- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

TAMPA, Fla. Call it deja Zoo.
Derek Jeter sat in the dugout at Legends Field last month, surrounded by a huge crowd of reporters and photographers. The assembled throng wanted to know one thing: What about George?
Owner George Steinbrenner had publicly questioned his star shortstop's commitment to the Yankees and wondered if Jeter might have been partying a little too hard last season. What did Jeter think?
It was a scene reminiscent of the bad old days of the New York Yankees, the days when Billy Martin was hired and fired and hired, the days of Dave Winfield and gambler Howard Spira, the days when the team was run by the back pages of the tabloid newspapers.
In those times, Steinbrenner "the Boss" presided over one of the most hated and ridiculed organizations in baseball. But that was not the way these Yankees teams conducted business.
Manager Joe Torre is the model of professionalism, tolerating no turmoil on or off the field. The results of Torre's approach and the team's talent have been remarkable: The Yankees have won five American League pennants and four World Series in the past seven years.
But this scene at Legends Field was a throwback, a revival of the Bronx Zoo and unnerving to players who hadn't experienced the tension of those tumultuous times.
"Now everywhere I go, people will ask you, 'Are you partying too much?'" Jeter said. "That's the number one question that I get."
This is what happens when you play for George Steinbrenner, whose team has the highest payroll in baseball year after year it is estimated to be $164million this season but who hasn't won the World Series since, well, way back in 2000.
The Yankees lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in seven games in the 2001 Series and, after winning 103 games last season, were ousted by the eventual champions, the Anaheim Angels, in the American League Division Series.
It was enough of a slip for the old George to re-emerge. The old George had been held in check by the team's string of successes and by the stature of Torre, who has the respect of his players and people both in and out of baseball.
Even Torre, though, may not be able to forever hold off Steinbrenner, who increasingly hints that he is ready to again wield his influence over personnel decisions should the Yankees fail to win the Series.
Mark Newman, one of Steinbrenner's top baseball men, resigned as vice president to take a lesser role as consultant after a fallout with the Boss this winter. Steinbrenner also put Torre and the coaching staff on notice.
"I want them to have a little more pressure," he told the New York Daily News in the offseason. "Everybody is going to work harder than they've worked before. I want the coaches to know that just being a friend of Joe Torre's is not enough. They have got to produce for him. Joe Torre and his staff have heard the bugle."
Replied Torre: "My coaching staff has worked very hard. If you want to drop blame on somebody, here I am. I expect a lot of myself and a lot of my players. I don't look at the bottom line. I look at the effort I'm getting, because you are playing on the field with another team, and sometimes they do it to you."
It is a dangerous game for Steinbrenner. Torre and coaches like Don Zimmer, Mel Stottlemyre and Willie Randolph are seen by players as the constant that allows the club to bring in players Japanese star Hideki Matsui and Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras are new this season and still maintain the team atmosphere the Yankees have fostered over the past six seasons.
"We have the best coaching staff in baseball, and they help make sure we keep doing things the same as we always have and help the new guys," closer Mariano Rivera said. "Baseball is the same. It's the same game here, Japan or wherever. So everyone knows how to play baseball. That's easy. The tough part is communicating. … Having Joe as the manager helps that a lot, because he is great at communicating. With new players, we have to make sure we all understand each other."
Roger Clemens agreed. "Joe Torre commands a lot of respect," he said. "He knows how he wants the team to perform and act. The same thing with our coaching staff. And we all push each other. I've been on two other clubs, and it is quite a bit different the way we approach things here.
"Joe knows how to handle different personalties," Clemens said. "He helps everyone stay in line and know what the expectations are. The veteran players here have such respect for him, and the new guys see that and see how everybody here is ready to play and conduct themselves in a professional manner. We have done it so many times in the past, and this year will not be any different."
It certainly feels different.
After the Jeter circus came the David Wells controversy. The left-hander a Steinbrenner favorite embarrassed the franchise with revelations in his autobiography in which he charged that steroid use is common in baseball, criticized Clemens and pitcher Mike Mussina and claimed that he was "half-drunk" when he pitched his perfect game for the Yankees in 1998.
The Yankees were not amused.
Wells, facing heavy criticism, adopted the Charles Barkley defense, claiming he was misquoted in his own book. He was forced to apologize to his teammates and was fined $100,000 by the club Monday.
"It's not funny now, is it?" third baseman Robin Ventura said.
"This one's not over, not by a long shot," former Yankees star David Cone said.
The episode, general manager Brian Cashman said, "tarnished the Yankees' image."
That image has taken a hit this spring, and it also has taken attention away from this fact: The Yankees still are a very good and deep team and are a favorite to win the American League East and return to the World Series.
The Yankees added Matsui, the Japanese slugger who hit 332 homers in 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, to a powerful lineup led by Jason Giambi (.314, 41 homers), Alfonso Soriano (.300, 39 home runs), Bernie Williams (.333) and a host of other quality hitters.
And, they are so deep in pitching that they have seven so-called starters: Clemens (13-6, 4.35 ERA), Mussina (18-10, 4.05), Wells (19-7, 3.75), Andy Pettitte (13-5, 3.27), Jeff Weaver (11-11, 3.52), Sterling Hitchcock (1-2, 5.49) and Contreras, the star of the Cuban national team for whom they outbid the Boston Red Sox. As it stands now, Hitchcock and Contreras likely will go to the bullpen as long relievers and spot starters.
Still, the Yankees won big during the regular season last year, and all their talent and money didn't keep them from an early exit at the hands of the Angels.
"I just look at it like we ran into a really hot team at a time when we didn't play very well," Mussina said. "I think everyone saw against Minnesota and San Francisco how well Anaheim was playing at the end of last year. When they needed to get a hit, they got a hit. When they needed to make a pitch, they made a pitch."
That explanation won't cut it with the Boss. The Yankees better get the hit or make the pitch when they need it this season or else Jeter better get used to life in the Bronx Zoo, Act II.
"The only way to stop it is to win," Jeter said. "That's it. That's the bottom line."

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