- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

TOKYO — In a land far from home, where fans will watch on TV in the wee hours of the morning, the New York Yankees start the process of atonement.

They have been hounded by failure for five months, their roster revamped by an owner who deemed it a disaster to fall two wins shy of a World Series title.

Now they get to put their new-look team on the field in games that count, the richest baseball team ever assembled, a glitzy collection of stars past and present.

Baseball fans across Japan will be watching when the Yankees open the major league season against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays this morning. Bleacher creatures in the Bronx will awaken for the game, which starts at 5:07a.m.

And in Florida, owner George Steinbrenner probably will be following his pricey pinstriped players — wearing their home uniforms even though they are the visiting team.

“I’d like to show the fans in Japan, when Mr. Steinbrenner spends that kind of money, he wants results,” manager Joe Torre said yesterday.

New York opens with a payroll of $182.8million, according to a survey of its contracts by the Associated Press. That’s up from $169.6million at the end of last year.

Tampa Bay starts at $29.2million. Factor in the $7million St. Louis is paying for Tino Martinez’s $7.5million salary, and the Devil Rays spend the least in baseball.

But starting today, the figures that matter are wins, not dollars.

“You kind of get spoiled around here real quick,” new Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. “Obviously, I haven’t been exposed to this type of an environment.”

Who has?

Nine of the 10 players in New York’s starting lineup are former All-Stars, combining for 43 All-Star appearances. Second baseman Enrique Wilson is the lone exception.

Tampa Bay’s lineup has two All-Star appearances, both by Martinez, when he played for other teams.

And New York’s lineup doesn’t even include Bernie Williams, back in Tampa recovering from an appendectomy Feb.26.

Since Florida beat the Yankees 2-0 to win Game6 of the World Series, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens signed with Houston, while David Wells defected to San Diego. New York traded Alfonso Soriano, Nick Johnson and Jeff Weaver, and it released Aaron Boone after he tore up his knee.

Their replacements?

Rodriguez, the reigning AL MVP, is at the top of the list, moving over from shortstop so as not to disrupt Derek Jeter, starting his first full season as Yankees’ captain.

Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez were acquired in deals to fill holes in the starting rotation, and Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon were signed to solidify a bullpen that added Gabe White and Felix Heredia late last season. Steinbrenner personally negotiated deals with outfielders Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton.

Torre looks at his batters and is confident.

“Offensively we’re better, and our bullpen is better,” he said. “We’re not as deep in the starting rotation.”

Just 12 players remain from last year’s Opening Day roster. And the Yankees didn’t exactly struggle last year, bursting to a 20-5 start and finally shaking off the Red Sox in September. New York finished 101-61, the first time it reached 100 wins in consecutive seasons since the World Series championship teams of 1977-78.

But it never has won 100 three years in a row, and Boston improved by adding pitchers Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke. Last year, the Red Sox extended the Yankees to the 11th inning of Game7 of the American League Championship Series before Boone’s pennant-winning homer.

New York hopes it doesn’t cut it that close this year.

After all, the Yankees do have the biggest difference in baseball. When Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” plays on the public-address system, it means closer Mariano Rivera is coming in.

Which means a New York victory is usually moments away.

“With all due respect to the players that they’ve added, I think the guy that tilts the field for the Yankees is Rivera,” Toronto manager Carlos Tosca said.

Yet there are signs this Yankees’ group could collapse like a souffle.

What if the injuries return that sent Brown to the disabled list six times in the last five years?

What if Vazquez can’t adjust to the switch from pressure-free Montreal to weight-of-the-world-on-your-shoulders Yankee Stadium?

What if Jason Giambi’s knee doesn’t respond to offseason surgery, forcing him to become a designated hitter once again, leaving no room for Williams or Lofton in the lineup?

What if A-Rod doesn’t quickly produce in a city that expects a Ruthian performance each game?

And what if there’s conflict in a clubhouse that might not have enough at-bats and innings to go around?

Torre, on the verge of getting a two-year contract extension through 2006, knows Steinbrenner doesn’t want any excuses.

“When you put this uniform on,” the manager said, “you better win the world championship.”

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