Controversy has become such a part of Yankee Stadium that it
deserves to be commemorated in Monument Park, say with plaques
displaying the New York tabloids' most inflammatory back pages
or the bronzing of the manager's red telephone that former
Yankees skipper Lou Piniella ripped from its mooring after one
too many calls from the boss upstairs. Ruth may have built the
house, but under principal owner George Steinbrenner,
ruthlessness provided the renovations.
This is an article from the July 8, 1996 issue
That's why the events preceding the New York Yankees' game last
Saturday with the Baltimore Orioles at first glance appeared to
be as familiar in the Bronx as the arched facade. In one Yankee
Stadium clubhouse the franchise player, having already placed a
telephone call to the loose-lipped owner who had zinged him the
day before, brandished faxed copies of newspaper articles as he
scolded reporters for igniting the latest brushfire. The
league's top home run hitter, working off another faxed clip,
quizzed the manager about comments the skipper made regarding a
lineup switch. Meanwhile, the mood in the other clubhouse was so
warm and fuzzy that Kevin Costner was in there giving tips to
one player about how to turn his life story into a Hollywood
However, a second look was required to realize that this was
man-bites-dog stuff. It was the Yankees, with hardly a peep of
protest on a team loaded with humble, hardworking, homegrown
players, who looked good enough for the big screen. Turns out
the smoke alarms were going off in the visitors' clubhouse. That
was none other than Cal Ripken Jr. responding to verbal shots
from Orioles owner Peter Angelos. And it was Brady Anderson
seeking out manager Davey Johnson, who had implied in print that
Anderson was unhappy about being moved out of the leadoff spot.
The Orioles have become a familiar flammable cocktail of
garrulous owner, contentious manager and ill-fitting roster of
star players better equipped to win a Rotisserie League than the
American League. In short, the Orioles have become the
Yankees--minus the tabloids. The Broadsheet Bullies.
The four-game series last weekend in New York played out like
the answer to an essay question: Compare and contrast Baltimore
and New York. The Orioles did win the finale on Sunday 9-1
behind a four-hitter from lefthander David Wells, another
ruffled Bird who refused to speak to the media, but the victory
merely salvaged a split for the Orioles. They failed to gain
ground on the Yankees and remained 4 1/2 games behind the
American League East leaders. Worse than that, the Birds failed
to resemble a cohesive unit in sync with their manager.
On the other hand New York continued to prosper quietly despite
injuries that have put 12 players on the disabled list,
including ace pitcher David Cone, who had surgery to repair an
aneurysm in his pitching shoulder. "They're more like the
Yankees than the Yankees," Cone said of the Orioles. "Our
clubhouse is full of great human-interest stories."
One of those stories belongs to Dwight Gooden, who last Thursday
huddled with Warner Brothers moguls about filming his life
story, especially the part about overcoming cocaine and alcohol
abuse to throw a no-hitter. Two days later Gooden sought advice
from Costner, who had stopped by the Yankees clubhouse before
the game. "I'm still hoping they get Denzel Washington to play
me," said Gooden.
Both Baltimore and New York have new managers, though the
Yankees have had an easier time adjusting to Joe Torre, who
gives the appearance he's your Uncle Leo babysitting for the
weekend. "Don't be fooled, though," said Gooden. "He doesn't
miss a thing." After a trip to Chicago last month Torre told
Gooden, "You owe me." Two days earlier Gooden had failed to be
on the dugout steps for the playing of the national anthem,
costing him a $100 fine.
Johnson would love to have such trivial problems. He spent most
of his time before the game last Friday explaining his
gerrymandered lineup. He moved Anderson, who was having one of
the best seasons ever by a leadoff hitter, into the number 2
hole and replaced him with Roberto Alomar, the erstwhile number
3 hitter who was in an 0-for-14 slump. Ripken, used in the sixth
spot most of the season, batted third. Johnson also returned
rightfielder Bobby Bonilla to DH, where Bonilla had so convinced
himself he couldn't hit (he was batting .213 at week's end as a
DH, but .347 as a position player) that Johnson named an
affliction after him. When Luis Polonia also struggled as the
DH, Johnson said, "Maybe he's got Bobby Bonilla disease."
When asked to explain Bonilla's return to DH, Johnson cracked,
"I figured if I ticked off everyone else, I might as well tick
him off, too."
Johnson inherited a team he found to be altogether too
comfortable, especially considering that the Orioles haven't
been to the postseason since '83. "The manager last year [Phil
Regan] was timid," pitcher Jesse Orosco said. "Davey came in
with a little more aggressiveness."
Johnson is about as smooth as 60-grade sandpaper. Less than two
months into the job he dared to lift Ripken for a pinch
runner--it was the first time Ripken had been removed by his
manager from a close game during his record playing streak--and
also raised the possibility of moving Ripken from shortstop to
third base. "He is so regimented in everything he does that he
doesn't like surprises," Johnson says. "Generally, with the best
player on your ball club everyone else develops similar habits.
One of the things about this league, and our team may be the
epitome of this, is they don't like change over here."
Johnson listened with envy as Torre portrayed his team as
low-maintenance. "He said he's able to bat his best player in
the one, two, three, four, five or six hole any time," Johnson
That player is Bernie Williams, the centerfielder and the heart
of the Yankees. "It's the only club I ever had where no one ever
complains about where they hit in the lineup," Torre says. "They
only care about winning."
The Yankees signed Williams on his 17th birthday, in 1985. He
weighed 160 pounds and, as he had since he was eight years old,
loved to play the guitar. In his free time at Escuela Libre de
Musica, a high school in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he and some
friends would find the hallways with the best acoustics and
launch into informal jams with their guitars, clarinets, flutes
and violins, riffing whatever came to mind. "A real melting pot
of music," Williams remembers. "Everything from Ozzy Osbourne to
Even by his third minor league season, in 1988, the big leagues
seemed as distant as Mars. "I was just trying to survive down
there," he says. "You looked at the Yankees' outfielders and you
saw Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Claudell Washington, Jay
Buhner, Hal Morris and Roberto Kelly."
That season New York shipped Buhner to the Seattle Mariners for
a journeyman lefthanded hitter named Ken Phelps in a typically
shortsighted Yankees deal. From 1981 to '88, the Yankees also
jettisoned prospects Willie McGee, Fred McGriff, Jose Rijo, Doug
Drabek, Bob Tewksbury and others without giving them even one
full season in the majors. What chance did Williams have of
making it with the Yankees, this skinny kid with the soft,
long-lashed eyes and sonatas playing in his headphones? "The rap
on him was that he was always too timid," says former Yankees
general manager Gene Michael, now the head of scouting for the
Williams made it to the Yankees for parts of the 1991 and '92
seasons, which happened to be the best of times for New York
prospects. Steinbrenner was banned from baseball, allowing
Michael to stress patience with young players while the team
rebuilt. "George will admit I have too much patience at times,"
Michael says. "Maybe it's because I spent 7 1/2 years in the
Largely because of Michael, the Yankees don't give away Buhners
anymore. When Williams started poorly last season, hitting .188
through May 27, Steinbrenner told Michael to see what Williams
could bring in a trade. Michael dragged his feet; he had no
intention of trading him. Smart move. Williams, who now weighs
205, has become an elite player, batting .340 since last year's
All-Star break, with 24 home runs and 97 RBIs in 143 games. He
showcased his talents every day in the Baltimore series, whether
it was reaching base nine times, robbing Bonilla of a homer with
a leaping catch at the wall or blasting a Wells pitch for his
15th home run.
The Yankees have developed other emerging stars, such as
reliever Mariano Rivera, shortstop Derek Jeter and starting
pitcher Andy Pettitte, who threw seven shutout innings in New
York's 4-3 win last Saturday, his league-leading 12th victory.
Pettitte is 18-5 with a 3.64 ERA since last Aug. 30.
Baltimore hasn't developed an every-day impact player since
Ripken. One player expected to fill that bill, outfielder
Jeffrey Hammonds, is back in Triple A Rochester even though, at
25, he's three years older than Jeter. Another top prospect,
outfielder Alex Ochoa, was traded to the New York Mets last year
in one of those classic, shortsighted Steinbrenner-type deals to
get Bonilla, the team's prima poseur.
Another young prospect, infielder Manny Alexander, has been held
back by Ripken's nonstop streak. Alexander, 25, has so few at
bats this season (36) that the Orioles still don't know what he
can do in the big leagues. While Alomar has started seven games
as the DH, the 35-year-old Ripken does not allow himself even
that much respite. "In a normal world when you have a [Barry]
Larkin or someone, he'll let you have 15 to 20 games to play
somebody else at shortstop," Johnson says. "You don't get a
chance to do that here."
Though Ripken made costly errors last Thursday and Friday in New
York, he whacked seven hits in 18 at bats in the series to raise
his average to .296. His recent surge at the plate, though,
didn't stop Angelos from criticizing him last Friday. In a move
Steinbrenner patented, Angelos sent word to the Baltimore beat
writers to give him a call after he read that Ripken had said
the revamped club "requires jelling."
Angelos told reporters, "The underlying truth...is that this
team is in desperate need of leadership on the field and around
the clubhouse, and no one is more qualified than Cal Ripken to
provide that leadership."
The Orioles are chock-full of cool, detached veterans. Speaking
of first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, for one, Johnson says,
"Intensity for Raffy is, he can't decide which bat to use, a
34-ounce or a 35-ounce." The O's have other woes as well: Their
pitching staff had an ERA of 5.12 through Sunday. "We can talk
about intensity levels and leadership, but the big thing is
starting pitching," says Johnson. "We've got to have consistency
with the starters. We haven't had that."
And when it comes to harmony, the Orioles are as hard on the
ears as the heavy metal Wells pops into the CD player before he
pitches. "I think eventually we'll be a big happy family,''
The Yankees have the edge on Baltimore there, too. "It's only
July," says reliever John Wetteland, a part-time guitarist who
favors Christian rock. "The season is a symphony, not a
No one appreciates that sentiment more than the eclectic
Williams, who flicks his radio dial from Mozart to Coltrane to
Bela Fleck and travels with a Fender Stratocaster guitar. He
stopped bringing his amplifier along because "people were
knocking on the hotel walls," he says, "either saying turn it
down or turn it up." So he hooks his headphones to the guitar
and tries not just to play notes but to create music. And when
it happens, when he gets it just right, it is like being the
lead player on the first-place Yankees, the team he grew up
with. It feels as good as it sounds.