- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

BALTIMORE — Fortunately, the New York Yankees turned up as scheduled at Camden Yards last night for the opener of a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles. This was fortunate because, for a span of five weeks, the once and future Bronx Bombers had turned up missing.

With their season at the halfway point, the Yankees have been about as steady as a politician on amphetamines. Consider:

• From March 31 through May 2, they were 23-6.

• From May 3 through June 4, they were 13-22.

• From June 5 through Sunday, they were 15-2.

The middle part might have been enough to make Don Zimmer, the Gerbillish bench coach, bang his head — metal plate and all — against the dugout wall. Even manager Joe Torre, normally Mr. Calm, probably wasn’t answering phone calls because the Boss, George Steinbrenner, might have turned up snapping and snarling on the other end.

The nadir came June 11 when the Yankees faced six Houston pitchers and didn’t get a hit against any of them, plopping ingloriously into second place behind Boston in the American League East. After the game, Torre called a team meeting. According to earwitnesses, he didn’t cuss, scream or threaten to send the players to Class AAA Columbus in one messy package.

Instead he appealed to their personal pride — and the pride involved in representing America’s most famous and most successful professional team. He might even have led them in the dead of night out to Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park and shown them the tributes to Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jackson — and to the victims and heroes of September 11. Whatever Torre said and did, the Yankees turned around fasterthanyoucanreadthis.

They won the final game against Houston, three straight against St. Louis, five of seven against Tampa Bay and six straight from the Unamazin’ Mets. Add these up and you get, “See ya later, AL East.” Entering last night’s game, the Yankees led the Red Sox by 31/2 games. In other words, what else is new?

Does anybody south of Boston want to bet on the Sawx to win the division? Actually, that’s not as silly as it sounds, because if these Yankees have proved anything, it’s that they’re consistently inconsistent. For the time being, at least, the direction is up, up, up — so should we hand Torre, the marvelous manager who made even George III shut his tater trap, the Bud Selig Award For Inspired Baseball Leadership? (That, of course, was a joke.)

“Joe said he was embarrassed and embarrassed for us after that Houston no-hitter,” catcher Jorge Posada was saying before last night’s game. “He got deep down inside us and talked about pride, said it was time to see what we had inside us.”

And now we, and they, know — lots of talent and confidence, even with All-Star center fielder Bernie Williams out from May 27 until after the All-Star break following knee surgery. Even with captain Derek Jeter batting just .275 after missing 36 games because of a dislocated shoulder suffered Opening Day. Even with Posada hitting .247, Robin Ventura .256 and Andy Pettitte lugging around a much too heavy ERA of 4.80.

These, you see, are the Yankees. That means people like Clemens, Mussina, Wells, Rivera, Giambi, Soriano and, soon, Williams are available to wreak havoc and bust behinds. And will.

Oh, yes, let’s not forget Hideki Matsui, the Japanese slugger who had his own media posse trailing him around Camden Yards last night. All he’s doing is batting .304 with 14 home runs and 61 RBI. He drove in 10 runs in the six victories over the Mets, thereby becoming the American League Player of the Week.

I don’t know how you say this in Japanese, but obviously he’s a Yankee.

“Oh, we’ll have another slump or two — every team does,” said Posada, apparently forgetting about the 1998 Yankees who went a snappy 114-48 and won the division by 22 games. “But when it happens, you just have to put it out of mind and keep doing the little things [that win ballgames]. The trick is not to put too much pressure on yourself.”

Gosh, can you imagine a team owned by George Steinbrenner feeling too much pressure?

Last night the Yankees appeared to have an easy touch in the mostly starless, frequently hapless Orioles, who had lost 17 of their last 24 games. But nothing is certain in baseball, and so the O’s sprinted to a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the fourth inning on a two-run homer by Deivi Cruz off the badly laboring Pettitte. But the Yankees got their own homers from Karim Garcia and Ruben Sierra to prevail 6-5. When you’re hot …

The Yankees would appear strong bets to pick up pennant No. 39 and World Series championship No. 27 this fall. After all, they haven’t won a Series since 2000 against the always helpful Mets, and in Steinbrennerland that’s practically a lifetime.

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