July 22nd, 2013
Sparky Lyle was born in DuBois, PA on this date in 1944. I was a huge Sparky fan. When the Yankees grabbed him from the Red Sox in exchange for Danny Cater just before the 1972 season started, I knew it was a good move by the Yankees but I had no idea it would turn out to be one of the greatest trades in Pinstripe history. To understand the impact Lyle had on the Yankees, you need to consider what the Yankee bullpen was like before “The Count” arrived. In 1971, Lindy McDaniel and Jack Aker had shared the Yankee closer role and tied for the team lead in saves with four each. That’s right, it’s not a typo, four saves led the team. In Lyle’s first season as a Yankee, he saved 35 games and won nine more. The Yankees won 79 games that year and Lyle was involved in a total of 44 of those victories. His 1972 ERA was an amazing 1.95. Within a single season, Lyle had turned the Yankee bullpen into one of the best in the league. Gabe Paul continued to work his magic with clever trades over the next few seasons and by 1977 the Yankees were World Series winners and Sparky Lyle won the AL Cy Young Award with a 13-5 record, 26 saves and a 2.17 ERA. He went on to win three games during the 1977 postseason and cemented his reputation as one of the elite closers in all of baseball. So what does George Steinbrenner do? He goes out and signs another elite closer named Goose Gossage.
Update: The above post was written in 2010. Here’s an update. Just as Lyle retired from baseball after the 1982 season, America’s baseball memorabilia craze was gathering steam and Sparky was in a great position to take full advantage of it. Since he called southern New Jersey home by that time, he jumped at an offer to become a greeter at an Atlantic City Casino with former Yankee legend, Mickey Mantle. A New York Times article in 2010 quoted Lyle as saying the five years he spent at that hotel keeping Mickey out of trouble were “the best five years of my life.”
Then in 1998, he went to a New Jersey dealership to buy a new pickup truck and the owner of the place asked Lyle if he was interested in managing a new baseball team he was putting together for the Atlantic League, a brand new minor league that would be unaffiliated with any Major League franchises. Mantle had passed away by then and the memorabilia craze had also died, so Sparky said yes and became the first manager in the history of the Somerset Patriots in 1998, at the age of 53. He remained in that position for 15 years, retiring after the 2012 season. During that span his teams won five league pennants and compiled a won-loss record of 1024 – 913.
Reflecting on Sparky Lyle’s Yankee career today, I tried to compare him with the great Yankee closers I’ve seen pitch in my 54 years as a Yankee fan. He was definitely the first “great” Yankee closer of my lifetime. He lost his job to the second one, Goose Gossage, because he was older and couldn’t throw as hard. In fact, when an eighteen-year-old Lyle had his first-ever big league tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the scout running it watched the young southpaw throw a bunch of pitches and yelled out to him to show him his hard stuff. Lyle responded that he had been throwing his hard stuff, which explains why he was not signed by the Pirates. Still, I think the real reason that Yanks got Gossage in the first place was because Lyle was a bit too vocal about his lack of respect for Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Dave Righetti lacked Lyle’s fun-loving and outgoing personality. For example, Rags would never sit naked on a birthday cake in the middle of a clubhouse, which was a Lyle tradition. Like Mariano, Lyle became great when he perfected one pitch. In Sparky’s case it was a slider, which he learned to throw because the great Ted Williams told him it was the one pitch the Splendid Splinter couldn’t handle. Bottom line is that Rivera will certainly be the last Yankee ever referred to as the greatest pure closer in baseball history but Lyle was the first.
Sparky’s wasn’t the only Yankee career Goose helped end. Ironically, another one belonged to this former teammate of Lyle’s who shares his July 22nd birthday. This former Yankee starting pitcher also share the Count’s birthday.
Here’s Lyle’s seasonal pitching stats as a Yankee and his MLB career totals:
|NYY (7 yrs)||57||40||.588||2.41||420||0||348||0||0||141||745.2||666||239||200||32||234||454||1.207|
|BOS (5 yrs)||22||17||.564||2.85||260||0||160||0||0||69||331.1||294||124||105||27||133||275||1.289|
|PHI (3 yrs)||12||9||.571||4.37||92||0||35||0||0||6||125.2||146||68||61||7||51||47||1.568|
|TEX (2 yrs)||8||10||.444||3.84||116||0||85||0||0||21||175.2||175||84||75||18||56||91||1.315|
|CHW (1 yr)||0||0||3.00||11||0||6||0||0||1||12.0||11||4||4||0||7||6||1.500|