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Yankee Panky #11: Prolonging the Inevitable

Is 50 games too small of a sample to determine whether the Yankees are done? With a deficit of 13 ½ games in the AL East and 7 ½ in the wild card, is it too soon for the Yankees to be operating in crisis mode? If no, what’s to be done, and is it the function of the media — yes, the bloggers count — to force the issue?

The facts are simple: the Yankees are winless since George Steinbrenner issued his “Big Hook” missive to the Associated Press. Everyone is on notice and on edge. Now more than ever, players are playing to save the jobs of Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, and they know it. It reeks of Old-School GMSIII. What were the odds that the veteran columnists pounced?

Nothing seems to be working. The highly publicized one-hour, closed-door meeting prior to Monday’s game had little effect, with the team limping to a 7-2 drubbing in which they trailed 7-0. In the past, these meetings have worked. On days when Torre has held meetings, the writers would ask players what the message was, and they typically wouldn’t say anything but, “Everyone in this clubhouse respects Joe Torre, and when he speaks, we listen.” Torre’s response in these cases was usually, “These guys are professionals. I shouldn’t have to do too much to motivate them. We’re a veteran ballclub and the guys in there know what we’re about. We just have to start playing better.” You could almost write the quotes beforehand.

Even two years ago, after a 10-game win streak lifted the Yankees from an 11-19 quagmire and they subsequently fell below .500, there wasn’t the sense of dread there is now. And the media didn’t foment the atmosphere. Fan reaction to Torre and Cashman was similar, but in the locker room, there was a clear sense that things would improve. But based on what I’m gathering from the literature and from my contacts still working on the beat, there is a lack of confidence and a sense of vulnerability in that clubhouse that hasn’t existed in a long time. Buster Olney alluded to this on ESPN Radio Monday morning.

(Random ESPN note: Can you be a credible news source when a reasonably objective conversation like that occurs days after a “Joe Must Go” article runs on ESPN.com? Can you have it both ways?)

The Daily News’s Bill Madden has seen this before. He has witnessed firsthand the last two Yankees “dynasty” teams, the lean years and the mediocrity in between. When he says the Yankees are done, it may not be preemptive. When Wally Matthews writes that a turnaround could be based on “blind faith,” he might be right. Steve Lombardi at WasWatching is already reciting the lyrics from Pink Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb" to signify the Yankees’ demise. There is precedent for Yankee comebacks, but as Derek Jeter has said explaining the recent spate of playoff losses, “this is not the same team.”

Too many guys are hurt. Too many players are slumping simultaneously. Save for Jeter and Jorge Posada, the aggressiveness at the plate with runners in scoring position is nonexistent.

Change is imminent. The question is a matter of “who” and “when,” and not “if.” Will it happen for the sake of change, as Derek Jacques intimates? There is a divide on firing Torre. For every Ian O’Connor article calling for Torre to finish the season and end his tenure with dignity — great hire by the Bergen Record, by the way, stealing him from the Journal News to replace Adrian Wojnarowski — there is a NoMaas.org blog presenting the annoyed fan’s perspective that enough is enough. NoMaas pinned Sunday’s loss to the Angels on Torre, claiming his “neurotic mistrust of his starting pitchers” led to the defeat. Who knows? Maybe it did. Given the bullpen’s performance to date combined with Mussina’s struggles, I’d have tried to let Mussina get through the seventh, if for no other reason than to build confidence. But that’s neither here nor there.

The tabloids rightly played the second-guessing angle to the move, but didn’t go all the way with it. They didn’t ask the follow-up question to Torre’s reasoning behind Proctor being the stopper for that jam. “Proctor has more experience in that situation than Bruney,” Torre said. The beat writers were off on Sunday to get some rest before the road trip, if the backups aren’t familiar with Torre’s moves, the editors certainly are and they need to prep the writers so they can ask questions like: “Did you believe your options from the bullpen were limited in the seventh inning?”, or, “Why not use Rivera there and save Proctor for the ninth if you still had the lead?” It’s wishful thinking that the regulars would ask the question also. It’s frustrating because many of the writers have a high level of baseball acumen, but rarely do they demonstrate it.

Torre’s move gave fans agita and led to boos. Bruney has the highest K/9 ratio on the team and is the only pitcher to not allow a home run this season. Plus, Torre has put him in this situation before. The problem is since neither Bruney nor Proctor has a steady stream of success in such situations, Torre’s options were limited.

I remember three years ago during the June-July Red Sox-Yankees series at the Stadium, Felix Heredia was entered the game in the sixth or seventh inning to face David Ortiz with the bases loaded and the Yankees holding a slim lead. Suzyn Waldman and I were dumbfounded. I asked Suzyn, “Why not being in Rivera or Gordon? This thing could get ugly fast with Heredia.” Her response: “Nope. Joe doesn’t manage like that.” Heredia struck out Ortiz to make my point moot, but I asked Torre if he considered other options in that situation, and he said flatly: “No. If Heredia can’t get a left-handed hitter out in that situation, then he doesn’t belong in the Major Leagues.”

The Roger Clemens watch is now at T-Minus one week, according to the Star-Ledger’s Lisa Kennelly. I was actually impressed with the dual coverage of his Trenton appearance last Wednesday. Steven Goldman provided multiple blogs for YESNetwork.com, Yankees.com and the locals had representatives there as well. It was treated as a bigger story than the actual game taking place in the Bronx.

ESPN Radio in New York broadcast live and had cut-ins to the Thunder’s radio duo, who actually sounded like they cared about the game and wanted to inform fans about the goings-on on the field. They were excited yet understated, and projected a sense of the magnitude of such an event in that franchise’s history. On the Yankees mothership broadcast, John Sterling treated it as an also-ran story, because, “he’s not here.”

Another component to the Clemens story to discuss below: The Yankees have lost eight of their last 11 games and have lost eight games in the standings since the Clemens announcement. The locals are saying Clemens’ energy is just what the Yankees need at this point. Do you agree? Or are the Yankees too far gone for him to make an impact?

• More gasoline being poured on the “Cashman/Torre job status” fire.

• Clemens in Boston (it hasn’t been ruled out).

• The Bostonians preparing the guillotine for the Yankees.

• Mets PR director Jay Horwitz stewing at the fact that the Mets are 15 games above .500 and in first place, and can’t buy a backpage.

Until next week …

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