Bronx Zoo is a happening place HD: Showalter managing to get Yankees to win

April 24, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- There is something noticeably different about the New York Yankees these days. Downright strange, in fact.

It is not the presence of a new high-priced superstar, because Danny Tartabull and his five-year, $25 million contract are only the latest for a team that laid the foundation for baseball's eight-figure salary binge.

Nor is it the absence of meddlesome owner George Steinbrenner, who hasn't been around the clubhouse or in his private box since being banished by commissioner Fay Vincent nearly two years ago.

"There's not one thing that is different," first baseman Don Mattingly said. "Everything's different."

As Mattingly sat on a picnic bench in the Yankees' clubhouse Sunday afternoon, munching on a post-game meatball sandwich and savoring a come-from-behind win over the Cleveland Indians, there was a sense of quiet satisfaction about him.

In fact, the whole place seemed -- dare we say? -- serene. After nearly two decades of turmoil, from the dugout battles of Reggie and Billy to last season's verbal lynching of former manager Stump Merrill, it's as if The Bronx Zoo has been replaced by Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

Or, as the case might be, Mr. Showalter's Neighborhood.

"A great communicator," outfielder Jesse Barfield said of Buck Showalter, the team's 35-year-old rookie manager.

"A regular person," said former Orioles pitcher John Habyan, who played for Showalter in the minor leagues and is his No. 1 setup man.

"An outstanding baseball mind," said general manager Gene Michael, who hired Showalter two weeks after firing him along with the rest of Merrill's staff.

It might be a little soon to tell whether Showalter will become baseball next's reigning genius -- he already is being compared to Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa -- but the early returns have been favorable.

The Yankees, who play the Orioles in a three-game series here starting tonight, are 10-5. This, despite injuries to three key players and another horrible start by Barfield.

About the only one who doesn't seem thoroughly impressed with the Yankees' fast start is Showalter, who knows how quickly opinions can change and managers can become ex-managers, especially when Steinbrenner is still signing the paycheck.

"I have a lot of respect for this job, for the people who came before me and the people who'll come after me," said Showalter, whose teams finished first four times in five years in the Yankees' farm system. "I'm not interested in what happened here in the past. I'm taking it one game at a time. It's still early and a lot can change."

Showalter's approach might be cliched, but it's obviously working. Picked by many to finish near the bottom of the division because of adesperate lack of quality pitching, the Yankees have been one of the biggest surprises this season.

The signing of Tartabull and the acquisition of third baseman Charlie Hayes has added power and defense to an already respectable lineup that included Mattingly, Mel Hall, Roberto Kelly and Matt Nokes. (Mike Gallego, who also signed as a free agent, has yet to play because of a badly bruised heel.)

But the difference so far on the field has been the strong performances of some heretofore erratic starting pitchers. They have helped keep the Yankees in games that in recent seasons would have had them hopelessly behind by the third inning. A bullpen anchored by Habyan, Steve Howe and Steve Farr has been near-perfect.

"We've all been knocked off and on," said former reliever Greg Cadaret, who shut out the Indians last week and became the first starter in 93 games to go all the way. "Some guys took it personal. Frankly, it got personal. But we're capable of winning ballgames."

Said right-hander Scott Sanderson, who won a team-high 16 games last season: "We all want to see each other do well. We genuinely like each other, and we're rooting for each other to have success every time out."

That wasn't the case last season. Several players were unhappy with their roles, most notably Steve Sax, who was moved from second to third and eventually traded to the Chicago White Sox during the off-season for pitcher Melido Perez.

And most were displeased with and disdainful of Merrill, who was ripped by the media, scoffed at by the players and eventually fired after a 71-91 season.

"As a player from the outside, you always saw a great deal of confusion," said Tartabull, who has been hampered by injuries so far this season. "But when I came over here, I found it's not that way. There's been a great deal of harmony."

Though there has been some off-field controversy involving Pascual Perez, who was suspended for a year by Vincent after flunking a drug test in spring training, and Howe, who faces trials on two misdemeanor drug charges in Montana, this has been the quietest Yankees spring in recent memory.

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