Name: Albert "Sparky" Lyle
Born: July 22, 1944 (DuBois, PA)
Yankee Years: 1972-1978
Primary number: 28
Yankee statistics: 57-40, 2.41 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 420 G, 745 2/3 IP, 454 K, 141 SV, 68 ERA-, 81 FIP-, 14.9 rWAR, 10.5 fWAR
The Yankees of the 1970s were truly something else. Unlike the late '90s dynasty teams, which had remarkable cohesion and often simply dominated the competition, these squads had a wide variety of colorful characters in the clubhouse and personalities that frequently clashed. Even in championship seasons, drama was abound; there was the combative yet brilliant strategist manager Billy Martin, the no-nonsense captain Thurman Munson, and the always-controversial slugger, Reggie Jackson.
For all the chaos, there was certainly an air of levity to the team as well, and few players brought as much humor to the table as reliever Sparky Lyle. The lefty was a dominant closer whose arrival in 1972 coincided with the team's turnaround from the humdrum days of mediocrity under CBS ownership to the eventual champions under bombastic owner George Steinbrenner. Lyle was there every step of the way, dazzling hitters with a wicked slider rarely matched throughout Yankees history.
"You can't throw hard enough to be a pitcher."
That quote was said by a youth league coach in Lyle's hometown of DuBois, Pennsylvania. The son of a carpenter, the then-13-year-old loved to play baseball, but this local coach's dismissal hurt Lyle. Subsequently, he did not play much baseball except casually among friends. Instead, he went on to make All-Conference and All-State in football and basketball at Reynoldsville-Sykesville High School; if he was going to make it big in any sport, it seemed like it would be one of those. In his junior year though, he finally decided to give baseball another shot. How did that go?
When pitching for DuBois, it seemed he was always striking out 16 or 17 batters. This accomplishment made local headlines and in one game during that summer, he struck out 31 batters. He threw mostly fastballs and curve balls and ended up walking 8 or 9 batters. It was a 17-inning game, yet Lyle only pitched 14 of those 17 innings; he handled first base duties for three innings in the middle of the game. - Diane MacLennan, SABR
Needless to say, pitching was truly his calling after all, even if he needed to work on his control. Orioles scout George Staller saw him and signed him in June of 1964, and the young man nicknamed "Sparky" because his mother thought he was "a sparkling child" suddenly had his first real shot at the pros.
Despite Staller's excitement about him, the O's did not end up keeping Lyle in their system for long. After one decent year in the minors split between rookie ball and A-ball. The Red Sox snatched him up in a minor league draft, and over the next three years, he developed from a raw starting pitcher talent to a very dangerous relief arm. It was unusual for pitchers to be shifted from the rotation to the bullpen so young back then, but Boston clearly saw more potential in him as a reliever. Although he still demonstrated bouts of wildness, his ERAs and WHIPs gradually improved from 4.24 and 1.598 respectively in '65 to 1.71 and 1.286 in '67.
A key development in Lyle's growth was a spring training meeting with the legendary Ted Williams in 1966. After watching him in a start, Williams approached him and bluntly told him that his changeup and curveball would not be good enough to get big league hitters out. Williams strongly encouraged him to learn how to throw the slider, as he told Lyle "The best pitch in baseball is the slider because it's the only pitch I couldn't hit when I knew it was coming." Lyle reasoned that if it was good enough to stump perhaps the greatest hitter of all-time, then it was definitely worth checking out. (Lyle would later teach this slider to another Yankees ace of the trade, Ron Guidry.)
Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams decided that Lyle could help Boston down the stretch in their "Impossible Dream" season in '67, so Lyle made his big league debut that summer. He pitched in 27 games and 43 1/3 innings, recording a 2.28 ERA and 2.61 FIP while noticeably cutting down his walks to to 2.9 BB/9. Although Williams barked that he always listen to veteran catcher (and former Yankee) Elston Howard's pitch calls, the gracious backstop was kind enough to work with Lyle and determine the best strategies together. Often, the answer was simply that wipeout slider.
Boston went on to win a tight race for the American League pennant that year, though they lost in the World Series to the Cardinals without Lyle on the roster. They didn't make it back over the next couple seasons, but Lyle continued to mature as a big league pitcher. In five years with Boston, he became their primary closer, pitching in 260 games while notching 69 saves, a 2.85 ERA, and 3.15 FIP. Unlike most relievers of today, his stints frequently began in the middle of jams and typically lasted at least 1 2/3 innings and often more than that, sometimes up to three frames in one game.
Lyle's ascent caught the Yankees' attention, and near the end of spring training in 1972, they pulled off a trade with their rivals. Boston sought more offense, so they acquired Danny Cater in exchange for Lyle, and they also received an infielder named Mario Guerrero. The history of the Yankees and Red Sox is plagued on Boston's end by poor trades, like the one that brought Babe Ruth to the Yankees for cash and the deal that sent away future Hall of Famer Red Ruffing. The Lyle deal should rank right up there with them, as Boston got basically nothing in exchange for one of the best relief arms of the '70s. Not a bad move at all by the Yankees' future Hall of Fame executive Lee MacPhail.
Sliding into history
Upon arriving in the Bronx, it did not take Lyle long to become the ace of the bullpen. Veteran skipper Ralph Houk quickly realized that Lyle and his slider were undoubtedly assets to the team, and he appeared in 59 games and 107 2/3 innings. Lyle was superb, recording a 1.92 ERA and 1.050 WHIP while leading the league in saves and setting a then-AL record with 35. Of those 35, over half of them involved at least two innings pitched. He was so impressive that in addition to down-ballot Cy Young votes, he actually earned a third-place finish in AL MVP voting, a feat almost unheard of for a reliever. The Yankees' PR department also established a tradition of bullpen entrance music, as they decided "Pomp and Circumstance" should play as Lyle entered the game on the bullpen cart, signifying the forthcoming end of the game just as Edward Elgar's march often signals the end of academic studies through graduation.
After making the All-Star team for the first time with another solid year in '73, the Yankees shifted venues to the Mets' home of Shea Stadium for a couple years while the original Yankee Stadium underwent a two-year renovation. The switch to the pitcher's park led to a career-best 1.66 ERA from Lyle in '74 under new manager Bill Virdon, though the actual location of the home park didn't seem to matter much. After all, his stadium-adjusted 215 ERA+ was also a career-high.
Throughout it all, Lyle always maintained a terrific sense of humor. While he certainly took his closing job seriously, he was always open to a good laugh. Lyle cracked his teammates up by sitting bare-ass on birthday cakes, making self-deprecating jokes, and playing pranks whenever possible. One time, to get his coach Yogi Berra to stop using his toothpaste, he put white heat liniment on the top of the tube. There was also the occasion when a coffin somehow ended up in the clubhouse, and I'll let Ken McMillan and Ed Randall take it from here:
Amazing. For all the jokes, the Yankees were becoming a more complete team as well, with recent additions Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, and free agent ace Catfish Hunter combining with a solid core led by Munson to create a formidable squad. With Martin now in charge, the Yankees at last broke their 12-year playoff drought in 1976, capturing their first AL East title as Lyle notched another All-Star season and led the league in saves for a second time. Although the Yankees ended up swept out of the World Series by the Cincinnati Reds' "Big Red Machine," Lyle was unscored upon in the playoffs.
The '77 season was the crowning point in Lyle's career. He had the season of his life out of the bullpen, appearing in a league-high 72 games and pitching a career-high 137 innings. The heavy use did not lead to any ineffectiveness; in fact, he was brilliant with a 2.17 ERA, a 3.18 FIP, 26 more saves, and countless bailouts. There were some fine starters in the team's rotation that year, but Sparky was the star of the show. Martin had tremendous confidence bringing him into the game, and far more often than not, Martin's faith was rewarded. The BBWAA was so taken with Lyle's performance that they made him the first reliever in history to win the Cy Young Award. Thanks to Lyle and new additions like Jackson, the Yankees won 100 games and repeated as AL East champs.
It would be hard for any pitcher to match a regular season like that in the playoffs, but Lyle was up to the task, particularly in the ALCS. I wrote about his exploits when I retroactively decided that had the award existed, he would have been the deserving ALCS MVP:
Lyle followed up his stellar season with an equally impressive ALCS performance. It's hard for a reliever to win a series MVP award in my book, but Lyle was more deserving than any other hitter or starter. (While Cliff Johnson had a 1.171 OPS in 15 at-bats, only his Game 2 hits led to any kind of rally, and no starter had an ERA below 3.90.) The series began inauspiciously, as Lyle got the final out of a 7-2 Game 1 loss, then wasn't needed in Game 2 since fellow slider aficionado Ron Guidry twirled a three-hitter in a 6-2 victory. The Royals smacked around Mike Torrez for five runs and eight hits in 5 2/3 innings in Game 3, but although the Yankees lost 6-2, Lyle gave the rest of the bullpen a rest by relieving in the sixth and finishing the game with 2 1/3 one-run innings.
Game 4 was when Lyle truly emerged as the series MVP. With the Yankees facing elimination and holding a slim 5-4 fourth inning lead over the Royals with the tying run in scoring position and Yankee killer George Brett up, manager Billy Martin turned to Lyle very early. Lyle had no rest from his 2 1/3 innings the day before, but he got Brett to line out to right, ending the inning. He then pitched five more scoreless innings, allowing just two hits; the Yankees won, 6-4. It was the type of reliever performance that would never happen today, but it kept the Yankees in the series. In the winner-take-all Game 5, the Royals knocked Guidry out early and held a 3-2 lead in the eighth. Martin asked Lyle to come in again while still on zero days' rest with runners on first and second and two outs. He struck out Cookie Rojas, and with the Royals just three outs from winning the '77 AL pennant, the Yankees' offense proceeded to stun the Kansas City crowd with a three-run ninth to take a 5-3 lead. Lyle finished the Royals off by getting Darrell Porter to pop out and inducing 5-4-3 double play from speedy Freddie Patek to clinch the AL pennant. It was definitely an MVP-worthy performance from one of the greatest relievers in franchise history.
It was a tremendous playoff performance, and he followed it up with a 1.93 ERA in the World Series victory over the Dodgers. At long last, Lyle was a World Series champion.
"From Cy Young to Sayonara"
The good times from '77 unfortunately could not last forever. Although he understood the decision later in life, Lyle was devastated when the Yankees signed young hard-throwing closer Goose Gossage in the 1977-78 off-season. The two pitchers respected each other, but it created an untenable situation. As Lyle put it, there was no place for two closers. It became difficult to find them both playing time, and the 33-year-old Lyle's performance dipped anyway. Although the Yankees won him another World Series ring that year, Lyle was a non-factor in the playoffs.
After the season, it was apparent that the two sides part ways, and the Yankees dealt him away in a big 10-player trade with the Texas Rangers. Even in departure, Lyle offered one more blessing to Yankees fans--one of the players coming to the Yankees in return for Lyle was a high-potential lefty named Dave Righetti. Lyle spent four more seasons in the majors with a few different teams, though he never recaptured the brilliance of '77 as he got older. He retired after the '82 campaign and later gained recognition in the minor as long-time manager of the Indy League's Somerset Patriots in Bridgewater, New Jersey.
Even though the end of Lyle's career was a bit awkward, Yankees fans will never forget his mustachioed grin, amazing slider, and classic moments. Sparky Lyle is a slam dunk on the Top 100 Yankees of All-Time. We can only dream of talents and personalities like him.
Andrew's rank: 83
Tanya's rank: 85
Community rank: 47.9
WAR rank: 93.5
|NYY (7 yrs)||57||40||2.41||2.91||420||348||141||745.2||666||239||200||32||234||42||454||9||1||34||68||81||14.9||10.5|
Allen, Maury. Yankees: Where Have You Gone? Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing, LLC, 2004.
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Lyle, Sparky with Peter Golenbock. The Bronx Zoo. Chicago: Triumph Books, 2005.
MacLennan, Diane. SABR Bio
McMillan, Ken and Ed Randall. Amazing Tales from the Yankees Dugout. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012.