NEW YORK -- Graig Nettles has perhaps the quintessential line about what it was like to play for George Steinbrenner during the 1970s.
"When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a baseball player and join the circus," he said in 1978. "With the Yankees I have accomplished both."
Nettles chuckled on Saturday when asked to recall that famous quotation. He had uttered it after another Old-Timers' Day: The day Steinbrenner announced that the recently-fired Billy Martin would be back as manager in 1980 to replace the newly-installed Bob Lemon despite a raging feud with Reggie Jackson. "It was such a circus atmosphere. George had just fired Billy about five days earlier," Nettles said on Saturday. "It seemed like an appropriate thing to say at the time, although he didn't like it." The players of this era just don't know what it was like back then. They won five World Series championships since 1996 playing for a man they still refer to as Mr. Steinbrenner. He was the quiet Boss, who had mellowed in old age. The Yankees, who won in 1977 and '78, did so in chaos. They were a battling, gritty group that played in the middle of a three-ring circus, with George, Billy and Reggie all vying for attention. The players called him George, or sometimes something worse. Rich "Goose" Gossage once referred to the owner as "the fat man," during a vintage tirade. "At the beginning, to build what he obviously built here, took a little more force to get it done," said Chris Chambliss, whose memorable home run defeated the Royals in Game 5 of the 1976 American League Championship Series, giving the Yankees their first pennant in 12 years. "Did he mellow later on? I would say, probably. But he did what he had to do to build a winner. "We tried to play in spite of it. Those problems were always there. We knew that some people didn't get along, but we did what we had to to get it done on the field." Steinbrenner and his group of investors bought the team from CBS in 1973 for $8.6 million and found the franchise in disarray. Jackson was one of his prized early acquisitions, coming in the dawn of free agency and just after the Yankees were swept by the Big Red Machine in the 1976 World Series. From '73-95, he went through 13 of his 15 managers, firing Martin and re-hiring him five times. Martin once punched out a marshmallow salesman. Steinbrenner was famous for confronting a few loud-mouthed Dodger fans in a Los Angeles hotel elevator. On the occasion of the 64th edition of Old-Timers' Day on Saturday, only Jackson remains. Steinbrenner passed away at 80 on Tuesday and Martin was killed in a 1989 automobile accident. He was 61 at the time. Jackson came to New York with all the flourish of a new-age superstar. He was "the straw that stirs the drink," as he said in a then widely touted SPORT Magazine piece. Jackson also mused that if he signed with the Yankees, "they'd name a candy bar after me." When the short-lived Reggie Bar debuted it led to another famous Nettles quip: "The Reggie Bar. You take a bite out of it and it tells you how good it is." Jackson, though, had an immediate impact. Despite all the battles, his three-homer performance on successive pitches in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series to defeat the Dodgers at the old Yankee Stadium is still one for the ages. He hit five homers in that six-game series. When he homered again in the eighth inning of the famous Bucky Dent one-game playoff against the Red Sox in 1978 at Fenway Park, Jackson rounded the bases and before leaving the field, high-fived the Boss, who was seated behind the third-base side visitors' dugout. Jackson gets little credit for his part in winning that game. Dent, who homered in the seventh over the Green Monster to give the Yanks a 3-2 lead, does. But Jackson's homer extended the margin to 5-2, and was actually the game-winner when Gossage nearly gave it all away in the 5-4 victory. "I was able to perform in big moments because they were there so often," Jackson said in hindsight on Saturday. "The ballclub was put together so well. We knew how to win. That was extremely important to my image here and what it became to be in baseball. It was certainly because of the city, and in large part, to the players George put around me." The Yankees of '78 may not have been the best of the Steinbrenner era, but they certainly were the gutsiest. Everything was tough. They came from behind to catch Boston after trailing by as many as 14 games on July 19. They trailed the Red Sox, 2-0, in the playoff game and were down 2-0 to the Dodgers before winning the final four games to snag the World Series. Even after catching and passing the Red Sox, the Yankees remained in first place by a game until the final day of the season. The Yanks lost their finale at the Stadium to the Indians and the Red Sox defeated the Blue Jays at Fenway. After 162 games, the teams were tied at 99-63 with Game No. 163 on Oct. 2. Dent said the Boss was upset by the turn of events. "I didn't see him in the morning, but I saw him the night before," he said. "I went into the elevator at the hotel, the doors opened, he walked in and I went, 'Oh, boy, this is going to be a cold ride down.' He muttered something like, 'Tomorrow's going to be your day.' He was right." The Yanks won that day when Nettles caught a foul pop off the bat of Carl Yastrzemski with runners on the corners. But despite Steinbrenner's constant exhortations and manipulations, they didn't win the World Series again until 18 years later. By then, the core of this era's team was in place and even the Boss didn't tamper with that. Joe Torre managed for 12 consecutive playoff-bound seasons followed by Joe Girardi, now in his third year at the helm. What changed? "It seems like there's been more winning, there's been more championships. I think that's part of it," " Girardi said. "But that's a question you're probably going to have to get answered from above, because I really can't tell you."