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FIRST PERSON RIP, Billy Martin

April means baseball and a toast to the little skipper, that SOB.
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THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT THE opening day of baseball season that arouses the poet in the souls of people hopelessly addicted to the sport.

The sound of the seasoned ash making contact with the old horsehide. Those ballpark nachos. If served at TDC, the prisoners might riot, and justifiably so, but fourteen rows behind the third base dugout, that stuff tastes like a little bit of heaven.

Opening day, when strike talk is over and all’s right with the world, signals the arrival of spring and the renewal of faith in mankind and God’s universe. Play ball!

Call me sentimental, or a little bit corny…but, well, when they throw out the ceremonial first pitch, I can’t help but remember Billy Martin, who was killed in a one-truck accident last Christmas Day in upstate New York. The scene is last call at a hotel lounge, Anywhere USA, and Billy, with eyes gleaming like reflectors on the mud flaps of a gravel truck, is saying, “Let’s see how (…) smart that (…) bartender is after I punch his (…) lights out.”

When (and if) they open the season at Arlington Stadium this year, I’ll be thinking of Billy, spring-loaded and all set to John Wayne some unfortunate turkey who happened to be in his proximity when the feisty little skipper’s blood alcohol level reached the magical .17 or whatever it was when his midnight rage would kick in.

That was pretty much a nightly occurrence in Billy Martin’s life, at least when he managed the Texas Rangers in the summers of 1974 and 1975.I know because I was a sportswriter for a Fort Worth newspaper and I was forced to travel with the team.

Because of my relationship with the immortal Number One, 1 found myself, along with two other fellow travelers, written up in the Washington Journalism Review as a disgrace to my profession. Sixteen years later, now that Billy is safely dead, I respond to that accusation.

First, you have to understand the deal about the hotel bar. Most major league teams have a rule that the players (and management) cannot frequent the drinking establishments wherever the team happens to be staying on the road. Fans and groupies and whatnot are always hanging around and teams think it’s bad PR to let players be exposed to an adoring public while getting plastered.

Billy, on the other hand, almost always would be found in a lobby-area saloon because he liked to be recognized. Let’s get drunk and be somebody. Billy could be quite the convivial party boy until the firewater would awaken the hostile spirit lurking inside.

Sportswriters also haunt the hotel bar, for purposes of expense account manipulation. Therefore, I was an eyewitness, and occasional innocent bystander, to some of Billy’s command performances in such venues as the Executive House in Chicago, the Lord Baltimore, and whatever they called that dump where they made us stay in Minneapolis. I saw Billy pat Justice Thurgood Marshall’s wife on the butt in there one night.

Despite all of his nocturnal barroom eruptions in the summer of 74, Billy Martin was turning in the managerial performance of his, or perhaps anyone else’s, career. Forget those pennants with the Yankees.

Martin took over a Rangers team that had lost ninety-six more games than it had won the two previous seasons and brought it right to the edge of a championship.

And he somehow accomplished this with a team that had one outstanding starting pitcher (Ferguson Jenkins, 25-12), no bullpen, no bench, and the worst defensive out field in organized ball.

Anyway, the Rangers won five out of six against the Oakland A’s in mid-September to close within four games of first place. But nature would take its course on the final night of the home season: the Rangers lost a doubleheader to the White Sox and the miracle quest was over.

That same night, as I was getting on the team charter to Kansas City for the last weekend series of the season, Billy Martin grabbed my sleeve and made some unusual remarks. He was blitzed, which I thought was curious since the game had been over for little more than an hour.

Sometime during that flight, one of the pitchers, Steve Hargan, wandered back from first class, approached me, and said, “You ain’t gonna believe what just happened. Billy smacked Burt Hawkins.”

Hawkins was what they call the traveling secretary, the person in charge of all logistical details for a major league baseball team on the road. There can be few more demanding jobs in the free world, and Burt Hawkins was a fellow who did it in a way that earned the unmitigated admiration of everyone associated with the team.

And now Billy, driven by the bad chemicals, had punctuated a long season by slugging a sixty-year-old gentleman with a heart condition after instigating an absurd argument.

When the plane arrived in Kansas City, Martin jumped into a car and disappeared with a, ahem, friend.

The rest of the entourage climbed onto a hotel-bound bus. Burt Hawkins stood before the team and said, “If that little SOB doesn’t apologize to me, right away, I’m going to quit this job.”

At eight o’clock the next morning, Hawkins asked me to come to his suite at the old Muehlbach Hotel in downtown Kansas City, along with Randy Galloway, who was covering the team for The Dallas Morning News, and James Walker, who had the same job for the Times Herald.

Martin had indeed apologized, Hawkins said. The fact was that Dr. Bobby Brown, who is now the president of the American League and was then president of the Rangers, had forced Martin to apologize. Hawkins asked if the three of us might leave the whole business out of our newspapers. He regarded the matter as an indignity, and we all sympathized with Hurt’s feelings.

Hawkins added that I might have a problem. Amon Carter Jr., who owned the newspaper that employed me, was also a minority owner of the baseball team and was aware of the airplane incident of the night before.

So Walker, now a political columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Galloway gallantly agreed that the decision to go, or not to go, with the story should fall onto my shoulders. 1 called my editor, Bob Lindley, and explained the situation. “Do what you want. I don’t care,” Lindley said.

That sort of attitude is hard to find in the news business these days, and is sorely missed. Two hours later, I approached Galloway and Walker in the press box at Royals Stadium and delivered my decision.

“Let’s blow it off,” I said.

Boy, would 1 like to say that the story ended there.

Unfortunately for the three of us, after the season ended three days later, Walker spilled the beans to his editor, Blackie Sherrod, who, in turn, hit the ceiling and ran the story, one week after the fact.

The scorn throughout the Eastern Bloc of the Baseball Writers Association of America, not to mention the Washington Journalism Review, was pretty profound. Everyone thought we did it to protect Billy.

“If I had it to do over again, I’d do the same thing,” Galloway said the other day. I feel the same way. As for Walker, well, he claims he’d just as soon forget it.

Maybe he can, but I can’t. So on opening day, 1990, I’ll once again be thinking of Billy Martin, now up there in that great hotel bar in the sky, sweet-talking the waitress and getting primed to incite a rumble.

So here’s to you, Billy. I guess. And thanks for the memories.