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THE YANKEES ARE HAVING A MAGICAL SEASON

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are chasing history at a .737 pace but figure there is no percentage in talking about it.

It is not ’06 or ’27 or ’54 that holds their focus, the New York Yankees insist, but October of ’98.

This is what the owner and manager want, and the Yankees understand.

“Everybody wants to be part of history, but it’s hard to identify with a team that played at the turn of the century, hard to compare,” pitcher David Cone said. “The best record doesn’t mean much if we don’t get to the World Series.”

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The best record of ’98 is one thing. The best record ever is another.

The Yankees, torching the American League East with a 15-game lead, are 73-26 as they open a three-game series against the Angels at Edison Field tonight. They are one victory behind the fastest start ever through 99 games. They need 44 wins in their last 63 games to eclipse the Chicago Cubs’ 116 of 1906. They need 39 to break the Cleveland Indians’ American League record of 111, set in 1954, and 38 to break their club record of 110, set by the Murderers’ Row club of ’27.

Are these Yankees in the same ballpark, literally and figuratively, with the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig, Dickey and DiMaggio, Mantle and Maris?

Great record, but is it a great team?

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“The right people and right pieces,” veteran coach Don Zimmer said, simplifying 1998 and leaving comparisons to history.

The comparative calm that has settled over the Bronx this summer may be as significant a measure of the Yankees’ play as that stunning record.

The familiar chaos of recent years has been replaced by chapel. The team that prays together has left the opposition without a prayer.

“Everyone is so conditioned to the Bronx zoo and crazy things happening here, and now you’ve got a group of low-key professionals just trying to win every night, and it’s always somebody different,” Cone said.

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“From Tim Raines to Darryl Strawberry to Chad Curtis, on down the line. It’s kind of amazing, and I know people get tired of hearing us say the same thing every night, but it’s true. It’s just a solid team, top to bottom, with incredible depth. No real MVP candidate. No true All-Stars.”

That’s a stretch, but Cone’s point is that no one except, perhaps, David Wells at 12-2 is having a career year. There are few Yankees among the league leaders, the exceptions being center fielder Bernie Williams, who leads the league in hitting; Mariano Rivera, who is among the league leaders in saves, and Cone, who is tied with Pedro Martinez for the league lead in wins.

“Compare our club to others and the difference is in the starting pitching,” said Manager Joe Torre, meaning that in an expansion era when most teams are lucky to have two or three front-line starters, “We put a pitcher out there with a chance to win every night.”

The Yankees won 92 games when they won the East title in 1996 and went on to win the World Series. They won 96 last year when they were the American League wild-card team and were eliminated in the division series.

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The pitching, Torre said, has gotten progressively better. The emergence of Hideki Irabu, the arrival of Orlando Hernandez, the return from shoulder surgery of Cone and the dominance of Wells have been key elements in the ’98 success and a league-leading staff earned-run average of 3.65.

Of course, a former football coach and military history buff named George Steinbrenner understands the importance of depth, the right pieces. He paid the price for Irabu and Hernandez, took on $24 million in salary with the trade for Chuck Knoblauch, signed Chili Davis as a designated hitter, brought Raines and Strawberry back, recently re-signed Curtis and writes checks totaling about $63.2 million in annual payroll.

Now, out of Steinbrenner’s concern that the Cleveland Indians, a possible playoff rival, may deal for Randy Johnson if the Seattle Mariners make him available before Friday’s deadline, it is believed that General Manager Brian Cashman carries instructions to top anything the Indians offer.

Many connected with the Yankees see Johnson disrupting clubhouse chemistry and think the greater need is a relief pitcher, with Jeff Nelson possibly out for the season with back problems, but Steinbrenner is looking at the big picture--October, the World Series.

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“I couldn’t be prouder,” he said from his headquarters in Tampa, Fla. “I’ve never had a team play with more intensity and focus, but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win the Series. I don’t care how many games we win or by how many games we win the division. We’re not playing to set a record, that’s not the motivation, and I’ve talked to Joe about that. I don’t care about records. The goal is the World Series.”

Johnson, at this point, hasn’t been made available, but Cashman has been working the phones, looking for ways to improve on 73-26, preparing for October.

Steinbrenner vowed after last year’s early elimination that the Yankees would return to the World Series in 1998, and Cashman said: “Fear of [postseason] failure is definitely a driving force. You don’t get too many shots at the Holy Grail. I don’t think the players fear failure, but it’s a front-office motivation. We’re always looking to improve, push the percentages in our favor.”

Cashman’s office is littered with the heads of his predecessors. He is 31, a former club intern who as baseball’s youngest general manager figures to age quickly.

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“I know this [job] can be difficult and demanding,” he said, having just fielded an interview-interrupting call from the man in Tampa. “George definitely gets his money’s worth, but that’s what makes him so successful and what makes us so successful.”

The unique aspect of this season’s success is that the Yankees, eighth in the league in home runs, aren’t Bronx-bombing the opposition.

Williams was on the disabled list for more than a month, and Davis, the new designated hitter, is not due back until mid-August after being sidelined in April with an ankle injury that required surgery. Scott Brosius came from the Oakland Athletics to produce an All-Star first half as the third base replacement for Wade Boggs/Charlie Hayes, but Knoblauch, a .304 hitter with the Minnesota Twins, is batting .258. Tino Martinez, who hit 44 homers and drove in 141 runs last year, has 14 and 78. Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill are having productive seasons, but the team leader in homers is Strawberry, the part-time DH, who has 15, a modest month for Mark McGwire.

With all of that, however, the Yankees are second in the league in runs, third in batting and ferociously disciplined. No team sends more batters to the plate or makes the opposition deliver more pitches.

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The Yankees are first in the league in walks and on-base percentage and second in steals, a rare weapon in the Bronx.

“There are a lot of guys here who have won and know what it takes,” Strawberry said. “It’s very rare for a big-market team not to have a lot of egos getting in the way, but the people here are concerned more about wins than stats. Guys like Raines and myself have accomplished so much that we recognize our [part-time] roles as important pieces in the puzzle. The people who put the club together understand that importance.”

It is also generally agreed at Yankee Stadium that no manager has done a better job than Torre of coping with the impetuous Steinbrenner, controlling the egos, juggling playing time and sensing and dousing brush fires with more one-on-one communication than Dr. Laura.

Torre’s juggling of Strawberry, Raines and Curtis has produced a cumulative 27 homers and 114 runs batted in, with no complaints. How he fits the return of Davis into that combination is yet to be seen, but he has also kept a lid on a potential catching debate by seeing that both veteran Joe Girardi and young Jorge Posada get enough work.

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“We have an interesting mix of really good people who care about each other,” Torre said. “That’s not necessary, but it helps. There’s no barking or whining. My only requirement is that they be professional. I haven’t had to caution or remind them.”

The Yankees and their manager were a continuous human interest story in Torre’s first year of 1996, when one brother died of a heart attack, another received a heart transplant and Torre ultimately reached and won the World Series, ending a player-manager streak of 4,268 games without a Series visit.

The Yankees won more games last year, but there were internal issues, many involving players no longer with the team, and there was the early exit from the playoffs.

“I’m more comfortable with this team and having more fun,” Torre said, which is no surprise. The Yankees are 38-8 at home, 35-18 on the road. They return to the West Coast tonight for the first time since opening the season by losing four of their first five games in Anaheim and Oakland. How did they rebound? By losing only 22 games in the next 16 weeks.

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“It would be nice to be part of history, but our priority is getting to the World Series,” Torre said. “Until we reach the finish line, we’re going to keep pounding, one game at a time. We need to keep our edge. I don’t have to tell them.”

*

IT STARTS WITH PITCHING

Five Yankee starters have combined for more wins--53--than 16 major league teams, but there’s still talk of a change. C4

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MOST VICTORIES IN A SEASON

RECORD: 116-35 (.763)

TEAM: Chicago Cubs, 1906

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THROUGH 99 GAMES: 72-27 (.727)

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RECORD: 111-43 (.721)

TEAM: Cleveland Indians, 1954

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THROUGH 99 GAMES: 72-27 (.727)

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RECORD: 110-42 (.724)

TEAM: Pittsburgh Pirates, 1909

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THROUGH 99 GAMES: 74-25 (.727)

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RECORD: 110-42 (.714)

TEAM: New York Yankees, 1927

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THROUGH 99 GAMES: 73-26 (.737)

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PROJECTED RECORD: 119-43 (.735)

TEAM: New York Yankees, 1998

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THROUGH 99 GAMES: 73-26 (.737)


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