Reality is bitter brew for Yankees fans

On Baseball

May 30, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Their aura of invincibility has been punctured. The New York Yankees have had to battle to stay near the top of the American League East standings, which has created no small amount of angst in the city that already has a sleep disorder.

It's all relative, of course. The Yankees are sputtering along at a .580 winning percentage, which would be the envy of every American League team outside Cleveland and Boston, but the possibility that they might be just another contender has New Yorkers very disturbed.

Even the players -- who could be forgiven for railing at the inflated expectations that have weighed on them all season -- seem to be caught up in last year's hype.

"Last year, we felt good winning 10 games in a row," veteran pitcher David Cone told reporters the other day. "This year, we value one big hit, one big win. It's pretty sobering."

Manager Joe Torre, back in place after a battle with prostate cancer, noticed the difference in the club's mindset and conceded that "the feeling is different this year."

Why wouldn't it be? The season started with the blockbuster, chemistry-altering deal for pitching ace Roger Clemens. The idyllic spring was shattered by the news of Torre's illness. The club also was rocked by the arrest of outfielder Darryl Strawberry on drug and solicitation charges.

The Yankees still are a great team, but did anyone really expect them to come back from their charmed 1998 season and enjoy another best-case scenario in 1999? It doesn't work that way.

They have struggled -- and, again, that word is very relative in this case -- because the club's power numbers are down and because the starting rotation has not been nearly as consistent as a year ago. But they reasserted themselves with back-to-back victories over the Red Sox on Wednesday and Thursday.

OK, so the Yankees won't win 114 regular-season games this year, but they'll still win. They'll still get to the playoffs. They'll probably get back to the World Series.

Save your sympathy for someone closer to home.

A pox upon both houses

During the 1960s and '70s, there were fans in Southern California who believed that the Angels would forever be under a curse because they had the religious insensitivity to use spiritual symbols in the naming and marketing of the team. And strangely enough, the organization has been saddled with an amazing legacy of misfortune.

Now, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- who were criticized in some circles for using the word "Devil" in their nickname when the franchise was awarded several years ago -- find themselves in the midst of an unprecedented rash of injuries.

When pitcher Tony Saunders broke his arm throwing a pitch last week, he became the eighth Devil Ray to go on the disabled list in a span of just 23 days and the third to suffer a season-ending injury. Outfielder Quinton McCracken (torn ACL) and Jim Mecir (elbow fracture) also have been lost for the year.

Saunders update

Saunders, the former Glen Burnie High star, was released from the hospital Thursday, but still is heavily medicated after the painful fracture he suffered throwing a pitch on Wednesday. Club officials indicated that he will remain in the Tampa Bay area for two to three weeks while doctors monitor the injury to make sure it is healing properly.

He likely will return home to Maryland after that to wait for his cast to come off, then embark on a rehabilitation program aimed at getting him ready for next season.

Torre's tough decision

If you're Torre, what do you do in the unlikely event Cal Ripken is not elected to the All-Star starting lineup in the fan ballotting?

There are good reasons to add Ripken and fellow legend Wade Boggs to the American League squad regardless of their numbers, but Torre said this weekend he would be hesitant to select either one of them over a player whose 1999 performance makes him more deserving of the honor.

"I'd like to, but I'd have to look at the numbers first," Torre told reporters in Toronto yesterday. "I'd like to have a Cal Ripken because of what he represents and gave to the game, but I'd hate to have somebody who deserves to be there not get to go."

The solution: Torre favors the backdoor approach. He'd like to see the rules changed to allow for a "lifetime achievement" spot on the roster to deal with such sticky situations.

Late-inning blues

Think Mike Timlin is struggling? He has blown four of his 10 save opportunities, and a couple of recent blowups have cast him as one of the villains in the Orioles' latest downturn, but it could be worse.

He could be former Orioles closer Gregg Olson, who re-emerged as a quality closer last year in Arizona, only to fall on hard times again -- and again -- during the first two months of the 1999 season.

Olson gave up a sudden-death home run to Colorado Rockies outfielder Dante Bichette last Sunday and has blown five of 10 save opportunities. Things have gotten so bad that Diamondbacks officials are scouring the major leagues for bullpen help.

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