Brown is key reason Yanks are no lock

October 15, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Well, there goes the World Series, or at least the World Series the networks wanted. The San Diego Padres don't hit well enough to beat the New York Yankees. But then, the Atlanta Braves didn't hit well enough to beat the Padres.

The truth is, New York-San Diego is far more interesting than it appears. Tony Gwynn is one of the greatest hitters ever. The Yankees want to be one of the greatest teams ever. And Kevin Brown alone makes an upset possible.

These teams have never met, yet they're strangely linked. Greg Vaughn would have been a Yankee if he hadn't flunked a physical. Jim Leyritz earned his nickname, "King," in New York. Hideki Irabu refused to play for San Diego.

Granted, New York-Atlanta would have been sexier, a rematch of the dramatic 1996 World Series. But how can anyone mourn the absence of the Braves, when they clearly were not the best team in the National League?

That's six times in seven years that the Braves have faltered in the postseason. Anyone who calls them chokers doesn't know baseball. But their bullpen is never good enough. Come to think of it, their hitting isn't, either.

Hindsight is 20-20, but would the Braves be mulling another postseason disappointment if they had acquired All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar from the Orioles in July?

The Orioles apparently were willing to trade Alomar and Armando Benitez for Denny Neagle and Triple-A left-hander Bruce Chen, but the Braves didn't want to part with one of their top young arms.

Their decision was understandable, for starting pitching has been the cornerstone of their success. But Alomar certainly would have helped a team that was unable to manufacture runs against San Diego, relying almost solely on homers.

The old baseball adage, "the best Oriole is a former Oriole," will be on display in Game 1, when Brown (class of '95) faces David Wells (class of '96). The winner will receive an autographed picture of Peter Angelos with the inscription, "Gillick should have never let you go."

Seriously, the Padres' only chance is if Brown dominates the series, stealing Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, then pitching Game 4 in San Diego and possibly Game 7 back in New York.

Brown, who lost twice to Cleveland's Chad Ogea in last year's Series, needs to be Lew Burdette in 1957, Bob Gibson in 1967, Orel Hershiser in 1988.

Wells?

He just needs to stay out of trouble.

It's a distant memory now, but Wells began his Yankees career by breaking his hand in an altercation while attending his mother's funeral in San Diego in January 1997. Strange as it sounds, he actually might be safer in New York than in his hometown.

Heck, Yankee Stadium could be downright tranquil for this Series -- the Padres lack offensive personalities and celebrity ex-wives. What are the fans in the right-field bleachers going to do when they see Gwynn, taunt him for not winning a ninth batting title?

The Padres feature four ex-Yankees -- Sterling Hitchcock, Brian Boehringer, Ruben Rivera and Leyritz. The first three made little impact in New York, and Leyritz isn't likely to get booed -- he hit a pivotal three-run homer off Mark Wohlers that helped the Yankees win the '96 Series.

If there's a rivalry here, it's between the front offices, who spent half of '97 haggling over the Hideki Irabu trade and then the Vaughn deal that the Yankees voided.

The Padres initially controlled Irabu's rights, but the Japanese pitcher said he only wanted to play for the Yankees. After protracted negotiations, the Yankees acquired Irabu, Homer Bush and two minor-leaguers for outfielder Ruben Rivera, minor-league pitcher Rafael Medina and $3 million.

Of that group, Rivera might play the greatest role in this Series -- Irabu has yet to appear in the postseason as a reliever, and Bush is nothing more than a pinch runner. Vaughn, of course, is a far more important figure. But if the Yankees had acquired him, they might never have landed third baseman Scott Brosius.

The Padres agreed to send Vaughn to New York as part of a six-player trade in which they would have received Kenny Rogers and Mariano Duncan. The Yankees nullified the deal after their doctors found that Vaughn had a torn right rotator cuff, but have no regrets. They later sent Rogers to Oakland for Brosius, their '98 MVP, according to Derek Jeter.

Vaughn didn't fare too badly himself, hitting 50 homers for a team that didn't want him. Still, the problem with the Padres is that none of their hitters is considered as dangerous as Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, or even the sluggers formerly known as Chipper Jones and Andres Galarraga.

Vaughn, obviously, is no slouch, but he missed most of the NLCS with a quadriceps injury before going 2-for-4 yesterday in the Padres' 5-0 clincher over Atlanta. Gwynn is a declining singles hitter who was 6-for-26 in the NLCS. Leyritz owns a better postseason home run ratio than Babe Ruth, but doesn't even play every day.

We said yesterday that the Yankees' starting pitching looks more vulnerable than it has all season, and we'll stand by that argument. But if a David Cone or Andy Pettitte falters, there's an Irabu or Ramiro Mendoza in the bullpen. And the Padres simply don't have the offensive weapons to prevent the Yankees from meeting their rightful destiny.

With all due respect to Larry Lucchino, Fred Uhlman Jr., Davey Lopes, Steve Finley and the rest of the former Oriole contingent in San Diego:

Yankees in five.

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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