Pre-season favorite falters; Yanks reel, deal; two N.L. sluggers hot
George Steinbrenner's impatient meddling and nonstop machinations with the New York Yankees always remind me of the classic line in the old ''Pogo'' comic strip: ''We have met the enemy, and he is us!''
To be sure, the Yankees have won four pennants and two World Series in the nine years Steinbrenner has owned the team, but one wonders whether that's a good record or not in view of the tremendous edge in talent they've usually enjoyed over their opposition.
A case can be made that Steinbrenner's interference does more harm than good; that it has probably cost the team a couple of pennants along the way; and that when the Yankees have won, they have done so in spite of the owner, not because of him.
This year, for instance, the team started off as an overwhelming favorite in the American League East -- the one club in any division that forecasters thought might make a runaway of its race. The only place these pinstriped millionaires have been running so far, however, is to the bank, while on the field they're languishing down near the bottom of the standings with a below-. 500 record.
Of course it's still very early, though you'd hardly know that from the way Steinbrenner has been reacting. Counting spring training, when the team also performed poorly, George has already made six trades involving 18 players. Naturally he has also fired the manager, which is par for the course. Meanwhile he continues to avoid looking in the mirror, where he would quickly find the main reason for the constant turmoil and lack of stability which makes it difficult for even a super-talented team to maintain any consistency.
One does have to concede, though, that Steinbrenner's latest trade, in which he acquired slugger John Mayberry from Toronto, makes a lot of baseball sense. Big John has averaged 23 home runs a season over the last 10 years, and he beefs up the left-handed power department -- an area in which the Yankees had been lacking this year following Reggie Jackson's departure to California.
Mayberry's Yankee Stadium statistics also offer justification for the deal: in his years as a visiting player there he hit .324 and had nine home runs and 20 RBIs in just 71 at bats -- power figures that would project out to astronomical numbers for a full season.
Manager Gene Michael inserted Mayberry at first base and made him the cleanup hitter as soon as he joined the team over the weekend, and Big John came through with a home run in his second game. Whether he'll make enough difference to turn the team around in the long run remains to be seen -- but if he doesn't, we can be sure Steinbrenner will think of something else. Thompson off to big start
Ironically, the man who originally was supposed to fill the role Mayberry is now playing -- Jason Thompson -- is the talk of both leagues due to his tremendous early season batting feats for Pittsburgh. The slugging first baseman leads the National League with a batting average just under .400, is at or near the lead in homers (9) and RBIs (28), and has put together a 17-game hitting streak.
Thompson was tabbed as an eventual superstar in his early years with the Detroit Tigers in the mid-to-late 1970s, but although he had a couple of big seasons, he never did quite fulfill his potential, as they say. In 1980 he was traded to California, then last year went to Pittsburgh in what was supposed to be a roundabout deal whereby he would wind up with the Yankees in exchange for first baseman Jim Spencer, two pitchers, and cash. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and vetoed that whole trade, however, on the grounds that the total of $850,000 the Yankees were providing (including payment of Spencer's salary) far exceeded the $400,000 limit he had set earlier for such transactions.
So Thompson stayed in Pittsburgh where he posted rather disappointing season-long statistics, though his .242 batting average, 15 homers, and 42 RBIs are really a bit misleading. The power figures, like everyone's, were affected by the strike-shortened season. As for batting average, all one has to note is that he hit .170 in the first half while trying to get comfortable at the plate in a new league after all the turmoil of the vetoed trade, then hit .321 in the second half. And now, of course, he has been virtually out of sight so far this year.
Pirate Manager Chuck Tanner notes that it doesn't hurt to have a spot in the lineup between two batting champions either, with two-time titleist Dave Parker (1977-78) hitting third, Thompson fourth, and three-time winner Bill Madlock ( 1975-76-81) fifth. Such a situation means that Jason should continue to see his share of good pitches -- which in turn means that he just might finally achieve those super heights he was always supposed to reach but never quite did in the past. Moreland no surprise to Cubs
Another big early season hitter is Keith Moreland of the Chicago Cubs, who is second in National League batting and also right up there in homers and RBIs. Moreland's name may not yet ring a bell with casual fans, but his success is no surprise to anyone who watched him play in Philadelphia the last couple of years , including former Phillies manager and current Chicago general manager Dallas Green.
Keith never played regularly for a full season with the Phillies, but he did hit .375 in very limited action in 1979 and .314 while playing in 62 games in 1980. He also always impressed observers there with his ability to hit in the clutch and drive in runs.
Moreland has the versatility to play a lot of positions, and has already seen action for the Cubs at catcher, left field, third base, and right field in that order. They plan to keep him in the latter spot more or less regularly now, however, and just hope he stays in the batting groove he's been in so far -- such as one game last weekend when he hit a pair of three-run homers and drove in seven runs.
Elsewhere, three of the game's top pitchers -- Tom Seaver of Cincinnati, Mike Flanagan of Baltimore, and Phil Niekro of Atlanta -- finally won their first games of 1982 as the season headed into its second month. And if anyone wonders how important team speed can be, consider the way the St. Louis Cardinals have been running the rest of the National League East ragged so far -- especially as exemplified by a victory they pulled out over Atlanta a couple of days ago. With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth, Lonnie Smith walked, stole second, and came all the way home with the winning run when the Atlanta infield mishandled a bunt.