After encore in '99, Torre confident Yanks are open to threepeat business

Despite distractions, team came through last year

`We don't need motivation'

Opening Day

April 03, 2000|By NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Joe Torre says that being able to repeat as World Series champions last year after a record-breaking 1998 was "an acid test for this team after winning those 125 games."

To the New York Yankees manager, it proved that distractions -- particularly the everyday ones associated with playing in win-now-or-you're-a-bum New York -- mean little to his team. What other people think -- including those who this year say they see gaping holes on a team flecked with gray when they look at the Bombers -- might mean even less.

"Your confidence is enhanced when you do it twice in a row," Torre said. "You know what you did works, what you think works, does. You can allow distractions to be excuses if you want, but they don't help you win. You've just got to understand that they're there."

So what would a threepeat mean? For openers, it would be the first time since the 1972-1974 Oakland A's that a team had won three World Series in a row. A World Series win would also mean that the Yankees had four rings in five seasons, the first time a team has done that since the days of Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto and Tommy Henrich and the 1949-1953 Yankees.

The Yankees open defense of their title tonight at 10: 35 against the Anaheim Angels. After a monster spring in which he allowed 15 hits in 23 innings and had a 1.17 ERA in five starts, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez will make his first career Opening Day start.

He was 17-9 last year and established himself as a Yankee ace by starting the opener of all three postseason series. He faces Anaheim's Ken Hill, who was 4-11 last year.

"We don't need motivation," Torre said. "We know what winning is like, and we certainly want to do it more. If we don't win this year, I prefer to have someone take it away from us than us not play well."

The Yankees have reached the postseason in each of Torre's first four years as manager. Only Casey Stengel, the manager of those 1949-1953 teams, had previously done that.

His players say he deserves the comparisons. "We're spoiled with Joe here," Andy Pettitte said. "You love to see a man like him succeed, because you know he'll treat you right and stick by you. He's certainly shown me that. That's a loyal man, someone special."

Can this be a special season for the Yankees? Torre reflected on a turbulent 1999, in which each day of spring training seemed to bring a new blockbuster story, from the Roger Clemens deal to Torre's prostate cancer to owner George Steinbrenner blasting Hideki Irabu for not covering first base. Then three players -- Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius and Luis Sojo -- lost their fathers during the season.

"There were a lot of problems last year," Torre said. "I caused the first distraction by being diagnosed. This year, health-wise and family-wise, we're in better shape."

The Yankees were 13-20 this spring, one game worse than their 14-19 record last season (they were 15-12 in 1998), and Steinbrenner called several top-secret meetings with orders for scouts to follow every available player back to Dooley Womack. Through it all, Torre stuck to his mantra of not allowing distractions to seep into his mind.

"If you allow that mind-set, you won't be able to play baseball," Torre said. "The pressure's always there; it's part of what we do.

"We're a patient ballclub, and that's carried us through."

Still, repeating won't be easy.

"I think there's pressure because we're the Yankees," second baseman Chuck Knoblauch said. "It's a double-barreled thing, because we're the Yankees and we're the defending champions, so everybody is gunning for us."

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