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Yankees lose '94 magic, are up to old tricks WELCOME BACK TO THE BRONX ZOO


Detroit -- George Steinbrenner showed up at Tiger Stadium the other day and plopped himself down conspicuously in the front row, as if his frightening presence just might scare the New York Yankees straight.

Funny thing, but at least for a few days, it seems to have worked.

The Yankees reeled off four wins in their next six games, including two out of three against the Cleveland Indians, and lifted themselves out of the American League East cellar, leaving room to wonder whether the nightmare finally might be ending. Not yet.

The Yankees were the winningest team in the AL last year and figured to be even more dominating in 1995, but they have been reduced to courting suspended superproblem Darryl Strawberry in a desperate attempt to get back into contention.

Injuries and inconsistency have hindered them to the point where 1994 Manager of the Year Buck Showalter -- just eight weeks into the follow-up to his finest season -- must manage under the baleful glare of The Boss and hope that the tide turns before the tabloids turn against him.

It would be nice to have back Jimmy Key or Scott Kamieniecki, both of whom have been forced out of the starting rotation with arm trouble. It would help to get struggling Danny Tartabull turned around and get the offense clicking on a daily basis the way it did Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit. It would be great if the Yankees could rediscover the chemistry that carried them away from the rest of the AL East at about this time last season, but it really isn't the same team.

The Yankees open a three-game series at Camden Yards tonight under .500, and all the good reasons in the world aren't going to keep the wolves at bay forever. Showalter seems to sense that, so he doesn't see the point in dissecting the club's disappointing start.

"I just don't think that we've been playing very good baseball," Showalter said. "Anything other than that should be viewed as an excuse. That's the way we're going to look at it. We've got injuries, but everybody else has injuries, too. They've taken the same risks that we have."

Steinbrenner has said all the right things about Showalter, but he clearly is losing patience with the club as a whole. His very visible appearance on the road was his way of bringing that dissatisfaction home.

"It's more than just the injuries," he told reporters. "The Red Sox have had a lot of injuries, too."

True enough, the division-leading Boston Red Sox started the season without Roger Clemens and have built a substantial lead largely without the help of injured slugger Jose Canseco, but they have compensated with surprising performances from several less-heralded players. When the Yankees lost their top pitcher and endured a series of lesser injuries that kept them from putting last year's team back on the field, no one really stepped into the breach.

The result has been a role reversal for two of baseball's oldest rivals. The Red Sox were picked by almost everyone to finish third or fourth in the AL East. The Yankees were picked by almost everyone to edge the Orioles for the division title. Now, those predictions aren't worth the paper the Yankees once looked so good on.

"I don't care how good your young talent is, when you look at our club last year, more than anything it was chemistry," said veteran relief pitcher Steve Howe. "When you lose Key and Kamieniecki and you have five other guys on the DL, it's going to hurt the chemistry of the ballclub. We've got three good rookies. They've done a good job, but everything was thrown out of whack.

"You could point to a million things. I think if you asked all 25 players, you'd probably get a different answer from all of them."

No one would fault Showalter, but that doesn't mean that his job isn't on the line.

Steinbrenner used to fire managers for sport, and he appears to be emerging from a long period of self-restraint to re-establish himself as one of baseball's most vocal -- and disruptive -- owners. He reportedly bypassed general manager Gene Michael open negotiations with Strawberry, whose 60-day suspension for failing a drug test ends this week. The Yankees could use the offensive boost that a productive Strawberry would provide, but it would be fair to ask whether they can handle the extra baggage he would bring into the clubhouse.

Desperate situations may call for desperate measures, but the season still is young enough to wonder whether the Yankees aren't overreacting. The Red Sox will be hard-pressed to maintain the torrid pace that they have set through the first two months, and the current configuration of the standings is such zTC that any of the struggling contenders could press Boston with one sustained hot streak.

"If we didn't feel like there was time, we ought to go home," said first baseman Don Mattingly, who was forced out of the lineup recently with a viral infection that affected the vision in his right eye. "There's definitely time, but that's not our concern. We need to play better. If you don't play well, it doesn't matter how much time you've got. If we get to the point of taking care of our business, we'll be all right."

Still, the fact that the Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays have experienced similar problems has to be comforting in this time of crisis. If the Red Sox go into any kind of extended slump, the Yankees have as good a chance as anyone of overtaking them.

"I try to tell guys that it isn't like we're in fifth place and there are four teams way out ahead of us that we have to climb over," Howe said. "We're just a game or two out of second place. Once you get there, you can make up ground in a hurry. I was with the Dodgers in '82 when we made up 10 games [on Atlanta] in a couple of weeks."

That would be a tall order right now. The pitching staff is too thin, and it seems unlikely that Key -- the majors' winningest pitcher last year -- will be back in the rotation before August. But the Yankees have enough offense to keep the Red Sox in sight if veteran starters Jack McDowell and Melido Perez can hold the rotation together until more help arrives in the form of Key, Kamieniecki or a midseason acquisition.

McDowell was the major reason the Yankees were considered unstoppable at the outset.

The club was 70-43 last season and added a pitcher who won 20 or more games two of the past three years, but McDowell has been slow to get started (3-4, 4.37) and the injuries to Key and Kamieniecki have forced Showalter to give the ball to rookies Brian Boehringer and Andy Pettitte -- with mixed results.

The club also has had trouble living up to last year's tremendous offensive output, but three double-digit performances during the past week spurred hope that the explosive Yankees lineup finally is hitting its stride.

"There's certainly that potential given what they've done in the past," Showalter said, "but it's no given. You don't know. I feel confident because of the work habits of our people that they will end up at their norm by the end of the season.

"We've just got to string some things together. Not necessarily always in the win column, though I'd like to be there every night, but just playing good baseball night after night, hopefully until October."

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