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A BUNT THAT WENT BOOM!
Larry Keith
July 31, 1978
For bunting when Manager Billy Martin ordered him to swing away, Reggie Jackson was suspended, and so began a chain of tumultuous events that culminated in Martin's resignation
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July 31, 1978

A Bunt That Went Boom!

For bunting when Manager Billy Martin ordered him to swing away, Reggie Jackson was suspended, and so began a chain of tumultuous events that culminated in Martin's resignation

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Martin had been ailing—he has a rebellious liver—right along with his team. Precisely how serious the condition is remains something of a mystery, but there is no doubt about two things: Martin's psyche could never take too much losing and his liver can no longer take too much drinking.

Jackson, of course, could never take too much Martin. During July, when he had not been hitting all that well, Reggie had been shuttled in and out of the lineup, yo-yoed up and down the batting order and finally banished from rightfield to become, in essence, a part-time designated hitter who played only against righthanded pitchers.

A year ago Martin tried to duke it out with Jackson during a game in Boston. On the night of the bunting incident, Jackson seemed likely to provoke another round of fisticuffs. When Munson led off the 10th with a single, Martin flashed the bunt sign to Third-Base Coach Dick Howser. Howser duly relayed the message to Jackson. That was fine with Reggie. Never mind that he had not executed a successful sacrifice since 1972 or that he had felt insulted when Martin had asked him to lay one down in the past—this time he wanted to bunt. Jackson had even told Munson in the on-deck circle that he planned to do it when Munson got on base. "Don't get ahead of yourself," Munson had responded. "I've got to get there first." And Munson did, lashing his hit to centerfield. So, after taking the first pitch for a ball, here was Jackson trying to bunt and failing.

In the dugout, Martin changed his mind. Third Baseman George Brett had moved in. Martin to Howser to Jackson: hit away. But Jackson, who later said he misread the sign, tried to bunt again. Foul ball. Howser walked in toward the plate and summoned Jackson to him. "Billy says to hit away," said the coach. "I want to bunt," said Reggie. "Billy says to hit away." "I want to bunt," said Reggie. Al Hrabosky threw his next pitch, Jackson's hand slipped up the bat and he popped a bunt into foul territory for an automatic out.

Martin was furious. "That's the maddest I've ever been in my life," he says. Jackson knew he was in trouble. He walked to the bench, sat down, laid his glasses beside him and waited for Martin to arrive from the other end of the dugout. During their 1977 set-to in Boston, when Martin pulled Jackson out of a game for failing to hustle, the two had exchanged words, and Martin had launched a roundhouse punch that missed. Martin should have been fired, suspended, fined—something—but he wasn't. So what prevented Martin from attacking Jackson this time? "No player has ever challenged me the way Reggie did," he says. "I know what I would have done in private. First I'm a man, then I'm a manager." On this occasion, Martin the manager controlled the worst instincts of Martin the man. He sent Coach Gene Michael to tell Jackson that he was out of the game.

After Kansas City won in the 11th inning Martin went into a rage, smashing a soft-drink bottle against his office wall and heaving his clock radio into the hall. Then, following a conference with Steinbrenner and Yankee President Al Rosen, an indefinite suspension was announced. Jackson's term subsequently was set at five days. The suspension cost Jackson $9,273 in salary, but to get their money the Yankees must await Jackson's personal check, because he receives his annual $332,000 stipend in advance. Martin had hoped to contribute Jackson's payment to a pension fund for old ballplayers.

Why did Jackson disobey his manager's orders? "That's the mystery," says Martin. "He'd been working hard all year and didn't have a chip on his shoulder. We had talked the day before, and I had told him that I liked him no matter what he had heard and that I would give him a chance to play rightfield some."

Martin's soothing words had come too late and rang too hollow for Jackson. He knew where he stood with his manager. Forget that they had embraced after the Yankees won the 1977 World Series; they did not mean it. To Martin, Jackson was George's boy, not one of Billy's. In Martin's mind, Jackson was also a player with more money than talent, more flash than consistency. Realizing this, Jackson had gone to Steinbrenner the day after hearing Martin's friendly words and laid his gripes out: he was unhappy playing in New York; he did not consider the criticism of him by Martin and Rosen to be fair; he wanted the respect and treatment that his hard work and productive performance deserved. Indeed, despite his .189 average and solitary homer in July, Jackson was first or second on the Yankees in virtually every important offensive category—RBIs, runs, home runs and stolen bases—and had cut his errors from seven at this point last year to three this season.

Steinbrenner listened to Jackson for an hour and a half. He is Jackson's friend, so he gave him sympathy. But he is also Jackson's boss, so he gave him the facts. "I don't think you're a very good outfielder," Steinbrenner said. Clearly Steinbrenner agreed with Martin that Jackson should be used primarily as a DH, a job Reggie considers the lot of the aged, inept or infirm.

From Steinbrenner's office, Jackson went down to the clubhouse. He was quiet and sullen. He says now that he had felt all day that something was about to happen but he didn't know what. In the 10th inning he found out.

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