Willie Randolph: The Brownsville Bomber
August 19, 1986
Past the hopscotch question mark and to the left of the skelly court was a pitching rubber drawn in white chalk. During the course of your average Brownsville summer it moved around a bit, but basically it stayed about 70 feet from the concrete barrel that served double duty as funhouse and backstop. All the little kids had been chased away and the stickball crew, the black guys from 305 and 315 Livonia Avenue and the Puerto Ricans from 360 Dumont, were banging around with sleek brown and orange broom handles and bats autographed by Thurman Munson, Danny Cater, and Horace Clarke, from Yankees Bat Day. Black tape was wrapped around the ends of bats and sticks for a solid grip. We’d spent so many summers on this asphalt stickball field, pounding Pinsy Pinky rubber balls into gloves and playing from noon to dark while ring-a-levio games, baby carriages, little brothers and sisters swirled around. As we’d gotten older, the endless summers of our adolescence had given way to the distractions of teen life; loose joints, part-time jobs, blue-light parties and, on occasion, reading books.
On this day we were all out there again because Mickey was back home and, well, we all just wanted to be around. Bill Travers in the Daily News always called him Willie Randolph, which confused me because around the Tilden projects he was always Mickey as in Mantle, since he was one of the best hitters on the block. Whatever you called him, Randolph was the only guy on our block, or for that matter in all of Brownsville, that we knew of with a big league baseball contract. It meant a lot to me since not only did I live in the same project but was three years behind him at the same high school, and, after a so-so year of JV ball, was trying out for the varsity. Since both our project and high school were named after Samuel J. Tilden, New York State governor and presidential candidate of yesteryear, I thought maybe I’d stumbled upon a good omen.
A stickball game started and somehow I managed to get to pitch to Mickey, er, Willie. It would have been glorious to strike him out, but my hero was the Yankees’ underappreciated sinkerballer Mel Stottlemyre — in my mind as good as the Mets’ Seaver and Koosman — so it would have been fine if he merely grounded into an imaginary double play. Oh, well. The Tilden projects were (still are) 16 stories high. Surrounding the roof is a metal railing, and right on top an incinerator. This is important information. In a moment of ill-timed machismo, I reared back and fired a high hard one. Armed with a brown stickball bat and batting instruction from a Pittsburgh Pirate system known for producing hitters, Randolph smacked the pink projectile way up in the air, over the asphalt infield, over the fence that was an automatic double, over the alley that was a triple, and —crash! — right up against the fence over the 16th floor of a building whose number time has mercifully obscured. I remember thinking, “I hope he makes it to the major leagues. At least then I’ll have a good story to tell.”
Brownsville is not one of the neighborhoods Borough President Howard Golden highlights in his rosy reports about Brooklyn’s future. In Brooklyn in the 21st Century, prepared by the Fund for the Borough of Brooklyn with Golden’s cooperation, my childhood home — high- and low-rise projects, the dying shopping strips of Belmont and Pitkin Avenues, Arab and Korean store owners, hardworking blacks and Hispanics, and more crack salesmen than summer jobs (are crack houses Reagan’s real urban enterprise zones?) — is mentioned just twice. Brownsville is one of those places where “the underclass,” the fashionable term for distancing America from its poor, multiplies and survives.
For Randolph, his friends, and me, too, one of the keys to survival in Brownsville of the ’70s was the number 2 (now 3) elevated IRT subway that runs through Brownsville and past what used to be my window at 315 Livonia Avenue. It was a magic carpet to “the Deuce” (a/k/a 42nd Street) and the movies; to Coney Island (after you switched to the D); and to Shea and Yankee stadiums. Mickey Randolph took the 2 to the Deuce to the 7 — he was a Mets fan. I took the 2 to the 4 — I thought Horace Clarke was a fine second baseman. Time sure does pass.
Earlier this season, I took that ride again, getting on at Rockaway Avenue in Brownsville and taking that long trip from Brooklyn to the Bronx, anxiously anticipating the moment when the 4 train explodes into sunlight and there, white as a little boy’s birthday cake, is Yankee Stadium.
In my stickball days I’d come down the steps and head left to the bleachers. This evening I hang a right past Babe Ruth Park, the handball courts, the suit-and-tie crowd entering the Stadium Club, right up to the press gate. While working for the Amsterdam News as a college student in the late ’70s, I’d often taken this journey, and Randolph, traded to the Yankees in 1975, had been good to me, introducing me to a couple of players and basically making an insecure college kid feel alright. Good thing, too, because the Yankee clubhouse was as taut as a newly strung tennis racket. Reggie Jackson was always nasty to me. Thurman Munson was mean. Graig Nettles was a redneck. Billy Martin’s office was the hellhole of an unstable enemy. Except for Oscar Gamble, a funny motormouth who knew his on-base percentage and homer-to-at-bat ratio from day to day, even the other Yankees were wary of writers they didn’t know and many they did. Later, when Geoffrey Stokes dissected Yankee psychology with his Voice piece “The Paranoid Style of Yankee Baseball,” I knew exactly what he meant.
Now things seemed different. Randolph was no longer just a sane soul in a room of gifted egotists, but co-captain of a team with pitchers too young to know what to do or too old to do it well, a rookie manager still to be tested under fire, and some of the greatest players in the game. Captain! Hard to imagine homeboy from Brooklyn — a negro — being captain of America’s Team.
Walking into the clubhouse this time I didn’t have to hold my breath for fear that someone would step on my toes. My first impression: Winfield is bigger than any of those aforementioned Yankee stars, yet when he sat watching Carol Jenkins on Live at Five or strutted past the Winfield Foundation letters stapled to the bulletin board, he didn’t dominate the room the way those money players did. I don’t know what the departed Don Baylor meant in the clubhouse, but in comparison to the “good old days,” something was different; whether it meant there was a leadership vacuum or just non-Yankee normal baseball tranquillity, I don’t know.
Randolph sat in the center of the room, watching Live at Five, too, and lacing up his cleats. He recognized me immediately, smiled, and we started talking. Our talk that night and in subsequent conversations was defined and divided in two parts: the “Mickey” Randolph story of how a Brooklyn boy grew into a major league ballplayer; and the tale of number 30, Willie Randolph, a man obsessed with consistency, privacy, and pride. So the following is on the order of a doublesided single: “Homeboys on Parade” b/w “Yankee Attitude (Why Willie Randolph Has Outlasted Fred Stanley, Bucky Dent, Andre Robertson, Bobby Meacham, and 24 Other Double Play Partners).”
S I D E O N E
Mickey Randolph didn’t hang out, which was unusual for the neighborhood’s top athletes, who enjoyed basking in the respect their ability generated. The difference was probably that most of the stars of the ‘Ville played hoops; and like the notorious World B. Free (then Lloyd “All World” Free of Canarsie High) most Brownsville players chanted the mantra “Give up the pill.” While these cats were holding court Randolph was upstairs. “I remember they would call me, ‘Hey, Mickey, come on down, man, we’re playing ring-a-levio,’ or, ‘We’re playin’ manhunt,’ and I’d go, ‘Naw, man, I got to get my rest.’ At that time I didn’t need rest,” he says with a chuckle in the Yankee dugout. “But that’s what I thought I needed to do to be prepared to win the next day. I didn’t know that guys had a beer or two or got drunk or smoked a joint. I actually believed that athletes got their rest at night. I remember my homeboys hanging out on the corner partying, and I was upstairs watching the Mets at 8 o’clock.”
Part of Randolph’s baseball orientation may have resulted from living in 360, which the black guys in 315 and 305 called “the Puerto Rican building.” “Hispanic building?” he says with a smile.
“Yeah, the majority of them were. They make them good rice and beans and are a good band of people. I remember even going to Puerto Rico, my first time being out of Brooklyn. I must have been 10 or 11 years old. We had an all-star team within this league and they won a trip to Puerto Rico for a week; we went on a little tour of three cities. I remember sleeping with a net over me. It was so weird. I just wanted to play ball. It could have been with the Russians; I didn’t care who it was with.”
Crucial to Randolph’s development as a young player was his friendship with a gardener at the Tilden projects named Frank Tepedino. His namesake and nephew was a scrubby reserve outfielder with the Yankees from 1969 to 1972 and another nephew, Russell, played second base on the same Tilden JV baseball team I did. “Frank gave me my first break,” Randolph says. “He got tired of chasing us off his grass and everything, so he said, ‘Listen, you guys really want to play ball? Come on down to Five Diamonds [in Prospect Park] on Saturday and we’ll play.’ ”
Tepedino introduced him to American Legion ball, where he competed against Italians and Jews from outside Brooklyn’s dark neighborhoods, and also to a few tricks of the trade. Man on first. Ball hit up the middle. Randolph fields it and, instead of flipping underhand or turning his body to throw sideways, he flips it backhand, “Frank showed that to me when I was 11 or 12,” he says, grabbing a ball and twisting his wrist to demonstrate. “I remember him very vividly saying, ‘Get close to the base. Get that ball and flip your wrist around and shovel it.’ I would sit in my room and put a pillow on the bed and just take a hardball and for hours just stand there throwing the ball into that pillow.”
Gifted basketball players are scouted in junior high, but relatively little attention is paid to New York City baseball players. For every Randolph, or fellow Brooklynite Julio Cruz (White Sox), or Shawon Dunston (Cubs), a slew of basketball players emerges from the inner city every year. Part of the problem is the lack of fields and the poor quality of those that exist. Willie and I traded stories about the Tilden High School field in East Flatbush; I remember twice getting hit in the throat on bad hops, he got it once in the mouth. Randolph once took his spikes and dug up a rock “as big as a damn basketball” in the shortstop hole. Quality instruction is in short supply as well. Basically, “you just had to get what you could from this guy or that guy, and keep your eyes open for anything else,” says Randolph, who in the off-season does clinics around the metropolitan area.
Fear keeps many baseball scouts out of Brownsville and neighborhoods like it. “Half of them are afraid they’re gonna get mugged,” he says. “Some scouts came out to see me and stayed in the car.” Still, by his senior year at Tilden, Randolph was all-city at shortstop and enough of a prospect that the Mets, Expos, and Royals all took a look, but the Pirates were the only ones that showed real interest.
In the ’70s the Pirates were one of the most popular teams in black America because they were always ready and willing to sign and play black and Hispanic players. In fact, they are the only major league team in history to put nine black/Hispanic players in the game at one time. However, the open-door racial policies of the Pirates didn’t mean they liked scouting in Brooklyn, either. Randolph signed his Pittsburgh Pirate contract in a car outside diamond seven at the Prospect Park Parade Grounds. “It’s the seventh inning of a game and they call me off the field. They say, ‘Listen we got to go back to Pittsburgh. We want you to sign. You got to sign, and gotta sign it now. We ain’t gonna wait.’ I got in the car. On this particular day they did not want to get out of the car. They just wanted to get it done and over with.”
At one point during our dugout talk another reporter, whom I didn’t see, sat down behind me with an open notebook. Randolph had me stop taping and told my fellow scribe quite firmly not to take notes. Willie considered this a private interview. Said reporter remarked that he was after his own “angle” and retreated a few feet. Willie had been comfortable talking about his pre-Yankee days, but his rebuff of the other reporter made me remember that Willie is a New York Yankee, not simply some homeboy I grew up with.
S I D E T W O
Sitting in front of Randolph’s locker some weeks later, waiting for him to emerge from the weight room, it struck me that the second baseman is the Yankees’ Invisible Man; through temperament and study he has kept his true character obscure on the most reported about sports franchise in America. If Randolph were a b-boy, I’d say he was “fronting.” My man wouldn’t lie to the Daily News, but he’s much too wise to tell folks what he really thinks about his years with the pinstriped crew. Listen to how Randolph schooled the troubled and now departed Bobby Meacham on reporters: “He told me, ‘Just answer what they ask you. Don’t volunteer additional comments.’ ”
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, in contrast to my previous visit, he was initially quite guarded. He asked me very directly what I was trying to “get,” as if he suspected I was out to do a hatchet job. That homeboy stuff had worn off. Randolph was just pursuing his policy of cautious engagement, quite aware that at Yankee Stadium, giving the wrong quote to the right reporter is like setting fire to your ass. And through 21 managerial changes, four World Series, four All-Star selections, more seasons in pinstripes than any black Yankee except Elston Howard 912) and Roy White (14), this is one Brownsville cat who has kept himself quite chilly.
Ask him about the media and he says, “I’m much more open these days because I’m more mature. I feel like I can converse without falling into traps that I might have fell into earlier,” but he makes it clear scribes are not his closest friends. “I got burned sometimes early in my career which probably made me a little tougher. It’s like when you grew up on the block and someone came out of their face wrong, you don’t forget it. You don’t make the same mistakes.”
Privacy, you see, is a big issue with Randolph. You have rarely seen pictures of his wife Gretchen, his high school sweetheart who lived in 305 Livonia, or his three kids. Away from the ballpark, with the exception of the baseball clinics and some charitable appearances, he keeps a low profile, attending Broadway shows (he was one of the few to like Big Deal) and catching some jazz in the Village. Randolph assiduously avoids the celebrity backstage hustle. “The PR guy is pushing, ‘Come on, let’s get the publicity picture.’ I say, ‘That’s for you. Does the man want to do that? Did he request me to come back here?’ So I just go do my thing, sit back, check it out, slip out the side door, in my car, and I’m gone.”
Aside from his don’t-crowd-me, I-won’t-crowd-you attitude, another factor in his reticence may be that his current contract ends this season. That will make him a 32-year-old second baseman with three to four quality years ahead of him. From the Yankees’ viewpoint, he may be nearing the end of his value as trade bait. Is the recently acquired (and younger) Wayne Tolleson next season’s second sacker? I hope not. Despite making more errors in the first half of this season than he did all of last, Willie can still pick it, and because of his exceptional batting eye (he’s been in the base-on-balls top five all season), he’s still a good number two hitter even if Lou Piniella doesn’t think so. Randolph would definitely be a valuable commodity in the open market, someone teams like the Orioles and the Padres would covet. Of course Randolph doesn’t want to go. His roots are too deep in this city and his team.
So first we talked with the tape recorder off. I explained what I was looking for and Randolph listened, nodding at me and saying little. And, to my surprise, the Invisible Man began to open up about the Yankees. “People think, ‘Oh, you’re never involved in any controversy.’ That’s not necessarily true. That’s not true at all. I’ve had my spats and squabbles with ownership. I don’t run to the paper and publicize it like some guys might. I just let it roll off my back. I don’t let it get to the point that it starts eating at me and affects my play.”
In 1982 boss George fined and flogged Randolph for missing an off-day workout. “I had a prior commitment with the Mental Health Association and I felt I couldn’t cancel. There were over 1000 people there to see me. Kids. There was a little bickering about it in the papers. He was really pissed about it. This was during the strike year. We weren’t even playing ball when I committed to this so, just because we came back to playing ball and he feels we’re playing horseshit, I can’t just disappoint the kids and tell them I can’t come.”
Billy Martin and Dick Howser turned out to be his favorite managers: Billy for his style, and the Kansas City manager (now recovering from brain surgery) for his temperament. “Billy Martin taught me a lot. He was my first manager. He believed in me at a very young age. Not too many rookies play under Billy. He gave me a chance to play and really didn’t mess with my game. I like Billy’s aggressive style. Now, the total contrast was Dick Howser. Dick Howser was a coach before be became a manager, so I had a chance to get to know him before he took the job. He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t say a lot, but he was open for suggestions. If you had any problems you could go and talk to him. He just treated me with a lot of respect and, hey, we won 103 ball games that year (1980), so you can’t argue with that. You don’t win 103 games by sitting on your butt in the manager’s seat.”
Then he adds with an ironic smile and a laugh, “Managers can’t do it for you, Nelson. You got to go out there yourself. No one’s gonna help you at that plate facing that 90 mph fastball. No one can turn that double play for you.” For him, the difference between competitive ball-clubs, like the current Yankees, and the championship squads of the late ’70s is not found in batting averages and ERAs. “When you think about those years you remember we had a veteran team with a certain moxie, a certain attitude that I think got us over a lot,” he says with obvious affection. “Today we have a tremendous amount of talent. Man for man, I think we have much more talent than many other teams. But that doesn’t always win you championships. You have to have a certain makeup, a certain arrogance, a cockiness about yourself; just the way you played the game. Nettles, Reggie, Thurman, Chris [Chambliss], Mickey [Rivers], Goose [Gossage], all those guys — they knew how to win, that’s all.” Which suggests that some of the qualities I found so intimidating at the time were part of what made them so cold-blooded in all those memorable battles with the Red Sox, Royals, and Dodgers. “At times it got to the point that we felt we could turn it on when we had to. It seemed that way anyway. It’s a bad habit to get into but we seemed to be able to do that. It was amazing.”
It was 10 years ago this summer that Randolph, the star of Yankee training camp, won the second base job opposite shortstop Fred “Chicken” Stanley. That same historic season the renovated Yankee Stadium reopened, Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner were the toast (not just the talk) of the town, Thurman Munson was the only straw in the drink, and behind the steady starting pitching of Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa, and Don Gullett, the Yankees won the American League East by 10½ over Boston, bringing the franchise its first pennant in 12 years. Randolph, Piniella, and Guidry (who that year appeared in only seven major league contests) are the only survivors from that campaign. Piniella, of course, is managing, and as captains, Guidry and Randolph are following in the cleat marks of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Munson, and Nettles (also Roger Peckinpaugh and Everett Scott). No one made a big deal about Randolph being the Yankees’ first black captain, and neither does he. What apparently is more significant to him is the time it took for management to acknowledge his leadership with the title. My impression is that Randolph wanted to be made captain when Nettles went to San Diego in spring 1984.
“Nothing. Nothing really,” Randolph answers very softly when asked what difference being co-captain has made. “I feel that for the last five or six years I’ve been a leader in my own way on this club. You know in your own mind, you know from the response from your teammates. No writer or no one else has to tell you, ‘He’s the leader.’ ” He takes on a whining, mocking voice to say, ” ‘Oh, I think I’ve arrived. I think I’m a leader.’ I don’t need that. My relationship with my teammates is what makes me captain, not statistics or longevity. When it happened, it was a highlight for me, but you have to understand it was talked about for awhile. So maybe a little bit of the ooomph kinda went away a little bit. It wasn’t like I just said, ‘Oh, well.’ But I was already comfortable with the way I perceived myself and what I meant to this team when they announced it. I don’t want to play it down, but you have to know the history of the whole thing.”
Roy White, the senior black Yankee when Randolph joined the club, currently hitting coach, backs him up. Standing by the batting cage watching Randolph work on his swing, White recalls that in ’76, “He was a quiet kind of shy young man with a lot of talent you immediately noticed,” but that today “Willie is a leader on the club and is a lot more verbal about it than people realize. In the clubhouse, in the dugout, on the bus, he talks to guys, gets on them. He’s very good with the younger players.” Meacham felt that way and, according to Stokes’s book on the 1983 Yankee season, Pinstripe Pandemonium, that was true then with Meacham, Andre Robertson, and Brian Dayett. Stokes also remarked “it sometimes seemed as though there were two different Willie Randolphs wearing pinstripes.”
Randolph’s attitude is that of the classic other-borough New Yorker. Where out-of-towners like Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, George Steinbrenner, and Billy Martin came to the Apple to get drunk on the city’s glamour and power, Randolph sips from the cup lightly. A camera ad. A Gillette spot with Steve Garvey and Steve Carlton. Some stuff on WPIX and SportsChannel. That’s all this hometown hero has tasted. He says, “I haven’t really pursued it. I’ve been open for it,” yet Randolph must know that solid second basemen with barely over 30 lifetime homers don’t get Madison Avenue calls unless they chase.
He hasn’t. He won’t. He’s still got the baseball obsessiveness that kept him upstairs at night watching the Mets and perfecting his double play toss. The difference, over the long run, between some of the very gifted Puerto Rican players in 360 Dumont and Willie “Mickey” Randolph wasn’t raw talent. There were cats we played with who could put the ball on the roof of the Tilden projects, and field as sweet as Topps bubble gum. What separated Randolph from his local peers is what separates the 1976 Yankees and 1986 Yankees.
“When you walk out in the field you have to really feel like you can win; that you’re the best at what you can do. That’s how I approach my job,” he says near the end of our talk, buttoning up the most famous jersey in professional sports. “It’s all about attitude.” ♦