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Another Legend of the Fall

ALCS: Yankee Shane Spencer would seem like a minor miracle if Brian Doyle hadn't all but done this gig 20 years ago.

October 05, 1998|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Every time New York Yankee left fielder Shane Spencer stepped to the plate during the American League division series against Texas, a 45-year-old man in Winter Haven, Fla., called to his wife and said, "Come here, honey, you've got to see this."

And together, Brian and Connie Doyle would gaze at the television, watching this strange and wonderful "This is Your Life" episode unfold before their eyes.

It was 20 years ago this month that Brian Doyle, all 5-foot-9, 145 pounds of him, replaced injured second baseman Willie Randolph and became a Yankee playoff hero, hitting .438 with four runs and two RBIs to help the Yankees defeat the Dodgers for the 1978 World Series championship.

Doyle bears little physical resemblance to the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Spencer--"Shane's forearm could make one of my legs," Doyle joked--but these days the two exist in a parallel universe, linked by the shared experience of going from oblivion to stardom in the media capital of the world.

Like Spencer, who spent eight years in the Yankee farm system before reaching the big leagues this year, Doyle had a lengthy minor league stewardship--five years--before making it to New York.

Like Spencer, who was recalled from triple-A Columbus four different times this season, Doyle was all too familiar with the minor league shuttle, getting recalled from triple-A Tacoma and sent back down five times in 1978.

And like Spencer, who has grinned his way into the hearts of New York fans and gained notoriety across the country by hitting two huge playoff home runs last week, Doyle thrived under the playoff microscope under which so many big-named players have shrunk.

"Everyone kept asking me if I felt pressure, and when I said no, no one could believe it," said Doyle, who runs a baseball academy in Orlando, Fla. "The reason was because I had a wife and child across the country and had been up and down from the minor leagues five times that year.

"The pressure for me was meeting my monthly bills and being away from my family. When I was put on the postseason roster, I knew I was going to make more money in a month than I did in the previous five years."

It's the same for Spencer.

"Pressure," Yankee Manager Joe Torre said, "is spending eight years in the minor leagues and not knowing if you're ever going to get a shot at the big leagues."

Just as Spencer has befuddled opposing pitchers, hitting both fastballs and curveballs to all fields and finishing September with eight homers, including three grand slams, Doyle had opposing pitchers stumped.

But that was by design. After replacing Randolph, who pulled a hamstring on the second-to-last day of the 1978 season, Doyle, a utility player who batted left-handed, tried to hit balls the opposite way for several at-bats.

"My strength was hitting the inside pitch, but I tried to use an inside-out swing and hit the ball to left field," Doyle said. "I got a few hits and hit .280 in the league championship series [against Kansas City] but basically gave myself up.

"The other teams figured, 'Here's this kid choking up on the bat four inches and trying to hit to the opposite field, let's bust him inside.' Then they started pitching to my strengths."

And then Doyle got hot, hitting just about everything the Dodgers threw at him during the World Series and playing superb defense too. The Yankees, after losing the first two games in Los Angeles, swept the next four to win their second consecutive championship. At one point in the series, Doyle had five straight hits.

"That's what's great about baseball," said Bucky Dent, the Yankee shortstop in '78 and now a Ranger coach. "You never know who's going to jump up and bite you."

Dent, who hit .417 with seven RBIs against the Dodgers, was named series most valuable player, but catcher Thurman Munson and right fielder Reggie Jackson openly campaigned for Doyle to win the award, and the vote was very close.

Baseball didn't hold daily press conferences with managers and players in 1978 as it does now, but Doyle remembers his clubhouse cubicle resembling a sportswriters convention just about every day of the series.

"There was so much media around my locker," Doyle said, "I couldn't really move."

The crush has been just as heavy for Spencer, a regular in the interview room--before and after games--during the division series and a likely target for the league championship series, which the Yankees begin Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians in New York.

But like Doyle, Spencer is devouring the attention instead of letting it consume him.

"As long as I'm not getting booed off the field," Spencer said, "I guess I can't complain."

A former two-sport athlete at Granite Hills High in El Cajon, Spencer has become a cult hero in New York, where he has drawn comparisons to a certain slugger Robert Redford played in the movies.

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