Plenty of unknown awaits Torre

NEW YORK -- With George Steinbrenner out of the hospital, assured by his doctors that he's healthy enough to resume his quest for a $200 million payroll, Yankee employees speak with one voice when they ask: what now?

Will the Boss' sudden collapse on Saturday somehow turn him into a kinder, gentler despot? No one in Tampa is betting on it. According to those who've been in contact with Steinbrenner in the last 48 hours, the 73-year-old owner is determined to prove it'll take more than a fainting spell to stop him.

That's not particularly good news for the team's senior officials, considering Steinbrenner had his hand around the organization's throat all winter. And it's no clearer where Joe Torre stands, either. Before Steinbrenner took ill, the Yankee manager had been curiously immune from the winter's upheaval -- which isn't to say Torre was expecting 2004 to be peaceful.

To the contrary, Torre is beginning the final leg of a three-year contract and, for the first time since he began his reign in 1996, no longer speaks of extending his stay.

After five pennants in the last six years, Torre has earned the right to leave the Yankees on his own terms. But lame-duck status poses a particular challenge for Torre, whose first order of business will be to determine the winner in the Bernie Williams-Kenny Lofton stare-down in center field.

That'll require some political finesse. Williams has been one of Torre's strongest allies, but Lofton is bolstered by a two-year deal from Steinbrenner, meaning he actually has greater job-security than his manager.

Indeed, Steinbrenner could finally be seeing Torre as a soft target in 2004 -- although, ironically, the Boss himself could be included in a New York State probe of the Yankees' practice of giving away free tickets to politicians.

For now, though, Steinbrenner is the club's single most powerful figure, having signed off on the Yankees' lukewarm courtship of Andy Pettitte's defection, personally negotiating a three-year deal with Gary Sheffield and otherwise turning over a third of the pennant-winning roster in just two months.

If Steinbrenner's on a late-'70s/early '80s type roll, who's to say Torre, a short-timer, won't eventually feel the heat, too?

GM Brian Cashman discovered first-hand how vindictive Steinbrenner has been since the World Series. Hours after the New York Post reported in mid-December that Cashman intended to quit after the 2004 season -- and that his only worry was Steinbrenner exercising a contract-option for 2005 -- the Boss responded by announcing his GM would be kept under contract through 2005.

This was no reward for Cashman's three world championships since 1998, and, like Torre, his five pennants in six years. This was pure punishment -- a message from the Boss that coldly told Cashman, there's only one way out: Quit.

Despite the temptation to have the last word on Steinbrenner, however, Cashman knows he would forfeit the $1.2 million owed to him in 2005, and would also be prohibited from working for another major league team until 2006.

By contrast, Torre and Steinbrenner have no claim on each other after 2004, which is bound to change the manager's perception of his job. As usual, Torre's lineup will be filled with enormous talent, but many of his allies will be gone. Don Zimmer, Torre's bench coach and political ally, has retired, and losing Pettitte and Roger Clemens further thins the ranks of Torre-loyalists who fueled the 1996-2000 golden era.

Of course, no one expects chaos. Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez will all be respectful of Torre. But with the possibility of just one year left, it's hard to believe Torre can make any of the newcomers "his" guys, the way Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill and David Cone were. Torre still has Derek Jeter, of course -- and he's still the organization's most popular player -- but the manager acknowledged the challenges that await him.

"My job is going to be tough enough, not because of the new acquisitions of guys who are supposedly tough to handle," Torre said. "When you go in and you have new people, you see what you have. Will my job be tougher? You never know that.''

With job security no longer at stake, Torre could be combative in his last summer, looking for any opening to unload on Steinbrenner. That's one scenario. But it's also possible Torre will choose to be emotionally detached from his team, confining himself to the dugout and his office, allowing the Yankees to deal with the Red Sox without too many clubhouse speeches or team meetings.

There'll be no point trying to turn Sheffield into O'Neill, or teach Brown about Pettitte's big-game legacy. Instead, Torre could simply give Sheffield all the airspace he needs, and let his devastating bat speed smooth over whatever chemistry problems might arise.

Same goes for Brown: If his back is healthy, no one will ask him to take Yankee history lessons.

The Yankees have taken several gambles -- Brown's back, Sheffield's age, Vazquez' inexperience in pennant-race pressure -- which could pay enormous dividends. Then again, the Yankees are old and virtual strangers to each other, which is why Cashman freely admits, "We still have a lot to prove."

That includes whether a manager who has nothing to lose can handle an owner who still thinks he has everything to prove. Or vice versa.

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.