Classic Yankees: Sparky Lyle

Just before the 1972 season, the Yankees traded Danny Cater and a player to be named later (June, Mario Guerrero) to the Red Sox. Much like the Babe Ruth and Red Ruffing deals, the Yanks made out with the person they brought to NY. In this case, it was Albert “Sparky” Lyle. A true steal from Boston.

Lyle was a flaky lefty who survived on a killer slider. One of his favorite pranks was to sit naked on a teammate’s birthday cake. One story I read involved him and pitching coach Jim Turner, who was a bit of a chocoholic, if you will. The story involves two men, one young and the other old, both running towards a birthday cake; the old man with a fork to get a piece of the cake before the younger guy, running stark naked, plops his butt onto it. Just imagining the image of that is something else. No, I don’t recall who won in that story. I believe Lyle did, much to Turner’s chagrin.

Another time, Lyle showed up at spring training camp with his pitching arm in a cast, just to scare the bejeezus out of the team.

Lyle came up to the majors with the Red Sox in the middle of their “Impossible Dream” pennant winning season of 1967. He did well as a rookie, going 1-2, 2.28 in 27 games with the first five of what would be 238 career saves. ERA+ 156. Due to a sore arm, he was left off the WS roster. One story Lyle tells in his 1979 best-selling book, The Bronx Zoo, was of Elston Howard. About a month after Lyle reached the majors, the Red Sox dealt for Howard. In one game, Lyle shook off Howard and was burned. Red Sox star Carl Yastrzemski, in the midst of his Triple Crown MVP year, was quoted as asking how a rookie in the bigs for a month could shake off an All-Star catcher who was in the bigs for thirteen years. Howard quietly went up to Lyle and said, “Screw that. You have to be confident in what you are throwing. Next time, don’t shake me off. Just keep staring in and I’ll flash another sign. No one will ever know.”

Lyle was strictly a reliever in his career. He pitched in 899 games, and none was a start.

In 1968, Lyle went 6-1, 2.74 with 11 saves. ERA+ 117. 1969 brought a record of 8-3, 2.54 with 17 saves. ERA+ 152. In 1970, Lyle had a bad year, going 1-7, 3.88. The ERA+ was just 103, but he did save 20 games.

In 1971, Lyle was 6-4, 2.75, ERA+ 137. He saved 16 games. He was then dealt to the Yankees for Danny Cater.

1972 was one great year for Lyle. Those of us who remember bullpen cars may remember Lyle coming in to relieve that year in the white, Pinstriped bullpen car. As he entered, “Pomp and Circumstance” would majestically play. Opponents weren’t too happy about that. But in looking back, it probably set the stage for what would follow: the “Hell’s Bells” of Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera’s “Enter Sandman.”

Lyle’s 1972 was one of the best years a closer could have. He went 9-5 with a 1.92 ERA, ERA+ 154 and led the AL with 35 saves. He led the majors in games finished with 56. He finished 7th for the CYA, and 3rd for the MVP.

The following year, Lyle made the All-Star team, going 5-9, 2.51 and 27 saves. ERA+ 147.

The next couple of years were tough. Although Lyle pitched well, he didn’t get the saves he usually did. In 1974, Lyle finished 25th in MVP voting, going 9-3, 1.66. ERA+ 215 with 15 saves.

In 1975, it got worse. Just six saves. 5-7, 3.12. ERA+ 119. Needless to say, Lyle didn’t see eye to eye with Bill Virdon.

Under Billy Martin, Lyle rebounded. In 1976, Sparky went 7-8, 2.26, ERA+ 154 and led the AL with 23 saves. He was an All-Star and finished 22nd in MVP voting. After missing out on the 1967 WS, Sparky finally got to pitch in a postseason. He pitched one scoreless inning against KC in the ALCS and 2 2/3 scoreless innings against the Reds in the WS.

In 1977, Lyle became the first AL relief pitcher to win the CYA. Sparky went 13-5, 2.17 with 26 saves. He led the AL in games (72) and games finished (60). His ERA+ was 183. He was an All-Star for the third and final time. He got 9 first place votes and 56 points, edging out Jim Palmer (6 and 48), Nolan Ryan (6 and 46) and Dennis Leonard (5 and 45) for the award. Lyle also finished 6th in MVP voting, receiving one first-place vote.

There was no ALCS MVP award in 1977, or Lyle may have won it. He pitched in four of the five games, going 2-0, 0.96 in 9 1/3 innings. With the Yanks down two games to one, Billy Martin went to the well in desperation in Game 4. With two out in the bottom of the fourth, and the Yanks clinging to a 5-4 lead, there was men on first and second with George Brett due up. Usually you wouldn’t bring in Lyle this early but Martin was desperate. Lyle got Brett to line to LF. Martin rode Lyle for the rest of the game and Sparky responded with 5 1/3 scoreless innings of two –hit ball and the win. This after he pitched 2 1/3 innings in the Game 3 loss.

But Sparky wasn’t done. With runners on first and second in the 8th inning of Game 5, Sparky came in to strike out Cookie Rojas and keep the score at 3-2 KC. In the top of the ninth, the Yanks rallied for three runs. When Sparky retired KC in the bottom of the ninth, he was the winning pitcher again.

In Game 1 of the World Series two days later, Lyle came on in the ninth with the Yanks up 3-2. There were runners on 1st and 2nd with one out. Lyle gave up a single to Lee Lacy to tie the game, but bounced back to get a flyout and lineout. He then pitched the next three innings, allowing no runs. When the Yanks won the game in the 12th on a single by Paul Blair, Lyle was the winning pitcher with 3 2/3 innings of scoreless ball, giving up just that one hit. In two games, Lyle was 1-0, 1.93 in the WS.

Most importantly, in a four-day span, Lyle won three games, Games 4 and 5 of the ALCS, and Game 1 of the WS. He pitched 10 1/3 innings in those three games.

He was 33, a CYA winner and a World Champion.

But in the offseason, things would change. The Yankees went out and signed Rich “Goose” Gossage as a free agent, and as Graig Nettles would later say, Lyle went from “Cy Young to Sayonara.”

The Yanks envisioned a lefty/righty closer punch, but Lyle knew the truth: that with the game on the line, they would go with Gossage’s heat over Lyle’s slider. Lyle became something he didn’t want to be: a set-up man (interesting when compared to the Soriano situation of today). Lyle also felt that he didn’t have the same “edge” if the game wasn’t close. Often, if he came into a tight game and his team opened up a large lead, he would ask to be taken out because his concentration level wasn’t the same.

Lyle pitched decently in 1978, despite not wanting to be a set-up or mop-up man. He went 9-3, 3.47, ERA+ just 105 and only 9 saves (the saves going to Gossage, who had 27). For the sixth and final time in his career, Lyle pitched more than 100 innings. He was warming up in the bullpen, expecting to be brought in to face Yaz, when Lemon stuck with Gossage, who got Yaz to pop up for the final out in the “Bucky Dent” game. Lyle was ineffective in the ALCS, giving up two runs in 1 1/3 innings in the only postseason game he pitched in that year. A groin injury kept him off the WS roster.

The Yanks accommodated Lyle’s request for a trade, but things didn’t improve. The trade sent Lyle to Texas with Mike Heath, Larry McCall, Dave Rajsich, Domingo Ramos and cash for Greg Jemison (minors), Juan Beniquez, Mike Griffin, Paul Mirabella, and Dave Righetti.

Texas had a star closer of their own in Jim Kern, however, and Lyle was in the same boat he was in with NY. He went 5-8, 3.13 with 13 saves (ERA+ 133) for the 1979 Rangers. In 1980, Lyle started the season with the Rangers, going 3-2, 4.69, with 8 saves before being traded to the Phillies for a player to be named later (Kevin Saucier) in mid-September. Lyle got into 10 games for the eventual World Champs, going 0-0, 1.93 with two saves. Overall he was 3-2, 4.28 with 10 saves, ERA+ only 91. Due to the late acquisition, Lyle was ineligible for postseason play.

In 1981 Lyle was 9-6, 4.44 with two saves for the Phils. ERA+ just an 82. That’s a lot of decisions for a relief pitcher, especially when you recall that one-third of the season was lost due to the strike. In the strike-necessitated NLDS, Lyle got into three games and tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings. He was 3-0, 1.69, with one save in postseason play.

1982 saw Lyle turn 38 and it was the final season of his career. He went 3-3, 5.15 for the Phillies, with two saves. He was purchased by the White Sox, for whom he finished his career. His White Sox record was 0-0, 3.00 with his final save. For the season, he was 3-3, three saves, and an ERA of 4.62. ERA+ 83.

Lyle finished with 238 saves, and a record of 99-76, 2.88. ERA+ 128. He wore #15 for Boston in 1967, and for a time in 1980 and 1981 wore #39 for the Phils. Most of the time, however, he was #28.

In 1998, he became the manager of the Somerset Patriots, a minor league team based in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He managed the team to Atlantic League pennants in 2001, 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2009, and has been the only manager the team has had since its inception. (Wikipedia)

Sometime in the 1980’s, when Lyle was a pitchman for Miller Lite, I went to a department store (long since gone and vanished) near my hometown to meet Lyle and get his autograph. Other people got an autographed photo, as did I. I still have the photo to this day. But I got his autograph on something else as well, and I was surprised that no one in front of me thought of getting his autograph on that (perhaps someone behind me did). For when I got to the table, after Lyle signed the photo, I asked him if he would kindly sign something else, for I had brought my copy of Sparky’s book, The Bronx Zoo, with me. He kindly obliged, mentioning in surprise, “The Zoo!”

The Bronx Zoo, a diary of the 1978 season, was as much a best-seller for Lyle in 1979 as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four was for Bouton in 1970. Lyle’s book took you into the tumultuous 1978 Yankees season; its bickering, in-fighting, and ultimately the comeback and triumph. I also had another Lyle book. In 1990, Lyle wrote The Year I Owned the Yankees: A Baseball Fantasy.

When I met Lyle, I noticed he was wearing a WS ring, so I asked a question I was sure I knew the answer for. “What ring are you wearing, Sparky?” He replied, “1977, of course, my lucky year!” I would imagine memories of 1978 aren’t too good for him.

Lyle was known for a big, sweeping moustache, as much a part of him as Rollie Fingers’ waxed “Dastardly Dan” moustache and Brian Wilson’s beard are a part of their personas.

Lyle will turn 67 this summer. Lyle’s 232 AL saves is still the AL record for a lefty pitcher (Dave Righetti had 224 in the AL).

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3 Responses to Classic Yankees: Sparky Lyle

  1. I would suggest that anyone who hasn't read The Bronx Zoo should do so ASAP.

  2. Karen says:

    For a long time I kept being told what a great game baseball was and how the hitters made the game fun to watch. But it was only after I saw Sparky Lyle's slider that I became interested in the game. The control he had on the slider was what made me tune into the games in late innings. I've been a fan of baseball ever since. Thanks Sparky!

  3. Mario says:

    I love baseball