Memories of Paul Blair’s brief time as a Yankee

27 12 2013

Paul Blair, photo linked from Bronx Baseball Daily

Paul Blair, best known as a Baltimore Oriole and the best defensive center fielder of his day, died yesterday.

But he was a valuable reserve on the Yankees’ 1977-78 championship teams. And he was a bit player in a famous near-fight. And he was the answer in my most memorable press-conference question.

The most-famous confrontation of the volatile relationship between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson was a near-fight in the dugout in 1977, when aging-but-still-powerful Yogi Berra and Elston Howard restrained the manager and superstar, who were ready to fight.

I watched that one on TV. It was in Fenway Park and Jackson (never a good outfielder) had loafed in pursuit of a fly ball that fell in safely. Martin furiously sent Blair, an eight-time Gold Glove winner, in to play right field. He sent him in immediately, not between innings. So the Fenway and TV audiences got to see Jackson’s stunned reaction and his long run in from right field to the visitors’ dugout. And then the near-fight.

Actually, Blair was a frequent defensive replacement late in games for Jackson that year, playing 34 games in right field and starting only five. It’s just that in the other 28 games, Martin sent him in between innings, which wasn’t humiliating for Jackson.

Blair also played 42 games in center (starting 33) and six games in left field that year. He was their fifth outfielder, but a valuable one. Lou Piniella and Roy White shared left field. Mickey Rivers started in center and Reggie was in right. Blair was a mediocre hitter than year, batting .262 with only four homers. But he was reliable in the field, making 125 putouts and four assists, with just one error.

What I remember even better than the near-fight is Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The Yankees needed a win to push the series to a deciding fifth game. I was managing editor of the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, and the sports editor, Mike Williams, and I had jumped at the chance when the Kansas City Royals sent us instructions on how to order credentials to cover the playoffs. We didn’t cover the Royals regularly, but they were the closest team and their games ran on the local radio station, KMA. So we went down to KC for the playoffs.

Jackson started and went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and two ground balls to second. He didn’t hustle down the line on the second ground ball, the second out of the seventh inning. I thought Martin looked angry, but nothing happened in the dugout and, let’s face it, Martin always looked angry. But Blair came out to right field in the bottom of the inning, early for a defensive replacement, but Martin was trying to protect a 5-4 lead.

Blair got an at-bat that normally would have been Jackson’s, singling to center. He caught a fly ball from Fred Patek in the ninth (I don’t remember how difficult it was).

Our credentials didn’t give us access to the locker rooms but did let us into the post-game press conferences. In the press conference, I asked Martin why he took Jackson out of the game. He snapped, “To put Paul Blair in. Next question.”

That wasn’t the most memorable part of the game. What was most memorable was how Martin used Sparky Lyle, his bullpen closer, who won the Cy Young Award that year. Though the Yankees scored five early runs, starter Ed Figueroa was ineffective and Martin replaced him with Dick Tidrow in the bottom of the fourth inning, leading 5-3 with Patek on second after an RBI double. Tidrow gave up a double and a walk and got one out.

The Yankees’ lead, once 4-0, was down to 5-4, with two outs in the fourth inning. And Martin brought in his closer. Can you imagine Joe Torre ever going to Mariano Rivera in the fourth inning? Or any manager today going to his closer that early?

And the amazing thing was that Lyle closed out the game. He pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up two hits, no walks and no runs.

And Lyle was back out the next night for Game 5, replacing Mike Torrez with two outs in the eighth inning and the Yankees trailing 3-2. After the Yankees got three runs in the top of the ninth, Lyle got the win with a scoreless ninth. (By the way, Jackson played that whole game as DH, with Blair playing right field and going 1-f0r-4.)

Lyle also got the win in relief in Game 1 of the World Series, so he won three straight post-season games. He actually blew the save in the ninth inning of that game, but pitched 3 2/3 innings to get the win.

But this is a post about Paul Blair, so I need to bring it back to him. You know who won that game? Paul Blair drove in Willie Randolph in the bottom of the 12th with a walk-off single to center.

He wasn’t a Yankee for long, but he was a terrific role player with a lot of class. RIP.

Stats and details of the game come from Baseball Reference.

Joe Torre should have made the Hall of Fame as a player

15 12 2013

Catching up on off-season Yankee news:

Joe Torre is a Hall of Famer — finally

I actually intended to write a post sometime this year making the case for Joe Torre‘s election to the Hall of Fame. But the Expansion Era Committee chose Torre to enter the Hall of Fame this year, along with his managing peers Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox.

All three managers are clear Hall of Famers, ranking third (LaRussa), fourth (Cox) and fifth (Torre) on the all-time wins list for managers.

Torre was a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame as a player and probably should have been chosen on that basis, regardless of his performance as a manager. He and Elston Howard were the best catchers of the 1960s and most people who were best of their era at a position are in Cooperstown. He was a nine-time All-Star and most eligible players who’ve made that many All-Star teams are in the Hall. He also was MVP in 1971 (after moving to third base), leading the league in batting, RBI and hits.

No Hall of Fame catcher topped Torre’s career figures in all of the triple-crown categories (.297, 252 HR, 1185 RBI) as well as his 2,342 hits, and each of those figures ranks in the top half of all Hall of Fame catchers. Among third basemen, only George Brett topped Torre in all four categories, and his totals again measure up as a Hall of Famer compared to the third basemen in Cooperstown. And he won a Gold Glove as a catcher, so he wasn’t being kept out of Cooperstown because of defensive deficiencies (though he wasn’t good defensively at third). Read the rest of this entry »