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"Brad said, 'Who do you want?' I said, 'Some kid who's a long way off.' Brad said, 'Gimme some names.' So, I said halfheartedly, 'I don't know...how about this kid Dave Righetti?' "
Last November, after a season in which Righetti finished with career lows in games (55) and innings (69), Steinbrenner suggested that his reliever might become, yes, a starter again. The Boss went so far as to order Righetti to refine his curve and changeup in the Florida Instructional League for two weeks. But when Steinbrenner failed to land a big-name free-agent reliever, Righetti landed back in the pen.
"He is going to be the closer," Steinbrenner proclaims. "He will be brought in in the ninth inning. Period. I'm the only one who knows how to use him. I've told my manager and coaches, 'If you reach for him too early, you'll be reaching for the next train home.' "
The seesawing over his status, says Righetti, has created the impression that he has been inadequate as a reliever, and made him one of the most scrutinized athletes in New York City. And perhaps the most mistreated. At times he has been pelted with everything from bottles to grapefruits as he trots to the mound from the bullpen. He is cursed to his face in the Yankee Stadium parking lot.
"I've been booed so bad," he says, "I walk from the mound with my head down, then fight to get through the parking lot. I watch the fans cheer guys who don't hustle. They cheer guys who rip the organization. I guess you have to be rotten to have the fans like you. Keith Hernandez is involved in the Pittsburgh drug trial, and he gets a standing ovation at Shea Stadium. I give up a run, and I get booed like crazy. You figure it out.
"I wish Yankee fans appreciated me as a reliever. They've never accepted me because the team has never stuck behind me as a reliever. And because I've never complained, they think I don't stand up for myself. They think I'm a patsy."
As if to prove he's not, he lets loose with what for him is a virtual torrent of opinion. "I'm not sure anymore what it means to be a Yankee. Loyalty has been a problem on this team. All over the stadium things have changed, from the ushers to the grounds crew to the clubhouse men. The whole atmosphere has changed. These days, when people talk about the Yankees, it's always negative. We're laughed at. When you look weak, other teams treat you that way. As a Yankee fan, it hurt a lot last year to see the shape the team was in."
Because he is a Yankee fan, Righetti's distress is composed more of disappointment than of anger. And despite his achievements in pinstripes, his career as a Yankee has always been underscored by a kind of personal guilt: He made it to the big leagues, and his father and his brother didn't. While he has played baseball in the summer sun, they have put in grueling, 12-hour days at the tallow plant. In 1983, the same year that Dave threw his no-hitter, Steve was almost killed at the plant. A truck slipped out of gear, rolled down a ramp and pinned him against a concrete wall.
A few years ago, in San Jose, where Dave now lives with his wife, Kandice, his guilt-ridden emotions finally erupted. After the brothers had consumed several beers, they began screaming at each other in a restaurant parking lot, arguing so vehemently that police had to calm them down.
"He started to get into it about my working at the company," Steve recalls, "that I shouldn't be so negative about it. And I remember asking him where he got off telling me about work. Baseball isn't work. How'd he like to be punched in the stomach every day? I reminded him that I had been a baseball player—not a pitcher—and that that had made all the difference."