Billy Martin's A's Face Yankees in AL playoffs

By , Sports editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Reggie Jackson is acting like "Mr. October" again, George Steinbrenner is throwing tantrums, and even Billy Martin is back in the act as he returns to Yankee Stadium for a dramatic confrontation with both of his old tormentors. And these are just the semifinals!

Yes, it's a scriptwriter's dream as Martin's brash, young Oakland A's take on the Yankees in a best-of-five series opening here tonight to determine the American League's World Series representative. And with this cast of characters you can be sure not all the excitement will take place on the field.

Jackson will be a focal point as always in these post-season clashes. The Yankee slugger hit only .237 this year, but as he has shown so frequently in the past, Reggie possesses in uncanny ability to rise to the occasion.

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Who can forget, for instance, his World Series MVP performance for Oakland in 1973, or his three home runs for the Yankees in the decisive game of the 1977 classic?

And already this fall he is up to his old tricks again. He hit .300 and made several fine defensive plays in New York's pulsating five-game victory over Milwaukee for the AL East title, and with his usual dramatic flair, he picked the right spots for his heroics -- smashing a two-run homer to nail down a 3-0 second game victory, and blasting a two-run shot that tied the climactic fifth game and triggered the Yankees' 7-3 triumph.

But Jackson was hardly the whole show -- or even the main reason for New York's success in the divisional playoff. That accolade goes to an imposing array of starting pitchers and relievers who combined to shut down the vaunted Milwaukee offense time and again.

The biggest guns were fireballing rookie Dave Righetti and veteran reliever Goose Gossage, who throws even harder. Righetti struck out 13 Brewers in nine innings and won two games, while Gossage, whose 6 ft. 3 in., 217-pound frame and stern, mutton chop-adorned visage would be enough to intimidate the hitters even if he didn't throw a 98 m.p.h. fastball, fanned eight in 62/3 innings while saving all three Yankee victories.

Starter Ron Guidry and middle relief man Ron Davis also pitched well, while Tommy John and Rick Reuschel add more depth to a staff that is beginnng to look truly awesome.

The Yankees need such pitching, too, for the rest of their game is frequently less than championship caliber, as they showed by a almost letting the Brewers off the hook after winning the first two games. The offense, which has been erratic all year, just about disappeared in Games 3 and 4. And on two of the rare occasions when they got something going, they ran themselves out of possible big innings via amateurish blunders on the basepaths by Dave Winfield and Rick Cerone.

The 2-1 loss in Game 4 triggered the latest of Steinbrenner's of childish tirades. The owner stormed into the clubhouse after the game and berated the entire team, with special emphasis on Cerone, fro 10 minutes.

"You're all a bunch of overpriced fat cats," he reportedly said, adding that the team was "an embarrassment," and that if they lost the series, "all of you will be gone." He also reportedly got into a shouting match with Cerone, who left the clubhouse in tears.

The really sad part, however, is that even though Steinbrenner's outbursts can't help but disrupt his team, the Yankees have such an overwhelming talent gap year-in and year-out that they frequently come out on top in spite of his interference. This of course, leads the egotistical and naive Yankee owner to fantasize that he's some sort of latter-day Knute Rockne who inspires his team by his locker room orations. And he has a selective enough memory to forget about the times when his abusive tactics don't work -- such as last fall when his attempts to stir the team up by humiliating the manager and the third base coach failed to avert an ignominious loss to Kansas City in three straight games.

But this time they came back to win the fifth game, with Cerone shedding the goat's horms with a home run, a single, and wo RBIs. That puts them into the American League playoffs (pardon me, Bowie, the championship series) against Oakland. And of course it's a delicious irony that the A's are managed by Martin, who piloted the Yankees to two pennants and one world championship, but who was fired twice by Steinbrenner and had a running feud with Jackson climaxed by a nationally televised near-fisticuffs incident after he took Reggie out of a game in Boston.

It should be quite a moment when Billy the Kid, always a tremendous favorite of the New York fans, trots out for his introduction in the stadium where he played for and managed so many outstanding Yankee teams.

Whether Martin's team has the talent to give him the victory he must so dearly cherish against his former employers is problematical, but then no one thought they were good enough to be where they are now either.

No one, that is, except Martin, who insists his club is a lot better than people realize.

When we played so well last year, everyone said we were lucky," Billy said after the A's swept Kansas City for the AL West title. "Then when we jumped off so fast this year, they said it was just one of those things. Now that we've finally won the division, they say the Royals went into a hitting slump.

"My feeling is that we won because our pitching stopped their hitting. . . It's an old thing; good pitching stops good hitting."

Pitching is definitely Oakland's long suit, and in Mike Norris, Steve McCatty , and Rick Langford the A's have a big three starting rotation as good as anyone's. They don't have the sort of bullpen the Yankees do, but so far they haven't really needed one.

As for offense, Oakland's team batting average was better only than Minnesota's and Toronto's, but the A's had surprising power and run-scoring ability. In Rickey Henderson (.319, league leader in stolen bases) they have the sort of leadoff man who can ignite an attack, while Tony Armas head a group of solid hitters who made the A's a surprising league leader in team home runs.

Of course Oakland played in a week division while the Yankees had to battle such teams as Milwaukee. Baltimore, Detroit, and Boston -- and this in turn has given the A's pitchers two days' extra rest going into the playoffs.

They may need all these advantages and then some, however, to stave off the Yankees -- especially if Steinbrenner can avoid giving his team his special brand of "help."

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