Three's a crowd, so Yankees' Torre doesn't want O's crashing East party

March 06, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

BRADENTON, Fla. - New York Yankees manager Joe Torre is such a positive guy that I was certain he would share my enthusiasm for a three-team race in the American League East.

The Yankees and Boston Red Sox have had to go it alone long enough, providing all the divisional intrigue since the Orioles bowed out of contention after their wire-to-wire division title in 1997. Surely, The Godfather (as Lee Mazzilli affectionately refers to Torre) can see the advantages of having another team in the mix.

"Not for us," he said.

I guess I misjudged the man. He always seemed like a sportsman to me, but in the wake of another season in which the Yankees fell short of their ultimate goal (world domination), Torre seems content to slug it out with the Red Sox again, even though he acknowledges that the Orioles could make some trouble this year.

"The Baltimore club, we know they will score runs," he said. "The question is, are those young arms ready to mature? That's liable to happen any time. You saw some of that last year."

True, but he saw it from quite a distance. The Orioles never really threatened the status quo in the AL East, though the pitching staff did show marked improvement in the second half. The same cast of starting pitchers is back for a full season of Ray Miller's simple magic, and the arrival of Sammy Sosa should have a positive impact on a team that led the major leagues in hits last year.

The Yankees have gotten a lot of mileage out of their immense star power the past 10 years. Maybe the Orioles can do the same now that they have paired Sosa with major league RBI champion Miguel Tejada. That is, if marquee appeal really matters ... and Sosa does not glow so brightly that he blinds the rest of the team.

"That depends on who it should matter to," Torre said. "As a manager, you're concerned about how the players feel about it. His presence gives them the security that they don't have to look to just one or two guys for leadership. They have always had the ability to score a ton of runs. He's only going to add to that, and he's certainly going to bring people to the ballpark."

The rivalry with the Red Sox heated up early in the spring, when several Sox players - including former Yankee David Wells - called out superstar Alex Rodriguez, but Torre isn't sure exactly how it will play out over the course of the season.

"I don't know how we could intensify this rivalry," he said. "I'm curious, since it was so long since they had won before. Now that is not an issue, and I'm curious because the curse is not a motivating factor.

"I'm not sure how it's going to be, because that was something the fans of both teams used to play off of to get motivated."

Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi said Friday that he was leaning against accepting an invitation to testify before Congress about the steroid problem in baseball.

That's a no-brainer. Giambi was able to control his comments during his spring news conference on the subject, never actually admitting to the use of steroids during his public apology for, well, using steroids.

He would be required to tell the truth if asked that question under oath at a congressional hearing or face serious legal consequences, but he is under no legal obligation to show up unless he is subpoenaed.

Giambi has been advised not to confirm leaked grand jury testimony that he admitted to steroid use, which might open the door to an attempt by the Yankees to void the remainder of his huge contract.

The Yankees are standing behind Giambi, sort of, though Torre stopped short of saying that the Giambi situation was a Yankees issue.

"Anything that's Jason's issue, we certainly wish him well and want him to feel comfortable with what he wants to do," Torre said. "You can't disassociate yourself from him, but he's the only one who can answer those questions."

New pinstriped pitching ace Randy Johnson was scratched from his first exhibition appearance Thursday because of a mild calf strain, but his plea to the New York media not to make a big deal out of it went unheeded.

The injury, though not serious, was on the back page of all three New York tabloids.

New York Post headline: "It's a calf. Don't have a cow!"

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