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Bill Plaschke

Yankees Have the Heart but Don't Have the Horses

October 25, 2003|Bill Plaschke

NEW YORK — You can see it in Bernie Williams' hair; this young, sleek prince of baseball's most famous team.

The center fielder for the New York Yankees is going gray.

You can see it in the giant bags of ice that have replaced celebrities as their postgame pals; bags easing elbows and knees, bags once used only for hangovers, now required for hangnails.

The bodies of the New York Yankees are breaking down.

You can even hear it in the tired voice of Manager Joe Torre, as he blows off a workout-day trip to Yankee Stadium for perhaps the first time in postseason history.

"I just want to stay home, is that all right?" he asks reporters at a Thursday news conference, and no one argues, because home is where the rest of his team seems headed.

As the Yankees fight to keep the Florida Marlins from flipping them off the World Series bow this weekend, a bigger story is darkly collecting above the horizon.

Sports' reigning dynasty is dying.

Look close, listen for the splash, because it could be a while before you see the Yankees playing baseball on Oct. 26 again.

Crazy?

No more than the spring-training lineup the Yankees fielded in their Game 5 loss Thursday night, victims of little depth and a plowed farm system.

Alarmist?

After winning four championships in five years, the Yankees are on the verge of going three years without one, three years with the same core team, three years going nowhere.

Never happen under the Boss?

Before Torre arrived, George Steinbrenner presided over a team that failed to make the playoffs for 14 years. Money can buy Matsui but it can't buy continuity, and the Yankees' championship road has reached the point where pavement turns to gravel.

These days the House That Ruth Built consists of an ace, leaning on a king, leaning on a queen, stacked atop a joker. It's a house of cards with a foundation as weak as Don Zimmer's left hook.

The Yankees might indeed summon the strength to become the first Bombers to overcome a three-games-to-two Series deficit at home. After all, they overcame bigger odds in a matter of minutes last week against the Boston Red Sox.

But just as the Red Sox were a better team than the Yankees, so are the Marlins, and win or lose, this weekend probably represents a final Bronx cheer.

Start with the pitching. Torre always says that the four championships in five years were based on pitching. It is only fitting that the run will end because of it.

Roger Clemens is retiring. David Wells will be shipped out on the next refrigerated truck. Andy Pettitte could use his free agency as a ticket to a team closer to his Houston home.

That leaves reticent Mike Mussina, awful Jeff Weaver and ancient Jose Contreras.

Now to the bullpen, where the Yankees have forgotten that middle relief once made them great, where they didn't realize that Jeff Nelson would get old and Chris Hammond would get rattled.

One of this fall's most celebrated sights for casual fans is the saddest of sights for longtime Yankee watchers. Folks, the great Mariano Rivera is not pitching two innings a night for his health, OK?

Move to the infield, where Jason Giambi has shown that he does not enjoy pressure enough to be worth $120 million, and Alfonso Soriano is too lacking in discipline to be truly great, and Aaron Boone is a 30-year-old grinder who can't catch a grounder.

Now to the outfield where Karim Garcia ... wait a minute. You spend $180 million and your starting right fielder is Karim Garcia?

In center field, the worst-kept secret in New York is that Williams has slowed considerably in the field, and noticeably at the plate, and can no longer carry the team for longer than a New York minute.

When you shake the roots of the Yankee future, looking for the toughness that used to be everywhere, you find only Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. And, oh yeah, Posada is a free agent.

Yankee problems have always been solved with cash, but now there are more holes than money.

And what couldn't be bought was acquired with minor league players, but that system is understandably running dry.

The most recent farm help arrived in the form of Nick Johnson, who's already 25.

To see what's happened to these once-gritty and actually embraceable champions, one only needs to look around.

You see Paul O'Neill every day in the newspaper here. But only because he's a guest columnist and Yankee ambassador.

You hear about Tino Martinez every day during the season. But only because he plays in St. Louis.

Luis Sojo walks smiling and laughing into the Yankee clubhouse every day during this World Series. But only as an instructor.

And the guy whose home run in 1996 started it all? Jim Leyritz?

He's retired and writing a scathing local column in which he recently ripped Torre.

We wrote the same thing here, although Torre's problems in Games 4 and 5 do not change the possibility that he is the best Yankee manager ever, and best postseason manager in baseball history.

But he's beat. He acts as if he's distracted. He talks as if he's finished.

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