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One Thing Billy Martin Didn’t Manage Very Well Was His Life

BALTIMORE SUN

Billy Martin does not, even now, rest in peace. There is tragedy there, and irony, too.

If Martin ever sought solitude, he never found it.

He died a violent death at the foot of his home in upstate New York, where he had moved a year ago. It was a country retreat, a 148-acre farm, far removed from the too-public violence of his life. This was where the circus would end and where he could start anew.

But Martin died Monday on an icy road as a passenger in his own pickup truck, driven by a close friend who has been charged with driving while intoxicated. That the friend owned a bar in Detroit has been well noted. So, too, that Martin, a high-wire act to the end, was not wearing a seat belt.

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A New York county prosecutor has asked for an autopsy to determine the precise cause of death. In accordance with the wishes of Martin’s wife, however, the coroner has refused, noting that Martin was, in this case, a victim--a choice, and perhaps apt word.

And so it goes for Martin, controversy following him to the grave.

He was the dark side of sport. He was the driven man, who needed beyond all reason to succeed. And what drove him was rage. It was anger that made him pull a Reggie Jackson off the field or punch his own pitcher in the face. Anger and usually drink. He was angry at the world, and his anger, along with the drink, would prove his downfall. Amateur psychologists will line up to tell us of the father who deserted Martin as an infant and the scars it left on him. We know for sure only that there were scars, deep and ugly and too often made public.

If he sought solace in drink, he never found it there, either. He was dangerous in a bar, to himself and to others. We can only guess he was an angry drunk. His long police blotter, which extended, of course, to Baltimore, tells us as much.

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By the end, he had become a caricature of himself. It was only a year ago when Martin, then age 60, described himself as Billy the Kid, with loaded six-shooters, we could surmise, at the ready. He wanted everyone to know that if the world wanted some of him, he was ready to take the world on. In the end, of course, the world won. It was ever thus.

He insisted, too, after all his travails, that his drinking was not a problem, which recalled the old joke along the lines: I don’t have a drinking problem; I drink, I pass out, no problem.

We can recall that he was a brilliant manager, one of the few who could actually make a difference. He won in city after city, for team after team, only to be exiled when, finally, he would lose control of himself or of the players he drove too hard or of both.

He will be most remembered, of course, as a Yankee, first as the over-achieving player and finally as the co-star, along with George Steinbrenner, of the tragicomedy in five acts that was Martin’s managerial career in pinstripes. He was the damned Yankee.

If we look closely, we can see that Steinbrenner is the villain of the piece. It was Steinbrenner who did the hiring and firing. It was Steinbrenner who kept holding the job in front of Martin as if it were a piece of meat and Martin a salivating dog. The low point may have been that commercial they cut with Steinbrenner firing Martin, who had become, by that time, a marionette. We know who pulled the strings, but we don’t know exactly why.

Certainly, Steinbrenner knew Martin might make a difference, if he could last long enough without imploding. Steinbrenner also knew of Martin’s drinking problem and how it was exacerbated by the pressure of managing. By the fifth incarnation, which ended when the American League umpires basically led a revolt against Martin, it was too sad to watch. This had become an exercise in pulling the wings from a fly.

Martin was not an easy person to feel sorry for. He had a nasty, biting temper and seemed to take pleasure in the misery of others. He was quick to lash out--one’s a born liar and the other’s convicted.

And yet, like him or not, he was a tragic figure, hurtling surely toward an unhappy end. When the news came of his death, who among us was surprised? Alcohol is thought to be a contributing factor, and who would have guessed otherwise? He was reportedly coming home from a bar the night he died. All his life, he had come to no good in bars. Remember the other beer commercial--I didn’t punch no dogie--that was supposed to make us laugh? There’s no more laughing now. And there’s no one to rage against the dying of the light.

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