Los Angeles — The fastest gun in the American League East this year is owner George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees, who is quick on the flaw!
Only 14 games into the season, Steinbrenner had fired Manager Bob Lemon and replaced him with Gene Michael, who himself had been replaced by Lemon last Sept. 6 in the heat of the pennant race.
Steinbrenner's reasons for squeezing Lemon out were clear enough. The Yankees , with probably the best personnel in baseball, weren't winning. In fact, this team on which petty jealousies erupt on an almost daily basis was struggling just to look mediocre.
What was so unusual about Lemon getting fired was Steinbrenner's public promise last December that Bob would manage the Yankees for the entire 1982 season ''no matter what.'' Reminded of this by reporters, George replied: ''I know what I said and I hope Lemon doesn't hold this against me. But I just felt I had to do something to get us going.''
If you are familiar with Lemon's personality, you don't have to be told that he accepted his dismissal mildly. Steinbrenner has since informed Bob that he can retire, remain with New York as its chief scout, or accept a managing job with another team.
With a four-man pitching rotation of Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Dave Righetti and Doyle Alexander, plus Goose Gossage in the bullpen, no one expects the Yankees to stay down very long.
New York's problem, Gossage indicated recently, isn't talent but the chaotic way Steinbrenner's organization is run.
''Nobody seems to know what's going on here,'' Goose said. ''Just playing for the Yankees gets you pushed hard enough, because the fans let you know quickly when things aren't right. But when other people start getting on you too, then things really become complicated.''
Oh, yes, Michael has to win to stay, which is the rule with all Steinbrenner employees.
One major league city that does have its act together is St. Louis, where the Cardinals recently put together a 12-game winning streak under manager Whitey Herzog. This may mean nothing, but the last time St. Louis had a string of victories like that (1943), the Cards simply ran away from the rest of the National League by winning 105 games. St. Louis does have a challenger, though, in the Montreal Expos, who haven't been as spectacular but are off to a strong start in defense of the division title they won last year.
The latest team to put together a winning streak is Boston, which won seven straight to move into a tie for first place in the American League East with the Detroit Tigers. So far Red Sox pitching has been better than expected - especially from young left-hander John Tudor (3-0 with a 2.05 earned run average) and up-and-down right-hander Chuck Rainey, who shut out Chicago on five hits Monday night for win No. 7 in the streak.
Despite a sound stage of banjo hitters, Houston manager Bill Virdon said in spring training that the Astros would do well because of their pitching and the quality of their infield. So far neither department has lived up to expectations.
During the off-season Houston traded with Cincinnati for third baseman Ray Knight, moved Art Howe to first, and expressed great confidence in Craig Reynolds at shortstop and Phil Garner at second base. But so far none of them has shown the range of a Piper Cub, and the pitching has been little more than mediocre.
The story that continues to fascinate all of baseball is that of the San Diego Padres, who have been taking lessons in aggressiveness from manager Dick Williams. While nobody really expects the Padres to win the National League West , they are probably no fluke either.
One reason for the vast improvement in San Diego's mound staff is Williams's insistence that his pitchers throw strikes with runners on base and let the fielders worry about what happens next. Last year San Diego yielded a major league high of 3.72 walks per game.
The California Angels, who have never played as well as they should in Anaheim, took a nine-game home winning streak on the road this week, plus a pitching staff whose low earned-run average continues to be the surprise of baseball.
Manager Gene Mauch, in what seemed like a strange move at the time, has been playing ex-catcher Brian Downing, who has neither a great arm or much foot speed , in left field and batting him leadoff. Downing has responded by catching everything hit his way and ranking among the American League leaders in home runs and RBIs.
Elsewhere, after what seemed an eternity to Manager Earl Weaver, the Baltimore Orioles finally appear to be out of their slump. . .Texas infielder Bill Stein, who set a league record last year with seven consecutive pinch hits, already has two RBIs in his first three PH appearances this season. . .the Atlanta Braves, after setting a major league record with 13 straight wins at the start of the season, suddenly look no better than anyone else. . .and rumors continue to swirl around a possible trade of Pittsburgh outfielder Dave Parker to the Philadelphia Phillies, who might also be thinking about a new manager.