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BRIGHT SPOT THOUGH SHAKY OF LATE, THE RETOOLED YANKEES HAVE STEADIED THEMSELVES FOR THE STRETCH RUN

Sept. 02, 1996
Sept. 02, 1996

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Sept. 2, 1996

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NFL '96

BRIGHT SPOT THOUGH SHAKY OF LATE, THE RETOOLED YANKEES HAVE STEADIED THEMSELVES FOR THE STRETCH RUN

It was with incongruous gravity that infielder Luis Sojo
proclaimed himself "happy to be here" upon his arrival at the
New York Yankees' clubhouse last Friday night. On his ride to
the Bronx from Newark Airport he had survived the impact of a
large chunk of metal that appeared to fall out of the sky and
that smashed into the front end of his hired car on the New
Jersey Turnpike, disabling the vehicle.

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 1996 issue Original Layout

"I was lucky it didn't hit a window or the windshield," Sojo
said. "Whoa. Almost dead my first day in New York."

Sojo, whom first-place New York had claimed after he was waived
by the Seattle Mariners, arrived at Yankee Stadium without a
scratch, though not in time to save his place in the lineup. He
was pulled from a start at second base because the driver of the
car sent to rescue him got lost on the way to the ballpark,
causing Sojo to arrive only a half hour before the game.

Happy to be here? The same sentiment applied to lefthanded
pitcher Graeme Lloyd and utilityman Pat Listach, who also joined
the club last Friday after the Milwaukee Brewers traded them to
the Yankees for outfielder Gerald Williams and pitcher Bob
Wickman. At about the same time Sojo was marooned on the Jersey
Pike, the plane carrying Lloyd and Listach encountered a problem
as it prepared to touch down at New York's LaGuardia Airport:
Another plane was taxiing on the same runway. "We had to pull up
quickly, circle around and come in again," Lloyd said.

Just one more day in the life of the Yankees. Half the team
seems to have narrowly avoided some sort of catastrophe, and all
the comings and goings give the clubhouse the look of a subway
stop at rush hour. The Yankees have used 47 players this season,
two shy of the franchise record. Their roster in last weekend's
three-game series against the Oakland A's included nine players
who were not with New York as recently as the Fourth of July,
including two former home run champions--first
baseman-designated hitter Cecil Fielder and outfielder Darryl
Strawberry.

The hyperactivity has made the Yankees seem like a team stuck in
quicksand: The more moves they have made, the deeper they have
sunk. As they entered the Oakland series, the Yankees were 18-21
since July 13, and they had watched a 12-game lead over the
Baltimore Orioles in the American League East shrink to five in
a New York minute--or in 22 games, to be exact. Gotham shuddered
at the thought that the Yankees might become the eighth team in
history to spit up a lead of at least a dozen games. That
dishonor roll includes a club dear to Yankees fans' hearts: the
1978 Boston Red Sox, who could not hold a July 20 lead of 14
games over New York.

The Yankees allayed their fans' fears, at least temporarily, by
taking two of three games from the A's. Given the team's
turnover of players and its recent pitching woes, the Yankees
were happy to be here: six games up, with 32 to play. The
Orioles slipped a game further behind last weekend by dropping
two of three at home to the California Angels. That also left
Baltimore one-half game behind the Chicago White Sox in the
wild-card race. Meanwhile, the previously forgotten Red Sox beat
Seattle twice in a three-game series in Fenway Park last
weekend, moving them 3 1/2 games out of a wild card spot and
nine games behind New York.

Of course, the Yankees do have one major addition forthcoming.
"David Cone," New York manager Joe Torre said before last
Friday's game, "is the final piece."

Cone, the Yankees' ace righthander, is scheduled to rejoin the
rotation no later than Sept. 6. Four months ago he underwent a
vein graft to repair an aneurysm in his throwing shoulder, which
was expected to keep him sidelined for the rest of the season. A
dramatic turn of events? Ho-hum. Welcome to the club.

The other grateful souls happy to be in the New York clubhouse
include pitcher Wally Whitehurst, who before joining the Yankees
last Thursday had been out of the big leagues for two years (and
had been sent to Triple A Ottawa by the Montreal Expos 15
minutes before the first pitch this season); Strawberry, who
survived drug and alcohol abuse, house arrest because of a tax
felony, a child-support lawsuit and a stint in the Northern
League earlier this season; and Fielder, who endured one of the
most chilling ordeals in baseball: playing for the Detroit Tigers.

Mix in two other drug-rehab graduates (pitcher Dwight Gooden and
outfielder-DH Tim Raines), two former replacement players
(pitchers Dave Pavlas and Dale Polley) and a string-bean
reliever whom the Yankees wanted to trade last year (Mariano
Rivera), and you'll find more second acts in the Bronx than on
Broadway. When the Yankees unveiled a 4,500-pound granite
monument to Mickey Mantle on Sunday, you half expected the
inscription to be by Emma Lazarus.

The Yankees, of course, have the resources to accommodate the
huddled masses. Owner George Steinbrenner has built this team
with strategies borrowed from the Home Shopping Network. His
payroll, including prorated signing bonuses and deferred money,
has climbed past $60 million. By season's end the Yankees will
have dished out $15 million to Cone, Raines, pitchers Scott
Kamieniecki and Melido Perez and infielders Tony Fernandez and
Pat Kelly, who have spent most of the season on the disabled
list. In other words, the Yankees have spent nearly the
equivalent of the Montreal Expos' payroll ($15.4 million) on six
players who have returned a combined five wins and 16 RBIs.

Like the Yankees, the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves
are big-revenue clubs who have retooled this season despite
lengthy stays in first place. "But," Torre said of the other
teams, "I think they did it eyeing the postseason, while we're
eyeing the season. We're not taking anything for granted.
Hopefully we won't make any more changes, because if we have to,
we're failing somewhere else."

So furiously do plans change with the Yankees that it sometimes
appears they're staging the sequel to Planes, Trains and
Automobiles. That was never truer than on Friday, when, as Sojo,
Listach and Lloyd were bedeviled on land and in the air, rookie
infielder Andy Fox sat glumly in front of his locker in street
clothes, with his bags packed, assuming the next ticket out of
town would be his. Then Torre told him, "Foxy, you'd better put
your uniform on." He wasn't going anywhere. He was in the
starting lineup.

For the Yankees, Lloyd's eventual arrival filled one glaring
need--a competent lefthanded reliever--and created another:
stick-on nametags. New York catcher Joe Girardi met Lloyd for
the first time on the mound in the seventh inning, with the
tying run at second base. Girardi opened the conversation with
this salutation: "Whaddya got?"

Lloyd, who's got a fastball, cut fastball and curve, introduced
himself with a strikeout of A's outfielder Jason Giambi. Then,
with the Yankees leading 4-3, Torre turned the game over to
Rivera, the 6'2", 182-pound strikeout machine who's called Mo by
his teammates. With closer John Wetteland on the disabled list
with a groin-muscle injury, Rivera slammed the door. He entered
the game by blowtorching mid-90s fastballs past Mark McGwire
with the tying runs on base in the seventh, and he left by doing
the same thing in the ninth. The confrontations brought the
34,244 fans to their feet and reminded Torre of the Bob
Welch-Reggie Jackson duel in the 1977 World Series. "Who?" asked
Rivera, who was a seven-year-old living in Panama at the time.
"No, I never heard of that."

As recently as early last season Rivera did not throw serious
heat. At Triple A Columbus his fastball was clocked between 89
and 91 mph, and it flew straighter than Pat Boone. Gene Michael,
the Yankees' general manager at the time, tried to deal Rivera
and another player for Detroit lefthander David Wells. The deal
was never consummated. Within a matter of weeks, Rivera's
fastball was clocked consistently between 94 and 96 mph.

"I thought, No way," Michael said of Rivera's increased
velocity. "I thought the radar gun was wrong. I had them check
the gun to make sure it was working. I checked with other scouts
who had other guns. He'd never been able to throw above 93
before. We brought him up [in July], and he pitched a two-hitter
over eight innings. You can be sure I never had him in another
trade."

This year no American League pitcher has been more dominating
than Rivera (103 punch-outs and a 1.93 ERA in 88 2/3 innings).
Often referred to as Wetteland's setup man, Rivera is a closer
who happens to shut down games in the sixth, seventh and eighth
innings. He's the biggest reason that New York is 58-3 when it
leads after six innings and that it has the league's best record
in one-run games (20-10). "He's the Yankees' most valuable
player," McGwire said before last Saturday's game.

Rivera is worthy of Cy Young Award consideration, though most
voting baseball writers do not respect middle relievers.
Rivera's teammate Andy Pettitte, for instance, is generally
regarded as a front-running candidate for the Cy Young. At
week's end he led the league with 18 wins--he had a no-decision
in Sunday's 6-5 loss--but Pettitte's 4.32 ERA would easily be
the worst among Cy Young winners. Of the previous 68 winners,
only two had an ERA higher than 3.37: Rick Sutcliffe with a 3.64
in 1984 and LaMarr Hoyt with a 3.66 in 1983.

No one mentioned the Cy Young last Saturday, when New York
squelched the majors' leading home run club 5-4 with five
pitchers, none of whom was with the team when June began. The
parade of newcomers started with Whitehurst, who was released by
three Triple A clubs last year and thought about retiring but,
he says, "didn't know anything else I could do." The procession
continued with Lloyd, Brian Boehringer (who was making his 12th
career appearance) and Polley and Pavlas, who participated in
the 1994 Faux Classic that was replacement baseball. "That,"
Torre said after Saturday's game, "was a very satisfying win.
That was enormous."

Meanwhile, Fielder and Strawberry, the thick and thin of the
revamped lineup, have provided needed thump (a combined .281
average with 15 home runs and 46 RBIs in 235 at bats through
Sunday). Although Fielder gives them a badly needed righthanded
bat, the Yankees have been only 1-6 against lefthanded starters
since he arrived on July 31 in a trade for DH Ruben Sierra and
pitching prospect Matt Drews.

The Yankees' starters have been even more of a concern. Before
Friday they had given up 21 first-inning runs over the previous
six games, and in the past 23 games opposing teams had pounded
New York pitchers for 10 or more runs six times. "Now is the
time for things to settle down here," first baseman Tino
Martinez said after last Friday's game. "We can't leave the door
open for other teams."

Martinez, obtained in an off-season trade with Seattle, knows
firsthand how a fat lead can vaporize. It was one year ago last
Saturday that the Mariners, trailing the California Angels by 11
1/2 games in the American League West, beat Wetteland and the
Yankees with a stunning ninth-inning home run by Ken Griffey Jr.
That win began the Mariners' march to the division title.

"There was no pressure," Martinez said of Seattle's late-season
surge, "because we had nothing to lose. It was fun. Nobody
expected us to win. It's just the opposite now. But we have
never thought the race was over. Being 12 games up, though, does
give you the opportunity to have a little slide and still be on
top."

Said Torre, "There's anxiety. We knew the second half wasn't
going to be easy."

Expecting Cone and Wetteland to be ready for September, the
manager envisions a return to his first-half formula: "Play six
innings, put in Mo, put in Wetteland, go to sleep." Talk about
lights out. Since that Seattle loss of a year ago, the Yankees
have gone 94-0 in the regular season when they took a lead into
the ninth inning. That's the sort of safekeeping the Yankees
want for what's left of their lead over Baltimore--not to
mention new players traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike.

COLOR PHOTO: ADAM STOLTMAN Rivera, the set-up man who throws like a closer, has been the league's most dominant pitcher. [Mariano Rivera pitching]COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Fielder has been a big hit in New York, but the Yankees have still struggled against lefthanders. [Cecil Fielder batting]COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Derek Jeter and his mates took a tumble against Oakland on Sunday, losing the series finale 6-4.