpen

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Gossage, 26, is a strapping power pitcher, a 6'3" 210-pounder whose fastball has been clocked at 99 mph. He was the American League Fireman of the Year in 1975 with the White Sox, and for Pittsburgh last season he had statistics much like Lyle's: 11-9, 26 saves and a 1.62 ERA in 72 appearances. He also had 151 strikeouts in 133 innings. Eastwick, 27, was a Fireman of the Year, too, in 1976 with the Reds, and last season he pitched in 64 games for Cincinnati and St. Louis.

And there's the rub. Simple arithmetic shows that the three Yankee bullpen aces appeared in a total of 208 games last season, and veteran Dick Tidrow's 42 stints push the number to 250. At the same time, Yankee starters pitched a total of 52 complete games, third in the league.

After Lyle won the Cy Young Award, Steinbrenner tacked a $35,000 bonus onto his $140,000 salary and extended his contract a year, through 1980. The next Lyle knew, the Yankees had signed Gossage for $2.75 million. "I knew anyone in his right mind would go out and get that man," he says. "Right then, I didn't feel that my job was taken away. But I felt I'd be slowly edged out." When Eastwick signed for $1.1 million 19 days later, Lyle felt the earth sliding.

"I had been so happy," says Lyle, "because I figured Steinbrenner appreciated what I did for the club. Then, when he got Gossage and Eastwick I was so damn down because I felt like he sort of set me up for that, with the money he gave me. He never said anything to reassure me. Never called. Never wrote."

In January, Lyle announced that he wanted to be traded. "Everyone knows I have to pitch a lot to be effective," he said. "I can't sit around for four or five days without working. That will be the ruination of the whole season, and I don't want to waste any of the four or five years I have left."

The Yankees kept mum about Lyle's complaint until camp opened, and when Lyle did not report with the rest of the battery men on Feb. 20, Martin and Steinbrenner launched their counteroffensive, blasting Lyle for his "immaturity." "He's a Cy Young Award winner," said Martin. "He should set an example."

Out on the field, the other pitchers were amused by all the fuss. "Sparky's never been here on time," said Catfish Hunter. "I don't think anyone looked for him to be here on time, at least not the players." Said Steinbrenner, "If Lyle isn't mature enough to understand that he has a contractual and moral obligation to the Yankees, we certainly are not going to waste one minute of our time attempting to find out where he is."

With Holmesian brilliance, General Manager Cedric Tallis deduced that Lyle was home in New Jersey and called him there. Lyle said he would arrive on Feb. 24. His secret plan was to be driven to the practice field in a hearse and delivered to the mound in a coffin carried by four pallbearers. But when Lyle stepped off the plane at the Fort Lauderdale airport, Steinbrenner had one-upped him. There to greet Lyle were a 100-piece band playing Pomp and Circumstance, 28 pompon girls, nine majorettes and a banner that read WELCOME SPARKY LYLE—FINALLY. "Imagine if I had been a whole week late," Lyle said to his wife.

Once in camp, Lyle insisted he was serious about wanting to be traded. "It isn't the money," he said. "I don't give a damn about the money. I just want to be somewhere where I can pitch." Despite his "It isn't the money" disclaimers, though, Lyle has repeatedly indicated that a new long-term contract would make him one happy Yankee. Steinbrenner listened to Lyle's plea for all of 10 minutes. A few days later came a report that the Yankees could get no better offer than the proposal they got from Texas: Outfielder Claudell Washington and Pitcher Paul Lindblad for Lyle and First Baseman Chris Chambliss.

"What's the market for Lyle at age 34?" Steinbrenner said. "I'm not going to sacrifice anything just to trade him."

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