In Broadcast Booth, Yankee Nine Talks It Up : Team of Announcers Includes 6 Ex-Players, Which May Lead to Question: Who’s ‘on’ First?
Opening day. Yankee Stadium.
Phil Rizzuto has just completed three innings as play-by-play announcer on the WPIX telecast of the game between New York and Kansas City.
Rizzuto now stands, holding his scorebook. He seems perplexed. He turns to director Jim Hunter and asks, “Where the heck do I go now?”
Rizzuto always knew where he was headed during 13 distinguished seasons as the Yankee shortstop. He was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1950, performed on nine pennant winners, authored credentials worthy of the Hall of Fame and eventually had his No. 10 encased next to the uniforms of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, never to be worn by another Yankee.
He was known then as Scooter Rizzuto.
Now, after 30 years of exhibiting what one TV critic calls heavy-handed partisanship as a Yankee announcer, he is known as Rooter Rizzuto.
The Rooter, though, can be excused for his opening-day confusion.
In April of a new season, you can’t tell the Yankee announcers without a cue card.
Of his daily attempt to arrange a rotation, WPIX producer Don Carney shook his head and said, “It’s like a chess game.”
WPIX televises 100 Yankee games. SportsChannel, the cable affiliate, televises 40 of the 62 games that WPIX doesn’t. All 162 are on WABC radio.
Producer Carney can employ a batting order of nine announcers, several of whom rotate among WPIX, SportsChannel and WABC.
Six of the nine are former players.
Said Bill White, alluding to a broadcasting team that’s missing only a catcher, third baseman and outfielder: “We might finish fourth or fifth somewhere.”
There’s a first baseman in White, a six-time All-Star with St. Louis, San Francisco and Philadelphia, and Rizzuto’s partner for the last 16 years; a shortstop in Rizzuto; two outfielders in Mickey Mantle and Bobby Murcer; a recently signed pitcher in Jim Kaat, and a second baseman-manager in Billy Martin, who is also new to the team this year.
That leaves the venerable Mel Allen, who in his 26th year with the Yankees does pregame and postgame shows on SportsChannel; Yankee communications director John Gordon, who does pregame and postgame shows on radio, and Spencer Ross, who handles the radio play-by-play.
Ross attended Florida State on a basketball scholarship but believes he could fill the void at third, his position in a Brooklyn sandlot league.
He already serves a utility role, replacing color commentator Mantle, who works just 25 of the 40 SportsChannel telecasts.
Said Ross: “I’m proud to have grown up to be Mickey Mantle’s first pinch-hitter.”
Martin, meanwhile, does only very brief pregame and postgame shows on the WPIX telecasts. He would barely have time to second-guess Manager Lou Piniella if he wanted to, which Martin insists he doesn’t and won’t.
The limited role displeases him to the extent that he may withdraw by May 1, restricting his activity here to that of an adviser to his celebrated sparring partner, George Steinbrenner, the Yankee owner.
The brevity of Martin’s TV appearances came as a surprise to former teammate and running mate Mantle, who watched in his hotel room last week as Martin was restricted to a 30-second wrap-up of the season’s second game.
Mantle applauded Martin’s decision to shave his desperado mustache, wondered about his nervousness and said, “I’ll have to ask Billy if he’s getting paid by the word.”
Martin is being paid because he has two years left on the three-year contract he got when he was hired again as manager in 1985. The man Steinbrenner had fired three times previously will be paid as a special assistant for three additional years when the managerial obligation expires. Martin, 57, calls it a lifetime commitment by the Yankees.
“I can only fire myself,” he said, having done it before. His penchant for self-destruction in the wake of each of his managerial triumphs has been chronicled.
Last year was no different. Steinbrenner went looking for the instant magic that Martin represents, after only 16 games. Yogi Berra’s team was 6-10 at the time. Martin led it to a 91-54 record and a second-place finish, two games behind Toronto in the American League East.
Martin reflected the other day and said he thought it was one of his best jobs. Yet, there was a series of erratic acts in September, ultimately costing him the position.
Late in a key game, for instance, he insisted that the left-handed hitting Mike Pagliarulo bat right-handed. He fought with pitcher Ed Whitson in the bar of a Baltimore hotel and emerged with a broken arm. He told Steinbrenner that he would not return as manager unless he was given a raise.
The stunned Steinbrenner said that he had been more than generous and that Martin could now earn his salary in another capacity. According to Martin, however, that was going to happen no matter what he and the Yankees did last year.
“I knew going in that they were grooming Piniella,” he said. “George told me. I went in with my eyes open. I knew in a year or two I’d be out.
“I have no hard feelings about it. In fact, I feel good about Lou getting the job. I think I feel the way Casey (Stengel) did when I first got the Yankee job.”
There was a time last year when Piniella, then a coach, ran the Yankees while Martin was in the hospital recuperating from a punctured lung. Martin called the dugout almost every inning. Piniella ultimately threatened to quit. Martin now says he wasn’t interfering, only calling to see if Piniella had questions that needed answering.
Now, Martin will be on the road with the Yankees again.
“I’m not going to fly with the team or stay at the same hotel,” he said. “There may be times when I’ll have to go on the field, but I won’t go on the bench.
“I’m doing all that purposely so that people won’t say I’m interfering. A lot of people think I’m going to be second-guessing Lou, but that’s the farthest thing from the truth. Lou played for me and coached for me. He’s a good friend.
“I mean, I could get involved in my capacity as assistant to the owner, but I won’t. Lou and I talked this spring, and I think that I’ll prove to be a good sounding board for him. He’ll let me know if he has any questions.
“I just hope he gets off to a good start so he can relax a little.
“The important thing is for him to make his own decisions and not let anyone talk him out of them.”
Including the owner?
“George learned that he couldn’t call me in the clubhouse because I’d pull the phone off the wall,” Martin said. “He’s involved because he wants to win so badly. He cares. He has a right to his opinion because he’s the owner, but that doesn’t mean you always have to follow it.
“It shouldn’t mean you always have to follow it.”
Broadcaster Martin isn’t quite following it.
“George told me to say what I feel,” Martin said. “He said, ‘If you want to get on me, go ahead.’ I said, ‘Hey, George, I don’t want to get on you or Lou or anyone else. I just want to talk about what people see on the field.’ ”
Martin thought he would be doing just that. He thought he would join White and Rizzuto as an analyst.
It was Steinbrenner who reportedly recommended Martin for the role, figuring that it would be an attractive position at which Martin could earn his salary.
There apparently are two reasons Martin has been restricted to a lesser role.
The public explanation is that Budweiser, a sponsor of the Yankee telecasts, protested because of Martin’s commercial affiliation with Lite beer.
The private explanation is that WPIX management was apprehensive over the possibility that Martin could become an embarrassment, coming out with the wrong thing at the wrong time.
“I really don’t think WPIX wants me,” Martin said. “I mean, what’s the difference if Bud is a sponsor. John Madden (who also does Lite commercials) is allowed to telecast national football games that Bud sponsors. Is there a double standard when I’m involved?”
What there is for him is about a one-minute pregame show and another minute at the end.
The color role Martin had hoped for has gone to Kaat.
Martin said there is now not enough time for him to do the things he would like to do, which is provide insights into the game’s nuances, the strategy, pitching, defense. Martin stood with a reporter on opening night and provided examples of what he could be doing:
--First inning. Shortstop Bobby Meacham goes into the hole to take a hit away from Willie Wilson. “There’s the key to the Yankees’ success--defense,” Martin said. “Bobby Meacham is going to be a hell of a player. He already is a hell of a kid. He never bitches, moans or complains. He never blames anyone else.”
--First inning. Ron Guidry strikes out George Brett. “Guidry is unhittable when he keeps the slider down,” Martin said. “When he gets it up, I could kill him.”
--Second inning. Meacham steals second, beating catcher Jim Sundberg’s throw. “The kid can run,” Martin said. “But Sundberg doesn’t throw like he used to.”
--Third inning. The Royals batting after the Yankees had scored three runs in the second. “This is the inning you always want to see your pitcher hold ‘em,” Martin said. “You don’t want them to develop any momentum after you’ve just scored three runs. Hold ‘em here and your pitcher wins 90% of the time. Don’t let it go 3-2, 3-3, 4-3. Then it becomes a different story.”
--Fourth inning. Dale Berra at first and Henry Cotto at second with Butch Wynegar batting. “The coach (Roy White) should have Berra take a bigger lead so he can score on a double,” Martin said. “He can’t do that with the lead he has now.”
--Ninth inning. Kansas City has the bases loaded with one out. Dave Righetti pitching to Greg Pryor with a 1-and-2 count. “Here’s where you’d like to see one of your infielders come in and give Righetti a breather,” Martin said. “Give him time to get that blood pumping in his arm again.”
What the TV audience got from Martin was just as good, but there wasn’t much of it.
His opening-night pregame show, taped earlier while Martin peeked at notes he had written on a yellow pad, lasted about a minute and centered on his own first opener.
It was 1950 at Boston. Martin didn’t start, but he came off the bench and delivered two hits in an eighth-inning rally that enabled the Yankees to beat the Red Sox, 15-10.
Said Martin, smiling: “I didn’t get to play for another month. The old man (Stengel) didn’t want to expose me too much.”
An even shorter postgame show featured only a review of Wynegar’s three-run, game-winning homer.
By Game 2, Martin was already edgy, frustrated.
“It’s kind of a helpless feeling,” he said of his nine innings of inactivity. “I’m rooting for the Yankees to do good, but I’d be more effective doing color.
“I told George that I’d try this until May and that if I can’t adjust, if I don’t feel comfortable, I’ll go back to being his adviser.”
Ultimately, of course, Martin expects to be managing again. He cited an acknowledged history of reviving teams and attendance and said he has always worked best under pressure, responding to a challenge.
“There’s a lot of clubs out there going into the barrel,” he said. “Everywhere I’ve gone, teams have made money. Isn’t that the bottom line? One of them will call, but I’ll have to know where I stand.
“The price will have to be right and I won’t go anywhere where people are going to tell me what to do.”
Neither will he go to the National League. He cited his familiarity with the American and said little things can be the difference in winning and losing.
“Yes, I’m going to manage again,” he said. “One more time. I want to win the World Series one more time.”
Rooter Rizzuto has now been pointed toward the radio booth. He will do three innings of color with Spencer Ross while Bill White takes over the TV play-by-play, working with Jim Kaat. Bobby Murcer, who had been doing color with Ross on radio, now takes a break. There will be another change in three innings. The SportsChannel team of Mel Allen and Mickey Mantle won’t arrive until Thursday. It’s only Tuesday.
Does the shifting of assignments create a problem? Some members of the team say no. Others say yes, citing a collapse of continuity. They say it privately, not caring to make waves. This is the philosophy, in and out of the booth. The constant turmoil surrounding the Yankees is left to the print medium.
Said producer Carney: “If George Steinbrenner runs on the field naked, we’ll show it and talk about it, but otherwise we stay clear of the rest. We’re not in a position to go to the clubhouse and dig material out, and I don’t think we should be. We’re there to report games and not editorialize. Newspapers can do that better than we can.”
Said White, who is respected for his honesty and objectivity: “I’d like to be believable, and I think I am. No one has ever said anything to me about what I’ve said or what I should or shouldn’t say. There have been times when I’ve even refused to read certain copy because I felt it was compromising.
“But as for what happens around here, all I worry about is the white lines (on the playing field). I don’t talk about owners. They don’t play.”
Which is not to say that White, for one, and Kaat, for another, won’t criticize what happens between the white lines.
The insightful Kaat, who established a record by pitching for 25 years in the big leagues, made his debut as a Yankee announcer on opening day and immediately got into a controversy.
It stemmed from a situation in the eighth inning. With two on, no outs and the Yankees leading, 4-2, Dave Winfield, on his own, tried to bunt, popping out. Winfield was told later that he had been second-guessed by Kaat.
“I don’t want to hear second-guessing announcers running off at the mouth,” Winfield said. “I can go up there swinging all the time if I want. You do what’s necessary. I was trying to protect the lead. I’d probably do it again.
“I can bunt and I can hit, and I can do it all, and I don’t want to hear second-guessing announcers running off at the mouth.”
Said Kaat: “I wasn’t being critical. I just said to Scooter that I was surprised to see him bunt. I asked Rizzuto if Dave had done much bunting before, and Phil said no, not that he could remember, and I said, ‘Well, if a player is unaccustomed to bunting, then chances are he won’t do it well.’
“It was an opinion, not a second guess,” Kaat said. “And I won’t be intimidated.”
There is a measure of paranoia in the Yankee clubhouse, of course.
The badgering by Steinbrenner and the frequent turnover of players and managers have left a mark. The Yankees hear criticism in the most innocent of statements.
There are none more innocent than those of the immensely popular Rizzuto, who seems to spend as much time reading birthday messages or talking about golf and restaurants as he does describing the game.
Wrote the New York Times’ Peter Alfano in a recent story on Bill White:
“Cast with colleagues who blatantly root for the home team, engage in banter that often becomes sophomoric and spend half the game wishing, ‘Happy birthday,’ to just about everyone in the New York metropolitan area, Bill White emerges as the most professional of the Yankee announcers.”
Said White of the 67-year-old Rizzuto: “Phil sees the game in pinstripes. I guess I would, too, if I’d been around the Yankees that long. He says things I don’t always agree with, but we want the game to be fun, to be spontaneous, so we go off on tangents where your technique suffers and you’re apt to make mistakes.
“The purists may not like it, but the people who aren’t purists may prefer the warmth and familiarity, the fact that it’s not ticker-tape baseball,” White said. “They may not be as bored.”
Who can be bored when Rizzuto is screaming “Good hustling, Dale,” as third baseman Dale Berra makes a scrambling stop of a foul grounder?
Who can be bored when he’s screaming, “All right, Yankees win!” as Willie Randolph slaps an apparent hit toward center field in the ninth inning of a tie game, only to have Kansas City shortstop Argenis Salazar make a diving stop and get the out at first, forcing a runner to stop at third?
“Holy cow, that was a nice play,” a suddenly subdued Rizzuto says, already aware, perhaps, that if it’s still tied after nine, he’ll again have to figure out where he goes next.