I have mentioned several times that 1978 was my first year of collecting baseball cards and in many ways, my education into baseball. I learned who the players were, what the teams were, who played for whom, who used to play for different teams etc.
I also learned terms and the language of baseball as a 6 year old. Some seemed intuitive. Others fascinated me.
That brings me to this card celebrating the record breaking achievement of Sparky Lyle. The record itself, listed at the top of the card, totally bewildered me.
There was Sparky Lyle. I knew who he was. I mainly knew Red Sox and Yankees players. I knew Sparky was a star on the Yankees. I also knew he pitched with Goose Gossage (remember this was 1978.)
But what was this record?
Most Games… Pure Relief… Lifetime.
Pure in it caught me off guard. I also had a tendency to say “Lifetime” as if I was saying “Lifetiiiiiiiiime.” I said it almost as if I was going to say “Out of sight!” as a punctuation. It seemed very 70’s… or as I thought of it as a kid, the only reality I knew.
Pure. Did that mean he was clean? Did that mean nobody did it better? I had an idea what a relief pitcher did. He came in and replaced the starter.
Was his record that he came in and always gave pure relief… never did anything wrong… and did that all of his life?
That seemed like the only logical explanation.
So for his entire life, he came in and got the job done, got pure relief…. lifetiiiiiiime.
Well, now I understand what it REALLY means. It means that in 1977 Sparky Lyle pitched his 621st game in the big leagues and all were out of the bullpen. He had never made a start. Bob Locker had held the record prior to that year with 576 games, all out of the bullpen.
He would go on to have 899 games of pure relief in his career. (You would think someone could have squeezed in appearance 900 in his career.)
It is a strange record. There have been other relievers who threw more innings or made more appearances than Lyle. Mariano Rivera and Hoyt Wilhelm come to mind. But Rivera made several starts in his rookie year and Wilhelm started some games in his long career.
Lyle, much to my amazement as a kid, began his career with the Red Sox. Why would the Red Sox trade him? Remember, I was young. I didn’t realize at the time how the ineptitude of the Red Sox front office was so often to the benefit of the New York Yankees.
The Sox got infielder Danny Cater out of it and saw themselves have bullpen issues throughout the 1970’s. Meanwhile Lyle blossomed with the Yankees. As the role of the reliever was developing into a more vital position for championship caliber teams, Lyle became the Yankees’ top fireman. He would pile up saves, wins and keep his ERA low, which were the relief metrics at the time.
Lyle had an undeniably terrific year in 1977. He threw 137 innings (pure relief of course), saved 26 games, won 13 and kept his ERA to 2.17. In his league leading 72 appearances, he averaged nearly 2 innings per appearance.
In the post season, he made a ALCS saving appearance in Game 4. With the Yankees on the verge of elimination by Kansas City, the Royals were rallying in the 4th. Ed Figueroa and Dick Tidrow could not hold the KC bats down and Yankee killer George Brett came up with the tying and go ahead runs on base.
Billy Martin brought in his relief ace in the 4th. He got Brett out but now he had to figure out what to do with Lyle.
His solution was novel. Martin had Lyle throw 5 1/3 shutout innings to finish the game and earn the win. That was great but what was he going to do in the do or die Game 5?
Ron Guidry had a poor start in Game 5. This time it was Mike Torrez’s turn to throw 5 1/3 shutout innings out of the bullpen. But when Torrez ran into trouble in the 8th, Lyle came back out with no days rest. He finished the 8th. The Yankees rallied in the top of the 9th to take the lead. Lyle came in and finished the 9th and clinched the pennant.
He was the winning pitcher of the last two games of the ALCS and the first game of the World Series. The Yankees would capture the World Series title but Mike Torrez would have the honor of clinching the final game.
Lyle, a known practical joker and later author of a tell all book about his days with the Yankees, took home the Cy Young Award. The sabermetric crowd would have given it to Frank Tanana of California, who of course got no first place votes.
Because three pitchers all led the AL with 20 wins and that was still the main metric for pitching greatness, perhaps the vote was split.
Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Dennis Leonard and Dave Goltz all got first place votes for Cy Young. So did Bill Campbell who won the Rolaids Fireman Award for best reliever. Lyle won the Cy Young but couldn’t take the top reliever award.
That’s a strange year. It was an even stranger off season for Lyle. He won the Cy Young but lost his job. Steinbrenner signed Rich Gossage from the Pirates, hoping to make a 1-2 tandem in the bullpen. It didn’t quite work and as Graig Nettles said, Lyle went from “Cy Young to Sayonara.”
Lyle was traded to the Rangers in the deal that brought Dave Righetti to the Yankees. He played in the 1981 playoffs for the Phillies before finishing his career with the White Sox.
He couldn’t get that 900th appearance of pure relief in his lifetime (lifetiiiiiiime.)
But what else did he do? He did a chewing tobacco commercial that was aired on TV. The 1970’s were a different time.