Tuesday, February 16, 2010

1 Day Until Spring Training: Billy Martin

There are 741 billion different ways to arrange a 25 man roster into a 9 slot line-up. Once you select the 9 best players that number drops to 362,880. Surprisingly, at least according to countless computer simulations, the way a manager chooses to arrange those 9 players from there doesn't have that much of an impact on the amount of runs the line up produces.

There are only so many ways a manager can impact the outcome of a game. Most of the decisions a manager has to make, like removing a starting pitcher, pinch hitting, or intentionally walking a hitter are technically possible at all times. However, no reasonable observer would advocate going to the bullpen in the first inning unless there was an injury or a complete melt down by the pitcher. No one would suggest intentionally walking a batter to lead off the 7th in a tie game. Like batting order, once you narrow the moves a manager can make down to a fairly reasonable set of options, the decision amongst them isn't statistically likely to make much of a difference.

So how is it that Billy Martin is universally remembered as "a genius who could turn almost any kind of team into a winner"? How could he have been so influential when even the best decisions could only have a limited impact on the field?

Martin spent 11 seasons as a player in the major leagues, six and a half with the Yankees. A second baseman by trade, Billy put in some time at third and short, allowing Casey Stengel some of the flexibility that he so cherished. In his playing days, Martin was scrappy and gritty and all of those terms that people use to describe players that appeared to be trying hard but weren't particularly good. He could play defense but couldn't really hit for average. Or power. Or get on-base. Or steal bases once he got on. But Stengel was Martin's most fervent advocate, so the Yanks kept him around.

During his time with the Bombers, he was part of four World Series winning teams (1951, 1952, 1953 & 1956). It was more a matter of great timing than his production. He played alongside Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Gil McDougald, Moose Skowron, and Elston Howard and behind Whitey Ford, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi and Eddie Lopat.

In 1953 - one of his finer seasons with the Yanks - he was
the only person on the team to appear in more than 60 games and have an OPS+ of less than 100. However, over the 28 World Series games in which he appeared, he hit .333, well above his career mark of .257.

It might have been this success in the World Series that endeared him to superstar teammates
Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. The trio were legendary for their after hours gallivanting throughout New York City and on the road. The fact that he involved Mantle and Ford in his partying was what got him traded in the middle of the 1957 season following the legendary brawl at the Copacabana.

Yankees General Manager George Weiss viewed Martin as a bad influence on the team's stars and dealt him to the Kansas City Athletics in a seven player deal shortly after the fight. After the '57 season, he was traded from KC to Detroit, then to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Minnesota, never spending more than a season with any organization as a player. He did stay with Minnesota after his hung up his cleats, however.

After Billy retired, he worked as a scout in the Twins' organization for three years, then was asked to serve as third base coach under his former manager, Sam Mele. Martin enjoyed his time as a scout and had no real aspirations to ascend the coaching ladder but agreed to come on board because he respected Mele. During that time, he mentored a left handed Rod Carew and was one of the few voices that insisted Carew was ready for the Major Leagues in 1967 when he took home Rookie of the Year honors.

It was during the 1967 that Sam Mele was fired by the Twins. The club had got off to a sluggish 25-25 start and rumors abounded that Martin would be Mele's successor. However, Billy had yet to actually manage a team and Twins' owner Calvin Griffith chose veteran skipper Cal Ermer instead. The following May, Martin took over as manager for Minnesota's AAA affiliate in Denver, an assignment he was afraid would be his "one way ticket to oblivion". In hindsight, it was just the opposite.

In his first season as manager of the Denver Bears, Martin took over a team that started 7-22 and led them to a winning season. Graig Nettles was one of the players on the Bears that year and although he didn't much care for Martin at first, he eventually came around:
When I saw the results, I stopped hating Billy Martin and began to see him for what he was: an extraordinary leader.
The two would later win a World Series together with the Yankees.

Twins ownership eventually saw Martin for what he was as well. After one more year in Denver, Martin was promoted to Major League Skipper, replacing Ermer. In his first season at the helm, he guided the team to 97 wins and a Division Championship. Griffith was no doubt impressed with the 14 win improvement from the previous year, but fired Martin in part because he beat up pitcher Dave Boswell and left him unconscious in an alleyway behind a bar called A.C. Lindell's in Detroit.

Martin had always been combative. He grew up in one the poorer areas near Berkley, California - East Bay City and was surrounded by gangs and street violence for much of his early life. His mother sent his philandering father packing before he was even born. Martin didn't lay eyes on him until he was 15, at which point Billy told him he never wanted to see him again.

Despite Martin's violent episode with the Twins, he landed another managerial gig in Detroit just a year later (where the fight with Boswell occurred, of all places). In his first season in Motown, the Tigers won
91 games, an 11 game increase from the year before, but finished second to Baltimore in the AL East. The following year they won only 86 games but edged the Red Sox by one game to win the division and went on to lose to the A's in the ALCS.

Martin was fired 134 games into the '73 season, this time for ordering his pitchers to retaliate for the spitballs Gaylord Perry was throwing on August 30th.

Despite his building reputation as a loose cannon, he landed on his feet
in Texas before the season was over. In 1974, Martin presided over a 23 game advance, taking a Rangers team that had won just 57 games the year before up to 84 victories and a second place finish in the AL West. Martin was fired once again by Texas in 1975, after the team started to fade midway through the season. Within a week, he was hired by the Yankees and finished out the last 56 games of the season with them.

Amazingly, in his first full year in the Bronx, Martin again steered a team to a double digit rise in wins, from
84 to 97. The Yankees won the AL East that season and advanced to the World Series but were swept by the Reds.

During the subsequent offseason, despite the fact the team just won their first pennant in 12 years, George Steinbrenner, fresh off his suspension for illegal campaign contributions, started making moves. Chief among those was the acquisition of Reggie Jackson. Martin wasn't in favor of acquiring the Orioles' slugger. With the team in need of shortstop, Martin instead lobbied for signing the Orioles' Bobby Grich, one of the best second basemen in the game, who had experience at shortstop as well. Per usual, Steinbrenner got his way. Reggie came to the Bronx, the Yankees used their other free agent spot to sign pitcher Don Gullett, and Grich went to the Angels. Jackson made Oscar Gamble expendable, and he was flipped to the White Sox for shortstop Bucky Dent.

Martin wasn't fond of Jackson, and when Reggie's infamous "straw that stirs the drink" story published in Sport Magazine in May, it only increased divisions in an already fractured clubhouse. Tensions came to a head during the '77 season when Billy pulled Jackson from a nationally televised game at Fenway Park on June 18th for failing to hustle out a fly ball in right field in the bottom of the 6th. When Reggie got back to the dugout, tempers flared and they both had to be restrained. Despite the drama swirling around in the clubhouse (the Bronx Zoo), the Yankees won 100 games that year, topped the Royals in the ALCS, and beat the Dodgers in 6 games in the World Series. It was the only World Series victory of Martin's managing career.

The madness didn't subside in 1978. Midway through the season Jackson ignored signs from Martin and bunted when it wasn't called for. This sent Martin over the edge. He told the press later that day about Jackson and Steinbrenner, respectively, "The two of them deserve each other - one's a born liar, the other's convicted."

It would prove to be his undoing as Yankee Manager (for the time being) and he resigned a few days later. Less than a week after resigning, Martin was the final player introduced at Old Timers Day. There, it was announced that Martin would return as manager for the 1980 season, with his replacement, Bob Lemon, moving to the front office. Steinbrenner couldn't wait that long, firing Lemon less than halfway through the 1979 season, with Martin taking over for the final 95 games. The team had a winning record under his guidance, but finished 4th. That tenure ended after Martin bloodied a marshmallow salesman by the name of Joseph Cooper in a barroom fight in a Minnesota hotel.

But back to the original question. What made Billy Martin so good as a manager?

Out of 25 guys, there should be fifteen who would run through a wall for you, two or three who don't like you at all, five who are indifferent and maybe three undecided. My job is to keep the last two groups from going the wrong way.
He also employed daring tactics that may not have agreed with conventional wisdom, but seemed to work out for him. One of the things he taught Rod Carew was how to steal home, and as a result 7 of Carew's 20 stolen bases in 1969 were of home plate.

He also
used some odd tactics, like asking pitchers to hit and play other defensive positions. He had pitcher Fergie Jenkins DH in the 6th inning in a game in 1974, breaking up a no-hitter with a single to center, and later tried the same tactic with pitcher Rick Rhoden in 1988. He had Ron Guidry in center field and Don Mattingly at second when the Pine Tar Game was resumed in 1983. He had lefty swinging Mike Pagliarulo bat right handed in 1985. He literally drew the Yankees line-up out of a hat on April 21st, 1977 against the Blue Jays, a game which they won 8-6. In Oakland from 1980-1982 he employed "Billy Ball" - a combination of hit and runs, squeeze plays and stolen bases - despite the fact that his teams lead the AL in HRs.

Could his strategies alone possibly be the only reason that every team he managed got significantly better as soom as he got there? Some of those things, like DH'ing Rhoden or Jenkins, while creative, couldn't have possibly created a positive win expectancy. But sometimes you can make a low percentage play and have it still work out. He seemed to go all-in with a straight draw and hit it on the turn more than his fair share of times.

It's probably difficult to accept for the most statistically-inclined, but the historical consensus is that Martin's true genius was in his personality. He was intense, cantankerous and blunt but also had an incredibly thorough knowledge of the game. Mike Pagliarulo said:
He was the kind of guy who wasn’t afraid to tell you what he thought of you. If I got one hit in a game and hit a couple other balls well, but they were caught, what he’d say to me was, “You dumb-ass dago, you can’t get more than one hit.” Billy was very honest.
But then added:
Billy could see the field so completely; he knew what everybody was doing.
Martin also had a penchant for riding his players, especially pitchers. He once sat down and explained his managing philosophy to Leonard Koppett:
A lot of the time, you have to make a player do something he doesn't want to do, for the good of the team, or to push him harder that he thinks he should be pushed. You can't do it if the player thinks "Why should I listen to him? He's not the boss. He may be gone next year. I'll do it my way" When that attitude takes hold, teams don't win.

Managing is teaching, first of all. That's even more important than winning itself. When you get a player whose potenital you can see, and show him things that can make him better, and show him the things that can make him win, and then you can see him later realizing those things - it's like a graduation. It makes you feel satisfied even if he's no longer your player.

For a team to win, a manager has to find ways to motivate different individuals. He has to judge correctly each man's abilities and weaknesses, and find the right ways and the right times to use them.

But the enjoyment comes from the things I put in.... The victory at the end is only proof that you succeded, and nobody can take that away from you once you've won. But the fun and the rewards are in what you do getting there.
This also lends some insight as to why Martin never lasted as manager for more than three full, consecutive seasons with any team. After managing near his hometown in Oakland from 1980-82, twice winning Manager of the Year and making the playoffs in '81, he returned to the Yankees in 1983 and won 91 games.

He was fired that offseason and re-hired in 1985 when he won 91 games again, except this time he replaced Yogi Berra after 16 games and accomplished the feat in only 145
. That September, Martin got in a fight with Ed Whitson in a hotel bar. Having lost his legendary brawling skills, Billy suffered a broken arm and two fractured ribs in the fight. As they often do of drunken brawls, accounts of the night vary, but the New York Times cited an unnamed source that said an official investigation by the Yankees indicated Martin was the instigator.

The team retired his number and gave him a plaque in Monument Park in 1986. He spent the '86 and '87 doing occasional TV work on WPIX Yankee telecasts.

During his final stint with the Yankees in 1988, Billy was more unorthodox than ever. Dave Righetti was deployed for two and three innings at a time, resulting in five blown saves, four of which came in a row. He used a seven man rotation at one point, and had Rick Rhoden DH despite his ailing back. Billy started out 40-28 and had the team in the thick of the division race. But there was a three game suspension for throwing dirt at an umpire and yet another brawl, this one at a Dallas area strip club. It left Martin with bruises, forty stitches in his up ear, and for the fifth and final time, as the former manager of the New York Yankees. He was replaced by Lou Piniella.

All told, Martin only won two pennants and one World Series. His 1253 wins as a manager is good for 32nd on the all-time list, and his .553 winning percentage and 240 wins over .500 place him at 21st and 20th, respectively. But many see him as one of the greatest managers - at least over the short term - of all time. For what it's worth, if I had to pick a manager to win one game for me, it would be Martin.

In 1989, Billy was brought back to the Yankees as a special consultant. It was rumored he had been asked to manage the team in 1990 and had already assembled a coaching staff to come with him.

On Christmas day, he was riding in his longtime friend William Reedy's pick-up truck and both had been drinking but neither was wearing a seatbelt. They were approaching Billy's house in Fenton, NY, just outside of Binghamton, when the truck skidded off the icy road and down a 300 foot embankment, ending up at the foot of Martin's driveway. Reedy was left in serious condition, but Martin was not so lucky. He was taken to Wilson Memorial Hospital in Johnson City. Attempts at reviving him were unsuccessful. He was 61.

Billy Martin was notoriously hard on his players but he was probably harder on himself. He was a heavy drinker throughout almost all of his adult life. He was a fixture in hotel bars when the Yankees were on the road - as evidenced by his many fights that took place in them - and would often be seated on a barstool soon after he left Yankee Stadium as well. Martin forged a lot of friendships because of his fondness for the drink, but also made a lot of enemies that way too. In the end it was directly responsible for his demise.

"I may not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the uniform,
but I was the proudest"

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