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Here they come, streaking out of history: the 1977 Reds, the 1973 Pirates, the 1965, 1959 and 1954 Yankees, the 1954 Dodgers, the 1925 Giants, the 1917 Red Sox, the 1910 Tigers, the 1909 Cubs. These teams had much in common. They had won two or more consecutive world championships. They looked unbeatable. And they were beaten. The 1979 Yankees could join this list. They have won three straight pennants and the last two World Series. By adding free-agent pitchers Tommy John and Luis Tiant, they have become prohibitive favorites to win the division championship again. But—oh, yes—they can be beaten.
No, not by further disarray in the clubhouse, now that Bob Lemon is firmly implanted in the manager's office. Billy Martin is gone, at least until next spring and perhaps forever, and so are his penchant for combat with George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson and his tendency to make large problems out of small ones. No, the Yankees' real troubles are baseball troubles.
The importance of free agents in New York's success has been overrated. In 1976 the Yankees won the division by 10� games. The next season they added free-agents Reggie Jackson and Don Gullett and won on the next-to-last day. In 1978, after Goose Gossage and Rawly Eastwick joined the club, they won on the day after the season was supposed to end. John, who was 17-10 at Los Angeles, and Tiant, a 13-game winner for Boston, will actually create a pitching glut. Ed Figueroa (20-9) pitches best every fourth day, but in a five-man rotation he won't be used that often. Scratch three to five wins. Ron Guidry likes four days' rest, but no one, least of all Guidry, expects him to match his performance of last year, when he was 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA, the best pitching record of modern times. Scratch another three to five wins. Tiant, 38, and Catfish Hunter, 33, have been iffy performers for a couple of years. The 35-year-old John, however, could thrive in Yankee Stadium. He is a lefty, and his sinkers will create lots of ground balls for New York's fine infielders to gobble up. Normally, John throws too hard in spring training and his pitches rise. Alas for Yankee-haters, he has been on target since early March. The sixth possible starter is last fall's hero, Jim Beattie. Gullett could miss the entire season with his badly damaged shoulder. Oddly, another injury or two might be just what the Yankees need to straighten out their rotation.
The same cannot be said of the bullpen. There is no sure replacement for the traded Sparky Lyle as the lefthanded short man, though inexperienced Paul Mirabella may be given a crack at the job. Thus the burden may be heavier than ever on Gossage, who had 27 saves in '78.
There are problems in the field, too. Leftfielder Roy White seems to hit .280 and play good pressure baseball when he's allowed to, but inexplicably Steinbrenner is forever seeking to replace him. The latest heir apparent is former Ranger Juan Beniquez, a player of questionable durability. In a brighter move, Steinbrenner acceded to Jackson's request to become the mainstay in right. Say what you will about his regular-season fielding, Jackson has been the Most Valuable Player in two World Series and has a championship ring for every finger on his left hand. "I hit 27 homers, and I didn't play that much when Martin was here," Jackson says. "I'll get 40." Jackson's erstwhile replacement in right, Lou Piniella, will be the full-time designated hitter. Centerfielder Mickey Rivers will continue to spark the offense at leadoff, and the infield of 90-RBI-man Chris Chambliss at first, Willie Randolph at second, Series star Bucky Dent at short and Graig Nettles, who hit 27 homers, at third, is outstanding defensively. In addition, the Yankees have more depth than any team in baseball.
Even so, an injury to Guidry, Gossage, Nettles or Rivers would be costly. And Catcher Thurman Munson showed dubious wisdom in waiting until January to have a shoulder operation. Experts say his throwing arm won't be at full strength until May, and his is the only position outside the bullpen where the Yanks are not blessed with depth. A final thought: 15 players on New York's roster are 30 or older, so don't count the Yankees in. Lest we forget, this is much the same team that somehow managed to get 13� games behind Boston last July.
And lest we forget, the Red Sox won 12 of their last 14 games. Nonetheless, it was a long winter in Boston. Tiant took the shuttle to New York, and another starting pitcher, Smokin' Bill Lee, was traded to Montreal. The departure of Tiant and Lee leaves Boston with 1� starters: 20-game winner Dennis Eckersley, who is good for a full season, and Mike Torrez (16-13), who traditionally has been good for half a year. The third man in the starting rotation will be Bob Stanley, who was 15-2 with 10 saves in relief. Much is expected of him. The rest of the rotation will be selected from among free-agent Steve Renko, who was 6-12 at Oakland; Jim Wright, who had an 8-4 record but was a bust for Boston in September; rookie Chuck Rainey; and Andy Hassler, a three-game winner with the Royals and Sox. Boston's only experienced lefthander, Hassler sliced up his pitching hand in fishing accidents in '77 and '78 and, as a result, lost the ability to throw an effective slider, a shortcoming he hopes off-season surgery has eliminated. Watch that postoperative slider, Hub fans, and pray. While you're at it, say a few litanies for the relievers. Tom Burgmeier and Dick Drago had all of 11 saves between them in '78.
The starting nine, when hale, is the league's best. Catcher Carlton Fisk hit .284 with 20 homers and 88 RBIs. First Baseman George Scott, Second Baseman Jerry Remy, Shortstop Rick Burleson and Third Baseman Butch Hobson are all good hitters and fielders. Outfielders Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans are the best aggregation anywhere. Lynn hits for average (.298) and with power (22 homers) and is a superb centerfielder, and Evans, a 24-home-run man, is the world's best rightfielder. MVP Rice and Yaz will alternate between left and DH. Overall, the regulars should be even better than in 1978. Burleson seems sure to improve on his .248 average, and now that the chips have been removed from his right elbow, Hobson will no longer lead third basemen with 43 errors, as he did last season when his throws were so erratic. And having reduced his bulk from 240 pounds to 215, Scott is pulling inside pitches for the first time in three years.
The Red Sox spring is always heavy with questions, but they usually have answers: Can a rookie make the team? Can a veteran come back? This March the questions were imponderable. Onetime bullpen ace Bill Campbell, who must be fully healthy to pitch, still has a mysterious shoulder ailment, and Fisk for some unknown reason could not straighten his right arm during much of spring training, a potentially disastrous problem the Boston brass blithely shrugs off by saying time cures all ills. Should Fisk miss a substantial portion of the season, the Red Sox will be left to ponder imponderables all year.
Even if Boston comes up ailing, the Yanks still won't win in a breeze. Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver says, "We've got the best pitching in the league, and I predict we'll hit more homers than the Yankees." An unlikely prediction? The record shows that in 1978 the Orioles outhomered the Yankees 154-125.