Pinstripe presence returns to New York


NEW YORK -- What's wrong with this picture?

The volatile owner has rarely been heard, let alone seen. The intense manager is a model of quiet decorum. With one notable exception, the stars are a bunch of "Johnny-Come-Latelys."

For the most part, this is a collection of individuals that appears as bland as the gray uniforms they wear on the road. Can this really be the New York Yankees?

Is this a modern version of the team that made pinstripes famous and celebrated championships as regularly as birthdays? Or is it a slow-developing imitation of recent impostors who masqueraded as contenders?

The Yankees came into the 1994 season with a starting rotation that was suspect beyond Jimmy Key, a bullpen that lacked a closer and a defense that was at least slightly suspect. After last night's 5-1 victory over the Orioles at Yankee Stadium, they have the best record in the majors (27-12) and are in first place in the American League East, reputed to be baseball's best division this season.

Accomplishment or accident?

The jury is out about the Yankees' staying power, but there is no mystery about their early success. They have been nearly invincible at home (17-4), where they've left indelible marks on two of the AL's early contending teams.

When the Boston Red Sox visited earlier in the month they were leading the division. They were swept in three games. The Cleveland Indians, with their sights on the AL Central Division lead, followed. They lost four in a row.

The Yankees ran their winning streak to 10 games before losing the last two games of a road trip in Minnesota. "Maybe it was good for us to get beat like that," said Jim Leyritz, an all-around handyman who is currently filling in for catcher Mike Stanley. "With Baltimore and Toronto coming in, maybe it's just a sign that we need to dig deeper and play harder."

Playing harder, however, is not something manager Buck Showalter has had to worry about. His low-key approach has blended well with this team. And the classy style of Don Mattingly, the Yankees' reigning star, has been stabilizing on newcomers.

Players such as Key, Wade Boggs, Paul O'Neill and Mike Gallego have blended into the "good guy" approach Showalter has emphasized. In many ways Showalter's style is similar to that of Orioles' manager Johnny Oates.

When Oates was working in the Yankees' organization, he had Showalter as a player at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. He didn't see major-league playing ability, but there was little doubt that Showalter was managerial material. "He was always asking questions," Oates said. "He always wanted to know why."

Showalter's ability to co-exist with owner George Steinbrenner can be traced, at least partly, to his non-confrontational approach. He has his feisty moments, but generally Showalter has been able to handle controversial matters delicately.

For instance, Paul O'Neill leads the majors with a .465 batting average, but he's not automatically in the lineup when a left-hander pitches. The same is true of Boggs, who might not be the hitter he used to be, but still carried a .335 career average into this season.

Unlike in seasons past, the Yankees don't have the same quantity of superstars as the other teams in their division. Mattingly stands alone, but the first baseman is not without a quality supporting cast.

With the exception of Danny Tartabull, the lineup is devoid of home run hitters. Defensively, the Yankees are moderates.

And while the starting pitchers can be dominant at times, Jim Abbott, Melido Perez and Terry Mulholland have been unable to match Key's consistency, and the bullpen may yet require a trade to provide a closer.

But, competing in baseball's best division, the Yankees so far have done a good job impersonating past teams in the one area that matters most -- the standings. They're just going about it in a different way and with a different manner.

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