The Bronx Coup

Reggie Jackson hasn’t played in pinstripes since 1981. But tonight, hours before the Yankees are to face the Atlanta Braves, Jackson struts into the legendary clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and instantly takes over the room. Now employed as one of George Steinbrenner’s “baseball people,” Jackson has flown in from California for the big series. A curvaceous blonde woman wearing a press pass walks up and begins to introduce herself, but Jackson cuts her off.

“Damn,” he says. “A beautiful woman in the clubhouse?” He looks her up and down, slowly. Twice. “The women reporters are usually pretty … rough. Where’d they import you from?”

As shestutters a reply, Derek Jeter appears, crossing from the player’s lounge to his locker. Jeter is wearing a T-shirt and tight running shorts that highlight his tapered torso and minuscule waist.

“Reginald!” Jeter says, shaking Jackson’s hand. Jeter tries to keep moving, but Jackson won’t let go of his hand.

“How’m I doing?” Jackson says, rolling his eyes from Jeter to the blonde. “Pretty nice, huh?” Jeter glances quickly at the woman and doesn’t say a word. “Whaddaya think?” Jackson asks, pointing his cigar at the woman for emphasis.

Jeter, who managed to date Mariah Carey for months and keep things discreet, changes the subject. “What you doing in town, Reginald?”

“Motherfucker hasn’t paid me in six months!” Jackson yells. “I had to come collect! I didn’t know about it till my secretary told me!”

Jeter moves rapidly toward his locker, tossing back some gentle sarcasm. “You don’t need any more money!” he says. “You’re rich already! Give me a loan!”

Jackson, flattered, grins widely, not noticing that the blonde has also managed to escape. Talk returns to baseball: Is this the best Yankees team ever?

“Sheee-itttt,” Jackson exhales. “They’re a good team, maybe a great team – but talk to me after they’ve won the World Series. If they even get to the World Series. That’s the test. Remember,” he says, “you’re talking to Mr. October!”

Thousands of fans are ready to argue with Reggie and crown these Yankees right now. They’ve watched this team win big (pounding out 12, 14, and 12 runs in consecutive games versus the Sox, Red and then White), win little (a crafty pitching gem by David Cone to beat the Orioles 1?0), win lucky (a horrible umpire’s call bailing them out against Baltimore), and win gloriously (David Wells’s perfect game against the Twins).

The victories just keep piling up, 67 wins in the first 88 games. At this rate, the Yankees will shatter one of the game’s oldest landmarks, the 116 regular-season wins racked up by the 1906 Chicago Cubs. The toughest challenge these Yankees have faced is ordering dinner for a pitching staff that includes a Cuban, a Japanese, an Australian, a born-again Christian, and a beer-loving Southern California flake.

Whatever the team’s final numbers – and there are signs that the Yankees won’t keep winning three out of every four – the way the Yankees are succeeding deserves close attention. Playing in the capital of hype, for an owner who is the major-league career leader in bluster, they go about their daily business with the discipline of a Marine drill team. Like Jeter in his encounter with Jackson, they refuse to be distracted. The defining symbol of this team is the blond-wood Pottery Barn picture frames perched in players’ lockers, holding snapshots of their smiling children.

“We’re grinders,” says manager Joe Torre. “Baseball is our job. And that’s the way we approach it.” The all-for-one, one-for-all mythology, though, disguises plenty of machinations: One day, Torre is stroking the ego of the prickly Chuck Knoblauch; the next, he’s poking at the pride of David Wells.

The Yankees won a World Series two years ago with largely the same cast of characters, but the personality of this year’s model is quite different. The 1996 Yankees also generated headlines with off-the-field dramas, especially the heart transplant that saved the life of Torre’s brother Frank. “In ‘96, we had so many human-interest stories, it was like living in a TV movie-of-the-week,” says David Cone, who won a pivotal game in the World Series months after surgeons plucked an aneurysm from his pitching arm. “This year, it feels like we’re working on a classic.”

Inside the visitors’ locker room in Cleveland, reporters are grilling Scott Brosius for more details, more of his feelings, about the weird moment last night when he beat the Indians twice. In a tense ninth inning, with the score tied and the bases loaded, Brosius tapped a slow roller down the third base line, just far enough for Tino Martinez to score. Then a bizarre reversal: The home-plate umpire waved off the whole thing, saying the ball had deflected off Brosius, making it foul. Torre leapt from the dugout to argue; Brosius trotted back from first base, confused and winded, to face the flame-throwing Mike Jackson again. Then Brosius fouled off five straight nasty two-strike pitches before taking ball four, forcing in the winning run.

The beat writers want to know: Wasn’t Brosius angry about the controversial call? Did he think the call was wrong? How did he compose himself so quickly?

Brosius, a soft-spoken dead ringer for Lenny on Laverne and Shirley, shrugs and offers several variations of “I just tried to focus and make contact.”

The questions keep coming: How was he able to keep a clear head in such a pressure-packed situation?

“It’s because he’s a good Christian!” shouts Tim Raines. Raines, lounging on the locker-room couch, cracks up both Brosius and the writers. The Yankees have one of the best-attended prayer groups in the majors – including Brosius, Chad Curtis, Joe Girardi, Andy Pettitte, Paul O’Neill, Darryl Strawberry, Darren Holmes, and Raines – but they’re not sanctimonious. That Raines can joke about their faith is another sign of how loose and mature this team is.

Jeter and Raines are the leaders when it comes to keeping things light. But the Patient Zero of the team’s fierce determination is Paul O’Neill. Last October, right here in Cleveland, O’Neill set the tone for this year’s team. The Yankees were one out from playoff elimination, and they barely had a pulse. Then O’Neill, hobbled by a season’s worth of aches, whacked a pitch into right field and launched his tired body toward second base. The tying run was in scoring position.

The Yankees’ season ended on the next pitch, but O’Neill’s example has carried over to this year’s team. O’Neill fights until the last breath. You’d think a team riding such a phenomenal wave would look like it’s having fun, but the only emotional displays associated with the Yankees are O’Neill’s volcanic temper tantrums. “When I first came to the Yankees,” Torre says, “a lot was made of the fact that Paul breaks things, that he gets mad when he makes an out. I think some people misdiagnosed that as being selfish. There’s a certain amount of wanting to get a hit every time up that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re selfish; it just means you’re passionate about it, and you’re a perfectionist.” The only caution Torre says he’s given O’Neill is to not hurt himself. “We’ve made strides with water coolers,” Torre says, timing his punch line. “Now they’re plastic. So we’re all right.”

O’Neill isn’t much of a talker, but he can be slyly funny. Ask him to assess the grueling two weeks that took the Yankees to Baltimore, Cleveland, the Bronx for two days, and Atlanta, then to Queens for a bragging-rights match with the Mets, and O’Neill says, “Yeah, I’m ready for it to be over. I’m out of clean clothes.”

Turn the conversation to O’Neill’s role in this dynamo, though, and his wincing, self-abasing Irish Catholic side takes over. He’s been reclining, relaxed, on a stool; now O’Neill bends forward at the waist and stares at the floor as he talks, politely and briefly, before fleeing to the pregame bridge table.

O’Neill shuffles the cards. He’s paired with catcher Girardi against coach Don Zimmer and third-baseman Brosius in a season-long tournament. “We been beatin’ em up pretty good so far,” O’Neill says. Yet even as he’s winning at bridge, O’Neill is working at baseball: He keeps glancing away to study a TV monitor, which is showing videotape of Al Leiter, the starting pitcher for the Mets tonight. “Look at that,” O’Neill says to Tino Martinez, who is hunched over in front of the screen; O’Neill and Martinez nod, having picked up a clue to Leiter’s curveball. “Left-handers are getting better hacks than righties,” O’Neill says.

Other Yankees point to Girardi, the veteran catcher, as another leader: Bumped from his starting role by young Jorge Posada, Girardi doesn’t sulk – he tutors Posada between innings. Athletes respect nothing so much as physical gifts, and so the 24-year-old, supremely confident Jeter has become a leader as well.

But this isn’t “Derek’s team,” or “Paul’s team,” in the way that one dominant personality usually emerges out of the 25-man roster, demanding to carry the load in tough situations. “We kind of see ourselves as a unit, focusing on a common goal and putting aside selfish things,” says Chad Curtis, who has played capably in center field while Bernie Williams has been injured. “That’s so clichéd, but it really is the case on this team. People are gonna read that and say, ‘Oh, yeah, they all say that.’ But I’ve been on quite a few teams, and I’ve never seen it before.”

Up in Cooperstown, they’re already casting the bronze Hall of Fame plaque of Greg Maddux. The Braves right-hander takes the mound at Yankee Stadium on a warm night in late June riding a two-month winning streak. Now he’s buzzing through the batting order of the ballyhooed “best team in baseball.” For the first two innings, the Yankees look docile, taking pitch after pitch before grounding out meekly.

Then, in the third inning, Knoblauch faces Maddux for the second time. First pitch – snap. A single to right field. Up comes Jeter. Third pitch – snap. A single to center field. O’Neill is the hitter now. Maddux floats his best pitch: A mesmerizing change-up. Pop: A first-pitch single to center, scoring Knoblauch.

Next is Martinez. First pitch: Another change-up. Martinez slashes. Another hard single. Game tied.

Three innings later, the game still tied, Maddux asks to be replaced. Afterward, he blames his early exit on a stiff neck, caused by a bad night’s sleep at the Grand Hyatt. The Yankees jump all over the Braves’ weak bull pen, beating baseball’s second-best team 6?4.

Later, Martinez says the Yankees weren’t being docile at all in the first part of the game. It was part of the plan of attack for facing a pitcher like Maddux. “Your first at-bat, if you have a pretty good at-bat, you’re gonna see quite a few pitches,” Martinez explains. “You see his fastball, his change-up, whatever he’s gonna throw. The next few at-bats is the time you gotta try to sit on one certain pitch. This lineup makes adjustments during a game faster than any team I’ve been on. We talk about it in the dugout – what we’re looking for, what he’s doing – and we know we’ve got a good chance to get him eventually.”

Inevitability: That’s the best way to describe the Yankees this year. Either the ocean-deep starting-pitching staff – Cone, Pettitte, Wells, Hideki Irabu, and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez – throws a suffocating game, or the intensely focused hitters keep punching until they find an opening. The 1906 Cubs, the team with the most regular-season wins, had an airtight defense, anchored by the famous Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double-play combination. But those Cubs played in an era when somebody named Harry Davis could lead the league with twelve home runs. The game was so different it makes comparisons to the ‘98 Yankees silly.

The team that’s commonly lauded as the best ever, the 1927 Yankees, was overwhelming, featuring Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Combs, and Meusel – the famed Murderers’ Row. The ‘98 Yankees have an Assassins’ Row: Expose one vulnerability and they’ll kill you. They wear out even the most precise pitchers. “You’ve gotta do everything you can to keep your mistakes to a minimum,” says the Braves’ Tom Glavine. “They don’t have a lot of guys who swing at bad pitches. They take a lot of walks. They go out, they play the game hard. If they beat you, that’s that; they don’t make a big deal out of it.”

The only place where Roger Maris’s single-season homer record isn’t threatened, it seems, is in the Bronx. Martinez leads the Yankees with a modest 14 dingers. But check the names at the top of this year’s home-run derby: McGwire, Griffey, Sosa. Then check to see where their teams are in the standings.

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.”

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.”

The Bronx Coup