Yankees Thinking Like Contender

Hartford Courant

Yes, the New York Yankees have returned to form, trading away the future to benefit the present. But, hey, isn’t the real story that the Yankees are once again even thinking about the present?

The trading away of Al Leiter and the acquisition of Jesse Barfield might have seemed a frivolous, foolish maneuver three weeks ago. After all, the Yankees had started 1-7 and evoked only memories of the team’s not-so-glorious past, doing a real scary imitation of the last-place 1966 Yankees in every aspect.

That was three weeks ago. The Yankees still have a pitching staff that yields more than four runs a game and an offense that scores less than four runs a game. But that’s OK. This team is a contender. They may have been only 12-12 in April, but that was good enough for a share of first place in the American League East. And that .500 April was more than enough to put the Yankees on the scent again.


Crazy as it may seem, the team is gearing up.

“We think we can compete and when you have a player (Barfield) of that caliber, you have to take a shot at it,” Yankee Manager Dallas Green said last week. “I’ve said all along that this is going to be a dogfight division and if you hang around .500, you have a chance to win a dogfight.”

So, the Yankees are back to making those deals that serve only to bulk up the major leagues and make the purists crazy. “Any trade is a gamble,” Green said. “And it’s always a bigger gamble when the guy you’re trading away has potential. But we’ve all seen guys with that word attached to them who never amounted to a hill of beans.”

So, amazingly, the Yankees are thinking like contenders. Are they playing like contenders? Well, that’s all relative.

They still have a gargantuan problem at third base, still are holding their collective breath to see if Alvaro Espinoza is the real thing at short, if Steve Sax could possibly be that good at second and if Roberto Kelly has really arrived as a threat in center. But the fact is, the positives are overshadowing the host of negatives now because the Yankees are in first place. The mere idea they survived, if not thrived, in April, that they never fell more than four games out, had to cause a re-assessment.

Of course, the Yankees will say that they always felt they should be considered a contender, but the truth is, their thinking has changed because their surroundings changed.

If the Yankees were cursed with a berth in the American League West, they’d be about six games back, chasing the finely tuned Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics and still planning a hefty part of their tomorrows around Leiter. But the Yankees are not being buried. This time they’ve lucked out. They reside in the down-and-out American League East.


The once-haughty division, is no longer reverently called “The Beast,” but rather, pathetically called “The Least.” So, the Yankees’ 12-12 April looks like a bolt from the gate in comparison to the wretched start by the Blue Jays and mediocre Aprils by the banged-up Milwaukee Brewers and stumbling Boston Red Sox. That, more than anything, had to give the Yankees pause.

If the division plays out the rest of 1989 the way it played April, it may take only 85 victories to win. The Yankees, in spite of the problems, have to figure they can do that. And they figure their chances of winning it all will be greatly enhanced by Barfield’s presence.

Barfield may not be Dave Winfield, but he was thought of highly enough last season to be considered in a straight-up deal for Winfield. Now, the comparison is moot because the Yankees don’t have Winfield, haven’t had him all year and may not get him back this season because of Winfield’s back operation.

This trade may well be criticized because of the Yankees’ pursuit of the immediate fix, but the Yankees decided that they need the offense more than they need a wild left-handed starter with a load of potential.

Barfield, who viewed the Yankees from afar, knows the need and believes he can meet it. “Without Winfield, it’s been a different ballclub,” he said. “Without the home runs, it’s not the same. I think I can add to it. And, I think my defense (two Gold Gloves) speaks for itself.”

The Yankees hope to see immediate results. They also hope they do not get burned, that they have not acquired a player on a serious downslide. The numbers show Barfield has slipped from his 40-home run, 108-RBI season of 1986. Barfield says that slide was caused by a chronic injury to his left wrist, but he’s healthy now. And even at half speed, he looks real good compared to what’s been passing as the Yankees’ long-ball threat.


Barfield has five home runs. The Yankees have eight. Those numbers alone Green finds soothing. And don’t tell the manager about declining numbers. “Leiter didn’t have any numbers,” he said bluntly.

Still, Green and the rest of the Yankees hierarchy are braced for the history lesson, and no doubt will hear the honor roll of alums who were dealt away before they ever had a chance to blossom. But that’s OK, Green said, because this time it is different. Really.

“We didn’t go for a DH, bad-bodied, slow-running, quick-fix type of guy,” Green said. “He’s a player. He can DH, just like Don Mattingly can DH occasionally, just like Rickey (Henderson) can. But Jesse can help you in other ways besides hit home runs. Barfield is not 90 years old. He’s 29 years old.”

That’s certainly young enough for Barfield to be considered a part of the Yankees’ future. But that’s not really this team’s concern. The Yankees will worry about the future only if and when it gets here.