TAMPA, Fla. -- It could happen again. The New York Yankees could reformulate the winning chemistry that carried them to their first World Series championship since 1978 and replicate their magical 1996 season.
It could happen because the '96 roster is largely intact -- with a couple of notable exceptions -- and because there still is the potential for improvement in several areas and because nobody is going to count out manager Joe Torre after last year.
It could happen because pitching ace David Cone should be healthy all year, 21-game winner Andy Pettitte is a year older and Mariano Rivera could be ready to emerge as one of the best closers in the game.
OK, so now that it has been established that it could happen, listen to what Cone said when someone asked him the other day if he thought it really would happen again:
"I think there is a sense that last year was a once-in-a-lifetime year," Cone said. "That will be tough to duplicate. Maybe impossible. But we still have a good team. It may not be as magical as last year, but we can still have a lot of fun."
The Yankees, more than anyone else, grasp just what a special thing they experienced, which is why they aren't talking a lot of trash this spring. They didn't overwhelm anybody. They didn't have a lot of big statistical performances. They never claimed to have the best personnel. They just came together as a team and peaked at the perfect time. They know that kind of thing doesn't happen every year.
"I don't think you can assume anything," Cone said. "You just hope there is a carry-over effect. With Bernie Williams, Pettitte and [Derek] Jeter, there's three young leaders along with some great veterans."
There also are a couple of notable omissions from last year's team. World Series MVP John Wetteland left to sign a four-year, $23 million contract with the Texas Rangers, and left-handed starter Jimmy Key left for a two-year deal with the Orioles. Both were team leaders who contributed tremendously to last year's terrific chemistry.
Key will be replaced in the rotation by veteran left-hander David Wells, whose erratic behavior this winter has to have club officials wondering what they have gotten themselves into. Rivera is expected to move right into Wetteland's full-time closer role, but the club won't have another Mariano Rivera to set him up. Catonsville native Jeff Nelson and newcomer Mike Stanton apparently will share the setup role.
"I was a little bit surprised, more about them letting [Wetteland] go than letting me go," Key said recently. "I think that is a very important thing they broke up there but they can win without that. A lot of teams have won without that. Mariano will do well, but the question will be whether he will be able to pitch three days in a row. Who knows? Maybe he won't have to."
The club is banking on a successful comeback by Cone, a steady year from Wells and another great performance by Pettitte. Dwight Gooden and Kenny Rogers figure to fill out a rotation that features a great deal of upside potential but also a tremendous amount of uncertainty.
Pettitte is the only one close to a sure thing. He is coming off two great seasons and appears to have established himself as one of the league's premier pitchers. Every other starter has something to prove or something to overcome.
Cone came back late last season after having surgery to repair an aneurysm in his pitching arm. He pitched well but never got a chance to build his endurance before the Yankees entered the postseason. He'll get that chance this spring.
"I'm hoping it will be a healthy year," Cone said. "I really haven't had a full year with the Yankees yet. I guess that we'll just have to see what happens."
Wells arrived in spring training with a broken pitching hand, the result of a much-publicized San Diego street fight. He still has a chance to pitch in April, but his training regimen has been further complicated by a case of gout that has left him with an inflamed right big toe.
Gooden was, for a time, the best pitcher in baseball last year, but there were other times when he was the worst. Rogers never stepped up to the pressure of playing in New York and is never very far from owner George Steinbrenner's doghouse.
Torre doesn't seem particularly concerned, but that is his way. His calm demeanor got the Yankees over the rough spots last year and he is displaying the same quiet confidence this spring.
There already have been a couple of brush fires. Wells needed some fatherly advice about his diet and his drinking. First baseman Cecil Fielder showed up a few days later, unhappy about his contract situation and holding to a March 15 trade demand.
The thing is, the Yankees were considered more suspect a year ago at this time than they are now, and everyone knows what happened.
"We'll have quite a carry-over," Torre said. "We're going to have David Cone all year. We missed him. He's going to help any team he's on, because he has only one thing on his mind -- winning.
"I don't think the personalities change. The people we have here that's not going to change. I think winning creates chemistry rather than the other way around."
The starting lineup from 1996 remains largely intact, though Torre again is faced with the problem of trying to keep a number of star-quality veterans happy in less-than-full-time roles.
Darryl Strawberry would like more playing time, either in the outfield or the designated hitter role. Fielder filed a trade demand in part because he was not in the starting lineup for the Yankees' first playoff game last year. Right fielder Paul O'Neill and left fielder Tim Raines also have to wonder if they will end up playing every day.
Fielder has been the most vocal in his discontent, at one point saying that the club was not making good on its promise to try to trade him. He arrived in camp Thursday, however, and said that he still wanted to be a Yankee.
If the Yankees fail to find a taker by March 15, Fielder has the option of becoming a free agent, something no one expects him to do because he would have to give up his $7.2 million guaranteed salary for 1996.
Strawberry has taken the high road. He told Torre late last year that he would not quibble about his playing time, and he voiced support last week for the continuation of a team-oriented approach.
"We have to avoid being selfish," Strawberry said. "There are times when guys have to understand that you have to be a team. If you don't go in with that attitude, you won't be successful. I think that's what made this team so successful last year. I think we can get that back, but it may take some time."
It also may involve some pain. O'Neill and Raines would like to get full-time at-bats, but somebody may have to move aside if rookie Ruben Rivera steps up this spring and commands a share of the playing time in the outfield. Everyone wants to play every day, because everyone wants to put up big numbers and command a big salary, but Torre has proven that he can make the hard choices.
"The only statistic we're interested in is winning," Torre said. "We didn't knock anybody's socks off statistically last year, but we somehow won the whole thing."
AL East series
With expectations running high for the Orioles, The Sun begins a four-part series on the other AL East teams:
Tomorrow: Blue Jays
Thursday: Red Sox
Yankees at a glance
Manager: Joe Torre
1996 record: 92-70
1996 finish: First
Team batting avg.: .288
Team ERA: 4.65
Projected '97 finish: Second
Spring schedule vs. Orioles: None
Regular season vs. Orioles: May 26-27 in New York; June 3-4 at Camden Yards; Sept. 4-7 in New York; Sept. 11-14 at Camden Yards.
! Pub Date: 2/24/97