Billy Martin, the man who sometimes self-destructs but has had enormous success reviving downtrodden baseball teams, has already begun working his magic with the Oakland A's who lost 108 games last season.
"Season this clubhouse, it hasn't been the same since Martin got here -- it's alive," said infielder Mickey Klutts. "Last year we were the most predictable team in baseball. We did everything by the book and I think everyone here accepted the fact that we were a bad team.
"But Billy won't let you do that," Klutts continued. "Already he's got us thinking like winners and he isn't afraid to try things. You watch us. We're going to be aggressive and we're going to win often enough to surprise a lot of people. Listen, I'm jut glad to be here because I know a lot of positive things are going to happen."
Martin has worked with distressed merchandise before -- at Minnesota, detroit , and Texas. In 1969 he led a Twins team that had finished seventh the year before to the American League West title. The next year he took over a fourth-place Detroit team, and in two years he had the Tigers atop the AL East.
But Martin's super best weas still to come with the Rangers, a team that lost 105 games in u973 and drew fewer than 700,000 fans. The following year Billy got Texas all the way to second in the AL West while attracting 1.2 million customers. And even in New York, although the Yankees were hardly downtrodden when he took over, he effected immediate improvement from third place to two straight pennants and a world championship.
"The A's are going to win a lot of abll games, more than anybody thinks," Martin told me. "There is talent on this club, especially on the mound, where we've got a lot of strong, young arms.
"The trouble is that nobody ever taught any of these kids how to win," Bill said. "That's what I'm here for, and I guarantee you that we'll be beating the good teams in this league before the season is over."
Asked if he planned to be like Casey Stengel and frequently use most of his 25 players, Martin replied:
"I played for Stengel, I respected him, and I learned from him. But I'm Billy Martin, not Casey. Actually, your players dictate how you manage, and right now I don't know that much about my personnel.
"I might go with a set lineup or I might run guys in and out all season," he said.
I've got the rest of spring training to decide, so what's the hurry? But it looks like our pitching is going to be our strength."
The two kid pitchers Martin is highest on are Brian Kingman, who was 8-7 last year after coming up from the minors in June, and Steve McCatty, who was 11-12 after starting the season on Ogden, Utah. There are also holdovers Rick Langford and MAtty Keough (whose poor '79 record was no indication of his real ability), plus rookies Ernie Camacho and Jeff Jones.
Thre are also several rival teams that would like to have to A's experienced bullpen of Dave Heaverlo, Bob Lacey, and Jim Todd, plus whatever other young arms Billy decides can help him.
Martin's main concern is his infield (Dave Revering 1B, Mike Edwards 2B, who through errors of omission and commission last year often gave the opposition four and five outs per inning. Billy hopes to solve that problem by trading one and possibly two of his catchers for a better double-play combination.
Several major league teams, including Los Angeles and Boston, have already tried to deal for either Jeff Newman (22 homers in '79), Mike Heath, or Jim Essian.
Oakland is expected to go with an outfield (left to right) to Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas, and Rickey Henderson, with Mitchell Page as the designated hitter.
How would Martin describe his current relationship with owner Charlie Finley, who is often as controversial as Billy and has had 16 managers in the past 20 years?
"I think Finley and I understand each other," Billy said. "When he hired me, it didn't take us long to come to an agreement. I haven't called Charlie on the telephone since spring training started and he hasn't called me. But since he's also the team's general manager, I expect to hear from his often during the regular season. The only thing I won't do is take dugout calls from Finley during a game."