Steinbrenner should learn courage doesn't win games

September 16, 1993|By Dave Anderson | Dave Anderson,N.Y. Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Whenever George Steinbrenner is around the New York Yankees, whether at Yankee Stadium or on a road trip, his employees are on alert.

"Hitler is coming," one employee likes to say.

For all of his posture as a kinder, gentler George since his return on March 1 from exile, the principal owner has been the same demanding dictator. As exemplified by his Monday address in Milwaukee to Buck Showalter and the manager's coaches and then, through the headlines he knew he would provoke, to his troops, meaning his $40 million player payroll.

"Let's see," Steinbrenner said, "if they have enough courage to pick up the slack. It's nut-cracking time."

But a pennant race is seldom determined by courage alone. Yes, some players are more courageous than others, but if a player didn't have courage, he wouldn't be in the big leagues.

Over 162 games one team wins a divisional pennant because its players are better than the other teams' players. Better by only a game or two sometimes. Better by only a bad hop or a good call sometimes. But better.

Winning baseball games mostly depends on ability, especially the ability of a team's pitchers. Not on the decibels of the principal owner's voice.

"What the . . ."

That, according to Yankees employees, is how the principal owner often begins a typical telephonic tirade. Not, "How are you?" Not, "What happened?" Not even, "This is George." Instead, he blurts, "What the . . . ", and goes from there. It's mostly a monologue, not a dialogue.

Steinbrenner's conversations with Gene Michael sometimes end with the principal owner's turning from the general manager.

"Don't turn your back on me," Michael has been heard to yell at his boss. "I'm still talking to you."

Maybe that's why Steinbrenner has yet to commit to Michael as next year's general manager. But for all his frustration at the Yankees' inability to stand alone in first place this season, Steinbrenner has been careful not to insult Showalter publicly other than to call him Bucky, as in Dent, another of his many ex-managers.

Over the years, while Billy Martin was hired and fired and hired and fired again and again, Steinbrenner has acknowledged two mistakes regarding his multiple managers: firing Dick Howser, whose Kansas City Royals later won the 1985 World Series, and firing Lou Piniella, whose Cincinnati Reds later won the 1990 World Series.

Steinbrenner knows that if he were to dismiss Showalter, another club would pounce on the baby-faced manager.

As the Yankees return to the Stadium for tonight's opener of a weekend series with the Boston Red Sox, they remain in the pennant race because Showalter has enough good hitters to support a patched-up pitching staff that has one dependable starter: Jimmy Key.

With a 17-5 record, Key is one of the American League's best pitchers. But after him, the Yankees can only hope for a quality start.

Despite his recent no-hitter, Jim Abbott, now 10-12 after Wednesday's 15-5 loss in Milwaukee, has been shaky. Melido Perez, a season-long risk at 6-14, has arm trouble. Bob Wickman is 12-4, but he's a spot starter now when not in the bullpen. Scott Kamieniecki is 9-5, but he's as erratic on the road as he is solid at the Stadium.

Showalter has had to start Domingo Jean, Mark Hutton and Sterling Hitchcock, who may be the Yankees' future but with a combined 3-3 record have yet to prove they're the present. In two weeks in the bullpen, Lee Smith has had only one ninth-inning lead to preserve.

If the Yankees win, it won't be because they possess more courage in "nut-cracking time." They will win because they're a ,, game or two better than the Toronto Blue Jays and the Orioles, whom they play in six straight games on their final road trip, beginning next Friday night in the Skydome.

If the Yankees don't win, their principal owner will need a few more dependable pitchers next season, not a few more courageous players.

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