NEW YORK -- New York Yankees manager Joe Torre is not afraid to admit that the playoff format is not fair to the division-leading Orioles, but he still hopes to take advantage of it to defend his club's 1996 world championship.
"I'd like to see a system that gives some kind of an advantage to the team that wins the division," said Torre, whose team fended off an October challenge from the wild-card Orioles last year to reach the World Series. "One that doesn't give wild-card teams the same advantages as the division winners."
Torre was fielding questions about his club's solid lead in the American League wild-card race, and the likelihood that the Yankees would get a softer first-round draw than the Orioles, who will travel to the West Coast to open the Division Series if they hold on to win the American League East title.
If nothing changes, the Orioles likely would face imposing Seattle Mariners left-hander Randy Johnson in Game 1 at the Kingdome and the Yankees would open at home against the injury-ravaged Cleveland Indians.
That scenario clearly would favor the Yankees, but Torre said yesterday that his club still is going to do everything possible to unseat the Orioles and win a second consecutive division title.
Torre has had to repeatedly explain himself since telling reporters on Saturday that it wasn't "realistic" to expect the Yankees to come back and win the AL East, and even found himself doing so for the benefit of owner George Steinbrenner, who stopped by the manager's office before last night's opener of the four-games series against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.
Those comments were viewed by some in New York as a concession speech, but Torre insists that it was no such thing.
"I never quit, and my players never quit," Torre said. "Somebody asked me if I was sorry for what I said because Baltimore lost the next four games in a row. Do you think that [the Yankees] would go out there and not try their hardest to win every game?
"I clarified that with [Steinbrenner] just as I am clarifying it with you. I would be insulted if I thought somebody would hire me and then think that I wasn't trying to win."
It was not a retraction. Torre said again yesterday that it would be unrealistic to expect the Yan- kees to sweep the current four-game series against the Orioles and dominate them sufficiently in Baltimore next week to get back to the top of the AL East standings. With last night's loss, it got more unrealistic.
"We want to beat them, but the most important thing is to get to October and meet them on a level playing field," he said.
The Yankees now trail the Orioles by 7 1/2 games and lead the Anaheim Angels by six games in the wild-card standings. Torre held a team meeting earlier this week to remind his team not to focus so hard on the Orioles that they risk losing their grip on the extra playoff berth.
"Sure, there may be advantages to being the wild-card team, but not the wild-card team yet," he said. "We're leading, yes, but we aren't the wild-card team yet. We still have to win."
Pub Date: 9/05/97