One of the most spirited pennant-race comebacks

Jul 16, 2013 3:00 AM

With the major league All-Star game returning to New York this week, it seems appropriate to take a look back at one of the most spirited pennant-race comebacks in history. We catch up with a zany reliever who left his imprint on the game in myriad ways.

Al “Sparky” Lyle, a left-hander who was a Yankee standout at the time, had a career that spanned 15 seasons (1967-1982) and was a throwback in almost every sense. He’s a guy who used to leave his calling card on birthday cakes with a depression mark made by his keister.

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Lyle won the AL Cy Young award in 1977 and was the co-author of the immensely popular “The Bronx Zoo,” which chronicled the team’s tumultuous 1978 title season that included brush-ups between skipper Billy Martin and slugger Reggie Jackson.

And then came Lyle’s even crazier post-retirement days.

“That book sold very well – I think it was 30-something weeks at No. 2,” the gregarious Lyle said last week from the press box of the Somerset (N.J.) Patriots, an independent minor league team he managed from 1998-2012. “The Scarsdale Diet’s the only book that outsold the doggone thing.”

Lyle made pitching simple. Really simple. He would have been out of place in today’s era of sabermetrics and esoteric stats. He said he never even paid attention to who was at the plate.

“Some of the writers would ask me after a game, ‘What did you throw to so-and-so? he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. When did I face that guy?’

“What strategy was I going to have? I had only one pitch, an 86- to 87-mile-and-hour slider,” Lyle continued. “I never moved it. I threw it down and in to right-handers and down and away to left-handers.”

Anyway, setting the scene of 35 summers ago, the powerhouse Yankees were coming off a world title over the Dodgers after being swept a year earlier by the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati. But somehow, the arch-enemy Boston Red Sox had built a 14-game lead in the AL East by July 19.

“We felt like the Red Sox played the best that they possibly could,” Lyle said of that race for the division flag. “We did not. It was up to us, after the All-Star break, to play the best we can and see what happens.”

New York had whittled the lead to four games before facing the Red Sox in a four-game series at Fenway Park on Sept. 7-10. The best thing that could be said of Boston’s performance, was its margin of defeat grew progressively smaller each game – 15-3 to 13-2 to 7-0 to 7-4.

“I don’t think anybody, including us, thought we’d win all four games,” he said. “If we would have come out of there 3-1 we would have been very happy.”

Eventually, New York took a 3½-game lead before Boston rallied to catch them on the last day of the season to force a one-game playoff at Fenway. History shows Bucky Dent hit his famous homer over the Green Monster to lead the Yankees to a 5-4 victory.

New York went on to vanquish Kansas City in the ALCS and then beat the Dodgers again in the Series, delivering Lyle his second ring.

Lyle went on to pitch for the Rangers, Phillies and White Sox before hanging up his glove in 1982. He remembers vividly how the writing on the wall seemed to glow like neon late in the year.

“I knew it was time for me to go when I threw a slider and some kid 21 years old at White Sox Park hit it out of the stadium foul. I had put that thing right where I wanted it,” Lyle said.

Lyle told his manager that night he was going to retire after the season. Still, he remained in the public eye, being a key component in the entertaining “Tastes Great, Less Filling” Miller Lite commercials for about five years. And then he got another job offer.

“I got a call one day from the Claridge Casino (in Atlantic City, N.J.),” he said. “That’s where (Mickey) Mantle worked as a casino host, I guess you would call it. He would go out and play golf with the high rollers, go to the parties, whatever.

“They hired me to make sure that I hung out with Mickey every night to make sure he got back to his room. I said, ‘I can do this if my liver can hold out.’”

That lasted another five or so years.

Then came a 15-year stint as manager of the Patriots, a job he stumbled upon while shopping for a truck at a dealership owned by Steven Kalafer, who also owned the Somerset ballclub.

“When I went to pick up my truck, I not only signed the papers for that, but he said, ‘How would you like to manage my baseball club I just bought?’ We ironed out the specifics and that’s how I got this job.”

More than 1,000 victories and five league titles later, Sparky is in his first year of “retirement” as manager emeritus. At age 69, he said he’s ready for some real rest.

“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting Professional Sports games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].

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