Sun, May 08, 2005 - Page 22 News List

As the Boss fumes. Yankees tense up

MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL As the league's highest paid team continues to faulter, George Steinbrenner will no doubt be looking for a scapegoat among his staff

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, AP , NEW YORK

Wherever the increasingly Garbo-like George Steinbrenner was Friday night -- perhaps lost where mint juleps clink and bonnets are decorated like wedding cakes -- he had the luxury of distance.

If he was strolling around Churchill Downs, he could stroke an equine acquisition in the prized Bellamy Road. A sort of pet therapy. If he had been prowling around his collapsible team, he would have been forced to confront a pinstriped disaster inside a dreary and morose Yankee Stadium. A sort of pet cemetery.

Somewhere, the Boss was probably in front of a television set, watching, growling and audible for a Kentucky mile as the Yankees fell apart against Oakland during a three-error 10th inning for their fourth straight loss.

The Boss can hide, but he is always on everyone's mind, especially on a day when he laid the blame for the Yankees' spiral on the lap of the pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre in USA Today.

"To me, that's not the right thing to do," manager Joe Torre said. "I'm the one responsible for Mel."

This kind of accountability is a Torre trait, not a Boss quality. Personal responsibility is a Tino Martinez trait, not a Steinbrenner asset.

"I cost us the game tonight," said Martinez, who committed two errors on one play that allowed two runs in the 10th. "I've got to make the play. It's on me."

Introspection doesn't occur to Steinbrenner. Others soul search; the Boss searches for a scapegoat. And yet, one answer to the Yankees' bewilderment unfolded in front of everyone on Friday night when the Yankees crossed paths with the A's in an intersection of baseball philosophies that changed everything in 2001.

Back then the coupon-clipping A's tried, but could not afford, to retain Jason Giambi as their beloved raucous leader with the pro wrestler's physique and the MVP statistics. At that moment, the Yankees, with a loss in the 2001 World Series on their impatient minds, decided to depart from a successful strategy of growing titles from talent on the farm.

The Boss plopped down US$120 million for Giambi, starting a parallel decline of an organization and a player, of a personnel philosophy and a Yankee dynasty. That moment has helped lead to a US$200 million payroll for a team that has found itself in its division's crawlspace.

"If you're the Boss and spend all the money, they're your toys," Torre said. "You can do what you want. It's your money."

To the Boss, money is blameless. Cash equals power, not weakness. To the Boss, money is flawless. It creates, not ruins. For Steinbrenner, faulting money is like faulting himself.

From 2001 to 2005, the ex-shopaholic of the 1980s resurfaced as Steinbrenner began handing out golden parachutes to every aging superstar with crow's feet. The obsession with shiny players began with Giambi, the player who has become the official mirror to the Yankees' unraveling.

Giambi arrived as an invincible luminary with a tear in his eye as he slipped into his No. 25 Yankee jersey. It was 2 plus 5 -- as in No. 7, as in Mickey Mantle, as in the folk hero of all the Yankee bedtime stories his father had told him.

"Pop, it's not 7, but we got the pinstripes," Giambi said that day.

Here he was, a player who wanted to live up to a demanding father's dreams.

Here are the Yankees, a team who wants to live up to a deluded Boss' demands.

"There's a lot of tension, and on a scale of 1 to 10, it's probably at an 8," Torre said of the current atmosphere, adding, "What is called listlessness is really tension."

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