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Yankee Panky # 7: The Medium is the Message?

By now, you’ve heard everything remotely possible breaking down the speculation of Joe Torre’s firing and George Steinbrenner’s statement, which added some slack to the leash on Torre and GM Brian Cashman.

The Yankees finished April losing eight of nine – including five of six to the Red Sox – a 9-14 overall record, a walking wounded list that an NFL team would envy, and numerous questions regarding the cause of their demise. The Yankees led in all five of those games. In four of the eight losses, the Yankees held leads in the seventh inning or later. They could easily be 15-8, 16-7 or 17-6; they’d still have the same flaws but because the victories would far outnumber the defeats, we wouldn’t be discussing the current state of affairs.

As we know, “losing is not acceptable.”

Torre is a convenient scapegoat. He is certainly part of the problem, but he’s not the sole reason for the poor start. He’s correct in that Torre didn’t re-sign a fragile Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, or bid way too much for Kei Igawa, who should probably be a situational reliever in the Hideki Okajima mold. Torre hasn’t gone 1-for his last 20 like Bob Abreu. He isn’t whining about cramps in his forearm or calling throwing 20 of 45 pitches off a mound “progress.” He didn’t catch too much of the plate with a pitch to Marco Scutaro in Oakland or to Coco Crisp at Fenway. He isn’t the LOOGY (lefty one-out guy) who is throwing up loogies.

Don Zimmer told the New York Post that Cashman is the problem, and that the Torre criticism is unjust. Because he served as Torre’s consiglieri for eight seasons, his words can be taken seriously on one level. Don’t discount Zimmer’s bitterness toward the Yankee organization, however. When Zimmer and Steinbrenner had their tiff during the 2003 season – YES was prohibited from showing Zimmer on camera during games, he was forbidden from appearing on any network programs, and he declined several interview requests for the dot.com – Torre was affected. He’s never outwardly said it, but do remember the frequent camera shots where it appeared Torre was sleeping during games? You don’t see them too much anymore. From 1996-2003, Torre managed the egos and media — he still does — but he lost a great tactician in Zimmer. It’s not a stretch to conclude that the results would be better if Torre still had his right-hand man. Torre is on his fourth bench coach in as many seasons, and while all were capable despite never having comparable experience, none was as good as Zimmer. It’s not a coincidence that Zimmer’s absence and three straight years of “Fire Joe” talk have paralleled each other.

Three years ago, the Yankee rotation’s mediocre performance was the foundation for 61 comeback victories. What happened over the past weekend is similar to two years ago, when the Yankees started the season 11-19 — including losing six of seven to the Red Sox — brought up Chien-Ming Wang in late April and Robinson Cano in early May in Tampa. The team went through growing pains before rattling off 10 straight wins on a West Coast trip (Cano batted close to .400 on that trip after starting is Major League career 0-for-22), and eking out the Division in Boston on the season’s final weekend. Injuries befell the team early last season as well. There were no revelations like Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon going 17-3 as in 2005, but the team bore down and got through its funk.

The Daily News’ Bob Raissman pointed out that Sterling and Waldman are blaming the media for “looking for stories” over the course of April; that seasons aren’t decided in the first month. Tell that to the 1988 Baltimore Orioles or any Tampa Bay Devil Rays team prior to this season.

Steinbrenner is not forcing hair-trigger moves like the Raul Mondesi trade of 2002 following the inexplicable placement of Enrique Wilson in right field against the Mets (correction: I mistakenly wrote Red Sox). But while he’s only speaking to the media through his publicist, Howard Rubinstein, and to a lesser degree team president Randy Levine and COO Lonn Trost, for as long as he’s alive, he is omnipresent in that front office.

The culture he has created, where pressure to win is so intense that any letdown is considered failure, is a double-edged sword. Are the media creating the state of emergency when Brian Cashman tells Anthony McCarron of the Daily News that he’s “never felt secure” in his job? Are they formulating fiction when Torre likens this aspect of the job to “dancing with the heat”?

When Jerome from Manhattan calls Steve Sommers’ show and says, “They won’t come out of this. Torre and Cashman need to be fired,” is that a media creation or an extension of the spoiled Yankee culture?

Starting last Friday, when the Torre/Cashman smoke billowed, the coverage on all accounts – from broadcast – except Sterling and Waldman on WCBS – the papers and the blogosphere has deftly mixed hard-news reporting, analysis, speculation, projection, and the columnists like Joel Sherman have offered provocative and practical solutions. Scribes like Bill Madden have pointed out the unfairness of bringing in Don Mattingly at this point and questioned other possibilities like Larry Bowa. 

Mike and the Mad Dog – more Russo than Francesa – claim that Torre has continued to return and put himself in the line of fire for the financial gain. I don’t know Torre beyond my reporter/manager dealings with him, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was true. Prior success is also a motivating factor. He basked in the glory of four championships and was arguably the most popular manager the city has seen. Wouldn’t you want to go out on a high note and recapture that high?

“(Torre) will be the manager when the Yankees play Texas, but I think he’s one or two more bad series away from being fired,” Buster Olney told Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on ESPN Radio Monday morning.

Olney acknowledged George Steinbrenner’s desire to scapegoat Torre in previous years, noting – as did the NY Post’s George King on Monday– that Cashman talked him out of firing Torre. Two years ago, following Mel Stottlemyre’s resignation, the prevailing thought was that Torre would be gone. Cashman and Steve Swindal talked him into coming back.

Joe Girardi told Michael Kay Monday afternoon that the team still doesn’t have an identity. He said to see where things are on June 1. By then, Roger Clemens may be here, the Yankees could be in first place and for another year, we’ll be talking about the greatest managerial job Torre and Cashman have done.

The thing to remember while processing the “manager/GM job watch” story is this: the media haven’t created the environment, they are a product of it.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver