Amid managerial storms, Yankees' Merrill still calm

May 29, 1991|By Frank Dolson | Frank Dolson,Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK -- The out-of-town writer introduced himself to New York Yankees manager Stump Merrill.

"Coach," he said, "I'm from out in Denver."

Merrill, a friendly man, chatted amiably for a few minutes, answering questions about the sudden resurgence of his ball club.

"Well, good luck, coach," the visitor said when the interview was over.

Arthur Richman, the Yankees' senior vice president, waited until the man had left. "I love these people from out West who call the manager 'coach,' " he said. "They think it's football."

"Hey," replied Merrill, "as long as I'm sitting here they can call me anything they want."

That's the great irony of this season of hasty managerial firings: Here it is late May, and Stump Merrill is still occupying the manager's office in Yankee Stadium.

Over the last 15 years, managers have come and gone so fast around here that they should have fitted this office with a revolving door. The Yankees, under George Steinbrenner, raised managerial firings to an art form.

But Steinbrenner no longer is permitted to hire and fire managers. He stayed in power just long enough to fire Bucky Dent and promote Stump Merrill a year ago. He didn't stay in power long enough to do what he surely would have done by now -- add Merrill to a list of victims that included the late Billy Martin (five times), Bob Lemon, Gene Michael and Lou Piniella (two times apiece), Dick Howser, Clyde King, Yogi Berra, Dallas Green and Bucky Dent.

Last week, three big-league managers -- the Orioles' Frank Robinson, the Cubs' Don Zimmer and the Royals' John Wathan -- got the ax. The Yankees were 13 and 23, yet there were no headlines in the New York tabloids warning of Merrill's imminent ouster.

Michael is making the baseball decisions now, not Steinbrenner. The difference is night and day.

"We know we're building and we've got to be patient," Merrill said after Monday's come-from-behind, 6-5 win over the Boston Red Sox. "We're going to suffer some growing pains. We've gone through some already, and we're probably going to suffer some more before it's over, but I think we're pointed in the right direction."

The Yankees lost 95 games last year, the most any Yankees team has lost since 1912. This year's club has been under .500 since blowing a four-run lead to the Detroit Tigers in the third game of the season.

There have been major pitching problems to overcome, not to mention a streak of 32 consecutive scoreless innings at home by the offense. The search for a third baseman became so desperate that Steve Sax, the All-Star second baseman, played there for five adventurous games, finally to be replaced by rookie RTC Pat Kelly, also a second baseman by trade.

And through it all, Stump Merrill is still here. And the team is actually showing signs of turning things around.

"They always blame the manager," Michael said by way of explaining why he didn't join all those other clubs in lowering the boom last week. "The players always point fingers. It isn't the manager's fault half the time. It's just an easy out for a ballclub. It would be an easy out for me. I didn't pick him [Merrill]. It would be easy for me to fire the manager, but that isn't the way to do it. The way to do it is to have some because I got fired.

Michael learned the hard way what it is to be a big-league manager in this age of often irrational demands by the front office, the media and the public. That isn't to say he has agreed with every move Merrill has made.

"He's done some things that I wouldn't do," the general manager said. "I wouldn't bunt with two strikes on Barfield."

He was referring to Sunday's game in Baltimore. Jesse Barfield was asked to sacrifice in the 11th. Three times he tried. Three times he failed. But the Yankees won anyway, on an RBI double by Kelly.

Michael watched Monday as the Yankees, trailing, 5-3, put runners on first and second with nobody out in the ninth against Boston relief ace Jeff Reardon.

"I was hoping to death that he wouldn't bunt with [Mel] Hall," Michael said.

This time, Merrill didn't, and Hall hit the game-winning homer. It was a satisfying victory, but the Yankees' road back to respectability remains a long, hard one.

"I think we're better than we were last year," Michael said. "But we don't know how good we are."

At least this general manager is willing to let the manager stick around long enough to find out patience.

Can you believe, in this day and age, a general manager talking like that? And a Yankees general manager, at that?

"If there's a big slide," Michael said, "it's so easy to replace the manager, and maybe you stop the slide. It's an escape hatch, because when a team gets into a slide the players just wait for the manager to get fired."

He might have been talking about the season-opening situation 90 miles to the south, where so many Philadelphia Phillies waited for Nick Leyva to be removed. After just 13 games, he was.

"I don't like to see managers get fired," Michael said. "Maybe that's because I got fired."

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