In part two of our season-long Q&A series, Willie Randolph recalls the wild ride to World Series victory
By Alfred Santasiere III
Yankees Magazine |
When the Yankees orchestrated the December 1975 trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates that brought Willie Randolph to New York, the organization cemented its future at second base for more than a decade.
In 1976, Randolph earned his first of six All-Star selections and played a key role in the team's return to the Fall Classic. Then, in 1977, the 22-year-old Brooklynite set the table for the likes of Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and Chris Chambliss. Randolph's propensity to get on base, coupled with his solid glove at the keystone corner, earned him a second consecutive All-Star selection and helped the Yankees return to the postseason.
That October, Randolph collected five hits in the Yankees' come-from-behind victory in the American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals. In the Fall Classic, he hit a Game 1 home run along with a double.
Earlier this year, Randolph sat down with Yankees Magazine to discuss the team's 1977 World Series championship.
What was the mood going into Spring Training in 1977?
Well, I remember vividly that you could just feel how focused we were as a team. We were on a mission to redeem ourselves because we felt like the Big Red Machine embarrassed us in the 1976 World Series. We had a great playoff run against Kansas City in '76, but we got to Cincinnati the day after [the American League Championship] Series ended, and we were spent.
I remember how intimidated we were before the first game in Cincinnati when Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan walked out onto the field. It was a cold day, and I couldn't feel my hands when I got my first ground ball of the game. The Reds won that game, and they steamrolled us from there. Even though we were proud of our accomplishments that season, we felt like we didn't represent New York or the Yankees like we were supposed to in the World Series. When we got to Spring Training in '77, I could feel that the mood of the team was like, "Hey guys, it's time to redeem ourselves." We had a tight focus, and we got to work right away.
How demanding was [Manager] Billy Martin that spring?
He was just as determined as we were. He worked our butts off.
What were your initial thoughts when the Yankees acquired Reggie Jackson that winter?
I knew him from playing against him when he was with the Orioles. I wouldn't say he was an idol of mine, but I remember admiring him in his days with those great Oakland A's teams. We had some serious battles against the Orioles in '76, and we almost got into a few fights with those cats.
Were you and Reggie in the middle of any of those altercations?
Yes. In one game, he was trying to intimidate me. He was on first base with a man on second. He got a nice little lead, and it was a double-play situation. He yelled out, "All right rookie, watch out. I slide hard. I'm coming to get you."
I looked at him like, "Okay." Reggie was a big, strong guy, and if you didn't get rid of the ball quickly, he could knock you into left field. Sure enough, on one of the next few pitches, a ground ball was hit to our shortstop. He flipped the ball to me, and I could already hear Reggie huffing. I turned around, and he was right there. I had to protect myself, so I came down low, and almost skimmed the bill of his cap. I jumped over him, and we turned the double play. As I was walking off the field, I turned around and looked at him. There was a cloud of dust, and his helmet had come off. He stared back at me like, "This guy is crazy. Does he know who I am?" I just shrugged my shoulders and ran off the field.
Did that ever come up when you became teammates with Reggie?
Of course. I told that story all the time, and we would laugh about it. He knew that I was protecting myself. He knew that I wasn't trying to really hit him. I realized that he gained respect for me because of how I handled that situation. It made him understand that I wasn't someone he could intimidate. Whenever it came up, he would say, "This kid's got guts." And I was actually one of the first people who befriended him.
That wasn't the only thing going on with Reggie during his first few months with the Yankees in '77. What was your take on Reggie's comments about being the straw that stirs the drink for the team -- as opposed to the popular captain, Thurman Munson?
Things were certainly uncomfortable because Thurman was the captain. He was our guy. He was a quiet captain, a quiet leader, but he had the respect of the whole team. Reggie came in and made that comment, which I still think was overplayed by the media. But it was the wrong thing to do at that time. He had to understand that this was Thurman's team.
Back then, we had a real dislike for our rivals, so just because Reggie was on the Yankees didn't mean he was going to be accepted instantly. It was a lot like when Roger Clemens was traded to the Yankees in 1999. It took years for our guys to warm up to him, especially because there had been so much bad blood between him and several players on our team. It was the same thing with Reggie; we needed some time to warm up to him, and those comments didn't help the process.
Aside from all of that, what did Reggie bring to the team that was missing?
I think he gave us a little bit of extra swagger, and we needed that. We had some great players and guys who exuded confidence, veterans like Sparky Lyle, Thurman, Lou Piniella and Chris Chambliss, but bringing Reggie in helped us because it reinforced that us-against-the-world mentality. It showed the whole world that we were willing to do everything we had to do to be the best team. That was good for us, but it took him a while to make friends in our clubhouse.
Did Billy discuss what his expectations for you were in 1977?
We talked a lot. I always felt good when I talked to him because he understood my importance to the team and my role as the table setter. He wanted me to get on base, steal bases and score runs. That was my total focus.
How would you describe your relationship with Billy Martin?
We got along really well, which was unusual back then because Billy didn't get along with young players. He had better relationships with veteran players. He wasn't very patient with young players who made mistakes, especially fundamental mistakes. But I was fundamentally sound. I was a tough kid from Brooklyn, and he saw that. I think he saw a little bit of himself in me. I played the game very much like he did. I was one of the few guys that Billy really adored. It meant a lot to me that he felt that I was instrumental to the success of the team. As a young kid, that goes a long way in helping your confidence.
Did you have any issues with Billy in 1977?
I stood up to him one time. I thought I lost my mind when I did it. It was a situation where I didn't understand why he put a squeeze on with a four-run lead. And I gave it away, because I did a double take from the batter's box. Sure enough, the next pitch was thrown right at my head, because the pitcher realized something was going on. I went to square around a bunt, and the ball was coming right at my head. It actually hit the bat, popped up and the catcher caught it.
I went back to the dugout fuming. I went right up to Billy and said, "What are you doing? You almost got me killed." He just smiled and said, "That ball was a little high, right?" I said, "You're [darn] right it was high. It almost hit me in the head." I later apologized to Billy for confronting him, and he told me that he liked that I was willing to stand up to him and tell him how I felt. Outside of that, he protected me. If anybody came close to me, he would go nuts, man.
Why do you think Billy managed games that way?
Billy always wanted to one-up the other manager. He wanted to be different. He felt that putting on a squeeze with a four-run lead late in the game would totally surprise the other manager. He was all about outsmarting the competition.
After a great season in '76, how did you fight off complacency, which has hampered so many young players who have success early on?
It was really simple for me. I just stayed humble. I had one good year, and I knew that I needed to make adjustments because opposing pitchers were certainly going to adjust to me. I adopted the attitude that every spring I had to make the team. For 13 seasons in pinstripes, I never took that for granted. I forgot about what I had done the previous season and worked as hard as I could. Of course, at that time in my life, I had some money in my pocket and I was young. But I really didn't let anything get in the way of the progress I wanted to make.
Who instilled that mentality in you?
That came from being around a lot of great veteran players in Pittsburgh. The one guy who really got me into that mindset was Willie Stargell. When I got traded to the Yankees at 21 years old, he called me and said, "Go over there and teach those guys how to win." I thought to myself, "Teach guys like Thurman Munson how to win? What is he talking about?"
But looking back, I know why he said that now. It gave me a lot of confidence. He really believed that I could be a leader in the Yankees' clubhouse, and I took that to heart.
Who were your closest friends on that '77 team?
Thurman took me under his wing. When he gave me his blessing, everyone started treating me with respect. He used to call me "Rook." And to this day I have a hideous yellow T-shirt that reads "Rook" across the chest in lime green that Thurman gave me. I wore it under my uniform until I finally had to retire it, because it had too many holes.
Chris Chambliss was my roommate. He was quiet, but he was very dignified. He was focused, and that helped me stay grounded. Roy White taught me a lot about class, dignity, fine food and good wine.
What was your take on the nasty confrontation between Reggie and Billy, stemming from Billy's decision to take Reggie out of the game because he felt that Reggie didn't hustle after a ball in right field that June in Fenway Park?
That was ugly. I never thought I would see the blatant disrespect that Billy had for Reggie. Reggie didn't bust it after the ball, but he had no chance of catching it. I think Billy was just looking for a reason to embarrass him.
At what point in the season -- if at all -- did the tension between Reggie and the other players, namely Thurman, start to dissipate?
Let me say this, Thurman and Reggie weren't as separate as people thought at the time. Thurman knew that he had to get along with everyone, and Reggie calmed down as the season went along. I think the players really came together when several of them went up to George Steinbrenner's office and asked The Boss to talk to Billy about batting Reggie in the cleanup spot. It didn't make any sense for Reggie not to be batting cleanup. Reggie appreciated that support. We had a veteran team, and we were smart enough to understand that we couldn't blow the opportunity we had.
What was it like playing in the '77 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium?
I was a 23-year-old kid who grew up in New York City. I'm out there playing in an All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium with some of the greatest players in the game, guys I grew up emulating. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life and one of those surreal moments that I will never forget. I remember stopping for a second and looking around to take it all in. I felt like I was living a dream. To have so many of my family members and friends there was unbelievable. Billy was managing the game, and he really took care of me by leaving me in for all nine innings.
What were your feelings about playing the Royals again in the postseason?
We knew we had our work cut out for us because they played us tough. And we didn't like playing on turf. We knew that we were in for a battle, and there was some friction between the teams. There was no love lost. We hated each other. But it was good for us because it got our juices going. I always liked it when we had a healthy disdain for the opposition, and we had that with the Royals. That's putting it mildly.
Your team found itself trailing, 2 games to 1, in the best-of-five American League Championship Series. Did that shake your confidence at all?
We were a little nervous but we still had the mentality of, "We're not going to be stopped. We're getting back to the World Series." I'm proud that I contributed late in that series, and coming back the way we did made it that much more gratifying.
You hit a big home run in the sixth inning of Game 1 of the World Series against the Dodgers. How much of a boost did that blast give you and the team?
It was a huge confidence-builder. I was very instrumental in setting the table, but no one expected a little guy like me to be hitting home runs. Until you get to the point where you have that supreme confidence in yourself, there is always some doubt about how you're going to do in those big games. When I hit that home run, I felt like I could take care of business in any situation. And I think it helped ignite the rest of the team that night.
When you took the field for Game 6 of the World Series, did you have the feeling that you were going to win the whole thing that night?
We felt that we had a big advantage at Yankee Stadium because our guys could hit the ball over the short porch in right field. We also knew that the old Stadium would be rocking, and it was such an intimate atmosphere. We felt like the fans were right on top of us. All that New York energy just elevated it to another level. We felt like we were in the driver's seat. We had to go out and get it done.
Looking back, what are your thoughts on Reggie's three-homer performance that night?
I can't say that anyone saw that coming, but when it was happening, no one was surprised because that's what Reggie came to New York for. That's what he lived for. That's what he dreamed of. After he hit the first one, we said, "Okay, Reggie is stepping up." After he hit the second one, we said, "Something special is happening here." After he hit the third one, we knew that we were going to win the World Series. It was an unbelievable display of stepping up under pressure.
What emotions did you feel when the final out of that World Series was recorded?
It's one of those crazy moments when you find yourself jumping up in the air like a little kid. It's just this feeling of elation that is still hard to describe. I remember looking up at my family in the seats with tears in my eyes. I was so proud to be part of a group of guys who brought the Yankees back to the top after so many years. And winning the World Series in my hometown was something I couldn't have dreamed of. With everything that had gone on that season, it was a year where we all grew up.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.