The shortstop fires to first, a little low and a little wide, where 65-year-old Sparky Lyle plucks it from the dirt like a goalie fires it with big-league verve back to home.
For a second, Sparky Lyle is 20-something again, playing with the verve that drove him to an elite place in major league pitching history. This is the guy who left the game with more saves than anyone in the history of the American League. The guy who entered games at Yankee Stadium to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” without even realizing it was playing (and hated it once he realized it was). The guy who was better known to leave bare-ass imprints on cakes than he was to eat them.
The guy on first, though, is the Sparky Lyle of the Somerset Patriots, an independent, minor league ball club that calls Bridgewater its home and plays 70 games a year within 40 minutes of downtown Princeton. Lyle has managed the team since its founding in 1998, and every day he throws batting practice or covers first during pre-game for guys powering their way to the major leagues.
And to think — his thumb almost got in the way of all of it.
Forty years ago, had Ted Williams not noticed Lyle’s peek-a-boo thumb, the lefty with the most famous tobacco-swollen cheek of the 1970s might not have gone on to a storied career that included a Cy Young award and three World Series rings. And without that big league career he most certainly would not have been offered a lifetime contract to manage an upstart independent baseball team in Bridgewater by the guy who sold him a Ford F-150 in Flemington.
But the what-ifs worked out well for Lyle. His tenure in the majors afforded him a friendship with the late John Vukovich, with whom he played on the Philadelphia Phillies’ 1980 World Series team and later became neighbors in Voorhees. Vukovich knew the owner of the Flemington Car and Truck Country Family of Automotive Dealerships, Steve Kalafer, and recommended Lyle buy his truck from him. At the signing, Kalafer asked Lyle if he had ever considered managing a minor league baseball team. Kalafer had a team in a new league that would be an ideal fit.
Eleven years after Lyle and Kalafer inked their car-and-baseball deal Sparky Lyle remains the only manager the Somerset Patriots have ever had. He is also the only manager in the eight-team Atlantic League of Professional Baseball — an unaffiliated league that stretches from Connecticut to Maryland — to have won four league championships. And that’s despite the company he is in. The league’s other managers include former Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, former major league outfielder Von Hayes, former big league base thief Tim Raines (who played for Lyle in 2000), and Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter, as well as one owner in Maryland named Brooks Robinson, a Hall of Fame third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1960s.
The Patriots’ successes have wrested the majors’ attention. Though not affiliated with any MLB teams, Somerset is fast becoming a conduit to the big leagues. Last season alone the Patriots had four players make their way up — one of whom also won a bronze medal in the Beijing Olympics. That was pitcher Brandon Knight, who began 2008 in Somerset before heading to the New York Mets with Patriot teammate and catcher Robinson Cancel. The two started together on July 26, and Knight was tapped for the American Olympic team less than a month later.
The other players who made the jump last season were Mark DeFelice, now pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers, and catcher Michel Hernandez, who made it to the World Series runner-up Tampa Bay Rays — and was the guy in the on-deck circle when Brad Lidge fired the final strike to win the series for the Phillies.
In all, the Patriots have shipped more than a dozen guys to the majors since 1999. Overall, the Atlantic League has promoted nearly 150.
A limited talent pool is the advantage and disadvantage of playing in a place like Somerset. On the downside, explains Lyle, is that with few teams and no major league affiliation, there is nowhere else to look for players. Trades rarely, if ever happen, and teams are limited to 20-odd players. Should any one of them get a call to the majors, it leaves a hole with no quick way to fill.
No one is ever discouraged from doing what he feels is best, Kalafer says. “Players are free to come and go with any opportunity.”
The plus for the league, though, is that players have friends who also are players, and are often in the same boat as they — dismissed or overlooked by MLB’s fickle glance. So when there is a spot open, Lyle says, his players get the word out quickly, and the response is usually from players with as much talent as hunger to prove themselves.
The Patriots’ front office likes to credit Lyle with a hefty share of the growth in play over the past decade. Team president Patrick McVerry says it is Lyle’s consistency. Kalafer says it is his accessibility and near-rock star status among young players — particularly pitchers, which have comprised almost all of Somerset’s roster of players promoted to the majors.
Lyle himself dismisses all of this with an affable grumble. To him, it is the players’ own drive to make it to the top that gets them their shots at it. He does not, in fact, even monitor the players’ pre-game calisthenics. In a few candid, colorful sentences, Sparky Lyle makes it known that he A) is not a babysitter, and B) is not interested in why anyone is here. All he wants is for his players to play baseball as well as they can. Talent is a given. What will set you apart in this league is drive.
Lyle, of course, is also aware of the perception. Kids dream of playing in New York, Chicago, and Boston (all of which he did, by the way). But no kid ever dreamed of playing baseball in Bridgewater, New Jersey. And despite the Patriots’ success (and manager), such prejudice is apparent on many of the faces Lyle sees coming to him. This is before the humbling effect the Atlantic League tends to have on guys.
“I kid you not, unless they’re major-leaguers, this is the best ball they’ll ever play, right here,” Lyle says. As an unaffiliated league, the Atlantic is not allowed to use the A, AA, and AAA ranking system of Minor League Baseball. Marc Russinoff, the Patriots PR vice president says that if it were allowed, the league would likely classify itself AAA, the highest level before the majors.
The humbling effects of that kind of company happen fast, Lyle says. “Guys get cut [from the majors] and they come here like, ‘Oh no, I’m going to play independent ball?’ They come in thinking they’re going to light up this place. But if you’re a pitcher and you don’t bring your best stuff, these guys are going to take you 400 feet.”
Four-hundred-and-two, if you go straight to center.
There are no prima donnas in Sparky Lyle’s clubhouse. He repeatedly has turned away players who are large on talent simply because they also are large on attitude. Steve Kalafer has an equal lack of tolerance for egotists. A few years ago he noticed the Patriots’ top hitter avoiding an autograph session on the field. When Kalafer asked him why he wasn’t out there signing autographs with the rest of his team, the hitter said it was because he didn’t do that kind of thing. The player was gone by the next day.
The team is a family with Lyle somewhere between wise dad and cool uncle. He not only doesn’t watch over the players’ calisthenics, he doesn’t actually require them to do them at all. The players — all of them — do them because if there was ever a league that demanded self-direction this is it, he says.
Back in Lyle’s day, which ran between 1967 and 1982, getting a pink slip from the majors was largely the end of the story. If you wanted to keep getting paid during a baseball game you either played in Japan or trod the stands with your hot dog cart. Either way, the odds did not favor your return to the MLB.
What the Atlantic League offers, says Lyle, is hope. It is not a league for nobodys; it is for serious guys who need a stage on which to prove themselves. That doesn’t stop the dreamers, of course. That Bridgewater has a baseball team has led some fans to think that anyone with a young man’s dream could just walk in and take a shot. Technically, it’s true that they can — the league holds open tryouts in Florida every February, and if you can get there, you can strut your stuff.
You almost certainly won’t make it, but you can take a shot. Lyle admits, though, that he got a kick out of last year’s 76-year-old wannabe, who eventually turned Lyle down on his offer to time him with an egg timer around as he ran around the bases. Sparky Lyle, in short, likes pretty much anybody who loves baseball.
Born in DuBois, Pennsylvania, a miner’s town 100 miles or so northeast of Pittsburgh, Albert Walter Lyle grew up in neighboring Reynoldsville. His first teenage venture into organized baseball was pre-empted by Ben Shingeldecker. Shingeldecker, the coach of DuBois’ teen league, took a look at the lanky 13-year-old southpaw and crushed him with one sentence: “You can’t throw hard enough to be a pitcher.” His answer was, “Damn, maybe he’s right.” So young Sparky rattled around in pickup games, almost by default developing his power and a wicked curveball that would come in handy when he got to high school.
Since Lyle’s high school had no team, however, he played for DuBois, where he started pitching in his junior year. He had set himself apart in football and basketball, but the mound turned out to be his favorite spot, and Lyle racked up strikeouts on the order of 16 a game. Soon enough the sports section was abuzz with news of the kid with the fireball and the killer curve who owned every strike zone he had ever met. When Lyle fanned 31 batters in 14 innings of one 17-inning game, the pros noticed.
Lyle didn’t particularly care what Ben Shingeldecker had to say about any of it. In 1964 the only baseball critic who mattered to Sparky Lyle was George Staller, a former Philadelphia Athletics outfielder turned scout for the newly minted Baltimore Orioles. Staller was so impressed with the high-schooler that he signed Lyle to a princely contract of $400 a month. And no, there was no signing bonus.
Lyle shut down enough batters in the Appalachian and Midwest leagues to earn notice from the Boston Red Sox, which bought him from the Orioles and promptly deposited him in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to play AA ball.
Lyle had a mediocre year, but held out for a 5-5 record and got promoted to Boston’s Eastern League farm team in Pittsfield. He also earned a spring training slot with the Red Sox the following year. As he had done for the better part of a decade, Lyle took the mound and interspersed his fastballs with that curve he loved so much.
Which could have been his downfall.
“We were in the locker room after practice and Ted Williams walks in,” Lyle recalls. “He says, ‘Where’s that guy with the curveball?’” Barely restraining his glee, Lyle threw his arm in the air and waited for the accolades. “He says, ‘Get dressed, we’re going back out.’”
Pitch after pitch, baseball’s resident batting scientist let the self-impressed lefty throw him whatever he wanted. And Williams either ignored the pitch (the ones that ended up being called for balls anyway), or put the bat right on it. Suddenly Lyle’s wicked curve was ineffective. Williams asked Lyle if he knew how he (Williams) could always tell what was coming. Lyle figured it was because he was throwing at Ted Williams, and let’s face it — even guys like Whitey Ford and Bob Feller had a tough time getting the better of Ted Williams.
“No,” Williams told him. “I can see your thumb sticking up out of your glove every time you go to throw a curve.” Lyle had no idea. “Nobody ever told me there was anything wrong with my curveball,” he says. “Because it was a good curveball.”
But major league batters would crucify Lyle if he had showed them such an obvious tell, and Williams knew it. Lyle was lucky enough to hear it from a guy who averaged a mere 38 strikeouts a season and still holds Boston’s records for batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, and walks. “When a guy like Ted Williams gives you advice on pitching,” Lyle says, “you listen.”
Williams, however, was not done. Figuring that if he simply relocated his thumb he would be fine, Lyle was waiting to hear Williams tell him he would now skip onto the big leagues. Instead, Williams told him he didn’t stand a chance without a new trick — the slider, which essentially is a fastball until it gets to the plate, where the bottom promptly falls out just as you tee it up.
The pitch’s potency was cemented on Lyle’s brain after he heard Williams’ reason for advocating it: “It’s the only pitch I could never hit, even when I knew it was coming.”
Sparky Lyle spent the next three weeks in his hotel room, up all hours, fingering a baseball while lying in bed wondering just how the hell he was going to throw a pitch that made even Ted Williams look stupid. “Must’ve been three in the morning, I suddenly got it,” Lyle says, gripping a phantom ball and pitching it to a phantom catcher at the other end of the dugout. “I went out and found a street light, I threw it, and, ‘boom.’” He mimes the pitch’s path from straightline fastball to trap door. “I thought, ‘Oh. My. God! I got it!”
The next day Lyle told his catcher to prepare for a few sliders. “He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have a slider,’” Lyle recalls. “I told him, ‘Yesterday I didn’t have a slider.’”
By the way, the Somerset Patriots have two mascots — one is called Sparkee and the other one Slider.
The fiercely independent young man who had made his own way into organized baseball made his major league debut with the Red Sox in 1967 on — when else? — Independence Day at age 22. In his rookie year he made it to a team that played in the World Series, although he didn’t get to play due to a sore arm.
Lyle soon moved onto the Yankees, where he reached the pinnacle of his notoriety as South Bronx’s bullpen ace. In 1977, his 11th season in the majors, Lyle got his first World Series ring. The following year, he got another, a feat chronicled in his bestseller, “The Bronx Zoo,” a no-holds-barred account of life in the Yankee dugout under George Steinbrenner in 1978, co-written with Peter Golenbock.
Also in 1977 Lyle did what no other American League relief pitcher had ever done — win a Cy Young award as the league’s most valuable pitcher. By then he had become as famous for pitching as he had for sporting one of baseball’s most recognizable faces. A mighty handlebar mustache — he still has it, by the way, it’s just white now — highlighting a preposterously swollen cheek.
Lyle has no use for chewing tobacco today, though. “I never did that after baseball,” he says. “I quit the day I walked off the field.” He did, however, do a Red Man chewing tobacco commercial in the 1980s. “Can you imagine if I did that today?” he asks with a chuckle. “They’d run me out of town.”
He had also become famous as a dugout prankster — one who had an affinity for sitting naked on cakes delivered to his teammates. He was such a personality that when he entered games Yankee Stadium proudly blared “Pomp and Circumstance.” He just didn’t know until he read it in the news.
“I hated that,” he says. “The fans loved it, but I didn’t even hear it. I was aware they were playing something, but I didn’t know what it was.” He hated it because it made him seem smug. “It gives the batter yet another reason to kill me out there,” he says. “I finally got them to stop that.”
Despite the Cy Young, Sparky Lyle’s good times with the Yankees drew to an unceremonious close. The Yankees’ volatile owner decided to make Goose Gossage the closing pitcher. Gossage’s amazing pitching relegated Lyle to long rides in the dugout. Eventually a 10-player deal with the Rangers sent Lyle to Texas for the 1979 and most of the 1980 seasons. The deal spawned teammate Graig Nettles’ famous quip, “Sparky went from Cy Young to sayonara.”
Nettles and Lyle remain good friends, by the way, and Nettles’ son, Jeff, plays as an infielder for the Patriots.
In September of 1980 the Rangers traded Lyle to the Philadelphia Phillies, where he won his third and final series, though, as in his rookie year, he did not play in the series — he had been traded too late in the season to qualify for a playoff spot. The Phillies sent him to Chicago two years later, where Sparky Lyle closed out his career with the White Sox, holding the record for most American League saves until Rollie Fingers broke it in 1985, as well as the majors’ all-time saves by a left-hander, broken in 1991 by Dave Righetti — who had come to the Yankees as part of that 10-player deal with Texas.
Besides the Red Man commercial, Lyle did some commercials for Miller Lite in the ’80s. He mostly made money as a casino greeter in Atlantic City with Mickey Mantle until 1998, when he took the helm of the Somerset Patriots. He did manage a second book in 1990 — “The Year I Owned the Yankees,” a satirical fantasy that skewers the Steinbrenner years.
Lyle’s success as a manager mounted once he came on board with the Patriots. Besides the four titles, Lyle became the first (and still only) manager in the Atlantic League to reach 500 wins, a feat he accomplished in 2005 (he is fast closing in on 800 today). But along with the wins, Lyle says he wants his players to accumulate character. As good as the game gets in this league, these players are here for one reason, and that is to move up (or back) to the majors.
Lyle knows his outpost is, in the best possible way, a transient one. “I tell them the first day they’re here — you might be here a week, you might be here the rest of your career,” he says. The lifespan is entirely up to the players. If they work hard and earn it, the scouts will come for them, and they could be gone at any time. Act like an ass and disrupt Sparky’s clubhouse and you absolutely will be gone. “I want the guys to have fun, and they do,” Lyle says. But while they’re here players are expected to conduct themselves as positive representatives of the organization, on the field and off.
Recently Lyle had to turn down the music in the locker room. A family leaving the park overheard the players listening — loudly — to music featuring much colorful language. As a fan of Eagles music, Lyle is offended by what he thinks is “just shit” anyway, but as the manager, he wants to make sure people leaving the stadium are not treated to a loud chorus of profanity. The players represent him, the team, the organization, the league, and the community. For those who make it, Lyle hopes they become ambassadors for good baseball, for the league, and for the team.
Lyle’s success has gotten big league attention too. “He won’t say that,” says Kalafer. “But I’ll say it. He’s had offers from the pros.”
He just won’t say who.
Regardless, Sparky Lyle is staying right here. In Somerset he is close to home — though he considers his wife a widow for six months every year — and close enough to his grandkids, who are the beneficiaries of his wiffle ball pitches when he’s around. He also is free of the politics of Major League Baseball and its network of affiliations.
But a major reason he likes where he is is that he doesn’t feel like he could keep up with the blinding speed of the game’s managerial side. “I don’t do computers,” he says. In his day players got thick books on other players that they had to study. Today computer scouting information, situational stats, and instantaneous updates fly through the clubhouse straight through a game. What you know about a guy in the first inning might change by the seventh.
Besides, he says, reliance on computers robs a vital nuance from the game — the ability to develop instinct. “I try to tell the guys to let the game come to them,” he says, “to react to it.” Were he to return to the majors, he says, he would be inundated with game plans and stats that threaten to turn baseball managing into football managing — elaborate, technical, and beyond the scope of one person to control.
Really, though, Lyle is staying because he just wants to have fun. And he wants to play baseball. “I wish I could go out and play for them,” he says of his team. “But I think I’m starting to lose my arm.”
Somerset Patriots, 1 Patriots Park, Bridgewater, NJ 08807; 908-252-0700; fax, 908-252-0776. Steve Kalafer, chairman. www.somersetpatriots.com.
From Princeton, take Route 206 North to the Somerville Circle. Go east on Route 28 to the second traffic light. Make a left onto West Main Street. This becomes East Main Street. Follow it for about five miles; TD Bank Park is on the right.