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A Nervous Victory for Yankees

April 10, 2006|Tim Brown

The New York Yankees were a few hours from their fourth loss in five games to start the season in which they were supposed to score 1,000 runs and turn their schedule into a parade route, when just before lunch Joe Torre got the idea to call George Steinbrenner.

This is known in Yankee circles as a preemptive strike, for years a specialty of Torre's and about the only thing that keeps Steinbrenner from firing all the interns.

At one point in the weekend conversation, Torre said, Steinbrenner swung into Boss mode, and he cut him off.

"Uh-oh," he told Steinbrenner. "Don't give me that tone of voice."

Torre remembered them both chuckling.

No, with the Yankees 2-4 and at the bottom of the American League East after one week, the Bronx sky remains suspended over the stadium, the field manager is alive for his 11th season and the general manager is under contract for his ninth.

Five and a half years since their last World Series championship, six months since they collapsed, exhausted, into the Angels' arms in the last postseason, the Yankees turned panic in the streets to momentary mollification on an ideal Sunday afternoon at Angel Stadium, then packed for their home opener.

It is the daily ride taken by the Yankees, edgier since they stopped holding annual ring ceremonies.

When he was rumored to have been rendered soft by age and fatigue, Steinbrenner opened spring with classic rants on the World Baseball Classic and Ozzie Guillen, closing with a prediction the Yankees would again be champions.

Then, after beating the Oakland A's by 13 on opening day, they lost four times. They stopped hitting. The bats, held by those who are paid much of the $200 million spent annually by Steinbrenner, shattered in their hands.

If this sounds like just a down week, just a mild slump, a few off nights in a season that feels like thousands of nights, then you haven't walked 60 feet 6 inches in Torre's cleats.

The Yankees hadn't even played a home game when he picked up the telephone.

"You know, he's obviously, you know, I don't want to say concerned," Torre said Sunday morning. "But he wasn't pleased. Not angry, but not pleased, don't get me wrong."

He smiled and took another pull of green tea from a paper cup.

"I put my [butt] on the line," he said, "told him we'd be all right."

With the Yankees, it's not just about finding a way from the starter to Mariano Rivera, or getting Alex Rodriguez going, or Gary Sheffield focused. It's living up to every drop of expectation rolling downhill from Tampa, every day, every inning, every pitch.

Most of them remember standing at 11-19 on May 6 last year, or waking up in fourth place July 2. They won the division on the last weekend against the Boston Red Sox, won it with a three-month push and Rodriguez's MVP season and Rivera in the ninth and Jason Giambi getting all healthy and bloated again.

When they looked down, though, their hands were shaking.

"We were completely out of gas by the time we got to Boston," Rodriguez said.

So, they lost to the Angels in five games.

"That's our biggest theme this season, is to get out of the gate [fast]," Rodriguez said. "It's extremely important.... It makes a huge difference at the end."

And yet here they are at 2-4. Here they are at the other end of the line, Steinbrenner's celebrated temper crackling. Here they are fending off a five-game losing streak with a five-run third, a three-run fourth, a 10-run get-away day.

Yeah, Yankee fans will love to have them back in the Bronx on Tuesday afternoon. But, geez, wasn't this going to be easier this time, a bit smarter, less painful?

Now that George is in late October, can't the Yankees go there too?

"He still could be on the phone," Johnny Damon said with a laugh. "We're not happy about being 2-4. It is better than being 1-5.

"George ... should have concerns if our team's not scoring runs or not playing well. He should voice his concerns. He expects this team to win. When we don't, he's not the only one who's upset."

One day, one win. It's all they could have Sunday, all that Sunday offered them, along with a plane ride home and, for the first time in two months, a familiar key in a familiar lock.

Though you'd have a hard time convincing Bartolo Colon of it, they're not themselves yet. They ought to hit. They might pitch well enough to avoid their middle relievers. They should win again. They did Sunday, and that ought to please Steinbrenner for a few hours.

"Hmmm," Torre said. "I hope so."

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