- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2001

BALTIMORE, Md. — Joe Torre perched on the dugout bench at Camden Yards and pondered the question of why his New York Yankees finally have started to play quality baseball after looking more like the New York Schmankees for much of the season.

He didn't have to ponder long. "I'd like to think it's because we're a quality team," said Torre, softspoken as usual.

That's pretty much a given. The Yankees, who have been playing tag-you're-it with the Red Sox for first place in the American League East for quite a while now, are no longer the great team that won 114 games two seasons ago. But they're still good enough to be in or around the division lead, even with old age attacking some key players.

With yesterday's 4-3 victory against the Orioles, the Yankees have won seven straight and 10 of 12 to move a season-high 16 games over .500. This despite too often displaying the kind of popgun attack totally unbecoming to the pinstriped heirs of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, et al.

Lately, though, they're starting to swing bats as if they mean it in support of a pitching staff strong enough to make even the Braves envious. Andy Pettitte came off the DL with a smart performance the other night, Mike Mussina has won four straight after a shaky start and Roger Clemens is 12-1. Closer Manuel Rivera has 27 saves, and setup man Mike Stanton a 1.91 ERA. True, Orlando Hernandez is 0-5 with a 5.14, but fortunately El Duque is on the DL following surgery on a toe. That's what I call being a team player.

For too long, the Yankees' offense consisted of Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Scott Brosius all nice guys and players, but not exactly Murderer's Row. The batting averages of Veterans Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, David Justice and Chuck Knoblauch are down, although Tino has a lot of ribbies. All told, the Yankees weren't very Yankee-like with sticks in their hands in April, May and most of June.

It appears, however, that these mini-Bronx Bombers will find a way to win the division for two very good reasons: They're the Yankees, and the Red Sox are the Red Sox.

Let's look at the numbers, as former New York Gov. Al Smith used to say: Since the Red Sox last won a World Series title in 1918 (or was it 1818?), the Yankees have collected 26 of them, including four in the last five years. That means they almost always find a way to get it done while New England's doomed Sawx don't.

Putting it another way, would you want to bet against the Yankees in this two-team AL East race? If so, you probably put down a bundle on Al Gore last fall, too.

Does divine intervention have any effect against the Curse of the Bambino? It hasn't yet.

In addition to history and fate, the Yankees have a big asset in Torre, a gentle soul who hath turned away the wrath of George Steinbrenner a feat comparable to such other metaphysically inexplicable events as parting the Red Sea and walking on water. Joe is respected, if not necessarily loved, by nearly every Yankee. Meanwhile, Red Sox skipper Jimy Williams holes up in his office and hardly ever communes with his troops, according to Sports Illustrated. Heck, the guy can't even spell his first name right.

So things are looking up for the Yankees as the season approaches the All-Star break. Surprise, surprise.

"We're starting to put the pieces together offensively," Brosius said. "It's hard to say what will happen in the second half, but we just need to focus on ourselves and not on the Red Sox. We've never spent much time focusing on other teams."

Torre expects the pennant race to last until the first week of October and even puts in a deservedly kind word for the Red Sox. Boston has managed to hang in without All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, whose broken wrist should heal in time for him to return to the fray late this month or early next.

"They've had their share and another's team share of injuries," Torre said. "They've out-and-out played well. They won't give up. It's up to us to go out and play with them."

Well, we'll see. But if you want a hint as to the probable outcome, consider this vignette. The other day in a Silver Spring bank, an older man approached a stranger wearing a Red Sox shirt and inquired tremulously, "Are you a Boston fan?"

"You better believe it," the second man replied.

The first man patted him on the shoulder and said sadly, "Pray, brother."

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