Another Legend of the Fall

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every time New York Yankee left fielder Shane Spencer stepped to the plate during the American League division series against Texas, a 45-year-old man in Winter Haven, Fla., called to his wife and said, "Come here, honey, you've got to see this."

And together, Brian and Connie Doyle would gaze at the television, watching this strange and wonderful "This is Your Life" episode unfold before their eyes.

It was 20 years ago this month that Brian Doyle, all 5-foot-9, 145 pounds of him, replaced injured second baseman Willie Randolph and became a Yankee playoff hero, hitting .438 with four runs and two RBIs to help the Yankees defeat the Dodgers for the 1978 World Series championship.

Doyle bears little physical resemblance to the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Spencer--"Shane's forearm could make one of my legs," Doyle joked--but these days the two exist in a parallel universe, linked by the shared experience of going from oblivion to stardom in the media capital of the world.

Like Spencer, who spent eight years in the Yankee farm system before reaching the big leagues this year, Doyle had a lengthy minor league stewardship--five years--before making it to New York.

Like Spencer, who was recalled from triple-A Columbus four different times this season, Doyle was all too familiar with the minor league shuttle, getting recalled from triple-A Tacoma and sent back down five times in 1978.

And like Spencer, who has grinned his way into the hearts of New York fans and gained notoriety across the country by hitting two huge playoff home runs last week, Doyle thrived under the playoff microscope under which so many big-named players have shrunk.

"Everyone kept asking me if I felt pressure, and when I said no, no one could believe it," said Doyle, who runs a baseball academy in Orlando, Fla. "The reason was because I had a wife and child across the country and had been up and down from the minor leagues five times that year.

"The pressure for me was meeting my monthly bills and being away from my family. When I was put on the postseason roster, I knew I was going to make more money in a month than I did in the previous five years."

It's the same for Spencer.

"Pressure," Yankee Manager Joe Torre said, "is spending eight years in the minor leagues and not knowing if you're ever going to get a shot at the big leagues."

Just as Spencer has befuddled opposing pitchers, hitting both fastballs and curveballs to all fields and finishing September with eight homers, including three grand slams, Doyle had opposing pitchers stumped.

But that was by design. After replacing Randolph, who pulled a hamstring on the second-to-last day of the 1978 season, Doyle, a utility player who batted left-handed, tried to hit balls the opposite way for several at-bats.

"My strength was hitting the inside pitch, but I tried to use an inside-out swing and hit the ball to left field," Doyle said. "I got a few hits and hit .280 in the league championship series [against Kansas City] but basically gave myself up.

"The other teams figured, 'Here's this kid choking up on the bat four inches and trying to hit to the opposite field, let's bust him inside.' Then they started pitching to my strengths."

And then Doyle got hot, hitting just about everything the Dodgers threw at him during the World Series and playing superb defense too. The Yankees, after losing the first two games in Los Angeles, swept the next four to win their second consecutive championship. At one point in the series, Doyle had five straight hits.

"That's what's great about baseball," said Bucky Dent, the Yankee shortstop in '78 and now a Ranger coach. "You never know who's going to jump up and bite you."

Dent, who hit .417 with seven RBIs against the Dodgers, was named series most valuable player, but catcher Thurman Munson and right fielder Reggie Jackson openly campaigned for Doyle to win the award, and the vote was very close.

Baseball didn't hold daily press conferences with managers and players in 1978 as it does now, but Doyle remembers his clubhouse cubicle resembling a sportswriters convention just about every day of the series.

"There was so much media around my locker," Doyle said, "I couldn't really move."

The crush has been just as heavy for Spencer, a regular in the interview room--before and after games--during the division series and a likely target for the league championship series, which the Yankees begin Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians in New York.

But like Doyle, Spencer is devouring the attention instead of letting it consume him.

"As long as I'm not getting booed off the field," Spencer said, "I guess I can't complain."

A former two-sport athlete at Granite Hills High in El Cajon, Spencer has become a cult hero in New York, where he has drawn comparisons to a certain slugger Robert Redford played in the movies.

Spencer homered in his first at-bat and singled and scored in his second at-bat in a 3-1 victory in Game 2 against Texas. He helped the Yankees clinch the series with a three-run homer in a 4-0 victory in Game 3.

"If it wasn't for Roy Hobbs down there . . . it's incredible," Torre said, glancing at Spencer in a postgame news conference. "If I'm dreaming, I want to stay asleep. He's been such a tremendous asset to this ballclub in such a short period of time."

Spencer was in the on-deck circle in Yankee Stadium in Game 2 when he heard a fan yell, "You can do it again, Roy!" Spencer said to himself, "I'm not Roy." Then he turned around and saw a Roy Hobbs sign "and I thought, 'Oh, Geez,' " Spencer said.

All of New York City seems to be riding the Shane Train, latching onto this fresh-faced kid with the crew cut and sparkling green eyes. "Spencer Shane-sational" glare the tabloids. The 26-year-old can't go anywhere without being recognized. Dinners at restaurants are suddenly being comped.

He was getting so many calls that, for the first time in his life, he registered under an assumed name at the team's Texas hotel. The phone is also ringing off the hook at his mother's house.

"And she lives in Arkansas, so nobody ever calls her," Spencer said.

On the charter back to New York after the 1978 World Series, the Yankees held a team meeting in the back of the plane. Everyone but Doyle was invited.

"They voted me a bigger playoff share and told me I could play with them any time," Doyle said. "That really made me feel like I belonged."

And so it goes with Spencer, the feel-good story in the Yankee clubhouse.

"I just hope you guys leave Shane alone and let him swing the bat," right fielder Paul O'Neill said. "He's a strong kid, he gets his hacks and he keeps grinning. You see someone who put that much time in the minor leagues, knowing people told him he'd never make it . . . you root for guys like that."

Added catcher Joe Girardi: "We're all feeding off his excitement."

Spencer, a high school teammate of Indian outfielder Brian Giles, was a 28th-round pick of the Yankees in 1990, and he did not play above the Class-A level in his first six professional seasons.

But after adding some muscle and learning to put backspin--instead of topspin--on the ball, Spencer had a breakthrough year at double-A Norwich, Conn., hitting 29 homers and driving in 89 runs in 1996.

He followed that with a 30-homer, 86-RBI season at triple-A Columbus in 1997 and hit .322 with 18 homers and 67 RBIs in 87 triple-A games this season.

So his power shouldn't come as a shock.

"I've been hitting home runs in the minor leagues for a few years," Spencer said. "I've had plenty of practice."

But nine homers in his last 33 at-bats? C'mon.

"Now that, I can't explain," Spencer said. "I'm just riding it, enjoying it. . . . I guess I'm surprised it's all happening at once. I thought that if I had the chance I could probably do it. I'm just a rookie, so maybe they're going to give me better pitches. But I'm taking advantage of it right now."

It doesn't hurt that Spencer is surrounded by some of the best talent assembled on one team--in a lineup of O'Neill, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez, Spencer was probably an afterthought for opposing pitchers in September.

Doyle had the same benefit, being the featherweight in a heavyweight lineup that included Jackson, Munson, Chris Chambliss and Graig Nettles. Doyle said Spencer should not take that for granted.

"He should stay focused and use the veterans on the team--they know every pitcher's out-pitch," Doyle said. "He needs to listen to the right-handed hitters and learn from them because they can put five to 10 years of experience in the kid's mind. And watch the veterans. They know their limitations and know not to go outside of them."

That was a lesson Doyle learned the hard way while playing second base for Oakland in 1981. Toronto's Otto Velez went into second on an infield grounder without sliding, and Doyle, instead of avoiding the collision with a bigger opponent, went on to turn the double play.

But the tiny second baseman was flipped over, landing headfirst and separating his throwing shoulder. He tried a few comebacks, with Toronto and Cleveland, but retired after the 1981 season, unable to regain full strength in his arm.

Spencer can only hope the parallels between his career and Doyle's end before then.

"I hope this is not just a one-month thing," Spencer said. "I think if you were to ask anyone who has played with me they would say that I'm for real."

Who knows what the future holds for Spencer, but the present is sure stirring up the past in Winter Haven. And it's a beautiful thing.

"Sure, there are flashbacks seeing what Shane is going through," Doyle said. "It doesn't seem like it's been 20 years."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
70°