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Yankees’ Merrill Running on Empty?

NEWSDAY

In the worst of times like these, when his team is losing, his players are sniping at him and his general manager is ominously silent, Stump Merrill slips on his running shoes and hits the road.

“My outlet is to run,” the Yankees manager said. “That’s how I cope with it. I’m alone and my mind can wander. I can think about all my problems and not burden anybody else with them.

“My wife, she takes it much harder than me. She’s up in Topsham (Maine) and I don’t know how she finds out what’s going on, but she does. This stuff really gets to her. So I really don’t want to burden her.”

Merrill, despite painful knees, runs for an hour on his escapes. Last Thursday he found himself caught in a vicious thunderstorm in Toronto. He pressed on.

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But no matter how many miles he logs, Merrill knows he can’t run away from his problems. He is a manager whose job security is in question. Even he knows that.

“I can’t say it doesn’t enter my mind,” Merrill said. “I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t. And I’m not a good liar. Sometimes, yes, it’s hard on you. But I try not to think about things I can’t control. When Mr. (Robert) Nederlander and Stick (Michael) come down on me, that’s when I have to be concerned. The rest of it, it doesn’t bother me too much.

“You try to keep it in perspective. I’ve got a beautiful family and I have my health. Hopefully I can say that for a while to come.”

There is a growing faction of players -- most of them veterans and all of them wearing the cloak of anonymity -- who want Merrill out. One of them added Tuesday, “Is he any better than last year? No. I feel like we’ve wasted a year here.”

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Their perception is that Merrill made for a fine babysitter during the George Steinbrenner saga last year, but now the Yankees need a more astute manager to lead them into contention. Nobody in the clubhouse will come out in support of Merrill, preferring “no comments” or unattributed attacks when reporters ask about him. The silence is damning.

Michael, too, refuses to publicly support Merrill, a manager he didn’t hire in the first place.

“I don’t say anything good or bad about the manager,” the general manager said. “What if I do come out and say something good and then later on I decide to make a change? How do I look then? So I’d rather not say anything.”

The last time Michael did say something about Merrill, he appeared to undermine him. Michael accepted the bulk of the blame for the Don Mattingly haircut fiasco, but he did go out of his way to say Merrill should have taken care of the problem two weeks before it became such an issue.

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Merrill has the public support of neither his players nor his general manager. He is all alone right now, as if he is out on one of those long, lonely runs of his.

The partners of the Yankees, including Steinbrenner, are scheduled to meet in New York Thursday. It is a regular quarterly meeting. Michael will give the partners a “state of the team” address. One of the partners said Merrill’s status will be discussed.

“I want to know,” Charlotte Witkind said. “As limited partners, we can make a lot of noise, but that doesn’t mean anything is going to happen. It usually doesn’t. But I think a lot of people have questions. (Merrill’s job security) does seem to be an issue.”

One Yankee front-office member described Michael as “a very stubborn man” who views people in the organization as “my guys” and “your guys.” Merrill is not one of Michael’s guys. It is no secret that Michael brought Graig Nettles back to the organization as a manager-in-waiting. But even Michael must have noticed Nettles’ lack of assertiveness as a coach. If he has aspirations of managing, they are well hidden.

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If Michael does fire Merrill, it should only be because the organization has found its manager for the next five to eight years. Canning Merrill because he is not a good strategist is not reason enough. The Yankees must come up with a legitimate replacement, not just a quick-fix hired gun or another former popular Yankee player. They have to find the next Jim Leyland or Tony La Russa, somebody to grow with this team.

Is it Buck Showalter, the third base coach? Who knows? He is 35, has never managed above Double-A and has been a major-league coach for only two years. Is it Davey Johnson or Pittsburgh Pirates’ coach Gene Lamont or Milwaukee Brewers coach Don Baylor or Oakland Athletics coach Dave Duncan?

That decision is left to Michael, who entered the scene last year perceived as Steinbrenner’s puppet but has emerged as one of the most powerful general managers in baseball in terms of singular control of a ballclub’s direction. If the Yankees are serious about making significant personnel changes in the offseason -- that means landing at least one premier free agent -- then it is that much more important for Michael to put his manager in place.


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