BrooklynFans Of Books: Louisiana Lightning On Leading Yankees to ’77 & ’78 Titles

Gator: My Life in Pinstripes

By Ron Guidry, with Andrew Beaton

Crown Archetype, available now, $26.00

Ron Guidry, one of the greatest pitchers in Yankees history, was the ace of their championship teams in 1977 and 1978.

Guidry, known as Louisiana Lighting as well as another nickname, which is the title of his new memoir, Gator: My Life in Pinstripes.

1978 was when Guidry rose to prominence when he went 25-3 with an impressive 1.74 ERA, or earned run average. To show how amazing those numbers are, 15 wins and a 4.00 ERA is considered excellent in this era.

The Yankees that season were known as “The Bronx Zoo” because of all the chaos around that team, and Guidry writes of that, “The 1978 Yankees season might have been the most famous soap opera in baseball history. The lead actors in the drama: owner George Steinbrenner, who fought and fired his manager, Billy Martin, after Billy told the press that Reggie Jackson and George deserved each other – ‘one’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.’ The manager who feuded with his players, suspending Reggie for five days after a game against Kansas City in which Reggie defied Billy by attempting to bunt. The players who butted heads with one another. The hurt feelings and catfights. The drama had a full complement of characters. Come to think of it, I’m not sure whether it was a soap opera or a three-ring circus. And it all took place on the biggest stage in sports, New York City, and on the most popular team in the history of America’s national pastime. The fireworks and explosions rocked the entire country, on the front and back pages of the newspapers, on television, and on sports radio.

“In the span of a couple of years I had gone from relative anonymity – a good old boy from Lafayette, Louisiana – to become the ace of the pitching staff. I knew the team depended on me, as much as anybody, to win. The reasons varied, but other folks – from Reggie to Billy to George to Sparky Lyle – were central figures of the discontent. I didn’t have a beef with anybody. I tended to keep to myself and focus on doing my job in the best way I knew how. But that didn’t mean I didn’t observe what was going on. I was never far from it, but because I wasn’t personally involved, I felt like I had the right distance to get some perspective about not just what happened but why it turned out the way it did – with us winning it all. You see, I’m not sure we would have won the World Series if all of that didn’t go down. We may not have won if Billy remained our manager (note: he was replaced by Bob Lemon halfway through the season). We may not have won if our guys had issues but didn’t hash them out.

“The postmortems of the 1978 team centered on one fundamental question: How the heck did such a dysfunctional cast of stars and misfits manage to win it all? An ESPN miniseries about the team was called The Bronx Is Burning. My close friend Sparky Lyle wrote a book about the team, called The Bronx Zoo,¬†that spent half a year on the bestseller lists. In other words, you wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that we had no business winning the World Series. You’d expect the story of the 1978 Yankees to be a narrative of a dysfunctional team going down in flames.

“But that didn’t happen. The way I see it, the 1978 Yankees didn’t win in spite of what went down that season. We won because of what happened. A team that is willing to fight – even one another – can go one of two ways – into the toilet or into greatness. A team that is afraid of conflict can settle into complacency. That was not us. We were a team with the potential to be great. And I believe that out of all the craziness, we became a team that was both talented and fearless. We were hungry. We were relentless. We were fiercely competitive. And we came together as a team over the course of the season. I believe we were the smartest, most complete baseball team around. Far from dysfunctional, we did all the little things it takes to be great. And nowhere was all of that better demonstrated than in that playoff game against the Red Sox.”

The Yankees came back from 14 games behind the Red Sox that June to end up in the one-game American League East playoff at Fenway Park on Monday, October 2, 1978.

The Yankees actually were in position to win the division on the last day of the regular season as they just needed to beat the Cleveland Indians, but they lost and the Red Sox beat Toronto to force the playoff, which was at Fenway because the Red Sox won a coin flip.

Guidry told Yankees Manager Bob Lemon after they lost the last day that he wanted the ball against the Red Sox even though he would be going on short rest.

The next day, Steinbrenner was on the hunt for Guidry before the biggest game of the season.

Guidry writes, “‘WHERE’S GATOR!?’

“George Steinbrenner’s voice boomed through the clubhouse like a drill sergeant’s at a marine corps boot camp. George always wanted to let you know how he felt. Sometimes he wanted to cuss at you. He liked it if you cussed back at him. He wanted to motivate you. To him, the cussing and the motivatiing were one and the same. It happened to so many guys, so many days. Especially this season. But this wasn’t any other day during the 1978 New York Yankees season. This was hours before the biggest game of the year. One of the biggest games in Yankees history. Arguably one of the biggest games in baseball history. George being George, the loudmouthed, pushy, in-your-face owner of the Yankees, he wanted to have words with his starting pitcher before the game. That starting pitcher was me. And I wanted none of it…

“‘WHERE’S GATOR!?’

“My teammates didn’t know where I was. Neither did our manager, Bob Lemon. Only one person in the clubhouse, our trainer, Gene Monahan, knew where I was hiding out. I had snuck into the training room to take a nap. I lay down beneath the training table, and Geno threw a couple of sheets over it so nobody could see me. People popped in and out of the clubhouse asking Geno if he had seen me. Geno shrugged and said he hadn’t. When George got around to asking him, Geno said I might be collecting my thoughts out on the field. So off George went, furiously stomping around the dewy Fenway grass in search of his starting pitcher. Meanwhile, I was sound asleep.”

The Yankees went on to win the game because of Bucky Dent’s famous home run and defensive heroics from Lou Piniella late.

They followed that up by beating the Royals for the third straight season in the American League Championship series, and the Dodgers for the second straight year in the World Series, and coming back from 2-0 down to win four straight.

The Yankees were hit with tragedy the following season when Thurman Munson died in a plane crash on August 2, 1979. Guidry gives a heartfelt account of how that rattled the Yankees and why his loss was more than just losing a ballplayer.

After being mentored by all-time greats like Munson and Sparky Lyle, Guidry had the opportunity to captain the Yankees and become a mentor himself to young Yankees such as Dave Righetti and Al Leiter and how a young Don Mattingly became a Yankee great.

Guidry also goes into his well-known friendship with Yankees legend Yogi Berra.

When Guidry played for the Yankees, Berra was a coach. Berra was away from the Yankees from 1985 to 1999 due to a feud with Steinbrenner, and when Berra returned, it was Guidry who drove Berra around spring training when they were guest instructors.

Guidry tells new stories about Berra, including a look into his final days and why Berra told him staying connected to the Yankees is so important.

After he retired, Guidry started to go to spring training as an instructor, and that gave him the chance to see one young pitcher that formed the upcoming dynasty up close.

Guidry writes, “During spring training of ’93, one of our coaches, Mark Connor, came up to me and said he’d like me to take a look at one of the team’s young pitchers. Every February since I had retired, I had made the eleven-or-so-hour drive from Lafayette to Florida to participate in spring training. George’s offer to serve as a guest instructor was a generous one. I enjoyed being around the game, putting on the Yankees uniform, and getting to watch the young players. The team, I think, benefited too from having somebody around who’d had a lot of success in the major leagues, as the players got ready for the season.

“I headed to one of the back fields that day to watch this young pitcher throw. He was just coming off surgery, so I didn’t know what to expect. But I was curious because Mark told me the pitcher reminded him of someone, except he didn’t tell me who. So I settled in to watch him throw. Zip. Swoosh. Despite recovering from surgery and being a skinny guy, the pitcher, Mariano Rivera, had incredible speed and movement on his ball.

“‘Who does he remind you of?’ Mark asked after I had seen the kid throw his bullpen session.

“‘Well, if he was left-handed, he’d be me.’

“‘Yeah, that’s what everybody said.’

I walked over to George with a message. The Yankees had left Mo unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft and were lucky that no team had claimed him. After seeing him pitch, I couldn’t let them make the same mistake. ‘If you ever trade that kid right there,’ I said to George, pointing to Mo, ‘you’ll never win any more championships.’

Guidry was right, as the Yankees won five World Championships with Rivera, in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009.

As the years went on, Guidry became interested in becoming Yankees pitching coach, and he finally saw it become reality when they were looking for a new one after the 2005 season.

There was one big reason he took the job at that time, as he writes, “I’m not sure I would have done it if it weren’t working for Joe Torre. Joe was an outstanding manager and an absolute pleasure to work for. We didn’t win the World Series the two years I coached, 2006 and 2007, but we had some fun in the dugout. Don Mattingly, Lee Mazzilli, and I knew the balance between taking the game seriously and having fun. That’s the thing about former players. We could be fiery as hell, but we never treated the game like a business, as is so often the case today. The clubhouse, the dugout, it shouldn’t be stoic and 100 percent serious. And if you saw Joe Torre’s face on television, you would see he was quite a serious man. But we also made him laugh a lot.

“During one game Joe made me go out to talk to Randy Johnson in the first inning. Now, Randy is one of the greatest pitchers to ever step onto a baseball field. He won 303 games and five Cy Young Awards and struck out 4,875 batters with a 3.29 career ERA. ‘The Big Unit,’ as he was known, threw hard as hell, and he was six foot ten. But RJ was hard to talk to. He didn’t want much advice on his pitching and more generally wasn’t perfectly cut out to handle the twenty-four-hour, in-your-face pressure of New York. Before playing a game for us, he got into some heat when he shoved a cameraman on the street.

“During that game, I went out to talk to RJ in the first inning. The second inning didn’t go much better, so Joe sent me out there to talk to him again. It wasn’t fun, because I didn’t have much to say to Randy, who was never in the mood to listen too much. So later in the game when Joe asked me to go out there a third time, I just exploded. ‘I don’t want to go out there and talk to that guy. If you want to, then just go do it.’

“So Joe went out and did just that. He chatted with RJ on the mound, and when he came back he had this glazed, faraway look in his eyes. He turned to me and Mattingly on the bench and said, ‘He just doesn’t get it, does he?’ Joe always said he would’ve loved to have me pitch for him. I told him there was no way in hell I could’ve pitched for him.

“‘Why’s that?’

“‘You come out to the mound too damn often.’

“‘But if it had been you out there,’ Joe replied, ‘I wouldn’t have to.’

“Even in the heat of battle, we could laugh at the little things. As I said before, catchers often make the best managers, and Joe was another example of that. He’d won four World Series and two more pennants with the Yankees.

“What made Joe so great was his ability to keep the peace. He was the perfect manager at the perfect time. He had the innate ability to be calm when things got out of hand. It made him the opposite of Billy in many respects. Joe could balance everything, from the front office to the players to the day-to-day turmoil the team faces in the tabloids whenever the Yankees lose a game. He could compartmentalize extremely well.

“He was also able to keep George in check better than any other manager I knew.”

Gator is a must-read for any Yankee fan, as Guidry captures what the last 40 years of this illustrious team’s history, of which he was a big part of most of it, in such a captivating, charming way.

 

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