FLAG WAVERS?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- New York Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs has a message for the other American League East contenders, at least one of whom was caught looking when the best team in the division added front-line starter Jack McDowell and top-notch reliever John Wetteland.

"He who hesitates is lost," said Boggs. "That's the law of the old West -- the one with the quickest gun wins the most. If you expect to win a championship, you've got to do those things. You can't sit back and wonder what other people are going to do."

The Yankees gambled on McDowell, giving up a minor-league prospect to the Chicago White Sox on the chance that he still would be under reserve at the end of the baseball strike. The Wetteland deal was no gamble at all. He was acquired from the Montreal Expos for minor-league talent and cash after the Orioles failed to put together an acceptable package.

The Orioles eventually answered with a flurry of free-agent signings, but they already were playing catch-up. The Yankees finished 6 1/2 games on top of the AL East last August and now appear to be even better prepared for October. If that isn't discouraging enough, speculation was rampant yesterday that they may soon trade for Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson.

No one in the Yankees clubhouse seems particularly surprised. The club has been making improvements ever since owner George Steinbrenner returned from exile. Not even the longest work stoppage in baseball history could keep him from making a blockbuster off-season acquisition that added a two-time 20-game winner to the starting rotation.

"I think Mr. Steinbrenner has always showed that he likes to win," said right fielder Paul O'Neill. "We had a good team last year, and he had the opportunity to add some players. When you can add a Jack McDowell and a John Wetteland, you're going to do that. Anybody would."

Well, maybe. Every other division contender has made changes. The Boston Red Sox acquired slugger Jose Canseco last year. The Toronto Blue Jays traded for Cy Young Award winner David Cone. The Orioles beefed up their pitching staff with Kevin Brown, Jesse Orosco and Doug Jones. Still, at least on paper, every other division contender has lost ground to the Yankees since last year.

The labor dispute probably kept the Yankees from making it back to the postseason for the first time since 1981. So the front office has taken advantage of that same labor dispute to assemble an even more formidable roster.

In addition to the two big-name pitchers, general manager Gene Michael also has added right-hander Scott Bankhead, veteran shortstop Tony Fernandez and outfielder Dion James.

It's enough to give the rest of the division a severe case of pinstripe paranoia. This team may not be the second coming of Murderers' Row, but it certainly has acquired the Yankees mystique.

"That's there," Michael said yesterday. "They are a confident team. You get more confident when you win a World Series, but we're confident. You just don't want to get arrogant."

That seems unlikely. The clubhouse is stocked with no-nonsense veterans. O'Neill has emerged as one of the most productive hitters in the league. He even flirted with a .400 average for a while last year. Boggs is all baseball, and had a back-in-his-prime .342 average in '94 to prove it. Don Mattingly is back to being Don Mattingly. No one is taking the division title for granted.

"I've seen World Series teams on paper wind up in fifth place," Boggs said. "You still have to play the games."

There was no guarantee that the Yankees would have gone on to win last year, but they rebuffed every attempt to overtake them and appeared to be bound for glory.

The labor dispute cost Mattingly a chance to reach the World Series for the first time in his career -- an opportunity he never can get back -- but he is looking ahead optimistically.

"I believed in what we did," Mattingly told reporters last week. "I can live with the decision I made [to support the union]. I don't really look at it as our only chance and only golden opportunity. It happened for us last year, and with the club we have this year, we have the chance to possibly do it again."

Steinbrenner went along with ownership's attempt to create a new economic system that included revenue-sharing and payroll restrictions, but it has been obvious by his deeds that his heart wasn't in it.

Payroll apparently is no object. He may be building the last world champion of the free-spending era, and he apparently is enjoying every minute of it.

The acquisition of Wetteland was particularly rewarding, because it created the kind of overpowering bullpen presence that made the Yankees so successful during the 1970s.

"I think we're set with the way we want to go," Steinbrenner said recently. "As I look back at the teams we've had our greatest success with, we've always been strong in the bullpen. We were with Sparky Lyle, then with Goose Gossage. We have two quality closers now. One from each side. We already had Steve Howe, and now we have one of the best closers in the game."

The trade for Wetteland had a double-barreled effect on the balance of power in the division. The Yankees not only created a solid left/right combination in short relief, but they also kept a quality pitcher away from their closest competitor.

The Orioles also were pursuing a trade for Wetteland, who has 105 saves over the past three years.

L Michael said that the Orioles never figured in his strategy.

"I'd be lying if I said you don't pay attention to other clubs in your division," he said, "but I can't worry about them. I suppose there ++ was [some competition] there, but you don't realize it until it's over. We just liked him. You can't make every move to stop everybody. You've got to worry about your own ballclub."

Can the Yankees be stopped?

No one in their clubhouse is ready to proclaim that they are a super team. They let left-handed starter Jim Abbott become a free agent and allowed infielder Randy Velarde to get away, but most of the major holes have been filled.

The Orioles cannot say the same, though they got a vote of confidence from an unlikely source yesterday.

"I think Baltimore has added some good people, too," said 1994 Cy Young Award runner-up Jimmy Key. "They have addressed their problems, too. I look at them as being as good as us on paper. It's just going to come down to who plays the best. It will make for a fun summer."

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