By: Filip Bondy
(Bridgewater, N.J., April 16, 2017) — A lengthy line slowly moved forward. Sparky Lyle, ever patient, autographed yet another photo.
Lyle was at Fan Fest, a baseball season kickoff for the minor league Somerset Patriots, and the man with the photo told Lyle a familiar story: He had collected more than 400 signatures on a petition urging the Yankees to finally honor their former star reliever and to do it on the 40th anniversary of the 1977 championship and Lyle’s remarkable Cy Young season.
Lyle, 72, was polite and thanked the man, but he later explained that he wanted no part of such a celebration, or a plaque. He doesn’t belong in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, Lyle insisted, and he doesn’t believe a lot of other recent honorees do, either.
“The way I feel about the Yankees, I don’t think you need to be in Monument Park unless you’ve played your whole freaking career there and done something special like the original guys that are out there,” Lyle said. “You look at some of the newer guys. Come on! They’re putting them out there so they can have a 70,000-seat day and make some money.
“I’m happy right where I am,” Lyle said, “because that standard applies to me also.”
So says Lyle, who was the glue of that title team four decades ago and who rescued the Yankees during an extraordinary playoff outing against the Kansas City Royals. The whole year, from the start, was a payback mission after a four-game extinction in the 1976 World Series.
“Cincinnati went through us so quickly we didn’t even know what happened,” Lyle said. “But then with the acquisitions over the winter, there was a calm over everybody next spring training. We’re looking around, thinking, ‘Boy, this looks pretty good.’”
Lyle, earning $142,000 that season on a new contract from George Steinbrenner, appeared in an impressive 72 games and went 13-5 with a 2.17 earned run average and 26 saves while winning the Cy Young trophy. The left-handed reliever did this by relying almost exclusively on a single pitch: a well-located, 88-mile-per-hour slider. When Billy Martin ordered catcher Thurman Munson to signal a fastball to Lyle on one memorable occasion, the pitcher stepped off the rubber and told off his manager in colorful fashion.
As it turned out, the Reds never made it to the Series in 1977, and the Yankees had to settle for beating the Dodgers in six games. To get that far, however, they needed to survive the dangerous Royals in the American League Championship Series. The Yankees were down two games to one in the best-of-five series, clinging to a one-run lead with two outs in the fourth inning of Game 4. Martin reluctantly signaled for Lyle, who went on to pitch five and one-third innings of scoreless, two-hit relief — after going two and one-third innings a day earlier.
“Billy had called out to the bullpen and wondered how I was throwing,” Lyle said. “One of the coaches told him, ‘He couldn’t get his grandmother out.’ I told Billy I felt fine. He said, ‘They said you couldn’t get your grandmother out.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not facing her.’”
Lyle never had much love for Martin, and now points to the manager as an example of someone who should not be represented in Monument Park. The pitcher felt Martin lied to his players too often. When Lyle became a manager himself, winning five championships from 2001 to 2009 with the Patriots of the independent Atlantic League, he vowed to be more direct.
He also had some problems with Steinbrenner, though a détente was eventually reached. It hurt when Steinbrenner signed the free agent Goose Gossage soon after the 1977 season, relegating Lyle to the role of setup man.
“I was driving cross-country and heard the news on the radio,” Lyle said. “There was some giant storm chasing me, so it wasn’t like I could pull off. When you have two relievers who are used to being in 70-plus games every year, one of them’s not going to get innings.”
Lyle endured his second-banana season in 1978, which ended in another World Series championship, then was traded away in a big deal with the Texas Rangers that brought Dave Righetti to New York. “Cy Young to Sayonara” was the way teammate Graig Nettles described Lyle’s departure. Then Lyle’s book, “The Bronx Zoo,” written with Peter Golenbock, came out the next spring, and Steinbrenner freaked out in full, Boss-like style.
Lyle told Steinbrenner to read the book, that it really included no clubhouse tales told out of school. Eventually the two men hugged it out. Lyle attended 15 straight Old-Timers’ Day games, then only one in the last 17 years — mainly because he was busy with the Patriots as manager and now as manager emeritus. Lyle commutes from his home in Voorhees, N.J., to act as a greeter and a host at the team’s home games in Bridgewater.
The Yankees have invited him to Old-Timers’ Day on June 25, though a club official said there was no specific ceremony yet scheduled to honor Lyle or the 40th anniversary of the team that broke a 15-year title drought and brought Steinbrenner his first championship.
Lyle said he would probably participate in this year’s gathering, that it would be fun to see some of the players again from that team. He keeps in touch with Nettles, Willie Randolph and Ron Guidry. The others, not so much.
If the Yankees did something special for Lyle, it might appease the fans who have long lobbied on his behalf, even asking that his No. 28 jersey be retired. Lenny Kosberg, a tax specialist and Somerset Patriots fan from Edison, N.J., has begun the Twitter campaign #HonorSparkyLyle.
“People say if you retire No. 28, then what about Nettles, Piniella,” Kosberg said. “It’s not about that. It’s about that his great season is now 40 years old.”
Lyle’s credentials certainly would seem to line up favorably with several others who have been awarded plaques in Monument Park. He is good friends with Gossage, and will say nothing negative about him. But Gossage, a Hall of Fame member, was given a special day after playing seven years with the Yankees and posting numbers similar to Lyle’s.
Gossage had 42 career victories with the Yankees, 151 saves, a 2.14 ERA and one title. Lyle earned 57 wins and 141 saves for the Yankees, with a 2.41 earned run average, in a seven-season span that included two championships.
Tino Martinez, another plaque recipient, batted a relatively modest .276 during seven years in the Bronx. There are others, too, if Lyle wanted to go there. He doesn’t.
“I get letters, ‘If so and so has a plaque, you sure as hell should have one,’” Lyle said. “But that’s not what it’s all about. Now if you say, ‘Joe DiMaggio has a plaque out there, you should have one, too,’ how does that sound? Then it doesn’t sound so good.’’
Lyle laughed. His thick white mustache danced, like his slider once did.