Remembering the other side of Billy Martin
This is a story about Billy Martin and the first time I entered a Major League clubhouse.
It was Aug. 8, 1974. I was a 21-year-old summer intern at the Dallas Times Herald, and Martin was in his first full season managing the Texas Rangers.
He was 46 at the time, but already a baseball legend thanks to 11 years as a scrappy player, including as a member of four Yankees championship teams.
The Rangers were the third of his nine managing gigs. Five of those were with the Yankees, only one of which lasted longer than a season thanks to a combustible owner (George M. Steinbrenner) and Martin’s own tendency to self-destruct.
All these years later, his kindness that day warms my heart. He saw that I was young and nervous, and he was going to ease me through the experience.
I’d been sent out to Arlington Stadium to get some baseball reaction to the big news story of the day: President Richard Nixon’s resignation announcement.
I quickly learned that covering Major League Baseball was different from, say, college football, with which I was more familiar.
There were no arranged interviews or daily news conferences. When I told the Rangers' public relations man, Burt Hawkins, what I was doing, he seemed monumentally unimpressed.
“Can I talk to Billy Martin?” I asked.
Hawk, a wonderful man who spent 59 years in and around the sport -- and was once nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his Senators coverage for the Washington Star -- gave me a look that said: “Why are you asking me?”
He pointed to a hallway.
“Billy’s down there,” he said.
I walked that way and knocked on Martin’s door. He was sitting behind his desk, uniform on and waved me in.
I told Billy what I was doing, and he motioned me to a chair. Rather than wait for me to ask a question, he did me a huge favor. He started talking. And talking.
He knew what I wanted, and he was going to give it to me. He said he admired Nixon and felt badly about how things had turned out.
I don’t actually remember his exact words. What sticks in my mind 46 years later is that Billy Martin, a famously tough street brawler, made a shaky college kid feel like the most important person on the planet.
I scribbled furiously as Martin talked, answering everything I would ask before I had a chance to. At some point, he asked, “You got enough?”
Here’s the second unforgettable thing Billy did that day. He stood up, came around his desk and motioned me toward the Rangers' clubhouse.
“Look,” he said, “you go out there and talk to Fergie Jenkins and Dave Nelson.”
They were two of baseball’s famously nice guys. Once, when the Rangers' beat writers were boycotting the postgame clubhouse after a female reporter from Toronto had been barred, Jenkins (and Al Oliver) trekked up to the press box to deliver postgame quotes.
Back to that first night.
“They’re great guys and will help you,” Martin said. “And if anyone gives you trouble, come see me. If you need something after the game, I’ll be here.”
I’ve made hundreds of trips into clubhouses since then and seen a bit of everything. I sat with Lou Piniella in the early-morning hours after his return to the Yankees as manager in 1988. Martin had been dismissed, and Piniella was returning for a second stint.
“And this time, it’s going to be different,” Piniella said. “George has given me his word about that.”
Yeah, about that. Steinbrenner was not any different with Piniella than he had been with Martin.
Another time, I mistakenly walked into the laundry room instead of the home clubhouse at Arlington Stadium an hour before game time and came upon an equipment man filling Gaylord Perry’s back pockets with resin or something that looked like resin.
That was when Perry’s specialty was a “puff ball.” He would coat his hand with resin (or something) and throw a pitch out of a distracting cloud.
Perry didn’t flinch when he saw me.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, backing up and realizing I’d entered the wrong door.
“No problem,” he said. “Come on through.”
(Once when one of his famous spit balls left a greasy spot on a press-box window, Perry said, “It must have hit a bug on the way up.”)
And there was the afternoon Astros outfielder Lance Berkman did a loud, hilarious imitation of Roger Clemens intimidating an umpire.
“And after Rocket glared at the guy on a close pitch,” Berkman said, “the next one was a foot outside. By now, the umpire is so intimidated he rings the hitter up to get it over.”
Players roared with laughter, except for one guy who approached me later.
“If you write what Lance said,” infielder Jose Vizcaino whispered, “please put in there that Jose Vizcaino did not laugh at Roger Clemens.”
“Seriously,” Vizcaino said. “I may face him again, and I don’t want him thinking I laughed at him.”
That was around the time Jeff Kent spent two seasons with the Astros. His teammates would run to grab a seat at their lockers whenever they noticed a television crew approaching him.
Rather than do an interview that would take three or four minutes, Kent would spend at least that long scowling and groaning and rolling his eyes at the torture of answering questions like, “How’s the club looking, Jeff?”
Once, he walked away from a Houston television guy, only to return moments later with a can of Dr Pepper.
“What’s this for?” the TV guy asked Kent.
“You’re going to be waiting a while,” Kent told him. “You’ll need some refreshment.”
Still, nothing has ever topped my interview with Billy Martin in 1974. He showed an essential decency that, sadly, sometimes only the people who knew him best were aware of.
His generosity and understanding has lingered in my heart and mind despite the passage of time. He certainly made an enemy or two during four decades in the sport. That day in Arlington, he made a fan for life.