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The Greening of the New York Yankees

Dallas Green always struck me as a man who might strike me. He has this hard, steely-eyed, steelworker’s countenance, topped by a thatch of unruly gray hair, all of which makes him look like a guy who could toss back a couple of tequila shooters and then loudly declare that he can whip any man in the room.

Appearances, as we all know, are deceiving. Rugged or otherwise, though, Dallas Green has the look that a manager of the New York Yankees ought to have, in my opinion. It is the look of a man who will take no guff--who will, in fact, give guff. It is the look of a man who would kick dirt on a nun, a man who could slug you all the way to Louisville. These are the damn Yankees, remember, so no wimps need apply.

Back in the dugout in double-knits again after several seasons in civvies, Dallas Green is trying to boldly go where no Yankee manager for 11 years has gone: All the way. Not since 1978 has the World Series been won by the boys from Fort Apache, the Bronx. They haven’t even been in a Series since 1981, the year George Steinbrenner publicly apologized for the shame of finishing second.

Steinbrenner has tried 10 managers since taking over as principal owner, committing voluntary manager slaughter, and Dallas Green is his latest. As hard-boiled as some of Steinbrenner’s managers seemed, Billy Martin worst and foremost, it seems to me that Dallas Green is the first guy who probably would have a secretary put a phone call from Steinbrenner on hold. Dallas Green could tame lions without a chair.

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The job of restoring the Yankees to their rightful place atop the American League will not be simple. Dave Winfield is damaged, Jack Clark has defected and Don Mattingly’s batting eye needs some Murine. Moreover, the pitching staff is aced by a 45-year-old miracle of science, and has been depleted by an injury to John Candelaria and the unloading of hot prospect Al Leiter to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Were the Yankees wrong to barter Leiter, particularly with their serious shortage of young pitchers?

“Depends,” Green said in his office before a game at Anaheim Stadium. “Some people think he’s going be a very, very good pitcher. Other people think he could be just another pitcher with great potential. We’ll see.”

The swap brought to New York the talents of outfielder Jesse Barfield, whose sincere religious beliefs undoubtedly will be tested the first time Yankee Stadium’s fans turn against him, or the first time one of the daily tabloids puts one of his quotes in 84-point type. Jesse’s faith already must have been tested when he spent his first 20 turns at bat with the Yankees trying vainly to get a hit.

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The Yankees needed Barfield, badly, because the prognosis on Winfield is bad indeed. It turns out the ballclub is no longer even expecting Winfield to return to active duty this season, meaning that 1989 is going to be a total wipeout for a man who before the year expires will blow out 38 candles on a birthday cake.

“We’re not really looking to get him back, no,” Green said. “I don’t hold out much hope.”

What hope does New York hold, then, for dominating the American League East? Well, for one thing, the division has gone from murderer’s row to skid row. Once the most proud, most balanced division in baseball, the AL East is fast becoming the AL Least, to the point that Cleveland could win the championship twice in one season, once with Charlie Sheen in the movies, and later with the real Indians.

Its very weakness gives the Yankees a shot at winning it. No team in the entire American League, aside from Oakland, looks capable of greatness, so perhaps the Yankees will catch lightning, same way the 1988 Dodgers did. Dallas Green, accustomed as he is to being a National Leaguer, naturally contends now that the American League is not so awful, as does another NL expatriate, second baseman Steve Sax.

“Sax used to say the American League was a dog league,” someone told Green, laughing, exaggerating somewhat.

“Now that he’s here, he’s changed his mind,” Green said, that hard face crinkling into a smile.

“You used to say the same thing,” that same someone said.

“Now that I’m here, I’ve changed,” Green said, smiling even wider.

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Sax is doing a good job for the Yankees, hitting the ball, running the bases, making the plays and talking to anybody who asks him for a few minutes, provided that person is carrying a camera. After a slow start, Sax bumped his average above the .300 level, and has been successful hitting behind Rickey Henderson, after years and years of being the Dodgers’ leadoff batter.

“He’s really done a hell of a job,” Green said. “Everything we’ve asked, he’s done. He’s been very good defensively, and offensively he’s been everything we expected. He’s got the juice. You know, the enthusiasm.”

With each passing week, the new manager gets more and more familiar with his new players. He must discover a reliable relief pitcher, and a cleanup batter to support Mattingly, and a left side of the infield that can stay intact for more than four or five weeks.

“I’m still learning what these guys can do,” Green said, “and also what they can’t do. I’ve asked some guys to do some things that it turns out they can’t do. I’m still getting to know them, same as they’re still getting to know me.”

What they ought to know is that if Dallas Green asks them to do something that they cannot do, they nevertheless had better try to do it. Dallas Green is not the sort of guy I would care to disappoint. If he told me to sacrifice and I bunted foul on strike three, I’d go sit in the other guys’ dugout, before he decided to sacrifice me.


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