- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

You’ll have to excuse Yankees skipper Joe Torre if he keeps looking over his shoulder during the club’s current series in Texas and beyond. Same with GM Brian Cashman. The two just might be expecting, and dreading, a message any minute from The Boss.

With the pinstripers at 10-14 after last night’s games and solidly lodged in the American League East basement, owner George Steinbrenner gave both men a vote of confidence Monday — and we all know what that means in the wacky world of pro sports.

Win or else!

“The results are clearly not acceptable to me or Yankee fans,” Steinbrenner said in a statement. “It’s time for Joe, Brian and the [$195 million payroll] team to show me what they’re made of.”

Then he added, even more ominously, “I believe in them.”

Torre is the guy whose rear end is burning most from the hot seat. Never mind what he did in the past — meaning six pennants, four World Series titles and a .604 winning percentage since 1996. The Yankees haven’t won a Series since 2000 or even graced one with their august presence since ‘03, and in Gotham such a lapse is considered catastrophic.

Steinbrenner’s tentative endorsement certainly came as no surprise to Torre. The manager told a television reporter, “If you don’t want to dance with the heat, you shouldn’t be here. When you’re in this job, particularly in this town, you understand that this [i.e. unemployment] is always possible. But it’s out of my control. If that’s what happens, it happens.”

I’m no Yankees fan, but I’d hate to see Torre go. His early success with the Yankees forced Steinbrenner to stay in the background and keep his tater trap shut. It’s hard for even the most avid Yankees hater to dislike a team managed by a decent, modest guy like Joe.

For the first couple of weeks this season, Alex Rodriguez commanded the Yankees spotlight with a sizzling April that eventually produced 14 home runs and 34 RBI. But now that A-Rod has cooled off, as he had to do, the 66-year-old skipper is in the spotlight once more.

When it comes to winning pennants, Torre has earned a seat alongside Casey Stengel (10), Joe McCarthy (eight) and Miller Huggins (six) in the Yankees’ managerial pantheon. It would be a shame if he ended up as one of the hapless legion booted out of the Bronx by Steinbrenner in his younger, rowdier days.

Like Billy Martin, hired and fired five times.

Like Bill Virdon, Bob Lemon, Dick Howser, Lawrence Peter Berra, Gene Michael, Lou Piniella, Bucky Dent, Buck Showalter and the immortal Stump Merrill. For more than two decades. Yankee Stadium was more than the graveyard of managers — it was a mausoleum.

“Is my hotel room ready yet — I’m the manager of the Yankees.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’ll have to ask you to pay in advance.”

There was nothing funny about the situation, not even when Steinbrenner fired Martin in a Miller Lite commercial because the two disagreed whether the brew’s chief asset was “great taste” or “less filling.” The job of managing the proudest team in sports had become sort of a horsehide Bermuda Triangle. Until Torre showed up.

In Joe’s first four seasons (1996 to 1999), the Yankees averaged 100 victories and finished first three times in the AL East. In the last four, New York did nearly as well mathematically, but the emergence of the hated Red Sox as the dominant force in the division has stuck in King George’s craw, not to mention other sensitive places.

Through Monday, the Yankees were four places removed and 6 games behind Boston in the division, with no sign of imminent improvement. Most of the blame falls on the pitching staff, which had produced just five quality starts and had a composite ERA of 5.02. The so-called Big Three of Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang had won exactly one game between them.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, where are you? Oh yes, he’s pitching for the Red Sox.

Odds are the Yankees will rebound sharply when their pitchers perk up. Yet I can’t help recalling the 1965 season, when New York lagged sharply in the early going after winning 14 pennants in 16 years. “Oh, they’ll get it together,” people kept saying. “After all, they’re the Yankees.”

Big deal. Those Yankees finished sixth with a 77-85 record and didn’t win another pennant for 11 years.

Now that’s failure.

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