By Don Bostrom
Of The Morning Call
March 30, 2003
TAMPA, Fla. |
It's been two years since the world's most famous baseball team has won a World Series championship and owner George Steinbrenner has been grumbling.
''The Boss'' set the tone for spring training by chastising Derek Jeter and manager Joe Torre and making it perfectly clear the only acceptable result for the 2003 season will be the Bronx Bombers' 27th World Series championship.
The immaculate Yankee image was tarnished by what many viewed as the pulp fiction pitcher David Wells spewed in his new book.
It's been anything but business as usual for the team with baseball's highest payroll and greatest expectations.
Steinbrenner admits Torre's calm, soothing presence is ideal for the trauma and drama that seems to bubble and surface daily.
''I think with Joe Torre at the helm, we can handle those bumps,'' Steinbrenner said.
Torre admits there's pressure.
''It gets to everybody,'' Torre said. ''It's a little tougher when you are inexperienced and even the experienced people have problems. There's not a lot of wiggle room in New York. Our future is this minute and we're impatient at times and a lot of young players have to grow up in a hurry.''
Fortunately for Torre, the Yankees are loaded with players who own more rings than Tiffany's.
They've worn a familiar path to the top of the world and don't expect to stumble again in their ninth straight trip to the playoffs.
The season's most compelling storylines will center around pitcher Roger Clemens and Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui.
Clemens, who turns 41 in August, has hinted this will be the final season of his Hall of Fame career. The six-time Cy Young Award winner is on a mission to achieve two things: win his 300th career game, he needs seven more; and one more championship.
''This will probably be my last year,'' said Clemens, who had a 1.93 ERA with 15 strikeouts and three walks in his first four spring starts. ''If I could get 300 and get back to the big dance again, that would be the most fun. Those are my expectations.''
All-Star catcher Jorge Posada marvels at the passion and pride Clemens brings to the park every day and wouldn't be surprised if ''The Rocket'' decided to come back.
''That guy loves baseball, he loves being out here,'' Posada said. ''He's still having fun, working hard, so this may not be his last one. He loves the game, and it's tough to walk away from something you love, something you've been successful at for a long time. He looks good, hopefully the season will be a good one for him and we'll see what happens.''
Matsui, known as ''Godzilla'' during his glory days in Japan, is going to see if he can conquer New York.
The gregarious 6-2, left-handed slugger is a certified folk hero in Japan and his every move has been chronicled by a 18 Japanese reporters, six TV stations and several radio outlets.
''There's a part of me that is very excited, but there is also a part of me that is a little worried, a little nervous, because I don't know what to expect,'' said Matsui, who hit a career-high 50 homers for the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's equivalent of the Yankees, last season. ''It's a mixture of emotions, because everything is so new a new environment, new league, new procedures. It's exciting.''
Steinbrenner is convinced Matsui can be one of the brightest stars in the Yankee galaxy.
''How can you not like him? As a person and a ballplayer, you've got to admire him greatly, all that he goes through,'' Steinbrenner said. ''I talk to him once in awhile when I pass him, but I don't seek him out. I don't want to single him out. He's being singled out enough.''
Phillies manager Larry Bowa, whose nephew Nick Johnson hopes for a breakout season with the Yankees, wonders how much of a distraction ''Godzilla'' will be to a team that already is a traveling media circus.
Matsui has adjusted nicely during spring training, hitting over .300 with power. He figures to take advantage of the short Yankee Stadium right field porch as he bats fifth in the power-laden Yankee lineup that is bristling with big guns.
The modern day Murderer's Row also features Jason Giambi, Alfonso Soriano, Bernie Williams, Robin Ventura, Raul Mondesi, Todd Zeile, Jeter and Posada. There is not an easy out in the group.
Williams, 35 in September, posted his eighth consecutive .300 season (.333) which tied Babe Ruth for second best streak in club annals behind Lou Gehrig's dozen and set a Yankee record for most hits by a switch-hitter (204). This touch of class continues to climb near the top of several illustrious all-time record lists.
Everyone expects Giambi to top his debut numbers in NY of .314 average, 41 homers, 122 RBIs.
Soriano, slowed all spring by shoulder woes, is the total package. The mind boggles at his potential considering, at age 23, he hit .300 with 39 homers and 120 RBIs despite striking out 157 times and batting leadoff most of last season.
Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson raised eyebrows when he said of Soriano, ''If he doesn't get hurt, let me tell you, gentlemen, someone is going to ask, 'Is he or isn't he the best you've ever seen?' Shoot, what is it he can't do?'' Anderson said Soriano has as much pop as Hank Aaron.
Jeter needs no prodding from Steinbrenner to improve on his 2002 numbers of .297 (lowest average since 1997), 18 homers, 75 RBIs and 14 errors. The consummate Yankee looks poised and ready to help The Empire Strike Back.
How far the Yankees go will ultimately be decided by a veteran pitching staff that is beginning to get long in the tooth.
Clemens, Wells, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettite and Jeff Weaver have combined for 832 career wins. To put that in perspective, Philadelphia's projected rotation has 149, including 75 that Kevin Millwood won when he was with Atlanta.
The Yankees expect a nice return on the considerable investment they made for Cuban defector Jose Contreras, the ace of Fidel Castro's national team. He's had a rocky spring, but will be a factor.
Closer Mariano Rivera is no longer a lights out force. He's 33 and coming off an injury-riddled season in which he went 1-4 with a 2.78 ERA and just 28 saves.
The setup crew has also been shuffled. Gone are reliable Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza and steady Steve Karsay has shoulder bursitis and his availability, especially early, is in doubt. Newcomer Antonio Osuna has been spectacular, but lefty Chris Hammonds (7-2, 0.95 ERA with Atlanta), has fought a tired arm all spring.
The Yankees, as always, have the luxury and resources to doing anything necessary to upgrade any trouble areas.
General manager Brian Cashman swapped Rondell White for Bubba Trammell and has been shopping pitcher Sterling Hitchcock. New York is always a major player when attractive players are put on the market at the trading deadline.
The future is always now in New York.
''We're going to have a very good team, and it's going to be a very interesting team because we have so many new factors,'' Steinbrenner said.
If not, ''The Boss'' will be heard from.
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