Needles, Pinstripes and a Touch of 'Evil'

The buzz in the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues is how the Angels have become the industry role model for assembling a team and the way the game should be played. It took four decades, but as Manager Mike Scioscia has said of his team's ascent: "This was not a revelation but a culmination."

With no disrespect to the Angels, there are more ways than one to build a team and play the game. And the New York Yankees are still operating in their own sphere.

No one is apt to describe the payroll-busting construction of the Yankees as a role model, but George Steinbrenner will never permit a luxury tax or a reference to his organization as the Evil Empire to change the way he does business.

And the way the Boss conducted his verbal and financial business during the off-season contributed significantly to what has been one of the more chaotic chapters of the Steinbrenner tenure, though I did not ask celebrated chronicler David "Boomer" Wells his view on that.

I did ask Jason Giambi, who is in only his second year with the Yankees but clearly knows his history.

Giambi referred to a former Yankee third baseman and said, "Graig Nettles put it best when he said, 'If you ever have that dream of being in a circus and playing professional baseball, you can do both with the Yankees.' "

Well, not only did Steinbrenner stir the pot, creating a little of the turmoil that he has always felt benefits his team, it can also be said that the way he conducted his business in the off-season was a direct result of the way the Angels played in October.

They steamrollered the Yankees in the four games of the division series, leaving a mark in more ways than one.

"I don't think there's any doubt about that," Giambi said. "Mr. Steinbrenner loves to win and loves to motivate, and it had been a long time since the Yankees were out in the first round.

"He came out of that series and went out and got everybody he could get. I mean, they don't rebuild around here, they reload. They go out and get who they want.

"The Angels are a great model and so are the [Oakland] A's, but it's a different and more demanding atmosphere here.

"The Yankees can't afford those down years, playing in New York. They can't afford all those years when the Angels weren't as good as they are now, and they can't afford to lose 98 games, like we did with the A's for a couple years before winning the division."

Said Manager Joe Torre: "It's no secret that George is unhappy when we don't win, and I'm sure a lot of [what transpired] was in response to how we did in the postseason. We won 103 games in the regular season, so you really can't characterize it as a bad year, but it is when you're with the New York Yankees."

So, with their larger revenue-sharing obligation under the new bargaining agreement, and paying only lip service to cutting that $170-million payroll, the Yankees spent $53 million on Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras and Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui.

With that, of course, came 130 Japanese reporters to create a daily SigAlert in the clubhouse, and the Evil Empire comments by Boston Red Sox President Larry Lucchino. Those comments prompted Steinbrenner to launch a personal attack against Lucchino, and Yankee President Randy Levine to arrange a conference call in which he told reporters that the Yankees have an obligation to their fans and city and it's really nobody's business how the Yankees go about it, especially when they're underwriting so many of the other 29 clubs.

Then there was Steinbrenner suggesting that Torre and his coaches needed to pay a little more attention to their business, and that maybe Derek Jeter had lost some focus amid too many nights on the town. Jeter, annoyed at being portrayed as a party animal, responded in a bulging dugout news conference after arriving at spring training, and again in a meeting with Steinbrenner, who didn't offer an apology.

At that point, Reggie Jackson, a consultant to the managing general partner on the Yankees' depth chart, was heard from, saying he wanted a more prominent role and voice in the operation. That isn't going to happen in New York, but it might in Anaheim if the Nederlander family -- James and Robert Nederlander are limited partners in the Yankees -- buys the Angels.

All of this, of course, was a sideshow to the main ring that was two weeks of tabloid furor over Wells' book.

Ultimately, the portly pitcher proved no author is immune, edited some of his own writing to remove the sting and chose not to challenge a $100,000 fine for marring the Yankee image.

Now, a tenuous calm has pervaded the Legends Field clubhouse, to the extent that Wells gave General Manager Brian Cashman a friendly shoulder tap as he walked by the other day, prompting the following exchange:

"Hey, Boomer," said Cashman.

"Hey, bro," said Wells.

In a distant corner, Giambi said it was just nice "not to be the deer in the headlights" as he was last spring as the new Yankee, that distinction now belonging to Matsui and Contreras.

The Cuban pitcher had been a disappointment before throwing five shutout innings against Tampa Bay on Friday, but Torre had chalked it up to cultural adjustment and trying to do too much too soon. He told Contreras to "smile a little more" and assured him he'll be on the opening-day staff, probably in the bullpen behind a rotation of Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Weaver and Wells.

A productive Matsui has impressed Torre with his "sense of the game," his situational hitting ability and the power that earned him the nickname Godzilla in Japan. He has certainly impressed the Yankee press corps, having treated nine American reporters to dinner Tuesday night in an effort to enhance the relationship.

Immune to Yankee turmoil, Torre said, "Nothing can rain on my parade for enjoying the spring because there's so much pressure that goes into playing the regular season.

"I know," he continued, "we don't have to convince the guys in the clubhouse that in order to have a good year you have to win in the spring. We have enough experience that they aren't going to be distracted and they know what they need to do to start the season.

"That's where we're at right now and that's what I monitor."

Mondy's Future?

The Yankee plan was to trade Raul Mondesi and Rondell White to help offset some of the Matsui-Contreras signings, but both were coming off poor seasons and the effort dissipated when clubs insisted the Yankees retain some of the salary.

Mondesi, however, has revived interest with a hot spring generated by a change in his batting stance. He's one of several outfielders the San Diego Padres are looking at as a replacement for Phil Nevin, who is out for the season with a dislocated shoulder.

"There are definitely some ambulance chasers out there who are calling us right now," Padre General Manager Kevin Towers said.

The problem is that the Padres want to peddle outfielder Bubba Trammell and pitcher Kevin Jarvis, and each is signed through 2004, which doesn't interest the Yankees or the New York Mets, who wouldn't mind dumping Jeromy Burnitz and his $11.3-million guarantee this year.

Said Mondesi: "I want to stay with the Yankees, but I want it resolved soon. I want to know where I'm going to be."

Control Minded

A painful loss of control in the 2000 playoffs wiped out Rick Ankiel's bright future as a St. Louis Cardinal starter, and elbow surgery wiped out his 2002 season, period.

Ankiel and the Cardinals have hung in together, however, and the 24-year-old left-hander, vying for a bullpen berth, hadn't walked a batter in his last three one-inning stints through Thursday and was unscored on in three of his four spring appearances.

"He's done some things that excite you," Manager Tony La Russa said, "but you don't let yourself fall in and out of love in spring training."

Walking Tall

Watching Barry Bonds hit five home runs in his first 20 at-bats of spring training has convinced new San Francisco Giant Manager Felipe Alou that it doesn't matter who bats behind Bonds because his 198 walks of last season may be surpassed by the All-Star break.

"The difference between him and a human being is, I don't care who you have behind him, they're still going to walk him," Alou said. "You might have Vladimir Guerrero behind him and they're still going to make sure Barry doesn't beat them."

Stark Truth

Teammate Jason Jennings won the National League rookie-of-the-year award in 2002, but rookie Denny Stark responded to a mid-May call-up by the Colorado Rockies by going 8-1 at Coors Field and 11-4 overall, and Manager Clint Hurdle was saying this about him on the Cactus trail: "He's like the guy at the company picnic. He shows up, you roll your eyes, and then he wins the sack race. By the time the day is over, he has food on his shirt, and all the blue ribbons."

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