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THE PLAYOFFS: BASEBALL ENTERS THE . . . HOME STRETCH
| BASEBALL

Yankees' Torre Isn't Any Old Joe

September 30, 1997|ROSS NEWHAN

NEW YORK — It was another season of distraction and disturbance in the always chaotic Bronx.

It was another season of calm and patience by Joe Torre as he made it two for two as the New York Yankee manager, avoiding the always imminent implosion while directing his team back to the playoffs as American League wild-card team and defending World Series champion.

"There's always going to be pressure here and there's nothing you can do to prevent that," Torre said Monday. "You face it, you deal with it. That's the only way I can describe it--you deal with it. There may not be anything I can do to relieve the pressure, but I try to relieve the tension."

There are both tension and pressure in postseason play.

They are greatest, perhaps, in the shorter, best-of-five division series. Three of those begin today: the Yankees play host to the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves entertain the Houston Astros, and the Florida Marlins are home to the San Francisco Giants.

The series between the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners begins at Seattle's Kingdome on Wednesday.

If there is a link, it may be that the 1997 playoffs represent a reunion of the rich and famous.

Four of baseball's top five spenders--the Yankees, Orioles, Indians and Braves--are back from 1996.

Some in management call it a recurring nightmare underscoring the ongoing disparity between the haves and have-nots, and it doesn't end with those four.

Seven of the eight playoff teams are among the top 11 in payrolls.

The Yankees, Orioles, Indians, Marlins and Braves are one through five. Seattle, a comparatively small-market team considered among the have-nots only a few years ago, is eighth. And the Giants are 11th.

Only the Astros don't normally travel in this economic company.

They rank 19th, with a payroll of $33,150,000, which is slightly more than half of the Yankees' $63.7 million.

As the richest and most famous of this group, there is even more pressure on the Yankees to defend their World Series crown.

Owner George Steinbrenner is never more than a bellow away.

"I feel very confident," Torre said. "We've played well recently. We're ready to go into the postseason and hopefully go all the way."

The Yankees won 17 of their last 22 regular-season games, including the last five, rallying from 9 1/2 games behind the Orioles on Sept. 7 to finish only two behind with 96 victories, four more than they had as division champion last year. Only the Orioles and Braves won more.

Along the way, Torre had to deal with the usual array of combustible issues--as he did again on the eve of tonight's opener.

He took Kenny Rogers and Hideki Irabu off the playoff roster. He name Chad Curtis to play left field, Tim Raines as designated hitter and sat Cecil Fielder down for Game 1. He confirmed that David Cone, recently returned from a month on the disabled list, will pitch tonight, with no assurance that Cone can go more than five innings, if that. He chose David Wells, 0-5 in a six-game struggle during late August and early September, to pitch Game 3 over Dwight Gooden, leaving 16-game winner Wells to wonder why it took so long and why there was a doubt.

"I don't want to muzzle anyone," Torre said. "I don't want guys happy when they're not playing or not included. I've had guys so happy that they weren't playing that they volunteered to get drinks for the guys who were. I want guys who want to play."

Fielder, who has hit well since missing two months because of a broken thumb, certainly wanted to play tonight, but he missed Game 1 of last year's division series with the Texas Rangers, then came back to play a major role.

"Joe has a tough job," Fielder said. "He has a lot of talent on this club and he chose the lineup that he thinks has the best chance to win. I have to respect that. We have to win 11 games to win the World Series again, and everybody will get an opportunity. I mean, nothing gets me upset anymore. I won't let it. I feel blessed to have been able to come back [from the injury] like I have."

Willie Randolph, the third base coach, was asked about Torre's touch with tough issues.

"It starts with experience," Randolph said. "He's managed other clubs before. He knows how to communicate. He's honest and straightforward and he's consistent in that approach.

"So when the time comes to make a tough decision, the players respect it, even though they may not like it."

Said shortstop Derek Jeter, "It's supposed to be harder in New York, and I think it probably is, but that doesn't affect Joe. He accepts that a team is going to struggle at different points and doesn't panic. He nips things in the bud. He doesn't let them become a distraction."

Maybe not, but Torre said '97 was tougher for him than '96 because there were more distractions

"I had to [deflect] more flak," he said. "You try to shoulder more of it yourself so that the team doesn't lose focus."

Flak?

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