Anaheim, Calif. — By the time the front-running New York Yankees began their formal charge at the American League pennent this season, they had already been marked for either third or fourth place in most of the better baseball polls.
No sense getting too excited about a team that lost 71 games last year plus its manager, Billy Martin, who now works for Charlie Finley in Oakland.
But that was before New York's pitching depth, bullpen strength, rookie talent, and team balance began to surface. This was also before new manager and former Yankee third base coach Dick Howser showed everybody who's boss by slapping a $500 fine on pitcher Luis Tiant.
However, who got angry when Tiant dropped the ball on the mound during a pitching change instead of handing it to him, later admitted that Luis was not the only Yankee player he has taken money from this year.
Previous fines, however, had not been made public and had been levied in the privacy of Howser's office.
The point is the first-place Yankees are now playing and behaving like the best team in baseball. And as always, the club has been a big "draw" in enemy ballparks. Last weekend at Oakland, for example, 121,364 fans (better than a third of the team's 1979 home attendance) turned out to see the A's meet New York in a four-game series.
The Yankees don't rely on any one or two players to carry them, and they also have shown the one thing all future champions must have -- the ability to win often on the road.
"Even before [owner] George Steinbrenner offered me the Yankee job, I was impressed with this team's personnel," Howser told me in the visitor's dugout at Anaheim Stadium. "The whole operation looked like a winning situation to me, and franky I wanted to be a part of it.
"I really began to get excited when we picked up players like outfielder Ruppert Jones, pitcher Tom Underwood, catcher Rick Cerone, first baseman Bob Watson, and in-fielder Eric Soderholm," Dick continued. "Teams that don't bring in a certain number of new players each year have a tendency to stagnate."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Howser has been his ability to juggle players around and still come up every day with a hard-hitting lineup. He also has the ability to mentally anticipate what might happen two and three innings ahead. There is absolutely no panic in him.
"Basically I've got one of the most visible jobs in one of the most media-oriented cities in the country," Howser said. "I figure the best way to keep it is to be myself. I may seem quiet, but I can get excited. I also want my players to have fun, so long as it doesn't detract from their professionalism.
"Before I make a move as a manager, I always consider the player I'm dealing with and the situation," he continued. "If I've got Ron Guidry or Tommy John out on the mound for me, and they get into trouble, I'm going to stay with them -- give them enough time to pitch their way out of it.
"But if I've got a kid or a tired veteran out there, and the situation is the same, I'm going to my bullpen, where we've got a great late-inning relief pitcher in Rich Gossage."
Three rockies who have really helped the Yankees this year are outfielder Joe Lefebvre, catcher-first baseman Dennis Werth, and outfielder Bobby Brown, who replaced Jones in center when Ruppert was injured.
The biggest believer in this team among Yankee stars is designated hitter Reggie Jackson.
"I look at this team and I can't get over the transition the Yankees have made in just one winter from mostly veterans to a terrific blend of youth and experience," Jackson said. "When some of our veterans didn't get off all that well this spring, these kids stepped in and carried us.
"Actually I don't just feel we're going to win it all this season, I think we're going to be one of baseball's top teams for several years to come," Reggie continued. "Most people away from baseball simply don't realize what a tremendous farm system we've got.
"We're a team that can win at home or on the road and we've got two starting pitchers [Guidry and John] who can win the games that have to be won against our strongest rivals. Personally I'm having the most fun I've had since leaving Oakland."