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Trump-like moves hint at Yankees' desparation

by Mike Berardino
March 1, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE--Not quite sure what this means, but George Steinbrenner recently made a cameo appearance on "The Apprentice," Donald Trump's primetime vehicle of self-aggrandizement.

Maybe the Boss simply wanted to show the world he's still in fighting trim after that scary fainting spell in Sarasota this winter. Maybe he was inspired by the visit to show he still knows a little about the art of the deal (see: Alex Rodriguez).

More dauntingly, perhaps Steinbrenner wanted to spend a little time with The Donald so he could brush up on those two words he hasn't uttered in some time, "You're fired."

Nearly four months have passed since Josh Beckett pitched the Marlins to a World Series title in Yankee Stadium, but don't think for a minute tensions have diminished in the Bronx. On the contrary, with the contract of manager Joe Torre set to expire after this season and general manager Brian Cashman on equally high alert, the hottest seat in baseball has never been toastier.

It was bad enough Roger Clemens pulled a stunning reversal to hold his Rocket Relaunch back home in Houston, where he'll team with best friend and fellow ex-Yankee Andy Pettitte.

Nor could Steinbrenner have enjoyed the back-page treatment afforded the cross-town Mets for their signing of switch-hitting shortstop Kaz Matsui, the latest Japanese sensation to hit these shores.

The Boss vs. Theo Part II

The real pain, however, came from watching the hated Boston Red Sox load up with the best available starting pitcher (Curt Schilling) and closer (Keith Foulke). Suddenly, the Red Sox were looking like the trendy choice to end the Yankees' hold on the AL East.

In response, the Yankees went out and got all sorts of "name" players. Guys like Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Kenny Lofton, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill now sport pinstripes.

The capper, though, came on the eve of spring training, when the Yankees pulled off the very deal for A-Rod that the Red Sox could not. Of course, it only cost them Alfonso Soriano and about $112 million.

If you look past the gaudy lineup and the Rotisserie-style roster, however, the warning signs are evident. Instead of making the Yankees appear juggernaut-y again, all this dizzying movement has done is make them look desperate.

"What I've seen lately is different from when I was there in the '90s," said former Yankees World Series hero Jim Leyritz. "It's almost reverted back to the '80s again. That loyalty from within is not there anymore."

Little by little, the championship core of the organization has been churned. It started with the departures of Scott Brosius and Paul O'Neill after the 2001 World Series loss to Arizona.

This winter it was Clemens, Pettitte and David Wells, who went a combined 27-14 (.659) in 60 postseason starts for the pinstripes.

Look around the diamond, and you'll find just five prominent Yankees in the same role they held last year: Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina and Hideki Matsui.

The roles for virtually every other spot have been shifted. Bernie Williams, his wheels slowing noticeably at age 35, will spend as much time at DH as in center field.

Jason Giambi, whose knees forced him to the bench for Game Five of the World Series, is being counted on to play the field far more now that Nick Johnson was moved on to Montreal.

Even with A-Rod on the scene, there are far more questions than answers in the Bronx.

A Lock To Win?

"I think they're really vulnerable," said Leyritz, who spent parts of nine seasons with the Yankees and auditioned for an ESPN television gig this winter. "The whole pitching staff, with the exception of Mussina (and Rivera), you have no idea what you're going to get."

How will Quantrill and Gordon handle the New York microscope? How will Jeter and A-Rod, no longer the close friends they were early in their careers, handle sharing the attention and the glory?

How about Brown, who has never viewed the press as anything more than a daily nuisance?

"He's not a real people person," said Leyritz of his former teammate in San Diego and Los Angeles. "Because of the injuries, because of the way things have been the last couple years, he's going to get eaten alive if something happens to him."

Even Vazquez, talented as he is, never faced anything close to pennant-race pressure in Montreal. Nor has Jon Lieber, coming off reconstructive elbow surgery, been exposed to the crucible.

"When we had our run, there were not that many surprises coming from the outside," Leyritz said. "Now, forget it. What they've changed as far as personnel on the field, it's ridiculous."

If the Yankees stumble out of the gate--and they'll see the Red Sox seven times in the first four weeks after opening in Japan--the back pages will start screaming for blood.

"(Then) there's going to be a question mark whether Joe Torre gets fired or not, even after everything he's done," Leyritz said. "The way the Yankees are now, that's a possibility."

How Trumpian.

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