BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NEW YORK -- The meeting has lasted almost an hour, and when George Steinbrenner emerges from Joe Torre's office, people automatically assume the worst.
Bernie Williams, center, is greeted by Chuck Knoblauch and Jorge Posada after a game-winning homer last week.
(Gary Landers photo)
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"Should I read something into this?" the man from the New York Times asks the owner of the New York Yankees.
"Yes," Steinbrenner says, "I just fired him."
He laughs, and then he leaves. There is no more positive proof of the Yankees' spectacular season than this: George Steinbrenner can joke about firing his manager, and people can find it funny.
If the most overbearing owner in professional sports can find enough fault with Torre's team to merit a change in managers, he must be using a microscope. More than at any other time in Steinbrenner's 25-year reign of terror, the idea of rolling heads is positively preposterous.
Until October, at least.
The Bronx Bombers are 98-36 with four weeks to play in the regular season, on pace to surpass the 1906 Chicago Cubs' record of 116 victories, and to add another layer of lustre to Yankee lore. They are a team of astounding depth and versatility, as likely to win a game with a propitious bunt as an offensive barrage, with starting pitching that rivals that of the Atlanta Braves and a bullpen closer, Mariano Rivera, who carries an earned-run average of 1.56.
They have everything you could ask of a baseball club, except the ultimate validation of a World Series title. Two years removed from their October upset of the Atlanta Braves, the 1998 Yankees are destined to be remembered as a team for the ages, or as the most spectacular flameout of the century.
The Yankees must win 19 of their remaining 28 games to set the record for victories in a single season. They could then lose a best-of-five first-round playoff series and be finished. New York qualified for the postseason on Saturday.
"The regular season is irrelevant," says pitcher David Cone, the ace and conscience of baseball's best ballclub. "All it does is set you up for the playoffs."
October was a simpler time for the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle. Until the dawn of divisional play, in 1969, the pennant winners of the American and National League advanced directly to the World Series. There were no division playoffs, no League Championship Series, and considerably less chance that the best team would get ambushed by a lesser lot.
The modern playoffs are a minefield. A single dominating pitcher -- Orel Hershiser in 1988; Jose Rijo in 1990 -- can shift the odds significantly. Thus each game the Yankees win during the regular season also serves to set them up for a more dramatic fall in the post-season. They can't really win unless they win it all.
"Unfortunately, that's how teams are judged," Seattle manager Lou Piniella said Friday night. "By what they've done in the post-season."
Piniella says the 1998 Yankees have more talent than the championship teams he played on in New York in the 1970s or the Cincinnati Reds he managed to a World Series sweep in 1990. He says these Yankees have a chance to be considered the greatest Yankee team in history, but that their place in history is predicated on post-season performance.
He is sitting in the visiting manager's office at Yankee Stadium, gripping a cigarette and grappling with a crossword puzzle. It is Piniella's 55th birthday, and both he and his team are marking time. The Mariners have Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez -- two of baseball's brightest stars -- and not nearly enough of such staples as pitching.
"What's happening in baseball is the teams that spent the extra dough to shore up all of their areas are the ones getting the job done," Piniella said. "Our payroll ($53 million) is high enough to compete, but it's (centered) on eight players.
"The Yankees are a real deep team. Their starting pitching is a real strength, top to bottom. They basically have three No. 1 starters over there (David Cone, David Wells and Andy Pettitte) and the other ones are solid No. 3s on any staff except possibly Atlanta."
The Yankees have allowed fewer runs than any team in the American League. They have scored more runs than any team in baseball. They have the best home record, the best road record and the best record in one-run games of any team in either league. Their typical game, however, is a blowout.
Despite a recent rash of blown saves, the Yankees have played only 26 one-run games this season. They have batted around in a single inning 30 times. Friday night, they sent 10 hitters to the plate in the first inning of a 10-3 victory over the Mariners. Saturday, they sent 11 hitters to the plate in the second inning, compiled a season-high 19 hits, and scorched Seattle, 11-6. They are reminiscent of the 1970s Reds, with fewer superstars and stronger pitching.
"We have no weak spots," said Homer Bush, a reserve infielder who can't crack the lineup despite a .352 batting average. "Some teams, you get to their four hitter, maybe they have a good fifth hitter, but then you can pitch around him. We've got a fourth hitter, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, an eighth. Man, when does it stop?"
Until the Reds' Dmitri Young drove in three runs hitting cleanup Friday night, the Yankees had more runs batted in from their seventh-place hitters than the Reds did from any spot in the lineup. All-Star third baseman Scott Brosius, batting eighth, hit an upper-deck home run Friday night.
The Yankees have no active participants in the Roger Maris chase, but eight different guys have at least 15 home runs. There is not a sure-fire Hall of Famer on the ballclub, but no end to the hard outs.
"It's really amazing," said Chuck Knoblauch, the second baseman. "I've never been on any team like this. There's just a tremendous amount of depth."
Knoblauch broke in with the 1991 World Champion Minnesota Twins, but won't put that team in the same class with his current club. Paul O'Neill, who played right field for the 1990 Reds, claims there's "no comparison" between those days and these.
"That team was based on pitching and getting to the Nasty (Boys) crap," O'Neill said, referring to the vaunted bullpen of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton. "I'm not putting anything down of the 1990 team, but this team is special."
Special? Not since the 1939 Yankees has a team outscored its opponents by an average of two runs per game, as the 1998 Yankees are doing. Not since the 1906 Cubs has a major-league team won such a high percentage of its games. Not perhaps since the Gulf War has another outfit had more weapons than it could really use.
Thursday night, in a 6-5 victory over the Anaheim Angels, the Yankees starting lineup included five former All-Stars. But there were four more All-Star veterans on the bench. The five position players who didn't start the game -- Brosius, O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada and Darryl Strawberry -- have hit more homers than the entire rosters of three major-league teams: the Twins, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Some of this embarrassment of riches is a function of baseball's insane economy, when fully two-thirds of the teams have been priced out of the pennant race. Yet the Baltimore Orioles, with a $74 million payroll, are a more expensive entity than the $63 million Yankees. More than once, Steinbrenner has fielded baseball's costliest club, and failed to win.
What distinguishes this New York team from others of the Steinbrenner regime is that its stars are home-grown instead of hired guns. Center fielder Bernie Williams, the American League's leading hitter, and shortstop Derek Jeter, who leads the league in runs scored, are both products of a system that traditionally has been used to develop trade bait.
Williams, a classical guitarist given to granny glasses and soft sentences, gives the appearance at home plate of a scholar poring over some ancient parchment. Jeter, the erstwhile escort of pop diva Mariah Carey, is all arms and legs and subdued self-assurance.
"You wanted somebody back in the old Roman days to be a gladiator," Torre says of his shortstop. "Jeter is that kind of guy. He walks down the dugout -- I remember he did this in the World Series (as a rookie) -- and he has that wry smile as if, "I'm going to get to do something.' You're born with that. He has the heart of a lion, he really does."
Jeter probably strikes out too much for a guy who hits at the top of the order. Knoblauch should cut down on his swing and concentrate on line drives. Catcher Joe Girardi has trouble stopping base stealers. Left fielder Chad Curtis is essentially taking up space until prospect Ricky Ledee is deemed ready.
Yet compared to the problems of most ballclubs, these complaints amount to quibbles. The Yankees' most exploitable weakness has been in middle relief, but this may shortly be solved. Jeff Nelson and Darren Holmes, sidelined with bulging disks in their backs, are expe cted back in time for the post-season. Even if these arms are unavailable, Torre's depth allows for alternative solutions.
Because baseball teams rarely use more than four starters in the post-season, Torre might try to bridge the gap between his starters and Rivera by converting Cuban refugee Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez from the starting rotation to the bullpen. Right-handed hitters are batting .147 against Hernandez this season.
"I've never relieved," said Hernandez, who fled Cuba on a flimsy boat. "But then again, I'd never navigated before, either."
The Yankees' season-long excellence allows Torre to experiment, to rest his regulars, to prepare for October. He is less concerned about overtaking the 1906 Cubs than with overtaxing his team during the regular season. The Yankees would gladly trade some statistics for some champagne.
"I'm sure we'll look back on what we accomplish in the regular season someday and say, "That was amazing,' " Girardi said. "But when this year is over, we're going to look back on the last game, whether it was a win or a loss. If we don't win, the reaction will be, "What happened?' "
If they don't win, may God have mercy on the manager.
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at email@example.com
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