Empty stats, aching joints leave Yankees full of pain

The Baltimore Sun

New York -- When you spend a day within the gravitational pull of Babe Ruth's plaque, and listen to Yankees public address announcer Bob Sheppard pronounce Jason Ku-BEL as if reciting Shakespeare, and feel the frisson of recognition that you are in the first and last ballpark that can feel like the center of the sports world, you can fool yourself into thinking the Yankees remain a dynasty.

That is an illusion, The Mirage of Monument Park. These Yankees are old and overrated, poorly built and unimaginatively run, and they are in the midst of a transition that will determine whether they will be relevant at the end of the decade.

In 2009, the Yankees will move across the street to new Yankee Stadium, which is under construction. Monument Park will make the trip; the current brain trust might not.

Old Yankee Stadium reeks of tradition; this season the product within has simply reeked. The Bombers, as they are known in the New York Post, are 40-42.

General manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre remain highly regarded in New York and throughout the game because they handle scrutiny with class, but let's put their work into perspective: They keep spending $200 million on underachieving teams.

When was the last time Cashman made a move that any fantasy baseball owner couldn't have finagled? When was the last time Torre made it to August before burning out his bullpen?

Veteran New York writers say it's obvious that owner George Steinbrenner, who turned 77 on Wednesday, is no longer running the daily operations. Otherwise, someone would have been fired.

The championship Yankees of the past decade were built around grind-it-out competitors such as Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius. Today's Yankees are the empty numbers of Alex Rodriguez, the aching joints of old and overpaid Bobby Abreu, Mike Mussina and Johnny Damon, and the rich and idle Carl Pavano, counting his cash on the disabled list.

This decrepit team has one remaining strength: making headlines in the last American city featuring a tabloid newspaper war. The Daily News and the Post have thrilled to Rodriguez's escapades, and even to his wife, Cynthia, who wore a T-shirt bearing an obscene message last weekend in the Yankee Stadium stands.

The home of leather-lunged fans and magnet to the tabloids would seem a tough place to play. I found Doug Mientkiewicz, a former Minnesota Twin now on the Yankees' disabled list, in the clubhouse, and he offered an opposing view.

"This place is awesome," Mientkiewicz said. "It's the first place that's felt like home since I left Minnesota. The same things that people say make it hard make it great.

"I was trying to explain it to Torii [Hunter] yesterday. You come in and you might have gotten in late the night before because of travel, and you don't know how much energy you have, and then the game starts, and you walk through the dugout and run onto the field and you forget everything else."

Mientkiewicz was a schoolboy friend of Rodriguez's. A-Rod's sporadic play made him a tabloid target before this season; now his personal life is being assailed.

"I think he relishes it," Mientkiewicz said. "Good or bad. Anybody in their right mind who went through what he went through last year - with everybody saying he had a bad year, and we need more out of him, and he stinks in the playoffs - would be driven crazy. But when I signed here this winter and first talked to him, he told me this is the best place on Earth for him.

"He told me, 'You're going to love it. It's the best place I've ever played. There's nothing bad about it. Everything is great. You're going to have a blast. The guys are awesome.' To this day, I've never heard him say one negative thing about this place."

Maybe A-Rod saves discouraging words for his wife's T-shirts.

Jim Souhan writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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