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The Bronx Coup


They sit closer than two airplane passengers in economy class. To the left, Joe Torre, swarthy and impassive. To the right, Don Zimmer, round and pop-eyed. The dialogue between manager and coach determines every strategic move. And sometimes which golf course Torre and Zimmer will play tomorrow morning.

Right now, in the seventh inning of an interleague game against the Mets, Jorge Posada is on third base, Scott Brosius on first. Because this game is in a National League park, there's no designated hitter, so pitcher Andy Pettitte is about to hit for himself. Or perhaps Pettitte will lay down a squeeze bunt. "Whaddaya think here, Zim?" Torre says.

"I dunno," Zimmer says. "I like to squeeze, but remember, Pettitte's been up at bat twice in -- how many years?"

"He bunted that sacrifice perfect his first time up today," Torre says.

"Yeah," Zimmer says. "So that's one time in three years. It ain't that easy, guy throwing a ball 90 miles an hour at you."

Pettitte is standing just outside the batter's box, looking down at third-base coach Willie Randolph for the sign. Torre signals for Pettitte to swing away. "Besides," Torre says, "it's enough that other teams know we like to squeeze. Mets pitcher Bobby Jones will be thinking a little extra. Let's see what happens."

Pettitte strikes out. No matter: Jeter and O'Neill follow with hits, boosting the lead to 7?1 and dooming the Mets.

Two men chatting while they watch a baseball game -- it looks like a simple thing. But the body language of Torre's relationship with Zimmer filters down through the entire team. Torre cares deeply about winning with the Yankees, but unlike his predecessors Billy Martin and Buck Showalter, he has the serenity of a man could live without the job and doesn't mind sharing credit. Instead of fighting with the tabloids, Torre endorses one (the Daily News). He's so sure of himself that he's able to admit when he's unsure.

Before a game in Cleveland last month, Torre was tinkering with his lineup. Chad Curtis had done well in center field with Bernie Williams injured, but today Torre wanted an extra left-handed hitter against the Indians' Charles Nagy. Curtis hits right-handed, and over the years, he had been a miserable 3 for 36 against Nagy. As Curtis sat in front of his locker four hours before the first pitch, Torre walked over and told Curtis he had the day off. The rookie Ricky Ledee was starting in center field. "I think he kind of wanted to see if I was relieved to have a day off or if I was perturbed," Curtis says later. "I told him, 'I know my numbers against Chuck Nagy aren't very good. Below .100. But the last few times I've faced him, I hit the ball hard.' I wanted to be in there, and I think he sensed that." Torre thought it over, and started Curtis.

"I don't want to flatter myself and say I talked Joe into anything," Curtis says. "But that means a lot, just the fact he would come up to me and tell me that I wasn't in there, instead of just making me read it and wonder why."

"Different people need different things from the manager," Torre says. "I may give Tim Raines a cigar -- well, that's bad news for him, because he thinks he's not playing that day, and he probably isn't. With younger players, you become a little more aggressive with the conversation. You're gonna tell 'em things they haven't felt before."

So in June, when Jeter came back from his first stay on the disabled list, Torre put his arm around the shortstop's shoulders and told him not to expect to immediately be back in synch. When Jeter did flail at hittable pitches, he didn't become overfrustrated. "You have to be available for each one of their needs," Torre says. "And I try to be."

Sometimes those needs are a kick in the ass. Torre normally criticizes a player in private, but in May, after David Wells wilted in the Texas heat, Torre needled the sensitive pitcher in the papers, questioning whether Wells was too fat.

Two months later, Wells still bristles over the jibe. The left-hander pulls a T-shirt over his massive torso, covering the blue-ink trio of tattoos on his back: Mom, Grandma, Grandpa. On Wells's right deltoid is a rendering of his boy, Brandon, and the tattoo tenses when Wells is reminded of Torre's crack. "I think he's wrong," Wells says. "I'd be the first one to tell you when I'm sucking wind. But I wasn't."

Sitting on a black Naugahyde couch in the center of the Yankee Stadium clubhouse, Wells is instantly likable, with warm brown eyes and a quick, slightly sinister laugh: Heh, heh, heh. "Eventually I called a meeting with him and Mel Stottlemyre, the pitching coach," Wells continues. "I was a little bitter about things, and I don't like walking around with those kind of feelings on my mind, so I got it off my chest. However it ends up, it ends up."

One way it seems to have ended up is with an increase in Wells's concentration on the mound. Wells has always had a smoking fastball and good control, but his attention could drift like plastic shopping bags in the outfield breeze. Since May's perfect game, Wells has won six of seven decisions, and he went an amazing 36 innings without walking a batter. "A lightbulb has gone off for Boomer," David Cone says. "I think the perfect game humbled him a bit, and now he sees just how good he can be."

Post-perfect-game fame has forced him, Wells says, to rein in his partying a bit; he doesn't go to the China Club with Jeter and Posada as often. "Everywhere I go, I'm getting hounded by autograph seekers and stuff like that," Wells says. "But I'm flattered by it all. It just changes my daily program. I gotta slide out the back door, or wait last minute, just so I can get some of my own peace time. It gets a little old sitting in your room looking at the four walls every day, so I've been going to the park a lot earlier and hanging out."

Are there no fringe benefits? Do better-looking women chase him? "Nah," Wells laughs. "You'd wanta think! I'm a mullion, man. They go after Jeter and Posada, the good-lookin' dudes." Just then Jeter ambles by, so Wells ups the volume. "He's one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world, by People magazine! Man, we rode him hard about that."

The fun-loving, canine-loyal Wells isn't ever going to be too humble. When he sees Reggie Jackson, Wells exchanges laughs with Mr. October, then says, "Earlier in my career, I didn't really like him. I wished I could have faced him in a game -- so I could've drilled him!"

From his office above and behind home plate, Brian Cashman has one of the best views at Yankee Stadium. But the team's first-year general manager spends most games with his back to the field, scanning the scouting reports on his desk. And bolting out of his chair to answer the phone at its first bleat.

Cashman was thrust into the job in February, when Bob Watson abruptly quit after two years. Watson's blood pressure had skyrocketed while he was working for Steinbrenner, and he decided he'd had enough. Cashman, 31, smart, and earnest, looks as if he's wearing his big brother's shirt and tie. "It's probably the most demanding position in sports," Cashman says of his job. "Our owner is hands-on. There's no secret about that. He's probably one of the most difficult people to work for in sports. That's probably why he's successful, because he gets his money's worth and then some. But I knew what I was getting into. Does it make it any easier to deal with? No. It doesn't."

The phone rings, and Cashman lunges. He has spoken with ten other general managers today. He's on the lookout for ways to shore up some of the Yankees' minor weaknesses, including inconsistent middle relief and a vulnerability to left-handed pitching. Cashman is also hearing from a steady stream of agents, representing Jeter, Brosius, Curtis: With the Yankees playing so well, hey, don't their guys deserve to get paid better?

Cashman, whose father knows Steinbrenner from the horse-racing circuit, began as a Yankees intern during college and spent the past several years running errands for Watson and Gene Michael. A beeper and a phone clipped to Cashman's belt are connected straight to the Boss at all times. "He's had an impact on my personal side," Cashman says. "I balance my checkbook better; I fold my underwear a lot neater. When you have someone on top of you like that all the time, it makes you organized."

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