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Steinbrenner leaves Yankees
with little room for error

Special to

Jan. 4

OK, so the Yankees payroll has crossed the $165 million mountain, somewhere between 50 and 55 percent higher than any other team. OK, it certainly is their right to spend and spend and spend and accumulate Raul Mondesi and Sterling Hitchcock and the homes they live in. OK, their luxury tax money goes to some of the have-not teams. OK, they have between $75 million and $80 million invested in a pitching staff whose rotation's theme song is "Eight Days a Week." That's in contrast to the Kansas City Royals, whose highest paid pitcher is Jason Grimsley at $2 million per season, with nobody else in seven figures and not one starter on their current roster who won five (yes, five) games last season.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter was a recent target of criticism from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

And, oh yes, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had every reason to be set off by Red Sox team president and CEO Larry Lucchino's ill-advised "Evil Empire" comments, although when George was done skewing Lucchino, he did his Dave Winfield "you-didn't-hear-from-me routine" with his trusted New York media buddies in order to undermine Red Sox GM Theo Epstein by planting a story that Epstein broke a chair after Jose Contreras signed with the Yankees. Georgina Lacayo, manager of the Campo Real Hotel, backed Epstein's story that it was a fabrication that he broke a chair, but that didn't keep Steinbrenner from the Winfield routine, and he actually got someone to write that the action raised questions about Epstein's maturity.

George Steinbrenner raising questions about someone's maturity because of a temper tantrum? That would be like Hillary Clinton criticizing someone for being publicity seeker.

Then came the flags raised above the heads of two of his most distinguished employees, manager Joe Torre and shortstop Derek Jeter. Just watch Jeter take groundballs and do his work or run the bases or always throw to the right base.

OK. OK. OK. They Yankees have a great team. They are going to win. George has bought the championship and they'd better damn well win. He assumes it, and so does everyone in New York.

All of which brings it down to this: What happens if their pitchers pitch in October as they did last October, when the Angels hit the New York pitching so brutally that if you took Anaheim's OPS for the series, it meant that every batter they sent up turned into the statistical equivalent of Jason Giambi. Every win is something that will be assumed, expected.

If they don't win? It will start with Torre and Jeter.

This Yankee team should be very good, but we don't know how private people like Jeter and Bernie Williams will take to the 50-member media entourage that will be following Hideki Matsui. We don't know that Mariano Rivera, Steve Karsay(coming off back surgery) and Chris Hammond are what Rivera/Mike Stanton/Ramiro Mendoza were two years ago. We don't know what kind of support Contreras will have in what will be a very difficult lifestyle change.

If the Yankees don't win, (George Steinbrenner) will fire a lot more little people and plant stories about (Joe) Torre and (Derek) Jeter and (Brian) Cashman and Mike Mussina. But in the end, if the Yankees don't win, it will be Steinbrenner who will be the laughingstock of the baseball world. What a shame. What a way to live. Or win.

As good as they've been, the Yankees could easily have been knocked out in the first round of the postseason three straight years. In fact, in the first round over the last three years the Yanks are 7-7 against the A's (2000 and 2001) and Angels (2002).

Oakland could win it all this fall with their Big Three, or if Boston ever got in, they could as well if Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe are at full throttle ... and that's without thinking about Bartolo Colon. Expos GM Omar Minaya says Colon "would make the Red Sox better than the Yankees on paper right now" because Boston arguably would have three of the AL East's four best starters, with Toronto's Roy Halladay being the fourth.

If Torre and Yankees GM Brian Cashman and senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman are allowed to do their work, the Yankees will be fine; they won four world championships on talent, character, logic and good management, not madcap spending that puts them 50 percent above the next highest spender. But now this is the '80s George, sending representatives to Nicaragua and suggesting their jobs were on the line if they didn't bring back Contreras, firing scouts and office staff to save money, cutting back on health benefits ... then throwing around $166 million (they're over $100 million in salary commitments in 2004 and 2005) so someone will write that he's a great man because he wants to win at any cost.

What Steinbrenner has bought is no room for error. If the Yankees win, fine. George Steinbrenner will have bought New York a championship. That was expected and demanded.

If the Yankees don't win, he will fire a lot more little people and plant stories about Torre and Jeter and Cashman and Mike Mussina. But in the end, if the Yankees don't win, it will be Steinbrenner who will be the laughingstock of the baseball world. What a shame. What a way to live. Or win.

Steinbrenner just doesn't get it
What Steinbrenner doesn't understand is who and what beat his Yankees last October. Had he watched, he would have seen:

  • Why Cashman always wanted Darin Erstad, who led the Angels by sheer determination, enabling Angels manager Mike Scioscia to sell the notion of unselfishness because Erstad cares only about winning and proved it with his rocket homer off Giants reliever Tim Worrell in the eighth inning of World Series Game 6 (right around the time he broke his hand) that he can rise to any occasion. There is no statistic or dollar figure that applies to Erstad.

  • David Eckstein proved that grit, intelligence, instincts and energy are more important than name.

  • John Lackey and Francisco Rodriguez proved that sometimes you have to provide room for the season to evolve, and that talent will often beat experience.

  • The pure, unexpected joy of winning is more fun and more conducive to winning than the weight of unlimited expectation.

  • Players do make huge improvements from year to year, as evidenced by Scott Spiezio and Adam Kennedy.

  • That scouting and development matter, in Anaheim's case, the foundation laid by Bill Bavasi and Bob Fontaine Jr.

  • That sometimes ownership is wise to allow baseball folks to run the baseball operation, and ownership run the theme parks and networks.

    Few teams ever enjoyed winning more than the 2002 Angels. Even if the Yankees sweep the 2003 World Series in four games, they and their fans will never experience what the Angels experienced.

    Rangers pick up some wins
    When the Rangers signed pitcher John Thomson on Friday, it gave them another starter who won nine games last season (Thomson was 9-14). He joins Chan Ho Park (9-8) as the team's wins leader, with Kenny Rogers (13-8) gone to free agency.

    Perusing the rosters of the Tigers and Devil Rays, neither team has any starter who won nine. And Runelvys Hernandez, with four victories, is the Royals' winningest starter at the present time.

    Canseco simply a disgrace
    There are two things I hope I never hear again now that we are into 2003: "The Curse of the Bambino." It's a silly, mindless gimmick that is as stupid as the wave. And: "Does Jose Canseco belong in the Hall of Fame?"

    Puh-leaze. So, Canseco is trying to get attention with some book (Bill Reynolds of the Providence Journal is right, Canseco should be required to read a book before someone writes one for him). By the way, Canseco is one of the great washouts and underachievers in recent history.

    When he came up and was the AL MVP in 1988, Canseco could run (although the stolen bases were irrelevant) and throw, but he thought that that meant he was a star, and a star didn't have to work at anything. In time, his laziness made him so inept and comical in the outfield and so incapable of staying away from hamstring pulls -- could he at least have done a few spinning classes with Nancy Gallagher at the Cape Cod World's Gym? -- that when he finished far short of 500 home runs (in an era when 600 homers are what 400 were 25 years earlier), it was as a DH who in his last 10 years knocked in 96 runs just once, played only 202 games in the outfield, went hitless in his last postseason appearance (1995), uttered the memorable statement that "the problem with the Oakland A's is that they care too much about winning," pitched as a publicity stunt -- ah, always publicity -- and hurt his arm, had a flyball carom off his head for a game-losing home run, then infuriated pitchers by joking about it to reporters after the game and finished his career hitting .172 for Triple-A Charlotte and claiming he was being blackballed.

    Minaya wants to get a deal done
    Minaya took his family to Case de Campo from Christmas Day through Jan. 2. "I talked to a few GMs from there, Theo Epstein a couple of times, but now that I'm home I'd like to get something done," said Minaya.

    The stumbling block right now on making a deal is that the Red Sox don't want to put Casey Fossum in the trade, and there are attempts to find a way to do a three-way through the Mets, who want Shea Hillenbrand. New York had tried to sign Bill Mueller, but he has an agreement in place with Boston. Minaya would liked to have done a three-way trade through Houston, which also wants Hillenbrand, but the Expos can't take on Daryle Ward's salary. After the Braves, Devil Rays, Dodgers and Pirates had expressed interest in Ward, there is a good possibility that he will have to be moved with the Astros likely to get little in return.

    Bobby V deserved better
    It did not do anyone proud that some of the Mets' new players like Tom Glavine and Cliff Floyd were quoted as saying they would not have signed with the Mets had former manager Bobby Valentine still been with the team. That's piling on. The man was fired, and with a pretty darned good record. Granted, there was little love lost between Valentine and Floyd, but it was an unnecessary cheap shot.

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  • Steinbrenner says Jeter, Torre have to do better

    Red Sox: Contreras made deal with the 'evil empire'

    Klapisch: The Boss wins again

    McAdam: A stinging defeat

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