Here it is nearly the end of May and the New York Yankees are still struggling to look spectacular. Owner George Steinbrenner was supposed to have taken care of things this winter when he brought back Billy Martin as manager; signed free-agent RBI men Don Baylor and Steve Kemp; and added veteran Bob Shirley to his pitching staff.
Of course with the United Nations look that Martin is giving sportswriters these days, one must tread lightly around him to get much of anything in the way of quotes. But the fact that New York recently won seven of nine games (five of them on the road) has softened up Billy just a little.
''You haven't seen the real Yankees yet, but you will,'' Martin told me in the visitors' clubhouse at Anaheim Stadium. ''We've had some problems winning; problems turning things around earlier in the season when we were down. But we are going to be all right.''
Asked if he was satisfied so far with the RBI figures of Baylor, the team's designated hitter, and Kemp, who plays right field, Billy replied that he wasn't. Then added: ''But they are going to be all right, too.''
Considering the number of proven hitters Martin can pack into his lineup, names like Dave Winfield, Graig Nettles, and Ken Griffey, along with the previously mentioned Baylor and Kemp, the Yankees should have no trouble scoring.
Winfield, whose 1982 offensive figures, including 37 home runs and 106 RBIs, were among the best in the American League, currently leads New York in almost every department worth mentioning. Even with a strike zone the size of the Statue of Liberty, Dave is a tough out.
With shortstop Roy Smalley also able to play third base, and with Andre Robertson being groomed as Smalley's successor, Martin can afford to rest Nettles occasionally while not hurting himself at either position in the field. This move also has the added advantage of giving Robertson a chance to study big-league pitching firsthand, before he has to deal with it on an everyday basis.
Even though Griffey is a converted outfielder now playing first base, the chief requirement of that position is that the player be able to catch the throws of his fellow infielders. If he also develops a talent for reaching into the dirt occasionally and saving someone an error, they write about him in the papers and give him a Gold Glove at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, Willie Randolph, when not injured, has shown that he can play with any second baseman in the American League.
Another player counted on to provide defense up the middle is center fielder Jerry Mumphrey. Right now, however, he's struggling at the plate. After two straight .300 years, he's having trouble hitting Steinbrenner's weight.
The Yankee catchers, and they're both crafty veterans, are Rick Cerone and Butch Wyneger, although the latter is currently on the club's disabled list.
Among Martin's four starting pitchers (all left-handers) is Ron Guidry, who won 25 games in 1978 and can still be considered a stopper. Then there is 24 -year-old Dave Righetti, who is doing well but who has an even brighter future ahead of him. The control problems that limited Righetti to an 11-10 record in 1982 seem to be gone with the wind.
The other two starters, Shane Rawley and Bob Shirley, are both well-traveled veterans with sub-.500 records. And Doyle Alexander, who figured to be Martin's No. 5 starter once the season got into full swing, can't seem to get anyone out. That probably explains why the Yankees have been trying to get the Chicago White Sox to trade them pitcher Dennis Lamp.
The mere mention of the name Goose Gossage, who had 30 saves a year ago plus a 2.23 earned-run average, tells you that Martin has a good bullpen. When Gossage has his control and his velocity is in the high 90s, few hitters can touch him. George Frazier and Dale Murray (obtained from Toronto during the winter) complete the bulk of Billy's relief corps.
If the Yankees are as good as Baltimore (with its great balance), and even Toronto (with its fine pitching), they haven't shown it so far. ''I look at all that great personnel in New York and I'm impressed by it,'' said Minnesota Twins manager Billy Gardner. ''But somehow the Yankees don't come out on the field like they cared that much.''