Yankees are letting kids grow on job By Steve Jacobson

July 26, 1991|By Newsday

NEW YORK It's all in the point of view like the glass that's either half full or half empty. It was the New York Yankees point of view that had to change first.

That's what makes playing .500 ball an accomplishment. From one point of view it means failing half the time. From the other direction, it means succeeding half the time.

Reality says what the Yankees are doing is an accomplishment. Losing yesterday means they have lost one more game than they've won this season; it also means they had won half of the first 90 games this season.

Consider that after 23 games they already were nine games under .500. It was the reality that had to drive out a decade of self-deception the belief that they were one player away from winning and mortgaging the future for a fraud.

"It's the way we knew we had to go," said Gene Michael, the general manager. "Our young people had to make it here instead of someplace else."

It's as if somebody had switched on the light in the front office that had been dark lo these many years. Michael, being an employee of the organization, won't say it should have happened years ago, because that would mean placing blame on Youknow Who.

So here they are feeling growing pains, and it's a good feeling. The contrast is Lou Piniella's lament as manager: "All we ever do is patch the tire when we need a new car."

This is the organization that was terrified by its own young players. "He spit the bit" was the analysis the principle owner used for more than one young player's struggle. So he traded young players for old.

So Jay Buhner, the "untouchable" prospect, was traded to Seattle for the likes of Ken Phelps in 1988 because the owner believed his team was one left-handed hitter away from reclaiming its throne. (Note also that it was not made over Piniella's dead body.) So that pushed Jack Clark out of DH toward first base and Don Mattingly to left field and, ooh boy, what a mess!

Back up a little more. The speed movement of 1981 failed and was replaced by the likes of Butch Hobson and John Mayberry in 1982. And in 1983 Toronto GM Pat Gillick said he always could get a prospect out of Youknow Who. So Gillick gave the Yankees the likes of Dale Murray and the Yankees gave up the likes of Fred McGriff.

And that's how they come to the point where winning half the time is an accomplishment not to be denied. When they won three in a row at Oakland last week the winning pitchers were Wade Taylor, Jeff Johnson and Scott Kamieniecki. In the Yankee archives dating to 1947, there is no record of rookie pitchers winning three in a row.

All of this is not entirely according to the grand plan of Michael and Manager Stump Merrill. Let's not give too much credit at once. They had planned to go with Tim Leary, Pascual Perez, Andy Hawkins and Mike Witt as starters. Injuries meant they had to do something.

But instead of picking over the rags for one more Rick Reuschel, they looked at their own and found some talent. "We're not going to come up with the one guy who's going to do it, so let's look at our own," Merrill reflected.

Steve Balboni is gone, and Dave LaPoint and Hawkins. Rick Cerone, the veteran catcher, is gone. Take that as a sign of reality. "If you're a contender, you keep Cerone," Michael said.

Pat Kelly and Bernie Williams haven't been around long enough to prove anything, but they are not Claudell Washington III.

More impressive, when Taylor gave up seven runs in an inning in an early start, he didn't lose his job. When Johnson gave up five runs in his first inning, he wasn't on the next plane back to Columbus, Ohio. Rebuilding means accepting a bad game and a good game in order to get two good ones for every bad one.

That they were willing to accept it is evidence Michael is not being manipulated. He said he wouldn't be, but how could anybody be sure? Fay Vincent deserves a vote as Yankee MVP.

The Old Order thought New York never would accept the mistakes of a young team. To the contrary, the fans have welcomed the hopeful signs instead of the cynicism.

Taylor was bad Thursday. His best game was his previous start. "Hopefully, I see a club starting to come of age to some degree," Merrill said tentatively. There are the growing pains. Kevin Maas still is fighting a horrendous slide and Hensley Meulens has done little and played less. They were supposed to be the keys to the rebuilding.

But they have been overwhelmed lately on the inside part of the plate. Maas was a bolt of power late last season so the pitchers adjusted to him. Now he has to adjust to the adjustment they made. That's the test of the real hitter.

Merrill is symbolic of the whole thing. Maybe he isn't the manager for a contender, but his history is in developing players. "No question, we have to keep things in perspective," he said.

It's an irony in that much of the .500 can be traced to Mel Hall. He's hit so well he has retarded Meulens. Meulens has proved all there is to prove in Triple A; nobody knows what he can do at the top. And Hall is a guy everybody wished gone last season.

But there always is August. "No question, as the race goes on, clubs who are left are going to look for ways to improve themselves," Merrill said. "That's when you get two prospects for a player somebody thinks can help them win."

Perhaps it was in the ear of the beholder that he was being wishful. "Reality becomes a major concern," Merrill said.

Remember the Yankees were 67-95 last season. That's .414 their worst record since 1913, for goodness sakes. You can say .500 is an accomplishment for just so long. But reality says you have to look at where they were.

At the risk of being a fan, it is an accomplishment. And I've gotten down to here without using Youknow Who's name.

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