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George and Billy and the Race for the Back Pages

Baltimore Evening Sun

On the day after Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez kissed and made up, the New York Yankees called on their prime-time antagonists for their version of “Love Letters To The Back Pages.”

The duel for domination of New York’s daily tabloids is the longest running off-Broadway show in history. And the Big Apple’s baseball teams provide a varied cast of characters in the competition for top billing.

Four days ago, when Strawberry, the New York Mets’ star outfielder, walked out of camp after throwing a punch at Hernandez, the incident attracted huge headlines and comical reviews.

“We had to do something to get back on the back pages,” joked Al Harazin, executive vice president for the Mets. “The Yankees had been dominating too long.”

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Rickey Henderson’s absence and subsequent arrival at training camp, plus his disclosures about his teammates’ drinking habits enjoyed a week-long run. That’s almost an eternity by tabloid standards.

The Mets threatened that streak when the Strawberry-Hernandez pairing ran for three days and threatened to be held over by popular demand. It was only the first weekend of the exhibition season and already this intense rivalry had reached an Opening Day pitch.

But nobody knows this game better than George M. Steinbrenner, principal owner of the Yankees. He didn’t have to summon his baseball or marketing people to plot strategy to regain the exposure he feels rightfully belongs to the Yankees.

Enter Billy Martin.

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The Billy-And-George show (they alternate playing the lead) is a proven winner on the tabloid circuit. Get those two names in the same four-paragraph statement and we’re talking instant headlines.

Martin has been hired and fired as manager five times by Steinbrenner. Bill Virdon, Gene Michael, Bob Lemon, Clyde King, Yogi Berra and Lou Piniella are the others who have been involved with Martin in the game of managerial musical chairs. Michael, Lemon and Piniella also served multiple terms, but nobody has gotten the last chair as consistently as Martin.

There are those who insist that he will get the chair again, that a sixth term is as inevitable as a main event between Steinbrenner and Dallas Green, the hot seat’s current resident. But Billy VI looms more as a figment of overworked imaginations.

In a sense, Martin was hired again Sunday. The difference was that this time nobody got fired. The reason being that Martin, in effect, replaced himself.

Because he’s perpetually under contract, if not under a perpetual contract, Martin has always been “elevated” to the role of adviser whenever he’s been transferred from the manager’s office. It was that way when he was canned last June and replaced by Piniella for a second time.

However, until Sunday Martin never had a clearly defined role. Sometimes he was in the television booth. Sometimes he was in the scouting department. Sometimes in he was in hiding. Most of the time he was in limbo.

Now, he’s in the lower echelon of higher management. Or maybe it’s the higher echelon of lower management. Whatever, it appears to be a lifetime commitment.

In Steinbrenner’s terms, as detailed by the announcement, Martin will be a “top level” adviser. As such, he will be immediately dispatched to the field, which is where the junior executives usually get started.

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“Billy will be working with us for a long time,” Steinbrenner said in his prepared release. “We finalized some things today (Sunday) that we had been discussing for a while and outlined his role in talent evaluation.”

What that means is that Martin is assigned to the Yankees’ player development complex in Tampa, Fla., where he will observe minor-league players.

After initially declining to elaborate on this new “assignment,” Steinbrenner later said that the team’s “player development hasn’t been what it should be.” Does that sound familiar?

To help alleviate the situation, the two previous managers, Martin and Piniella, are being dispatched to the training grounds to increase the input of what is already the largest minor-league instructional team in baseball.

Of course the player development program might be in better shape if the Yankees hadn’t traded off so many young players, occasionally in return for proven disappointments. Or if anybody could remember the last time they didn’t give up a No. 1 draft choice while dabbling in the free agent market.

Steinbrenner currently has as many ex-managers (five) on his payroll as the Baltimore Orioles have active coaches. Since his dismissal, Piniella dropped into the same “adviser-instructor” category as Martin.

But these tend to be temporary titles. Plus, one of the things Steinbrenner declined to mention Sunday is that Piniella is following Martin’s script and will get some exposure in the television booth. The Yankees will announce Tuesday that Piniella is going to do pregame shows on 75 cable telecasts, working on a team that includes two other former major-league players--Tommy Hutton and Bobby Murcer.

The addition, perhaps, can best be explained by the fact that Piniella was a right-handed hitter while Hutton and Murcer both swung from the left side. The team definitely needed better balance.

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With the Yankees, “top level” is a majority of one. For the most part, “advisers” are those still on the payroll who don’t have discernible responsibilities.

Billy Martin’s advising concluded in the late morning, when he departed the stadium more than two hours before the Orioles beat the Yankees for the second straight day.

This was not a day to advise. It was a day to consent.

Anything for another shot at the Back Pages. It’s a jungle back there.


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