Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Billy vs. Reggie: Remembering the Fenway Flare-up

When Reggie Jackson arrived in the Bronx for the '77 slate, he famously quipped to the press: "I didn't come to New York to be a star. I brought my star with me." Less than 3 months into his tenure with the Yankees, he made disparaging remarks about team captain Thurman Munson. "I'm the straw that stirs the drink," he told a correspondent from Sport magazine. "Maybe I should say me and Munson, but he can only stir it bad." This angered and alienated teammates.

Though  Jackson carried the club at times, he also went into prolonged slumps during which he flailed vainly at anything that came to the plate. While playing with the A's, he had led the league in strikeouts for four straight seasons. He retired with 2,597 whiffs--an all-time record. Still, he was George Steinbrenner's most coveted player and "The Boss" demanded he remain in the lineup even when he wasn't producing. 

On numerous occasions, manager Billy Martin tried to hide Reggie at the bottom of the order, but he invariably heard about it later with Steinbrenner insisting that the slugger bat third or fourth. Martin had strong ideas about how to run a ballclub and he resented Steinbrenner's meddlesome ways. He also resented Jackson's ego and there was friction between the two from the start. Martin had made no bones about the fact that he didn't want Reggie on the club. He had advocated for the acquisition of Joe Rudi, a decent hitter and a phenomenal defensive outfielder. 

Reggie was a sub-par fielder though he did possess a strong arm. Between 1968 and 1977, he had led AL right fielders in errors 7 times. He also had a tendency to loaf after balls. In his book The Bronx Zoo, reliever Sparky Lyle wrote: "Let's face it, Reggie's a bad outfielder. He has good speed to the ball, but the catching part is shaky."

On June 18, 1977, the Yankees aired their dirty laundry on national television. The Yankees were visiting Fenway Park and trailing the Red Sox in the standings. As usual, Steinbrenner was griping that the team should be in first place. Billy had asked Reggie to shag some fly balls during batting practice, but George's favorite player had refused. This led to an epic showdown in the Yankee dugout.

The Yanks were behind 7-4 in the sixth inning when Jim Rice hit a blooper to right field that dunked in for a hit. Reggie moved casually toward it then took his time getting it back to the infield. By then, Rice was on second base. Billy was fuming. He came out to the mound to replace pitcher Mike Torrez. He then sent Paul Blair out to replace Reggie. This was obviously an attempt to embarrass the egotistical outfielder, whom Billy had never wanted in the first place.

Sensitive about his public image, Jackson stormed into the dugout and demanded to know what he had done wrong. Martin snarled at him: "You know what you did!" Reggie then made the mistake of calling Martin an old man. Billy had never backed down from a fight during his career and he wasn't about to start. It took three coaches to separate the two: Elston Howard, Dick Howser and Yogi Berra. Reggie yelled at Billy: "You better start liking me!" --An insinuation that if anyone was going to be fired, it would be Martin.

Steinbrenner, who had watched the game on TV with millions of others, decided to fire Billy two days later. But when the story was leaked by UPI writer Milt Richman, the public reaction was overwhelmingly negative. George ultimately changed his mind, but would fire and rehire Martin numerous times over the next few seasons. Reggie would spend a few more tumultuous seasons in the Bronx, averaging 28 homers 92 RBI's and 115 strikeouts per year over 5 seasons.   

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