NEW YORK -- More than a month has elapsed since the most embarrassing setback in Yankee history. Yet, the images of Game 7 haven't faded. In fact, there's no need to reference the four straight losses in the American League Championship Series. No point invoking the name of the Red Sox or their 10-3 victory in that do-or-die setting on October 20.
Game 7, in morbid shorthand, says it all.
"I wake up in the middle of the night staring at Manny Ramirez," is how Joe Torre recently described his offseason struggle. And as if the memory of the Sox winning their first World Series in 86 years wasn't painful enough, a spray-painted likeness of Johnny Damon has recently appeared on lamp-posts in a Brooklyn neighborhood, the work of an anonymous graffiti artist.
City officials promise Damon's picture will be scrubbed in a few days, but there's no guarantee the damage of his second-inning grand slam off Javier Vazquez, the one that all but ended the Yankees' season, will ever be entirely repaired. Alex Rodriguez is home in Miami, confessing that he's still haunted by going 2 for his last 17 and being booed by fans after his final at-bat. And Derek Jeter, despite a .200 average in the ALCS, distanced himself from the meltdown by reminding reporters that "this group" of Yankees didn't merit a comparison to the 1996-2000 era teams because they hadn't won a World Series yet.
Never have the Yankees emerged from October with so many psychological wounds. The first assumption was that George Steinbrenner would spend the winter settling scores, looking for victims, overturning his front office if not his roster. Surprisingly, however, the Boss has resisted the urge to blame Torre or GM Brian Cashman or any of the Yankees' coaches.
Against a back-drop of November-angst, Steinbrenner has shocked the baseball world by firing ... no one.
The Yankees' owner has instead chosen to redirect his frustration into his bank account. Although no final budget has been approved yet, team officials are resigned to the inevitability of a record-setting $200 million payroll. Of course, obsessive spending is nothing new to Steinbrenner; it's written in his DNA coding. But simply writing bigger checks is the kind of reaction one would expect from the Yankees after losing to the Marlins in the World Series, not to the Red Sox in the kind of collapse that made history.
If anyone would've been vulnerable in an earlier Steinbrenner era, it was Cashman. The GM has just one year remaining on his contract, and his key acquisitions in 2004, Vazquez and Kevin Brown, combined to put the Yankees in a 6-0 hole before they'd even come to bat in the second inning. Like everyone else in the Yankee front office, Cashman was on a Tampa-bound plane in the days that followed the Game 7 rout, and one GM darkly wondered if Cashman would ever be seen again.
But never once during a three-day summit with Steinbrenner was the GM's job in jeopardy. Instead, the Boss conducted a restrained post-mortem investigation of the Yankees' defeat, and made sure to publicly congratulate the Sox for advancing to the World Series.
Asked to explain such mild behavior, Cashman cautiously said on Wednesday, "the only person who could answer that is George Steinbrenner. He's the employer, we're the employees here. I don't think it's in my best interests to evaluate it."
There are reasons why Cashman sounds so detached. For one, the GM's allies say Cashman is surprised, if not offended, that anyone would even consider a dismissal -- not when the team Cashman assembled was one Mariano Rivera inning away from sweeping the Sox.
The fact that Rivera couldn't close out Game 4 was no reflection on the GM, and for once Steinbrenner seems to realize that. One major league executive bluntly said, "Brian did his job, the rest was up to the players to finish it off."
That might explain why Cashman seems less traumatized than other Yankees by the Red Sox triumph. Speaking from his Bronx office on Wednesday, the GM said, "I'm past being upset about it. I've gone from "how did we lose? to accepting that they won. They're the champions. I saw that the (World Series) trophy was in New Haven (on Wednesday). That's what world champs do, they get to brag about it, show it off. It's something to be proud of forever."
Still, even though Cashman emerged from Game 7 professionally intact, he's smart enough not to count on an insult-free winter. In fact, he's already suffered his first indignity -- having to find out second-hand that Steinbrenner and Pedro Martinez were meeting face-to-face in Tampa on Tuesday. The GM was so completely taken by surprise, he refused to take calls from reporters on Tuesday, and was still declining comment on Pedro's free agency on Wednesday.
Cashman has no choice but to defer to Steinbrenner on this matter, even if the Boss is just using Pedro to nudge the Diamondbacks into dealing Randy Johnson to the Bronx, as some Yankee people suspect. Even in the absence of a post-ALCS coup, the point was made this week: this will be Steinbrenner's offseason.
The Boss' firing-muscles may have atrophied, but Cashman is nevertheless bracing for a familiar offseason sensation -- being squeezed by the Boss' long, decision-making tentacles. Which begs an obvious question: is keeping one's job always a reward in the Bronx?
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.