The New York Yankees may have been a dismal fourth in the American League East this year, but they are clear-cut champions of the Hot Stove League. With his usual flair for the dramatic, New York owner George Steinbrenner in the past three weeks has resigned two Yankees who looked as if they might go elsewhere, canned his manager and replaced him with a college coach, and named as his general manager a minor league skipper. He also has pulled off two significant trades and grabbed two of the choicest players in the free-agent reentry draft. And now, for an encore, Steinbrenner would like to land Nolan Ryan, the most glamorous free agent of them all.
While the Yankees were fishing for Ryan last week—in the same boat with Houston, Texas and Milwaukee—Ryan was doing some angling himself. The 32-year-old former California Angel pitcher settled down by a pond on his 600-acre spread, a 3�-hour drive from his home in Alvin, Texas and contemplated rumors that next week he might reel in a record free-agent contract worth $1 million a year. "I don't think there is a million-dollar ballplayer," Ryan said, "but if somebody's willing to pay...."
Steinbrenner certainly seems willing. "Nolan's one of the most desirable quantities in baseball," Steinbrenner says. "He's a strikeout king, and in these days when you have to fight soccer in the summer and football in September, you have to get the fans to the park somehow. And they come to see players hit home runs and strike people out." Steinbrenner landed a crowd-pleasing home-run hitter in the first reentry draft three years ago—Reggie Jackson—to whom Ryan would seem to be the perfect complement. Even Ryan's agent, Dick Moss, believes New York would be the ideal choice: "I said to Nolan, if I had your talent and your charisma and could create the kind of excitement you can, I would want to do my thing in New York, because I think it's the greatest baseball city in the country.' "
Although Steinbrenner himself could not have expressed it better, New York does not satisfy Ryan's yen to play for a team based near his home. Closest to Alvin is Houston, 26 miles away, which may be why, even before the draft took place, Ryan and his wife lunched with Astro owner John McMullen, who may have even more money than Steinbrenner and is willing to spend it. Also relatively nearby are the Rangers, and Ruth Ryan, a Lone Star native, prefers either of the two Texas teams to the Yankees. The fourth possibility is Milwaukee, although the Brewers seem least likely to generate a $1 million-a-year offer. Indeed, that seems an outrageous sum for any pitcher but when Ryan is healthy—which he is often not—he can be untouchable; witness his four career no-hitters and 2,909 strikeouts.
Money, even if it should go as high as a million, would certainly not be a problem for the Yankees, who spend it as easily as they make it. Last week's signings of First Baseman-Designated Hitter Bob Watson and Pitcher Rudy May brought to eight the number of free agents who have made their reentry through the Port of New York—at a cost of nearly $15 million. "I didn't create the free-agent system," Steinbrenner says, "but if it's there, I said I was going to use it."
No one appreciates this generosity more than the players. "I was surprised and overwhelmed," Watson said of Steinbrenner's big-money blitz. Watson, who batted .303 with Houston and Boston last season, received a four-year contract worth approximately $1.8 million, while May, 10-3 with Montreal, picked up $1 million for three years.
As Steinbrenner describes it, the money he's handing over to Watson and May isn't even his. "The fans paid for them, I didn't," he says. "More than two and a half million people came out this year to support a fourth-place club. We're going to give them the kind of ballclub they deserve."
Badly in need of a receiver to replace Thurman Munson and a centerfielder to take over for Mickey Rivers, who was traded last season, Steinbrenner had begun the Yankee overhaul a week before by trading for Catcher Rick Cerone and Pitcher Tom Underwood of Toronto and Centerfielder Ruppert Jones of Seattle. The only important loss was First Baseman Chris Chambliss, who went to Toronto, having become expendable when Steinbrenner re-signed Jim Spencer, along with Shortstop Bucky Dent, a few days before. "Until we made these deals, our club had some holes and could be taken advantage of," Steinbrenner said. "Now we feel very good about our team."
In addition to changing the look of his lineup, Steinbrenner also reshaped New York on the management side. The day the trades were announced, the Yankees also introduced Gene Michael as the new general manager, succeeding Cedric Tallis, and Dick Howser as the new manager, succeeding Billy Martin. Both Michael and Howser are former Yankee players and coaches, although last year Michael was the pennant-winning field boss in Columbus and Howser guided the team at Florida State.
While orchestrating all of these moves with his blend of cajolery, bluff and charm, Steinbrenner was also keeping watch over his shipbuilding business. "These have been the toughest eight or nine days I've ever had," he said.