Kind-hearted Billy Martin a natural as youth baseball teacher
Fullerton, Calif. — There are maybe 30 of them gathered at the batting cage - boys and girls, pre-teen to tiny. About the same number of adults form an outer ring around the children. Each concentrates on the man in the center. Billy Martin speaks with expected authority. ``Remember something, you coaches: these are kids. Let them be kids. Little League is to have fun, not to win pennants. Their own peers will make them competitors. They don't need your help. They need your love. They need your teaching.''
Scarcely the speech of a man with a gunfighter image. This Billy Martin comes across as warm, caring, sensitive.
Now the children gather at the batting cage. His voice, though soft, carries authority and enthusiasm.
``All right, let's have about four hitters up here now and the rest of you out in the field. And the little ones get a little deeper in the field. We don't want anybody to get hurt.''
Martin deploys a crew of New York Yankee coaches at this baseball clinic to teach hitting, pitching, catching, and fielding. But there is no question who does most of the coaching.
``Keep your head down,'' he tells a young batter.
The batter starts at the admonishment.
``That's all right,'' Martin says quickly, soothingly. ``Reggie Jackson does the same thing. That's it. That's good. Don't get your bat behind your head. Bend your legs, bend your knees. Keep your eye on the ball. Stare at the ball.''
The boy loops the ball beyond second base.
From all parts of the field, Martin instructs, cheers, and cajoles. He continues until it's time to take the group picture.
Dennis Werner, an executive of the company sponsoring the clinic, explains his feelings about working with Martin.
``When we first went into this program I asked, `Why Billy Martin?','' he recalls. ``I mean, we all know Billy Martin, the guy who kicks dust on umpires' shoes. But once you get close to him, you find a guy who's very sensitive to kids, who understands what motivates them. He's telling them to always do their best, to always try. He's telling them it doesn't take any talent to hustle.''
Werner gets no argument from Martin.
``I love children. I've gotten fined for throwing balls to kids in the stands, just to see the look on a little boy's face. I've had fathers come up to me and say things like, `Billy, if it hadn't been for you I don't know what I would have done with my son.' That is very gratifying.''
Fatherhood is an important topic for Alfred Manuel Martin, 58, whose own father left eight months after he was born in Berkeley, Calif. His mother remarried, and Billy's new father, Jack Downey, proved a positive influence on a streetwise youth who was to become a hustling, aggressive player and then one of baseball's most controversial, yet successful, managers.
Downey, who died two years ago, acted as a buffer between the headstrong Billy and his equally headstrong mother, whom he adores.
``She'd ride me because I wouldn't do my chores. I'd be out playing baseball or basketball or football - I really thought I was a better football player than a baseball or basketball player - and she'd get mad at me and say, `Why don't you get a job like your dad.' But he'd just let me do what I wanted to do.''
Martin speaks of other influences such as Father Dennis Moore of San Francisco, who helped the sensitive, philosophical person the public doesn't normally see.
``There's the tough side of me you see on the field,'' Martin explains, ``but there's also the Billy Martin who's a real softie - I like that part.''
Martin says his love for history traces back to an understanding high school teacher named Mrs. Harwood.
``She stopped me one day and said, `Billy, you seem to start out well, but about springtime your mind begins to wander.' I told her that's because I wanted to be a big-league baseball player ... .The next day, she came up to me and says, `Here, read this book.' It was about the life of Lou Gehrig.''
Billy learned to enjoy reading.
As for baseball influences, Martin mentions Eddie Lieshman, a minor-league manager; Joe DiMaggio, who acted as a big brother to a young Billy; and of course Casey Stengel, his manager with the Yankees.
Martin credits Stengel for providing much of the managerial style that led Martin's own Yankees to two World Series and his Minnesota, Detroit, and Oakland teams to American League playoffs.
It is as a teacher that the streetsmart Billy and the sensitive Billy seem to come together - providing a combination of motivation and skills training that he calls ``Yankee teaching.'' And he feels that this ability is one that hasn't been recognized by the team owners who have fired him so many times.
``First they need you and then, after you win for them, they think they've got the formula, and then they find out it's not that easy. They won't admit it, but the whole fault lies in the fact that they don't know how to teach. All it takes is money to get a guy with a good batting average, a good fielding average. But how do you get that guy to rise above his abilities?''