Manager Billy Martin, who has the New York Yankees in first place in the American League East, isn't someone most of us would care to follow around outside a ballpark. His brawler's image is well documented, his hair-trigger temper apt to explode at any time. Only recently, he received a three-day suspension for throwing dirt on umpire Dale Scott. But if you own a team that doesn't know how to win and has a reputation for blowing the close ones, and whose players take a country club approach to the game, Martin can get you straight in a hurry.
There may not be a better manager in baseball than Billy in terms of organization, game strategy, teaching, and motivation. Consider this:
In his first big-league managerial assignment in 1969, Martin led the Minnesota Twins to 18 more victories than they had achieved the previous season, plus the American League West title.
In 1971 he took over the Detroit Tigers, who won 12 more games than they had the year before.
In 1974, after Martin took the managerial reins in Texas, the Rangers won 27 more games than they had the previous campaign.
In 1976, Billy began his on-again-off-again managerial career in New York, and the Yankees won 14 more games than they had in '75 as well as their first pennant in more than a decade.
In 1980 he took over the Oakland A's, who turned around and won 29 more games than they had a year earlier, then kept it up the following season to capture the AL West championship.
In 1983, when he made one of his many returns to New York, the Yankees improved their record by 12 victories.
In 1985, after he again surfaced in the Yankee dugout, the Bronx Bombers won 10 more games than they had the previous season.
And now he appears to be working his magic once again, with the current Yankees sailing along in first place and looking very much like the team to beat for this year's division crown.
Asked to share the secret that allows him to turn losing ball clubs around, Martin told me: ``It's too complicated. It isn't really something that can be put easily into words. All I can do is give you some of the basics.
``Most managers are content to make out a lineup card, check some things with their coaches, and let it go at that. They don't teach because they think it's all been done for them in the minors.
``Well, it hasn't. The teaching never stops. That's something I learned when I played for Casey Stengel. In fact, a lot of how I operate I got from Casey, who did some unpopular things, like platooning, if he thought it would win for him.''
Martin explained that there are two things that a manager has to be constant about: making sure his players know what he wants and protecting his players in the press when things go wrong.
``Sometimes I ask my players to do things that aren't conventional, and if they don't work it leaves the players open to criticism,'' Martin said. ``Well, in a case like that it's important to my players to know ahead of time that I'm going to take the blame when things like that happen. Once I've done that a couple of times, they know they can trust me.''
Although most managers won't take credit for winning ball games, Martin has no problem with that idea.
``When you talk about a manager like myself, you're talking about someone with the ability to change the outcome in anywhere from 20 to 50 games a season,'' Billy explained. ``A lot of managers rely too much on their coaches. Let them, because those are the guys I'm always going to have an edge against.
``The thing is I do everything myself,'' he continued. ``I'm the guy who decides when to bring the infield in, where to position the outfielders, whether to steal or bunt or go for the big inning. Somebody out there on the field is getting a signal from me before every pitch. But the big thing is that I never stop teaching.
``Stengel, because he was smart enough to know everything about everybody on his ballclub, could get his points across without even naming names. I'm not that smart. But I know it's the teachers in this game who win, not necessarily the managers.'' Elsewhere in the majors
Dick Williams, who managed for six different major league organizations and got three of them into the World Series (Boston in 1967; Oakland in '72 and '73, and San Diego in '84) was fired earlier this week by the Seattle Mariners. The sharp-tongued Williams had planned to retire at the end of the season anyway. Said San Diego infielder Tim Flannery about Williams: ``Dick was the best manager I every played for, but I wouldn't have him over for dinner.'' Seattle first base coach Jim Snyder has been named to replace Williams on an interim basis.
Dave Stieb of Toronto had the kind of May most pitchers only dream about. The ace right-hander went 6-0 for the month, including a one-hitter against Milwaukee, and posted a 2.34 earned-run average.
Detroit manager Sparky Anderson on Oakland's commanding lead in the AL West: ``I can tell you right now that nobody in that division is going to catch the A's. How are you going to catch a team that's got better pitching than you've got when you're already 10 games behind?''