New-look Yankees looking for right fit

Baseball: After a sluggish start, the revamped team is still trying to get all its pieces working together.


May 25, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Texas - It used to be so easy to hate the New York Yankees. Now, you can't despise the players without a program.

Roger Clemens was deliciously dislikable, but he has gone home to Houston along with marquee left-hander Andy Pettitte. Alfonso Soriano drove the Orioles' pitching staff crazy, but he left over the winter in the Alex Rodriguez deal. David Wells and Nick Johnson and Jeff Nelson are also gone, along with more than half of last year's 25-man roster.

Those guys used to show up in Baltimore with their swagger and their world championship rings and just irritate the heck out of everybody, but they have been replaced by a group of new high-priced veterans that includes Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez - each still learning what it is to be a Yankee.

Turnover is nothing new in New York, but this has been a major metamorphosis even by the standards of free-spending owner George Steinbrenner.

"For main people, I think it's probably more change than I've had since I've been here - three new starting pitchers, third base and right field," said manager Joe Torre, "and that doesn't take into account [new relievers] Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, who are main people, too."

There also was a rather important change in the coaching staff. The first base coach is now managing the Orioles, which has to make it even more complicated for Orioles fans trying to work up to their usual anti-Yankees fervor.

OK, so they're still the Yankees, still the pinstriped picture of economic arrogance that has cast a long shadow over Baltimore for the past decade. So maybe it won't be that hard, but they have shown their vulnerable side over the first two months of the season.

Shortstop Derek Jeter has been in an early-season slump that has generated more new theories than the Hubble Space Telescope. First baseman Jason Giambi just went on the disabled list with a sprained ankle. Rodriguez arrives in Baltimore after being booed for three days in Texas.

They got off to a difficult start, floundering in two April series against the rival Boston Red Sox after opening the season with a taxing series against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Japan. But the Yankees have rebounded in May to return to the upper reaches of the American League East standings.

"It was a struggle," said former Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina, who lost four of his first five decisions. "In most cases, you have a couple of guys struggling. We had a big group. There were a couple of guys playing well, but that wasn't enough to carry us. I don't think we had a guy hitting over .300 10 days ago."

Maybe the Japan trip had something to do with that. Maybe it was Jeter's soft start, which left the team without an important offensive catalyst. Maybe all those new players just needed time to assimilate.

Maybe all of the above.

"I saw a lot of guys trying so hard, and that doesn't work," Torre said. "Everything happened so quick. We went to Japan, spring training, Boston. That was a lot at one time. After it was over with, you look back and the club started falling into place. I just sensed that we had a lot of guys with great ability that were trying to do too much."

Nevertheless, Torre views the difficult start as a potential positive - a galvanizing event that allowed the disparate personalities in the Yankees' clubhouse to bond more quickly than they might have if the Red Sox had not forced them to do some early soul-searching.

"I think probably this club came together better than a lot of clubs," Torre said. "I think part of it was the struggle we had with the Red Sox."

It had to be strange. Pettitte had been a cornerstone of the Yankees' pitching staff since 1995. Clemens spent only five years in New York, but he was bigger than life to begin with. Wells became a free agent and Jeff Weaver was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers to acquire Brown, completing a dramatic - and somewhat reluctant - overhaul of the starting rotation.

Mussina was cast as the new ace, but he looked out of sync in his first two starts and didn't really get into any kind of groove until May. Pitcher Jose Contreras struggled so badly that the club optioned him to the minor leagues. Vazquez (4-4) also has needed time to get acclimated. Only Brown pitched really well at the outset, holding the rotation together with five straight victories to start the season.

Meanwhile, Clemens' terrific start in Houston was focusing more attention on who wasn't in the Yankees' rotation than who was, and there was room to wonder whether the revamped rotation was up to the task of competing with the improved Red Sox.

"What do you do?" Torre said. "What good does worrying do for you? You have to work with the players you have here. You can't sit around saying, `If we had this player' or `If we had that player.' That doesn't do any good. You deal with the players you do have."

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