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Amazing, After All These Years. . . : Graig Nettles Says He Will Never Retire

Times Staff Writer

Holding back the years. Graig Nettles is graying at the temples and at third base, yet he’ll tell you he can play forever and ever.

Here in the Big Apple, though, they’ll tell you different. Fans know best, right? Outside Shea Stadium the other day, a guy declared: “I thought Nettles was through when he was 30!”

He’s 41. He is told that’s old. In Montreal this year, Tim Raines looked Nettles over from head to toe, shut his eyes tight, shook his head and said: “Man, when I get to be your age, I’m gonna pray to God I can do the things you’re doing now.”

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And here in New York, the sportswriters that Nettles used to call “scrounges” in his days as a Yankee have come by to ask how he’s feeling and if he’s ready to hang it up.

His standard answer?

“I’ll never retire,” he says. “They’ll have to force me out. I play for two reasons--for the fun and the money. When it stops being fun, I’ll play just for the money.”

But what if they won’t pay him the money? The Padres admit third base is one of their primary concerns, and odds are Nettles will not be invited to Yuma next February. Odds are this is his last go-'round, that the man nicknamed “Puff” because he would escape like a magic dragon after ballgames will disappear once and for all this fall.

“I don’t know,” Manager Steve Boros said of Nettles’ baseball future. “That’s something he’ll probably answer for us over the course of this year. And it also depends on our plans, our trades, etc.”

Nettles is perplexed: “They said years ago I had great range at third, that I was a great fielder, but that now I’ve lost a step. Well, if I’ve lost a step, that puts me on par with all of the other third basemen.

“I feel great on the field. Everyone has their good days and bad days. When I was 25 or 27, I probably made 20-25 errors a year, and people said: ‘He’s a great fielder.’ Now, if I make 20 errors a year, they say that’s bad. That’s part of being at my age. You can’t afford to have a bad year because they blame your age. If you’re 25 and have a slump, well, you’re just in a slump. If you’re 41 and have a slump, it’s, ‘Hey, this is the end.’ ” He’s hitting .205.

But he has 21 RBIs with 23 hits.

He has eight home runs.

Is it the end?

“I don’t know,” he said. “People have been asking that so many years. (George) Steinbrenner told me I wouldn’t make it past 32 or 34 or something like that. But ever since I turned 30, people have been asking ‘How much longer?’ If I’d told them when I was 30 that I’d play another 12 years, they’d have laughed. So now that I’m almost 42, just to predict would be silly. There’s no reason to put it in terms of years. I’ll play as long as I can.”

But if this is the end--if it really is--such memories there are. There’s Dad and George and Billy and Goose and Thurman and Dick and Ralph and Henry and George and George and George.

George is George Steinbrenner.

And George probably is the reason there never will be a “Graig Nettles Day” at Yankee Stadium.

“A day in New York? I doubt it,” said Nettles, maybe one of the greatest third basemen in baseball history. “It’d be a great tribute if I did get one . . . but I don’t think Steinbrenner really wants to do that. He’s not happy that I came over here (to San Diego) and had success over here. When he gets rid of a player, he really wants that player not to do well because he wants to have been right. It’s almost an embarrassment to him.

“And the fact that they retired No. 9 last year and said it was just for Roger Maris. I mean, Roger had a couple of great years there, but look over the career, and I had a longer and better career than Roger did. So they could’ve mentioned both of us wore that number, especially with me being the most recent. But George chose not to, and that’s his prerogative . . .”

Dad (Wayne Nettles) taught Graig to be a good loser. Dad, who raised the family in San Diego, was a policeman and an umpire. They would go to Padre games, back when they were Triple-A Padres, and Dad never let Graig boo anybody.

Dad was a ballplayer, an end on the San Diego State football team. Dad, today at 69, plays five or six sets of tennis a day. He won’t retire, either. One day at 66, he figured he’d like to learn tennis, so he did.

“I remember growing up in San Diego,” Graig Nettles said. “I remember being 10, 12, 13 years old and my folks would let me go downtown by myself to watch the ballgames. They didn’t have major league baseball on the West Coast at the time, and the (Pacific) Coast League was supposedly a pretty good minor league. When I was growing up, I wanted to play professional baseball like most kids do, and I wanted to play for the Padres. I wanted to play Triple-A baseball. That was as much as I’d seen. I would have been a success in my era if I could have just played for the Triple-A Padres. You just didn’t even think of the major leagues because it was something in another part of the world.”

Before we went into the meeting, Jerry (Kapstein) told me, ‘Now, George is going to be the nicest person in the world to you. He’s going to build you up, praise you, have nothing but great things to say about you.’ I didn’t know what to think about that, because that had never happened before. We walked in, and we were there for about an hour, and it was just like Jerry said. George made it sound like I was the greatest player who ever played the game. It was something I wasn’t prepared to hear. I was sure he was again going to tell me I was over the hill, was washed up and was asking for too much money . . .

--from Graig Nettles’ autobiography, Balls .”

That was in December, 1983, just before Nettles signed his last Yankee contract. This, Nettles said, was George Steinbrenner, the jerk, at work. One day, you’re his enemy; the next, you’re his buddy.

“George is different,” Nettles said. “He pays you a lot, but yet he makes you pay for earning that money. He makes life miserable for you at times, even if you’re winning . . .” Nettles’ main reason for going to the Yankees was to play for Ralph Houk, his favorite manager in 19 years of big league ball. But he said Steinbrenner forced Houk out, and he resented him for that.

And the book, “Balls”, was the last straw. He ripped Steinbrenner in it (“Not any more than he’d been ripped in the papers,” Nettles said), and he’s convinced Steinbrenner traded him because of it.

“I think he might have overreacted to the book because I was traded like two days after the book came out,” Nettles said. “No, it might have been two days before the book came out. I think he got an advance copy or heard about it. Plus, the fact that I’d asked him if I was gonna be a platoon player, I might as well be traded. I think it was a combination.”

George returned from exile in 1976, and it was Billy’s first full year as manager. We got off to a real quick start, and we were ahead the whole way, and for the most part George was pretty quiet. The one big to-do came in August when George invited Dick Williams to sit in his private box . . . . George had tried to hire Williams the year before from Oakland, but Charlie Finley refused to let him go unless the Yankees traded him two top prospects, which the Yankees wouldn’t do. So we knew that George wanted Williams as manager . . . . We could see Dick Williams sitting in the box with George. That didn’t set too well with Billy.

--From ‘Balls.

Graig Nettles adored Billy Martin. He played for him in the minors and in the majors with Minnesota and New York. In 1983, when Steinbrenner brought Martin back to manage (again), Martin’s first thing was to tell a platooned Nettles that he was the everyday third baseman.

“I owe a lot to him,” Nettles said. “That enabled me to play in ’83 and get a contract for ’84 and ’85, and just continue from there.”

Like Dick Williams, Martin was hard on young players.

“When a veteran on the field made a mistake, Billy would scream at all of us rookies on the bench,” Nettles said. “He’d make us feel like we made the mistake.

“But Dick and Billy? I didn’t find them similar at all. You know Billy, he wants to be liked by his players. He enjoys going out with his players after the game and having a beer. He really enjoys being close to guys, whereas Dick never really wanted to be near the players . . .”

Goose was on the mound in Kansas City . . . . When Goose gets involved in the game, he forgets all about the runners on base. He goes into the stretch without giving them a look. I walked over to the mound and told him, ‘Give the guy a look over to first.’ He went into his stretch and didn’t look, and the guy got a great jump and would have stolen second easily, but the batter fouled the ball off. I went over to Goose again. He had the rosin bag in his hand, and he slammed it down onto the mound. He started screaming and yelling at me. He said, ‘Get off my mound. Get back to your position. Get off my ass. Stop bothering me. I’ve been doing this for 13 years, so just stop bothering me.’

I was really upset after the game. I said, ‘Don’t ever show me up like that on the field, Goose.’ He and I are the best of friends, but it took me an hour after the game to calm down about it. The players were joking about it. They wanted to know if we were still going to sit together on the plane. Was this a break up?

--From ‘Balls

They are not divorced. Goose Gossage came to the Padres in 1983, and Nettles joined him in 1984.

“I understand Goose,” Nettles said. “I understand him probably better than anybody. I know sometimes you just have to back off and let him do things his way.”

Together, they’ve been through New Yawk, New Yawk.

“I remember my first year in Yankee Stadium,” Nettles said. “I made three errors in a doubleheader, and they booed me pretty good coming off the field. But, you know, you just have to bear with it. They weren’t being cruel to me; that’s just the way they express their feelings back there. If you go off and sulk and let it get to you, then it can bother you. But you just shake it off, go out and have a few beers with the guys and have some laughs. A lot of guys back in New York get too wrapped up in thinking baseball 24 hours a day. They just don’t know how to relax.

“Look at (Ed) Whitson. He’s an emotional guy, and he lets people know what he thinks all the time. When you get in the paper what you think of New York, and the fans there understand you have a weakness, they’ll just play on that weakness. New York? They like their players to be tough guys. They don’t like them to be weak in any part of their character . . .”

“Ah, the people treated Goose pretty well. But, you know, when you got a name like Goose, you don’t know if the people are booing you or Goosing you.”

Together, they’ve been through the New Yawk media.

“Henry Hecht (of the New York Post) was the worst,” Nettles wrote in his book. “He wrote that I had lost it. He was a scrounge. He wrote that (Ron) Guidry had lost it. If you mess up a play, he’ll gladly write how poor you’re doing, but if you make a great play--or three great plays--there’ll be no mention of it . . .” “

Together, they’ve been through death.

Thurman Munson’s plane crash demoralized the Yankee team of 1979.

“That was the first real tragic thing that’s ever happened in my life,” Nettles said. “It shook me up pretty good. I really couldn’t cope with it for about a week or so.”

Just two weeks before, Nettles had flown with Munson. They had agreed to do it again and would bring along Nettles’ son, Mike.

They never did.

Now, Nettles can joke about it, but only because he says Thurman would have wanted that. Often, Nettles and Goose see a fat guy on the street and say: “There’s Thurman!”

Nettles might be the funniest man in baseball.

He said these:

--After Steinbrenner hired Martin back on old-timer’s day: “Some kids want to grow up being a big league ballplayer; some kids want to join the circus. I’m lucky. Here, I’ve gotten to do both.”

--After Gossage overtook Sparky Lyle as the Yankees’ No. 1 reliever: “Sparky, you went from Cy Young to Sayonara.”

--After Padre catcher Terry Kennedy, trying to get a runner stealing second, threw 20 feet over the second baseman’s head: “Terry, that’s only an expression they use when they say a guy can fly.”

--After Gossage once walked the first three hitters he faced in Montreal: “Don’t they have plates in the bullpen, Goose?”

But this could be the last act, and Nettles has a little more than four months to get his act in gear, to prove it’s not how old you are, it’s how you feel.

We’ll see who has the last laugh.


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