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Bill Kwon

Sports Watch

By Bill Kwon

Saturday, January 15, 2000

No sour memories
of Lemon

THE death of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon earlier this week brought back a lot of memories.

I never saw him pitch for the Cleveland Indians, although he was on my Nixonian enemies list along with Garcia, Wynn and Feller back in 1948, when the hated Tribe beat my beloved Bosox for the American League title.

But I did see him manage, up close and personal. And managed he did, from the ridiculous to the sublime, if you will.

After seven 20-win seasons with Cleveland and stints as pitching coach for the Indians and the California Angels, Lemon got his first job as a manager in 1964 with the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League.

The next time I saw him as skipper, it was with the New York Yankees in the World Series.

He hadn't forgotten his Hawaii ties or friends from the islands. We sat and chatted in the manager's cubicle in the Yankee locker room, reminiscing about old times, long after the rest of the media had finished their interviews and rushed off to write their stories.

I had no deadline to make, and neither did old "Lem."

HE asked me what size cap I wore. I told him. He yelled over to the equipment manager to get me a Yankee cap. I never told him I was a Red Sox fan and it was a sworn obligation to hate the Yankees.

It was an authentic major league cap. Sized to fit, with no adjustable straps needed. It finally fell apart and I threw it out. I'm glad at least old "Lem," 79, outlasted that cap.

In 1964, the Islanders weren't anyone's Triple-A farm team. They had no major league affiliation.

So Jack Quinn, the team's general manager, collected whatever baseball bodies were available, healthy or otherwise.

They were baseball's "Motley Crue."

Hawaii's best hitters were an aging Carlos Bernier and catcher Jack Hiatt. And if you can't remember any of the other players that year - Herb Plews, Paul Schaal, Ernie Foli - you're forgiven. Neither could I. So I followed the sage advice of Casey Stengel, who always said, "You can look it up." I had to.

Needless to say, the Islanders finished dead last in the PCL's Western Division, finishing 31 games behind the San Diego Padres. Yes, it was that long ago. The Padres were in the PCL, which had 12 teams from Honolulu to Indianapolis.

The WAC had nothing on the old PCL, in terms of being geographically far-flung.

THE Islanders were literally the "baddest" team in all of baseball that season. Not only were they last in the league, they were last in fielding and the pitching staff had the league's highest ERA.

Through it all, Lemon maintained a rosy disposition, which matched his complexion. He didn't need the Islanders to drive him to drink.

He went from the ridiculous to the sublime in 1978 as manager of the world champion New York Yankees.

The Yankees were a team in turmoil. Owner George Steinbrenner was feuding with his manager, Billy Martin, who resigned, and Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson, who was the straw that stirred more than just drinks.

Under Lemon's calming influence, his quiet leadership and fatherly patience - the latter a quality surely developed as the result of a bad Islander team - the Yankees overcame a 14-game deficit to beat my Red Sox in a one-game playoff to win the AL East, knocked off Kansas City for the AL title and beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

"Lem," thanks for the memories.

Bill Kwon has been writing about
sports for the Star-Bulletin since 1959.

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