Bronx – With excruciating delight the last pitches, the last moments, the last breaths drew out. A conclusion, a championship was there to be seen, believe it or not.
Fans perched on the railings, one leg over the barriers, anticipating the last out and the wild dash onto the field, a number of them leaning too much and tumbling onto the field to scramble back to the perch again. The Yankees raised onto their toes and then Mike Torrez clutched the last pop fly and the Yankees burst toward the dugout to beat the crowd and to overtake the incredibility of it all.
“It was like, it was like,” shortstop Bucky Dent stammered, “in a fairytale and like in a horror movie where Frankenstein comes out talking, but in the end the wicked witch turned good.”
Only a mixed metaphor could have covered the season that began with Mickey Rivers grumbling over Reggie Jackson’s salary and saying he wanted to be traded on the first day of spring training and ended with three magnificent home runs by Jackson and a cascade of champagne.
For the eternal record books, the Yankees beat the Dodgers, 8-4, last night to win the World Series, four games to two. “The last line in the history books will say, ‘Semi-colon, the Dodgers and the Yankees also played,’ said Steve Garvey of the Dodgers, who had seen enough in one week in October to understand the Yankee season that began in March. At least to understand a little bit of it; nobody understood all of it even at the end.
On the last day — after 173 games that counted and one in Syracuse that didn’t count in the standings — Billy Martin was granted the bonus he campaigned for on his contract and Jackson, the figure of controversy all season, hit three home runs. And the Yankees won. “They won it, they’re world champs,” Martin said. “You analyze how they got there. If you can.” He breathed deeply. “Good luck,” he said.
After a season of headlines for anything but baseball reasons, the players understood what was memorable besides Jackson’s final feat. “Too bad they won’t think of us as a great baseball team, a team with no weaknesses,” Graig Nettles said with a thought for posterity. “Too bad all the other stuff took away the glamor.”
It was club president Gabe Paul, drenched in the ritual anointing for his first World Series victory after 26 years as a chief operating executive, who shrugged off the sound and fury of the season. “We had no aggravation, shoot,” Paul said. “It wasn’t what a lot of people thought.” Other than Chris Chambliss, there wasn’t another voice to be heard in the clubhouse that would blink away the season. “I can’t blame the papers,” Nettles said. “People like to read the spicy stuff. On this club, that’s not hard to dig up.”
As in a work of fiction, Torrez pitched the final game after Ed Figueroa was withdrawn and said he wanted to be traded. The Dodgers took a two-run lead in the first inning and Chambliss tied the score with a two-run homer in the second. Reggie Smith hit a home run to put the Dodgers ahead in the third.
Thurman Munson led off the Yankee fourth with a single and then when Jackson hit the next pitch on a line into the rightfield stands, there was Munson waiting at the plate for him. The two men, who had been antagonists all season and probably always will be, clutched each other. The Yankees had the lead they never lost and those two men had admiration for each other, if not affection.
In the fifth inning, Jackson hit a searing drive into the rightfield stands for another two-run homer. And in the eighth he hit one more drive, higher and farther than the rest, 475 feet into the unoccupied blacked out area in centerfield, a place reached only once before in the rebuilt Yankee Stadium.
“He’s awesome,” said Nettles, who was not among the Yankees closest to Jackson this season. “It was a very impressive performance under pressure. As good as you can do. He even caught everything that came out there.”
Nettles made his little wry smile. It was one of those rare Yankee days when it was perfectly safe to tease anybody. “Twenty or thirty years ago you might have made a movie like this,” Nettles said. “Today people would never believe it.”
Nettles was exhausted emotionally as were so many of the others, drained by day after day of getting up for a game and then having to get up for another the next day, and day after day of reading about themselves. “The field was like a refuge,” Nettles said. “I like to read the papers. I’m a baseball fan. It made it tough to read this guy was unhappy and that guy. There were too many people fighting to be No. 1 on the club . . . It’s tough to read that somebody is mad at you or you’re mad at somebody else.”
People were maddest at each other back when July turned into August, the Yankees had 53 games to play and were six games behind the Red Sox in the loss column. And there was not the slightest sign that the Yankees would recover. The way Jackson and Munson, the highest-paid of the every-day players, responded was impressive to Fran Healy, the bullpen observer. “I was surprised how concerned they were,” Healy said. “They’re human. They could have said, ‘The hell with it’ and just take their checks. I was concerned. A lot of the guys were. In the outfield one day, one guy who is an important player said to me, ‘We’re not going to catch them.’”
Munson didn’t stop battling owner George Steinbrenner and didn’t stop believing. “I never doubted I could win,” he said. “‘We’ is a tough word. I don’t know what other people were thinking. There’s a lot of ‘I’s in ‘We.’”
Somehow the ‘I’s’ came together. Munson feels the turning point was the midnight meeting between himself, Lou Piniella, Steinbrenner, and later Martin that July night in Milwaukee. Munson and Piniella urged the owner to take the restrictions off the manager — or get another manager without restrictions. And they suggested changes in the batting order that eventually put Jackson in the cleanup slot.
The egos were temporarily replaced by pride, put aside by the urgency to win. At the end Munson felt he was able to goad Jackson to his greatest heights. “I finally woke him up because I called him ‘Mr. October,’” Munson said. That was in Los Angeles, Munson recalled, when Jackson’s bat was still quiet and the Yankees let their chance to end the series slip away. “I told him,” Munson said, “‘I finally got you ticked off enough to get you off your butt.’”
The Yankees learned to live with themselves. They stopped being their worst enemies. They became winners. “Martin, he’s a winner,” Healy said. “Jackson is a winner. Steinbrenner is a winner. A lot of our problems arise when they won’t accept defeat. These people do not lose gracefully. It’s a unique quality.”
Eventually, when nothing short of winning would do, they won. “There was never a dull moment,” Healy said. “And what an ending.”