Baseball's longest-running soap opera returns to New York

To paraphrase one of Billy Martin's more famous statements, he and George Steinbrenner deserve each other: one is a born troublemaker and the other has given us 10 years of prima facie evidence that he loves and needs such turmoil.

Looking at it that way, it's easy to see why the New York Yankee owner decided that the controversial manager he had already fired twice was still the one he really wanted after all.

As a man with an ego that obviously needs continuous feeding, Steinbrenner craves all those headlines in the New York tabloids, the spots on the TV news, and the constant reassurance that both he and his team are the center of attention. As a businessman he is always looking for ways to increase attendance. As a sportsman he naturally wants to win. And in teaming up with Martin - despite the virtual certainty that this third ''marriage'' will sooner or later end the same way the first two did - George knows he will get most of these things and maybe even all of them.

The headlines began right away, of course, following the showbiz-style press conference at which Steinbrenner introduced his once-and-future manager. Both men were in their best TV commercial form as they went through a well-rehearsed mock argument and later staged it again for any cameras that might have missed it the first time around.

Martin, standing in front of a battery of microphones at Yankee Stadium, explained with a straight face that he expected things to run more smoothly this time because he would be handling all the trades.

''What do you mean?'' said Steinbrenner, who was sitting nearby.

''And there won't be any phone calls in the dugout,'' Billy continued.

''That's not right,'' Steinbrenner interjected, leaping from his chair. ''I'm handling the trades. I have the right to call you in the dugout!''

''That's not the way we said, George,'' Martin countered, and the two stood there shouting at each other.

''If you don't like it, you're fired!'' Steinbrenner finally yelled, leaving Billy with the punch line: ''You can't fire me. You haven't hired me yet!''

It was all good fun, everybody laughed, and just in case the assembled media representatives didn't realize what a good thing they had going for them now, Steinbrenner even pointed out to them at one juncture how his latest move would provide ''great copy for a lot of you folks - a great story for New York.''

Indeed it will - especially considering the tremendous popularity Martin has always had with New York fans from his days as the scrappy second baseman of their pennant-winning teams of the 1950s through his earlier managerial stints from 1976 through mid-1978 and then again in 1979. Furthermore, all this should add up to more people at the park - making the whole thing sensible from a business standpoint as well.

The Yankees drew just over two million fans last year - a good figure by any standards, but still down about 500,000 from the average attendance of approximately 2.5 million in the peak three-year period of 1978-79-80. Considering ticket prices, parking, and concessions, a difference of a half million fans a year translates into $3 or $4 million - which helps explain why George was willing to give Billy a five-year contract at an estimated $300,000 to $500,000 a year, making him by far the game's highest paid field leader.

So all is sweetness and light at the moment - but then there haven't been any runners thrown out at home yet, or second guesses about who should be playing where, or unguarded comments in airports, or encounters with marshmallow salesmen.

Throughout three decades as both a player and a manager, Martin has followed essentially the same script - doing his job on the field brilliantly, but wearing out his welcome by his inability to keep quiet and stay out of trouble away from the ball park.

The man has displayed an absolutely boundless capacity for self-destruction. He has a long history of feuding with his players and with the people who pay his salary (a habit which undoubtedly explains why he has never held any managerial job longer than three years). His penchant for putting his foot in his mouth is perhaps best illustrated by the ill-advised comment that got him fired in 1978 when he said Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner deserved each other because ''one's a born liar and the other's convicted'' (apparently referring to Steinbrenner's guilty plea in 1974 to giving a false explanation for a political campaign contribution). And even after being re-hired by Steinbrenner the following year, he hadn't learned his lesson - getting in a barroom fight with a marshmallow salesman that cost him his job again.

Along with all these negative aspects, though, Martin has the one thing that leads club owners to keep taking a chance with him - a winning record. First in Minnesota, then in Detroit, Texas, New York, and most recently Oakland, he took over teams that had been losers and turned them into winners - capturing at least a division championship in each of those places except Texas, and of course winning two pennants and a World Series with the Yankees.

Whether he can do it once again is something that only time will tell - and with the combination of these two volatile personalities, Steinbrenner's legendary impatience (he had three different managers and five pitching coaches in just one season a year ago!), and Martin's own penchant for self-destruction, he certainly won't be trying any long-term programs.

Today is the only thing that matters to George Steinbrenner, and Martin is taking over a team that plays in a tough division (Milwaukee, Baltimore, Boston, etc.) and that came close to finishing last a year ago. It's really a much better club than that, though, and Steinbrenner has done his usual off-season wheeling and dealing in the trade and free agent markets, so Billy shouldn't get too much of the credit if the Yankees do in fact improve over 1982. But if he should take them all the way to the top again, even his and Steinbrenner's severest critics would have to concede that this was indeed the right move for this particular team at this particular time.

Or as George put it at the press conference: ''Sometimes you have to have a little turmoil to make things work.''

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