Crisis managing Yankees: New manager Joe Torre already has weathered his first controversy -- the $20 million starter he decided not to start.

April 30, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Two weeks into his first season as New York Yankees manager, Joe Torre already was under fire from the contentious New York media and his team was beginning to lose sight of the first-place Orioles.

And this was supposed to be his dream job?

He had left himself wide-open to a Big Apple full of second-guessers with his decision to open the season with troubled Dwight Gooden in the starting rotation and $20 million free-agent starter Kenny Rogers in the bullpen. Then the Orioles got off to an 11-2 start and the Yankees slipped 4 1/2 games back while they tinkered with their supposedly star-studded pitching staff.

Gooden started 0-3. Left-hander Jimmy Key, whose quick recovery from shoulder surgery had further raised expectations for a successful season, lost three of his first four decisions. Rogers fumed quietly and, presumably, so did the guy who ponied up the big money to sign him. Owner George Steinbrenner is not known as a patient man.

Torre kept his cool. He kept his door open to the media. He kept his sense of humor. And the Yankees will arrive at Camden Yards for the opener of a two-game series tonight with a 12-10 record and just a half-game behind the Orioles.

"We couldn't do anything about them [the Orioles]," Torre said. "My feeling is, if you can hang around .500 until you get that little spurt, you'll be all right. If somebody goes out and does what the Detroit Tigers did in 1984, you can't really do anything about that.

"[The Orioles] were playing with a lot of confidence. Even when they were getting behind, they were coming back. It was definitely a concern; but when you start worrying about it, it can get frustrating, because you can't do anything about it."

There was plenty to worry about already. Gooden was getting hammered. Key was -- and still is -- struggling with tightness in his surgically repaired left shoulder. Torre maintains that the Rogers controversy was inflated by the media, but it was one of those difficult decisions that can define or destroy the reputation of the manager. In this case, it did neither, but that was partly because the Orioles conveniently lost nine of 11 games to usher the Yankees back to the top of the standings.

"To me, it was out of proportion," Torre said. "The perception was that we put him in the bullpen after paying him $20 million. As the manager, [his contract] was the farthest thing from my mind when I was putting the staff together. Kenny had pitched out of the bullpen before. He wasn't pleased about it, but I didn't ask him to be pleased about it. It looked bad after Gooden got beat up for three games, but I had to find out. I'd make the same decision again, because I needed to find out about him."

It was a no-win situation. If all had gone well and Rogers had been forced to remain in the bullpen for an extended period, the organization would have looked foolish for signing him in the first place. When Gooden stumbled, Torre looked bad for keeping one of the best left-handers in the game on the sidelines while the club slipped in the standings.

Rogers, who will start tomorrow night, finally entered the rotation nine days ago and gave up one hit over 5 1/3 innings to record his first victory. He looked great, which made Torre's decision to hold him back three weeks look even worse. The Yankees also won Rogers' second start, but he gave up 10 hits over five innings and didn't get the decision.

"Fortunately, we were able to give our writers something to write about by putting Kenny Rogers in the bullpen," Torre said with a laugh. "It was a nice problem to have."

Not many major-league clubs have the luxury of an extra front-line starter, but after the Yankees re-signed David Cone, signed Rogers and Gooden, then got Key back ahead of schedule, they came out of spring training with more starting pitchers than they knew what to do with. The situation would have been even more complicated if right-hander Melido Perez had not come up sore in March.

The club also returned with one of last year's top rookie pitchers in 12-game winner Andy Pettitte (tonight's starter), and got Scott Kamieniecki back from an injury last week. The rotation is so deep that even the mysterious hand problem that struck Cone last week could not strike panic into the organization.

"I think over the long run, our pitching staff will prove out," said Key, who has yet to resemble the pitcher who won a total of 35 games for the Yankees in 1993 and '94. "We've got a lot of new faces . . . not only players, but also on the coaching staff. It's going to take some time."

The Yankees have improved in other areas. They traded for first baseman Tino Martinez and outfielder Tim Raines. Consensus Rookie of the Year favorite Derek Jeter has gotten off to a solid start at shortstop. But the Yankees' chances of upending the Orioles and the defending AL champion Cleveland Indians depend largely on the health of the starting rotation and the depth of the bullpen.

"If we're going to win, our pitching is going to have to do it," Torre said. "We'll hit some home runs, but we won't be able to compete with Baltimore and Cleveland in that department."

"We're going to have to pitch better than they do. In order to balance with them, we're going to have to get better results, because they are stronger in other areas. If [the Orioles] are going to have inconsistency, I think it will be in their pitching staff."

That has proved out over the past couple of weeks. The Orioles' rotation has faltered and the bullpen -- which started the season on a tremendous roll -- has become a liability.

"I think we probably have the potential to be the better staff," Torre said. "We need to -- let's put it that way -- if we're going to compete with them."

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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