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Revisiting the circus that was Billy Martin and Ed Whitson

Plenty of managers and pitchers didn’t get along, but Billy Martin and Ed Whitson took it to another level in 1985.

Cleveland Indians v New York Yankees Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

One night in a Baltimore hotel bar in late September 1985, Yankees pitcher Ed Whitson — who had partaken in a few adult beverages — engaged in a loud verbal spat with a bar patron. Apparently, Whitson had been loudly complaining about how he’d been treated by the Yankees, specifically Yankees’ manager Billy Martin. The bar patron had looked over to see what the fuss was about, then kept looking when he realized it was a Yankees player, which didn’t sit too kindly with Whitson.

Martin, hearing the voices raised, went over to calm everyone down. Martin seemed to be an odd choice to play peacemaker considering he himself had been in a verbal altercation with a different bar patron the previous night in the same bar. Apparently, a man wanted to ask Billy a few questions about what Billy may or may not have said to the man’s wife while dancing with her.

“It was getting pretty hard to be surprised by anything,” Don Mattingly would later say about the 1985 team. My guess is even Donnie was surprised by what came next.

Let’s back up a bit. The Yankees came into the 1985 season with high hopes. Whitson, along with Rickey Henderson, joined a team led by Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Don Baylor, Willie Randolph, Ken Griffey Sr., Ron Guidry, and Phil Niekro — a very business-like, no-nonsense group between the lines if there ever was one. So if you were a player who at least outwardly, was a little more laid back, you still would fit in fine if you were one of the best players in baseball, which Henderson was. Ed Whitson was not.

The Yankees got off to a 6-10 start which didn’t sit well with George Steinbrenner, who somewhat inexplicably fired then-manager Yogi Berra and replaced Berra with Martin, marking the fourth time Billy would lead the Yankees. The Yankees turned things around, however, and by early September, were only 1.5 games behind first-place Toronto after being 9.5 back in early August.

The problem was that Whitson was awful all season long, and was getting irritated by how he was being managed by Martin, in particular Martin’s proclivity for using another starter in Whitson’s spot in the rotation for home games. Whether Martin was doing it out of kindness to save Whitson from verbal abuse from the Bronx faithful, or out of fear that Whitson didn’t have the fortitude to pitch in the Bronx (or both) we’ll never know.

To make matters worse, the Yankees lost nine out of 10 games in September, landing them 6.5 games out of first with only two and a half weeks to go in the season. So when the Yankees lost a game in Baltimore started by Yankees legend Rich Bordi in Whitson’s spot in the rotation, nobody was in a good mood – especially Whitson.

This is why when Billy the peacemaker approached Whitson that fateful what-had-become-early-morning, matters became both brutal and comedic simultaneously. Whitson didn’t like Billy's peacemaking and Billy didn’t like being told that. When hands and feet (Whitson had a background in martial arts) started flying, Yankee coaches, trainers, and players present did what they could to separate the two combatants with varying degrees of success. At one point when separated from Whitson, Martin suggested the problem was that Whitson “couldn’t hold his liquor.” At another point, Martin charged Whitson when Whitson was still being held which forced Whitson to kick Martin in the groin, putting Martin prone.

Those who assumed that was the end of matters were surprised when Martin stood and declared “Now I’m going to have to kill you,” and charged Whitson — the momentum of which took the group of intertwined combatants and unsuccessful peacemakers into the parking lot. When many of the legs of the moving group became tangled they all hit the ground, leaving onlookers wondering how the Yankees ended up rolling around on the ground in a Baltimore parking lot.

One group of diffusers were able to corral Whitson and bring him to a side entrance to bring him back to his room, while another group did the same with Martin through the front. Unbeknownst to both groups, the respective elevators they took opened facing each other in the third-floor hallway, and off they went again.

Once the combatants were separated (again) and brought safely to their rooms, the fighting had ended — despite Martin telling then-hitting coach Lou Pinella on the side to go knock on Whitson’s door and tell him to meet Martin in the parking lot in five minutes. Whitson sported a cut lip and bruises and scrapes on his arms, which certainly wasn’t going to help his pitching. Martin had a broken arm, likely suffered when blocking one of Whitson’s kicks.

Martin greeted the media the next day with his new cast and wanted to be clear about a few things. First, Martin wanted it to be known that he was trying to break up a fight, not start one, saying “If I was fighting, he would have been knocked out in the beginning.” He also wanted to be sure that the writers, several of whom were witnesses to the brawl, could confirm Whitson was a cheap shot artist with the groin shot and for literally kicking Martin when he was down at one point. “I can’t fight feet,” Martin added, conveniently forgetting he charged Whitson when Whitson was being held.

The above is the very short version of events. Read Bill Pennington’s book “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius” for the comprehensive and even crazier version.

Just in case you forget how the story ended, the team went on to win 97 games — the fourth-most in MLB that season — but fell two games short of Toronto. Whitson would pitch only one more time that year and ironically pitched very well in a Yankees win over the Jays. Martin was fired once again by Steinbrenner at the season’s end and replaced with Pinella.

At the time, the team’s ability to continually create a real-life soap opera was part confusing, part hysterical. In hindsight, there’s nothing funny about a drunk 6-foot-3 30-year-old with a martial arts background fighting a drunk 5-foot-10 57-year-old and breaking his arm. It’s even less funny when we consider how Martin’s life ultimately and tragically came to an end with the involvement of alcohol.

That said, one’s left wondering what it would have been like if Twitter existed at the time.