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COMMENTARY : Defenders of Nothing, Yankees Play Like Phantom Champions

NEWSDAY

The Yankees are producing the kind of sucker regular season the Rangers did in hockey, stringing their fans along the same way. The only major difference is this: The Yankees are defending nothing. They have played ball with a championship hangover. They have seen dropoffs, sometimes dramatic, from star players up and down the lineup. But the Yankees are defending champions of absolutely nothing. For the last few weeks, they have looked as helpless as a baseball McNeeley.

“My biggest fear,” Buck Showalter said one Fort Lauderdale morning, “is that we’ll try to defend a title (we) did not win.”

And whatever the Yankees say, however they try to explain away all the parts of the season that injuries do not explain, that is what they have done. They were American League champions of a phantom season. They were 70-43 when that season was called off, and almost everybody in pinstripes was running good and hot at the time. Now they have been asked to do it all over again. Great teams can do that. These Yankees were never a great team, even when they were 70-43.

They have picked up some big names and big salaries since last season. Not one of them has been gangbusters. David Cone may produce a real big finish, but it may turn out that he showed up much too late to take over the part of Jimmy Key. The Yankees have gone from a marvelous group of overachievers to a plodding group of underachievers. It happens sometimes in sports.

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Everything seemed to be magic last season, and this season there is no magic anywhere, no excitement that has lasted more than a couple of weeks. There was just the short spring training and the late start and Key’s injury and suddenly the Yankees were 16-25. Melido Perez was hurt and Scott Kamieniecki was hurt and Don Mattingly couldn’t see. A call was made to the Elias Sports Bureau at the time, which revealed that no Yankees team in history had come back from a record like that 40 games into the season and won anything. Sometimes the numbers do not lie. It is why the Yankees have so easily made a lie of last season.

“I feel like this is a two-fer season,” Mattingly said in spring training. “If we do win the division, it’s going to feel like we had to win it twice.” It is a realization they all seem to have carried into August like some kind of backpack filled with rocks.

The Yankees played 113 games before the strike last season. Through Friday’s game at Seattle, the Yankees have played 111. So you can get a real good statistical comparison between 1994 and 1995. And when you start to look at the statistics, the surprise is not that the Yankees have fallen out of a race against the Red Sox and into a crazy wild-card race against other mediocrities.

The surprise is that the 1995 Yankees are in any kind of race at all.

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Because almost all of them have backed up. Of the regulars, only Bernie Williams and Mike Stanley are having better seasons at the plate, and not by much. Williams hit .289 last season, with 12 home runs and 57 RBI. Now he is hitting .283 with 15 home runs, 63 RBI. Stanley finished at .300 last season, with 17 home runs, 57 RBI. Through Thursday’s game, Stanley was .283, 15 home runs, 67 RBI. You also get a push at shortstop. Mike Gallego hit .239 last season, six homers, 41 RBI. Tony Fernandez is .236, four homers, 37 RBI.

Then you go to the people who are supposed to be the real stars of the Yankees. Wade Boggs, who hit .342 last season, is down 30 points. Don Mattingly is down 20 points. Paul O’Neill is down from .359 to .305 and hasn’t hurt anybody for more than a month. Pat Kelly is down 15 points. Last year, the American League had an earned-run average of 5.55 against the Yankees. This year it is down nearly a run a game, to 4.75. This goes on while the ERA of the Yankees pitchers has gone up from 4.34 to 4.83. It is a lot.

And it is not just the loss of Key, coming off the season of his life, that has devastated the Yankees pitching staff. Last season, Perez started 22 games and was 9-4. This season he started 12 games before he was hurt, and was 5-5.

We hear a lot about how much talent and promise Sterling Hitchcock and Andy Pettitte have, and people nearly swoon when they give you seven or eight sparkling innings. But neither one has the experience or poise to make a difference in any kind of race. Pettitte is 6-7. Hitchcock is 6-8. The combined record of Perez, Pettitte, Hitchcock, Kamieniecki and Mariano Rivera is 24-27. Two of them--Pettitte and Hitchcock--are giving up fewer than five runs a game.

John Wetteland was supposed to come in and punch out the league. He has 22 saves through Thursday. Last season, Steve Howe and Bob Wickman had 21 between them. Moving Howe and Wickman permanently into set-up roles was supposed to give the Yankees the best bullpen around. It has not worked out that way. Howe was 1.80 last season. He is 4.83 this season, and appears to be a shot pitcher. Wickman was 3.09 last season. Now he is up to 3.93, nearly a run more a game. After a while, there are so many numbers like these sitting on top of the Yankees that the season in the AL East has to crumble.

When a team goes wrong around here, there is always a rush to declare villains. So there is a lot of jabbering and whining and second-guessing now about the manager, and whether he is doing enough to motivate the team. And whether his lefthanded hitters are getting enough swings against lefthanded pitchers. Even someone named Luis Polonia, whoever he is, weighs in with criticism of Showalter.

But Jack McDowell is not Key. O’Neill is not nearly the hitter he was last August. Mattingly gave us that one thrilling surge a month ago, then fell back. Boggs has had a soft season. When the Yankees got Cone and Ruben Sierra and even Darryl Strawberry, of course there was excitement, and optimism. Of course there was the feeling that the season was finally starting. Only there is not enough hitting, enough pitching, enough bullpen. The Yankees made a nice run after 16-25. Over the next six weeks, the record was 33-19, and they got to 49-44 on Aug. 8 and seemed ready to go hard after the Red Sox.

Then they lost an afternoon game to the Orioles. Then came the blown ninth inning against the Indians the next day, and a loss in the second game of a doubleheader and maybe the Yankees were through right there. It was Aug. 10. Almost a year exactly from the day last season ended, and so anniversary of a title never won.

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