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The Bronx Coup

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As he's jumping again for the phone, Cashman says he's learned the most from Mark Newman, the Yankees' Tampa-based player-development executive, and Gene Michael, whose title is scouting director and whose handiwork is evident everywhere. The 1998 Yankees are more Michael's team than anyone else's. He oversaw the drafting or signing of Jeter, Posada, Mendoza, Pettitte, and the cold-blooded closer Mariano Rivera. Michael also engineered brilliant trades for Martinez, O'Neill, and reliever Jeff Nelson; he also shielded Bernie Williams when Steinbrenner decreed the centerfielder be traded because he was "too soft."

As shrewd as Michael and other Yankees executives have been, they couldn't have done it without Steinbrenner's bucks. The Yankees have the majors' second-highest payroll, at $63 million. Not only are the Yankees the rare franchise that can afford to hold on to good players, but they can bury their mistakes. Players no longer with the team are being paid more than $7 million by Steinbrenner -- almost equal to the payroll of the entire Montreal Expos roster.

Not that money guarantees victory. When David Cone, always on the lookout for a good line, is asked about the Yankees' financial muscle, he quotes Sandy Alderson, an Oakland A's executive: "Sandy said, 'The biggest payroll doesn't always win. I was in Vietnam.' "

It's been three months since Hideki Irabu hurled any TV cameras in anger, and as he sits at his locker in late June, the pitcher has the lowest ERA in the league. Yet Irabu is testy when asked how he has changed since last season, when his pouting and his underwhelming fastball made him a multi-million-dollar flop. "I had some failures, and I wanted to use them as learning experiences," Irabu says through a translator. "As far as trying to change my image -- I like playing baseball, and that's what I think about, and that's all there is to it."

Derek Jeter, pulling on his socks two stalls away, can't hear what Irabu is saying, but he knows something loamy is being shoveled. "Bu-bu!" Jeter shouts, with a teasing smile on his face. "You're lying! You're lying, man!"

Irabu looks puzzled. The translator translates. A slight delay. Irabu laughs.

The chemistry of the '98 Yankees is superior to that of the close-knit '96 champs. Mere language barriers don't spare players from ragging. And nearly all the problem children have been weeded out. "That was our problem last year," says first-base coach José Cardenal. "We had two or three guys that were bitching they weren't playing, and that was no good."

Yet it's more than just jettisoning grumblers. The Yankees executives, consciously or not, have sought out individuals who won't challenge Steinbrenner for the tabloid limelight. As long as Steinbrenner is the owner, there will be periodic fireworks displays in the Bronx. But this year, none of the rockets are launched from the field or the clubhouse. The secret to building a stable Yankees team is players who aren't colorful enough to make Steinbrenner feel insecure. And there's been an unforeseen fringe benefit to the controversy over the future of Yankee Stadium: Raging at Peter Vallone has diverted some of Steinbrenner's anger.

The team itself just seems to keep people in line. "Guys who were considered assholes on other teams, like Wells or Knoblauch, they join this team and they just mix in," says one longtime baseball writer. "It's hard to explain. It's just the weight of being in this special group. With people like Cone, Martinez, O'Neill, Jeter, and Williams around, if someone acted like a jerk, they'd really stick out."

The Yankees are also one of the more Caucasian teams around -- in style if not demographics. But lately, even their soul-deficiency has been reduced, with the arrival of El Duque. Hernandez, the Cuban defector, oozes charisma and flair, and he possesses a self-assurance that has nothing to do with surviving a raft trip to Florida. "The first day he showed up at spring training, I was like, Whoa," Cone says. "This guy's got a real presence."

It's a quality that will encourage Torre to give Hernandez the ball in playoff games, and it's an electricity that's visible late one night in Cleveland. Hernandez slips out of the team hotel and is whisked to the only Cuban restaurant in town. Workers stream from the kitchen to gaze at El Duque. As the place closes down, men in stained aprons can be seen imitating his balletic leg kick.

Joe Morgan, the hall of Fame second-baseman on the great Cincinnati Reds teams of the seventies, is now an analyst for ESPN and NBC. He points to the wild night in May when Tino Martinezwas beaned by Orioles pitcher Armando Benitez, igniting a bench-clearing mêlée. "Sometimes that word team, we don't realize what it really means," Morgan says. "When that guy Benitez hit Martinez, they showed they were a team. You may say everybody would have fought back. I don't believe that. Some other clubs wouldn't have responded that way -- they'd have come out of the dugout and stood around. There aren't that many teams anymore. It has the connotation that you have the same goals, the same heartbeat -- these Yankees are a team. Plus, they get mad when they lose."

Morgan was a star on the 1976 Reds, one of the all-time-greatest clubs. The Reds had more power, with Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and George Foster, than these Yankees; more speed, with Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, and Ken Griffey; and more nastiness, courtesy of Pete Rose. Only their pitching staff -- Fred Norman? -- was clearly inferior. Would these Yankees win a World Series matchup with the '76 Reds?

"No," Morgan says without hesitation. "But I'm prejudiced. I don't feel there's anybody, including the '27 Yankees, that could play my '76 Reds in seven games and beat us. I have my reasons: Intelligence. The way we played the game. We'd find a way, because of the team's intelligence, to beat anybody."

Between here and history, plenty can go wrong for the Yankees. Bernie Williams is desperately needed to provide some right-handed slugging between Martinez and O'Neill, and there's no guarantee his return from the disabled list will be seamless. The Yankees' lack of home-run power becomes glaring when the team batting average droops, as it has in the past month. The starting pitchers, nearly unbeatable since April, have piled up the most innings of any starting staff in the league, which could leave them weary in September. The addition of designated hitter Chili Davis will make for an awkward playing-time logjam with Curtis, Raines, and Strawberry. And Steinbrenner may force a trade for Randy Johnson, in the name of keeping the Mariners' left-hander away from the Cleveland Indians. Johnson would add a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, but his acquisition could stir resentment, depending on whom the Yankees ship to the Mariners.

Could, might, may -- these Yankees don't deal in equivocation. Short of a plane crash, nothing is likely to keep them from rolling up wins through August and September. Fantasy matchups will dominate the New York baseball conversation, the hype will escalate, and the chase for the best regular-season record ever will either motivate or burden the team. Like a presidential candidate discovering he has what it takes during the primaries, the Yankees will find out whether their persona grows along with their win total. Even if they win the most games ever, the Yankees may lose in the more subjective "greatest team" arguments because they have no sure Hall of Famers, no outsize stars, no Morgan or Reggie.

David Wells shrugs off the impending seriousness of it all. "This is a kids' game," he says. "It's a bunch of grown-ups acting like kids, out there playing a summer game where you throw a ball and hit it with a bat and catch it with a glove. And you get paid for being a kid!"

Yet Wells, more than any other current player, has a reverence for baseball history. And he speaks as he pitches, with refreshing directness. "Are you kidding?" Wells says. "If we get down to the last few weeks with a shot at it, you bet your ass we're gonna go for the record."


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