Wednesday, November 18, 2009

He Came Dancing Across The Water

One of my favorite people in Yankee history is Billy Martin. He was serving his fourth stint as Yankee manager when I attended my first Major League game, and was in his fifth and final go-round when I began following the team in earnest. In between, I can recall watching the ceremony on WPIX when the club retired his number. A few years later, after Martin died in a 1989 Christmas Day drunk driving accident, I began devouring books about the Yankees. Three of my favorites were Number 1, Billyball, and The Last Yankee, all Martin biographies.

These days I might dismiss Martin the player as the over-heralded, "scrappy" underdog that David Eckstein is too often made out to be, or Martin the manager as an irrational martinet, too often trying to put his fingerprints on the game, much the same way that Tony LaRussa is often criticized elsewhere or Joe Girardi was here over the course of the season.

But to the twelve year old me, reading those books, Martin was a captivating character. He was the undersized overachiever who fulfilled his dream by playing for the Yankees, elevated his play to another level in the World Series, stopped at nothing to win, and never backed down from a fight. What characterized Martin above all though, and perhaps what most drew me to him, was that more than anything else, he wanted - he almost needed - to be a Yankee.

While that skill set left Martin with a middling career as a journeyman infielder, it primed him for a mangerial career that was as volatile as it was successful, and now has him under consideration for induction to the Hall of Fame as a manager. Despite his well-documented butting of heads with George Steinbrenner and with his own players, Martin's smarts, daring, and insatiable desire to win made him a continually desirable managerial candidate, even in light of his paranoid and perpetually self-destructive behavior. It's also what kept him coming back to the Yankees over and over and over and over and over again.

Steinbrenner was perhaps the only person who could understand - if not commiserate with - Martin's maniacal obsession with winning at all costs. And while Martin enjoyed successful managerial stints with four other clubs, Steinbrenner needed Martin as his manager just as much Martin needed to be a Yankee. It was a bad relationship, but it was also the reason that Martin and Steinbrenner, both intensely proud individuals, repeatedly forgot their past problems in hopes that, this time, it would work.

I bring all this up because The Hardball Times' Chris Jaffe has a book being released in December: Evaluating Baseball's Managers. THT is publishing excerpts over the next several weeks and yesterday they had a lengthy look at Martin: why he was unique, why he was successful, and why his managerial stints necessarily had short shelf lives. It's a highly worthwhile read on a fascinating and complicated subject:
The man most comparable to Billy Martin was not Herzog, but Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who defeated the Aztecs. In 1519, he landed in Mexico to face the hemisphere’s mightiest warrior nation with only 600 men. Upon arrival, he burnt his boats, giving his men no way to leave. That move was pure Billy Martin. Safe to say, that in the military science version of sabermetrics a general would be poorly regarded for intentionally destroying his communication lines, supply routes and exit strategy. It was possibly even worse than having two men steal home with Killebrew batting.

However, like Martin, Cortes had an underlying rationale. The act was not the important part. All that mattered was the message it sent the men: there was no going back—they needed to win. He cared only about coming out on top and ensured his warriors must think likewise. They might lose and die, but with God as their witness no failure would stem from lack of effort on anyone’s part. That was Billyball, 16th century style.

You could have given me a hundred years and I wouldn't have come up with that comparison. See you tomorrow.

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