Despite record, Yankees begin to see light at end of their darkness

May 26, 1991|By Don Markus rHC (B

They still are a lot closer to the bottom of the American League East than to the top. Their starting pitching has been, in a word, horrible. Their hitting, for the most part, has been terribly untimely.

But the 1991 New York Yankees are a different bunch, both in body and spirit, than the team that finished in last place a year ago and were, for most of the season, the laughingstock of major-league baseball.

"We're a lot better than we were last year," said first baseman Don Mattingly, recalling a 67-95 record and the team's first last-place finish in 25 years.

Don't look at the record. It was 15-23 after Friday night's victory over the Baltimore Orioles at Memorial Stadium, even worse than it was last year (16-22) at this point in the season.

But there have been signs that the Yankees are slowly crawling out of the deep hole that they have occupied for most of the past three years. Consider this: The manager hasn't been fired, and it appears he will be celebrating his first anniversary on the job next week.

"It's a situation where you have people understanding of where we're at right now, where we want to be and what we have to do to get there," said manager Stump Merrill, who, despite an overall record of 63-88, is apparently safe for the time being.

Said general manager Gene Michael, "I think there are some more things we can do."

What the Yankees want to do is something that was generally lacking during George Steinbrenner's tumultuous 17-year reign of terror and error: develop a solid farm system and infuse their home-grown talent into the lineup.

That process began in the spring, with the promotion of Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens. It continued last week, when second baseman Pat Kelly was brought up from the Class AAA Columbus Clippers and veteran Steve Sax was moved to third. More changes, especially with the pitching staff (4.40 ERA), are expected.

"I don't think we're that far away," said Mattingly, whose chronic back problems have lessened and who recently has started hitting with more consistency -- albeit without power -- than he had in two years. "It's now a matter of coming together and starting to win."

That isn't easy. The Yankees have not put together more than three straight victories this year. And, said Mattingly, "it seems like every time we start playing well, we go downhill after that. We don't recover from adversity well. It's tough to get out of the rut."

To which right fielder Jesse Barfield added, "The last couple of years we haven't bounced back from anything."

If there is a noticeable change around the Yankees this season, it's in the lack of controversy surrounding the team and almost hourly uncertainty focused on the manager's office.

In fact, the biggest brouhaha centers on Sax. Not noted for either his arm or his glove in 10 major-league seasons, Sax has gone hesitantly across the infield to a position that has been played by 29 Yankees since Graig Nettles was traded in 1984.

When told of the move, Sax promised, "I'm not going to be Mike Schmidt."

All the Yankees hope is that he isn't going to be Mike Blowers, who last year tied a league record by committing four errors in a game. Or just about anybody who has played the position this year and combined for a total of one RBI.

"I'm just coming to the park and doing my job," said Sax, 31.

The Yankees reportedly are trying to unload Sax, but his $3 million-a-year contract is a stumbling block. Also on the trading block is left-handed pitcher Chuck Cary, who has a 1-5 record and 6.63 ERA.

Of course, Steinbrenner isn't around to bring an unwanted spotlight on the team, either. When he was forced to give up day-to-day operation of the team last year on orders from baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, the three-ring circus began to fold its tents. It apparently has left town.

"It's a little bit more stable," said Barfield. "The news is now more on the field than off. I think the key word is patience."

Winning is not part of the Yankees' vocabulary. Not yet, anyway.

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