I met this guy back in the mid 1980s, I can’t remember exactly when. The Yankees used to have their AA ballclub here in Nashville, and prospects such as Don Mattingly, Steve Balboni and Willie McGee all spent time here. Anyway Billy Martin used to come down to Nashville to check out the Yankees’ prospects, and he was also a huge country music fan. At the time I ran a limosine service that catered to celebrities and guests of a now-famous Nashville restaurant, the Nashville Union Stockyard Restaurant.
At the time the owner was a big-time country music publisher named Buddy Killen, so the people who performed in the nightclub downstairs (the Bullpen Lounge) were absolutely first-rate. When Billy came down to Nashville I used to pick him up in the limo at the Opryland Hotel and take him back afterwards (usually after a considerable amount of scotch I might add.)
The last time I drove Billy was about ten days before his death. Some of the Yankees’ minor league people saw him come in and said: “Was that Billy Martin?” Another responded: “Yep, sure was, he headed straight for the bar.” Billy had recently been made a Vice President for the Yankees, he told me that he was real frustrated with his “so-called promotion” because he cared a lot about the Yankees and wanted to help, but nobody in their front office would listen. A fan came up to him while we were talking and had some disparaging things to say about George Steinbrenner but Billy wouldn’t even listen. He just bit his tongue and walked away.
About thirteen scotches on the rocks later I drove Billy back to his hotel, I must say he held his liquor well. I had no idea that it would be the last time I saw the man. Ten days later Billy died in an accident; in eulogizing Billy George Steinbrenner said it was an untimely loss because Billy was “chomping at the bit” when it came to performing in his new job.
All of a sudden it dawned on me – everybody in baseball knew that Billy was in the late to chronic stages of alcoholism and so did George. I knew during all those hirings and firings that Billy was drawing a Yankee paycheck – it seemed there was an inexplicable bond between the two men that transcended their employment. Steinbrenner knew that Billy wasn’t “chomping at the bit” for a made-up job – he just wanted his old friend to go out in style. And so he did.
Nowadays I still hear people say things about George Steinbrenner and most of ‘em are true. But I still take ‘em with a grain of salt because of how he was with the only baseball personality I ever really knew – Alfred Manuel Martinez, aka Billy Martin.