- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

TAMPA, Fla. — The signs and banners hang all around Legends Field, spring home of the New York Yankees. They remind visitors of the spectacular achievements of the most glamorous, visible franchise in sports: 39 American League pennants, 26 World Series championships. Look at us, they say.

Look closer. The information on the signs and banners are the same. Nothing has changed from a year ago. There was no pennant for the Yankees in 2004 and obviously no World Series championship, even after taking a 3-0 lead over the Boston Red Sox in the AL Championship Series, getting within one inning of winning Game 4 and then having it all disappear amid the greatest postseason collapse (or comeback, depending on your perspective) in baseball history.

But in the quiet, businesslike Yankees clubhouse this spring, there weren’t any emotional signs of the downfall. The agonizing and what-ifs have become old news. A new season awaits. When outfielder Gary Sheffield says he’s “ready to put the pain behind me and move on,” he’s talking about the pain in his left shoulder that bothered him all year but since has been corrected by surgery.

The Boston series?

“That’s already behind me,” Sheffield said.

Letting go is harder for Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Tampa is his home and home is where the hurt is, long after the Red Sox triumph (“That was one of the toughest things I’ve been through in my life,” he told USA Today last week).

So, like a lot of folks, when Steinbrenner gets a little mopey, he shops. He breaks out the checkbook and goes on a spree, the latest of which brought in pitchers Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright — three-fifths of the starting rotation — along with returning first baseman Tino Martinez, second baseman Tony Womack and others.

“This is like an All-Star Game,” Pavano said, looking around the clubhouse.

Pavano, once a Montreal Expo, was an All-Star himself in 2004. He went 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA as the Florida Marlins’ ace. Now he’s the No. 3 starter. The Yankees’ new ace is 41-year-old Johnson, the imposing, 6-foot-10, six-time Cy Young Award winner whose world view tilts toward the unconventional. The other day, he scoffed when someone referred to the Red Sox as the Yankees’ “archrivals,” even though to most of humanity, that’s exactly what they are.

It was like “reading a comic book,” Johnson told reporters, or “like making Superman 4 or Spiderman 4.”

But, Randy, someone said, Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino had labeled the Yankees “the Evil Empire,” a comic book-action movie analogy if ever there was one.

Replied Johnson, the most intimidating pitcher in the game: “What does it make me, then?”

“Darth Vader,” he was told.

To which Johnson said, “Bring it on then.”

It was Steinbrenner (still the real Darth Vader) who brought it on during the offseason, the Evil Empire striking back at the ghosts of 2004 by acquiring Johnson in a trade with Arizona and signing free agents Pavano and Wright. They will earn $32.5 million — about the same as the entire Tampa Bay Devil Rays roster. All eagerly accepted the expectations, the pressure, the big crowds at Yankee Stadium.

“Those are the things I was willing to embrace,” Pavano said.

Said manager Joe Torre: “That’s one thing about the Yankees — our future is right this minute. When guys come here, it’s not because they’re forced to come here. They want to come here. They pretty much have an idea what’s required here.”

Martinez knows what’s required here. He was an integral part of the Yankees dynasty — as much for his character and clubhouse presence as anything else — that won four World Series from 1996 through 2000. “You have to win,” he said. “We have a great team. We expect to win it all, and anything short of that is failure.”

Martinez left the Yankees after the 2001 season, played two years in St. Louis, then joined his hometown Devil Rays last year. He has, he said, “been on both sides of it — played on great teams like this, and low-budget teams.” He was asked whether the Yankees’ competitive advantage achieved by spending is somehow unfair, as many believe it to be.

“Obviously, the Yankees spend more money than anybody else,” he said. “But other teams have to spend their money wisely, and some don’t.”

In other words, don’t blame us. In fact, the Yankees argue they are good for the game. As they shatter the $200 million payroll barrier this season, the franchise is expected to contribute $100 million in luxury taxes and revenue sharing, all for the common good.

Hey, baseball, who’s your sugar daddy?

“Everywhere we go, this team brings in crowds,” Pavano said. “It’s not only good for the economy of baseball in New York, it’s good for the economy of the league. [Steinbrenner] puts his money back in the organization. How would it look if the money he made, he didn’t spend at all?”

Then the Yankees might look something like the Pittsburgh Pirates, who don’t have the money to spend and whose owner, Kevin McClatchy, criticized his brethren for the big contracts handed out during the offseason. Despite a payroll increase to $40 million, the Pirates remain deep in the second division of salaries.

Watching his players take batting practice before an exhibition game against the Yankees, manager Lloyd McClendon said he was proud that his Pirates, the youngest team in baseball, improved 11 games in 2004. Yet they still finished 17 games under .500 and 32 games behind St. Louis in the National League Central.

“Nobody’s gonna feel sorry for you,” McClendon said of the gap between the so-called haves and have-nots. “If I start arguing about our limitations, that’s what they become. We take the attitude if you start making excuses, you’re defeated.”

But, he added, “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t an uphill battle, because we do have financial restraints. You talk about competitive balance, would you like it to be more competitive in terms of the revenue sharing part of it? Absolutely. But I don’t have a hand in it.”

The Yankees last year won a league-best 101 games, held first place in the AL East from June 1 on and deemed it all insufficient. The weak link was the starting pitching. Gone from the previous season were Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells, and all were missed. Mike Mussina was hurt, Javier Vazquez inconsistent, Kevin Brown hurt and inconsistent.

“Obviously, our pitching staff was banged up and wasn’t our strength,” Sheffield said. “They strengthened the area we were weak in.”

Even the bullpen is better, with Mike Stanton and Felix Rodriguez added to support the overworked trio of Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon and closer Mariano Rivera.

The lineup, beginning with tonight’s season opener against the Red Sox, remains imposing and maybe stronger. Sheffield, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Co. have been augmented by Martinez and Womack. Jason Giambi, ravaged by illness last year and still under steroid suspicion, appears more robust. Each of the starting eight has been an All-Star.

A-Rod shrugged off verbal shots from some of the Red Sox before spring training (“I don’t have the energy to think about what other people say.”) and apparently has emerged intact from his ALCS disaster, which included going 2-for-17 in the last four games and taking a lot of heat for his “slap play” in Game 6.

It was a trying season overall for the $25 Million Man. After joining the Yankees from Texas and switching from shortstop to third base, Rodriguez hit .286 with 36 homers, 106 RBI, 112 runs and 28 steals — a career year for most but a down year for him. Now, he said, “I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more relaxed. I’m glad last year is behind me. It was a great learning experience.”

This is good news for the Yankees, evil news for everyone else.

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