In Fort Lauderdale last week, Sparky Lyle of the world champion New York Yankees was getting ready for the baseball season in typical fashion. For Lyle, that meant an early-morning workout—consisting of a little throwing, a couple of lethargic wind sprints and a friendly pepper game—on a day when most of his teammates would have to endure a six-hour bus trip to Vero Beach and back for an exhibition game with the Dodgers. Returning to his locker after deciding that he had done enough work for one day, Lyle found a note that read, "You're pitching Saturday."
Lyle took a pen and on the note scribbled, "Maybe I will." Then he stepped into a pair of jeans, pulled on a yellow T shirt that clearly outlined his sizable paunch, donned a Panama hat that shaded his droopy mustache, grinned a grin and headed for "the only place besides the ball park where I feel comfortable."
At his hotel bar, Lyle was halfway through a cheeseburger and his first vodka and soda of the day when the telephone rang. "Do we still have an opening for a dishwasher?" the bartender asked the cashier.
"You have?" said Lyle, putting down the burger. He stood up and pointed a finger toward heaven. "O.K., George," he yelled. "You better come across now. You hear me, George?"
Welcome back to the Yankees, America. In case anyone needs a reintroduction, Lyle, at 34, was the American League's best pitcher last season. Not just the best relief pitcher, which he certainly was, but the best pitcher, period. Relying on a single pitch—his dreaded slider—the lefthander, who was summoned only in the tightest spots, had a 13-5 record, 26 saves and an ERA of 2.17. He also became the first relief pitcher in the American League to win the Cy Young Award.
All season long, Lyle worked like a pack mule, and he loved it. On six occasions he appeared in three or more consecutive games, and in. June he had five saves in five straight appearances. In the stretch during late August and early September, when the Yankees climbed past Boston and into first place in the East, Lyle had four wins and seven saves in 13 appearances. In all, he pitched in 72 games and finished 60 of them, each a Yankee record, and extended his major league record for relief appearances to 621. He has not made a single start in his 11 seasons in the major leagues. On the basis of his 2.44 career ERA, one could argue that Sparky Lyle is baseball's alltime best pure relief specialist.
But what was all that fuss about his late arrival for spring training? And why is he loafing a bit and begging off bus trips and hanging out in the hotel bar and scribbling wise-guy notes? Why do some of his close friends on the club expect him to walk out on the Yankees any day? Why is he threatening to become a dishwasher if "George" does not come across? And why is he sulking like an only child who suddenly finds a new baby in the house?
Why? Because that is just what has happened. Except it is not just one baby, but twins, with whom Lyle must share his bullpen. It seems that George Steinbrenner, the team's imperious owner, reasoned that the only thing better than having one Sparky Lyle would be having two Sparky Lyles, or better yet, three. But he forgot to consult Sparky before tossing several more of his millions—almost four of them—to land a pair of right-handed, free-agent relievers: Rich Gossage and Rawly Eastwick.
As a result, Lyle told Steinbrenner that he does not want to be a Yankee anymore, for reasons that have something to do with just how thin one can slice baloney. With Lyle, Gossage and Eastwick, the Yankees have a bullpen of stupendous proportions, and how, Lyle wonders, can Manager Billy Martin find a way to keep everybody busy, and therefore happy?