Friday, December 12, 2003

Before everyone gets so worked up and excited about all the big moves by the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees and the trades and conjecture of some of baseball’s biggest names, let us remember these things:

• The Florida Marlins, a team with a $50million payroll, won the World Series in October.

• The team with Alex Rodriguez on it finished last in its division.

Dennis Rasmussen, Mel Hall, Jesse Barfield, Steve Sax, Claudell Washington and Butch Wynegar are some of the illustrious free agent signings and deals George Steinbrenner made when he was running the Yankees unchecked in the 1980s.

Wouldn’t it be rich if neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox wound up in the postseason next year? I know that would be too much to ask, but how much pleasure would the rest of the country derive if this war between the two franchises fizzled into nothing more than bragging rights in September?

That’s not likely to happen — but it is possible. After all, the Red Sox will be going into the season with a manager with a losing career record. But their lineup — particularly if they bring in A-Rod — is probably too potent to fail. And Terry Francona, though he lost with the Phillies, is probably too sharp a manager to screw it up, particularly with a rotation that includes Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and now Curt Schilling.

It’s more likely that the Evil Empire — the Yankees — are the ones that fail to hold up their end of this rivalry. The loss of Andy Pettitte and the potential addition of Kevin Brown in an anticipated trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers smells like the Yankees that Steinbrenner crushed with an iron hand throughout the 1980s.

One of the forces behind this successful Yankee run since 1996 has been the makeup of the clubhouse, and a core group of Yankees that all came up together and learned — from their manager, Joe Torre, and veteran leaders like Paul O’Neill — how to play and act like professionals. It has been the force that has molded the Yankees into a team year after year and not allowed them to disintegrate into a band of selfish mercenaries.

That is on the brink of changing, and maybe that is one of the reasons that Pettitte, at the age of 31 and at the peak of his career with a 149-78 record, left New York to sign with Houston. Pettitte said he was looking forward to going back home to Texas and that the Yankees didn’t do enough to try to keep him — not even a phone call from the Boss himself.

What is telling is who else didn’t call Pettitte — Joe Torre.

When the Yankees were courting Mike Mussina, a host of players called the pitcher to convince him to come to New York, and Torre did as well. The only person who reportedly called Pettitte was his longtime teammate, Derek Jeter.

We know it wasn’t because Pettitte wasn’t well liked. He was one of the most popular players on the team and is considered one of the most decent people to wear a baseball uniform.

The fact that more teammates didn’t call to try to convince Pettitte, who took less money to go to Houston (three years, $31.5million), could be evidence that the “team” feeling that has kept the Yankees together has faded. With each passing season, with each new outside face brought in and the disappearance of another player who was part of the Yankees’ success, there are very few players left with the sort of connection that would feel compelled to reach out to Pettitte.

The fact that Torre — who Pettitte views as almost a father figure — didn’t reach out says much more. Perhaps it says that Torre doesn’t expect to be here much longer — his contract expires at the end of the 2004 season — and didn’t want Pettitte to commit to any long-term deal with the Yankees knowing that he won’t be around to be his manager.

It is likely that Pettitte already had come to that conclusion. That was the feeling throughout the Yankees’ clubhouse last year — that the special connections they had, woven by Torre, were breaking apart.

Speaking of breaking apart, Kevin Brown, if he comes to New York, will be able to share with his teammates how to break apart a toilet with your bare hands. This could be the new face of the Yankees.

“We know the fans may be disappointed, but if you’re counting us out next year, don’t bet the house,” the Boss said in a statement about Pettitte leaving.

Of course you can’t bet against the Yankees because of all the chips they have. But if you are a poker player looking for any nuance to determine what kind of hand they are holding, look no further than Torre losing Andy Pettitte’s number this offseason. He may soon be ready to fold.

Meanwhile, as the winter meetings start in New Orleans, the Baltimore Orioles are ready to make their big push to hold off the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and hold onto fourth place in the American League East.

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