These are better days for the New York Yankees, who have picked the perfect time to establish themselves as American League East contenders.
Now, they can sit back with impunity and watch the New York papers strip the bones of a New York Mets franchise that has to look up to see the expansion Florida Marlins. How sweet that must be for Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who has had to play second fiddle to the Mets for much of the past decade.
The Yankees are in second place going into a four-game series against the Orioles that begins tomorrow night at Yankee Stadium. They are winning in spite of the loss of first baseman Don Mattingly and center fielder Bernie Williams, both to rib-cage injuries. They are winning because they are getting good starting pitching and they are getting production from every corner of the roster.
First baseman Jim Leyritz has come off the bench to hit .342 with five home runs and 18 RBI. Catcher Mike Stanley was hitting .329 with four homers and 15 RBI. Dion James, who replaced Williams in center field, is hitting .386. Yankees pinch hitters are batting a combined .364 (12-for-33).
For once, a club that used to be known for its awful front-office decisions can look back on an off-season in which it made all the right moves. Free-agent acquisition Jimmy Key is 4-1 with a 1.87 ERA and has emerged as the ace of the staff. Left-hander Jim Abbott had some bad luck early, but he is coming on. Outfielder Paul O'Neill, who was acquired in a controversial trade for Roberto Kelly, is hitting .323 with 18 RBI. Third baseman Wade Boggs went 4-for-4 in his return to Boston Friday, is batting .297 and is providing a steadying influence on the field.
The club spent a lot of money and has one of the highest payrolls in baseball ($43 million), but there finally are enough quality players in the lineup and on the bench to make the Yankees a legitimate contender for the division title.
"What we've got to do is stay up there close and keep right in the hunt," Steinbrenner said recently. "As long as there's only one team ahead of us, we'll be all right."
He knows -- as everyone does -- that the Detroit Tigers likely could be a supernova that flares out long before September. The Yankees were expected to be one of the top teams in the East, so they are positioned for that eventuality. They just have to keep doing what they're doing.
The Eck factor
Orioles relief pitcher Gregg Olson isn't the only closer to find out that that success isn't automatic anymore. The main man himself -- Dennis Eckersley -- can't even take a save situation for granted.
After a save Friday, Eckersley has a 5.40 ERA with seven saves in 11 opportunities . . . and Olson is getting booed by spoiled Orioles fans for saving only eight of 10. Perhaps they can commiserate when the Orioles and Oakland Athletics play next week in California, because both are getting abuse from fans for failing to live up to their own high standards.
"I've had three bad innings and everybody's on my case," Eckersley said recently. "What it comes down to is three bad innings."
There is more to it than that, of course. The once-unhittable Eckersley has given up 16 hits in 16 2/3 innings. The once-unerring Eckersley has walked almost as many batters in the first six weeks of the 1993 season (six) as he walked in the 1989 and '90 seasons combined (seven).
"I'm more impatient about it than the fans," he said. "I just can't slack it off. I guess I'm just a victim of my own success, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Do you think I want to be mediocre? A lot has happened this year that has never happened before. I can't explain it."
From the home office in Arnold
With the usual apologies to carpetbagging free agent David )) Letterman, here is my list of the top 10 network gimmicks to increase interest in Major League Baseball:
10. Move Game of the Week into the time slot behind "Roseanne."
9. Move Tom Arnold sitcom into time slot before NBA playoffs.
8. Hire play-by-play man named Conan.
7. Step up search for commissioner with special "Unsolved Mysteries" episode.
6. More gratuitous blimp shots.
5. Introduce technological innovation: embarrassing scratch-cam.
4. Rush Limbaugh pre-game show.
3. Replace boring bunt play with human sacrifice.
2. Institute 900-number You-Make-The-Call umpiring system.
1. Caesars Palace inning-card girls.
Just up the road
The surprising Philadelphia Phillies are playing such a rough-and-tumble style of baseball that outsiders think they are a little bit crazy, but manager Jim Fregosi says it's just a throwback to better days.
"Just because these guys play hard and get their uniforms dirty and run every ball out in today's game, that doesn't mean that they are nuts," he said, "but it is different from the way a lot of people play the game."
Everybody knows your name
St. Louis Cardinals infielder Todd Zeile delivered an interesting perspective on "Cheers" character Sam Malone when asked about the aging fictional ex-ballplayer last week.