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ANALYSIS : Guidry Leaves With Style, and a Touch of Class

Newsday

Ron Guidry didn’t give style and class to the New York Yankees, he only lent it to them. The games he won, the pitching he gave them, that he leaves behind. He takes the style and class with him.

What he left in the record book is his 1978 season -- one of the greatest seasons any pitcher ever had. It deserves a mark of special designation.

The point of it would recall that what Guidry accomplished and what he did in the midst of the thunder and lightning that were the Yankees of the new legend. Guidry stood up in the hail of fire and remained unscathed. It wasn’t as if he didn’t understand what was going on.

Pick a spot to find a memory. No, not the tiebreaker game against the Boston Red Sox, although it certainly was worthy. He took them into the seventh inning with a lead. That was the pitcher he was that year.

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But remember the night in 1982 when Reggie Jackson came back to Yankee Stadium in a California Angels uniform for the first time after being cast aside? It was April 27 and it was raining, and the Angels had a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning. Jackson had no home runs. Guidry, who then had considerable powers, threw his considerable slider right where he wanted it and Jackson hit one of his lightning bolts against the facing of the upper deck.

Before Jackson reached second base, the fans were beating their hands together and chanting, “Reg-gie! Reg-gie!”

On the mound, subtly as he could, Guidry was clapping his pitching hand into the palm of his mitt as one virtuoso giving credit to the maestro.

Guidry understood it all, everything that went from right to left, left to right and top to bottom in the Yankees clubhouse. That night, he acknowledged what Jackson had given to him and to the Yankees. That was the night the fans chanted, in the vernacular of the 1980s teen-ager, “Steinbrenner!”

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They were saying in their way that the man who didn’t want Jackson anymore stinks. Margaret Plunkett, who was teaching fifth grade at St. Andrew Avellino School in Flushing, N.Y., wrote that she understood. And Guidry understood.

Over in his corner of the clubhouse -- the L-shaped cubicle that became his after Sparky Lyle vacated it -- Guidry observed and absorbed.

He had been treated harshly on occasion and he saw others treated with less than the dignity they deserved. He acknowledged that, but he knew how to stop his commentary just before he brought the fire down on his own head. But it was clear where he stood.

In his way, he was something out of Kipling’s tale of the cat who walked by himself. He thrived because he understood how others shrank from the owner’s rages. “The only person you can get back at is him,” Guidry said. “You want to try harder to show him you’re doing a good job. That’s what he wants. I try to make him look like a fool.”

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In 1978, he made a fool of a lot of people. He was 25-3, his .893 percentage the best any 20-game-winner has ever had. His earned run average was 1.74. The Yankees were 30-5 in games he started.

Baseball is a game of streaks and Guidry stopped the losing kind; 15 of his victories followed losses. Not even the New York Mets’ Dwight Gooden has had a season like that.

Guidry objected to being second-guessed by Billy Martin, who later claimed he developed Guidry at a calculated pace. Remember that until April 1977 Martin identified Guidry as a minor-league relief pitcher. That evaluation sparked one of the more lively exchanges of a lively season.

When Guidry took his place among the best starters in the league, Martin claimed foresight. “There were some people who wanted to get rid of Guidry in the spring,” Martin said. “I wasn’t one of them. Gabe Paul wasn’t one of them. Maybe it was the trainer.”

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“Billy says he wanted Guidry?” Steinbrenner responded. “That’s a lie. Billy and I wanted him gone. Gabe wanted to keep him.”

Whitey Herzog wanted Guidry. Paul was the general manager who refused to trade Guidry to the Kansas City Royals that spring.

“We had a meeting at the end of spring training, George, Billy and me,” Paul said. “I was ordered to send Guidry out. I said, ‘Let’s make a deal: Understand that it’s over my objection, and when he becomes a successful pitcher for some other organization, you take all the responsibility.’

“Billy, he didn’t say much. Calculated? When Guidry got the chance to start, it was out of necessity.” So much for Martin’s eye for the future.

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Guidry had that magnificent year in 1978. The next season, when Rich Gossage had his thumb broken and the bullpen was a desperate place, Guidry volunteered to pitch relief between starts. Some years before, when Warren Spahn was clinging by reputation to the end of a great career as a starter, the Atlanta Braves were desperate for bullpen help. Bobby Bragan asked the great man to pitch relief. Spahn refused; the bullpen was for someone lesser.

Guidry had the best earned run average in the league for the second successive season. He won 18 games, pitched relief three times and had two saves.

He didn’t tell the club he’d go to the bullpen if his contract was reworked; he didn’t demand a clause that protected him if he hurt his arm in relief.

“I don’t want to get caught up in that,” he said. “A lot of guys say I’m crazy not to try to get every little bit I can. But I don’t need a lot of money to be happy.”

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He was thinking about how he could help a team that needed what he could do. In a cynical world, he was a sigh of relief. And a touch of class.


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