Are Yankees a Wounded Elephant Dripping Blood Through the Bronx?

When pygmies of a certain tribe set out to kill an elephant, this is what they do: They do not charge into combat with the giant, but steal up on it as it rests, spear it hard in the belly and flee. Then, from a safe distance, they trail the bloody spoor-for days on end-while the gut wound festers and the elephant slowly sickens, weakens and dies.

Autumn touched Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon. It was dark and chilly; three of the four umpires were bundled in jackets. The Yankees were even playing something like October baseball-improvising put-outs, scratching out runs, battling to their last at-bat-in a game manager Joe Torre would say afterward had been “necessary” to win.

But it wasn’t October, and the Yankees weren’t playing for a title. They were trying to stave off a sweep by the third-place Baltimore Orioles. And while they struggled with the opponent in front of them, their vitals roiled; through the breeze and the stadium music came the soft sound of trailing footsteps.

The footsteps were coming from the northeast. TEX 0 BOS 1, the out-of-town scoreboard announced. Then: TEX 0 BOS 2 … TEX 0 BOS 3 … TEX 1 BOS 4 … TEX 1 BOS 6 ….

A month ago, the Rangers–Red Sox score would not have mattered in the Bronx. A month ago, the Orioles series would have been a late-season tune-up. But the Yankees were coming off a bad month. On Aug. 1, they led the American League East by eight games. By Aug. 15, the margin had swelled to a pop-the-champagne 101¼2.

Instead, the popping sound came from the Yankees, followed by a steady phfffft . In one week, the lead shrank by five games. Then it kept shrinking: a game here, another game there, till suddenly it was Labor Day weekend and the Red Sox were 21¼2 games out.

The disasters kept coming. On Monday, the Yankees had absorbed a franchise-worst 22-0 beating by the Cleveland Indians. On Friday, during their first game with the Orioles, 39-year old pitcher Kevin Brown-essential to the post-season pitching rotation-broke his glove hand punching a wall in an in-between-innings fury.

There is a difference, Joe Torre mused in his Sunday post-game chat with reporters, between feeling tension and feeling pressure. “Tension is something that’s more debilitating than pressure,” he said. Pressure, he explained, warming to the topic, comes naturally with playing the game. “Tension is created within yourself,” he added.

The goal, Torre concluded, is to be “intense without being tense.”

But in the ersatz October against the hot-and-cold Orioles, the mood in Yankee Stadium was the opposite: heavy tension, with only intermittent intensity. The trademark stadium noise-blaring, punishing noise-came mostly from the speaker tower in center field. Unless Derek Jeter was at the plate (or Bernie Williams, with Jeter aboard), the stands were in an unhappy quiet, like a collective sulk.

Yankee fans cherish a belief that they are tough and exacting, but their approach can sometimes look a lot more like bullying and fickleness. When their team is winning, they are ferocious; when it’s not winning, they … but the Yankees are almost always winning, aren’t they?

Aren’t they?

On the No. 4 train this weekend, a fan was wearing a Chuck Knoblauch T-shirt. It seemed like a relic of the distant past-the old BRAINLAUCH headline in the scrapbook alongside a photo of Jeffrey Maier-but the last time the Yankees actually won a World Series, back in 2000, they still had Chuck Knoblauch. They also had, among others, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Paul O’Neill, David Justice, David Cone and Denny Neagle.

They did not have Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Kenny Lofton, Mike Mussina, Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown. Those Yankees, these Yankees, are on a team that hasn’t won a world championship this century. They’ve won two out of the last three pennants, but the Yankees toss pennants in the rag bag, to buff their Mercedes with over the winter. Championship baseball, in the Bronx, is supposed to mean world championship baseball.

Instead, on Saturday-another mock-October day, this one with brilliant sunshine-Joe Torre was forced to go to his World Series playbook early. Through eight innings, the Orioles’ Sidney Ponson had outpitched and outlasted Mike Mussina, and Baltimore led 2-0.

Most managers would never bring in their relief ace with their team trailing; you save the closer for games when you have a lead to protect. But in the playoffs-when second chances are in short supply-Torre will sometimes gamble and bring in Mariano Rivera just to hold the other team, to give the Yankees one last chance to come from behind. On came Rivera.

The first hitter he faced, 39-year-old Rafael Palmeiro, smacked a 1-2 pitch into the left-field bleachers for a 3-0 lead. The fans threw the ball back in disgust. Javy Lopez, batting next, smacked a single. David Segui smacked a single after him. After a sacrifice bunt, Larry Bigbie bounced a single through the drawn-in infield, making it 4-0.

The crowd booed-whether it was booing the circumstance or Mariano Rivera personally was hard to say. Rivera headed for the dugout, knocked out of the game. More or less simultaneously, up in the press box, staffers were passing out a release announcing that Kevin Brown had suffered a displaced fracture, “extending into the wrist,” in the wall-punching incident. There would be surgery and pins.

Back down on the field, Rivera’s replacement, Bret Prinz, threw his first pitch. Light-hitting Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts lined it into the stands. Three-run homer, 7-0 Baltimore. The Red Sox would lose, but the Yankees would gain no ground.

For the last six years, as the teams have finished 1-2, the Red Sox have chased the Yankees the way a dog chases a car. The dog thinks it’s a race; the car just keeps going where it’s going. And what would the dog do with the car if he caught it?

But the Red Sox are not the Red Sox of six years ago, or even of last year. Under new owner John Henry, the franchise is three years into a remodeling program on neo-Steinbrennerist lines: hire a whiz-kid general manager, give him the keys to the vault, and tell him to keep making moves till you hoist the commissioner’s trophy.

Last fall, that approach got the Red Sox within five outs of beating the Yankees for the pennant. So through the winter, the original George Steinbrenner decided to do something about his rival: After the Red Sox failed to pull off a three-team trade to replace star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra with superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees swooped in and grabbed Rodriguez for themselves-installing the game’s best shortstop at third base, out of deference to Jeter.

But if the Yankees won the bragging rights and the headlines, they didn’t necessarily win the offseason shopping spree. The Red Sox also added Curt Schilling, who’d stifled the Yankees in the 2001 World Series; the Yankees, after seeing Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens depart, decided to fill their own need for a Grade A veteran starter by signing the emotionally-and physically-fragile Brown.

In the best case, according to Yankees estimates, Kevin Brown will be gone for three weeks. The worst case is that he won’t be back this year. “If you’re going to get hurt playing this game,” Mussina said Saturday, “then let’s get hurt playing the game.”

The true point of this year’s Yankees–Red Sox struggle isn’t in any player-by-player comparison, though. The point is that the Red Sox have infected the Yankees with the notion that a Red Sox–Yankees showdown is the most important thing in baseball.

That was fine for the Yankees through the first half of the season. The early Red Sox were a clownishly bad version of a good team-so boneheaded and inept on defense that their superb, expensive hitting and pitching were barely able to win games for them. But then the Sox made a bold, Yankee-style trade, shipping the disgruntled Garciaparra to the Cubs and shoring up their glovework.

Ever since, Boston has been closing the gap. Except for one 1-6 spell, the Yankees have not been playing badly. On Monday, they still had the best record in the league and were 6-4 in their last 10. But Boston was 9-1.

For nearly a decade, that has been the Yankees method: apply steady, unyielding pressure and wait for the other team to crack. There have been no weak links in a Yankees rotation, no dead spots in the batting order, no danger of a late-game collapse with Mariano Rivera waiting in the bullpen.

Not so anymore. Rivera, Saturday aside, is still Rivera. But the rotation, as the howls on sports radio have proclaimed all summer, is shaky. And in the Rodriguez trade, for the first time since the current championship era began, the Yankees gave up part of their homegrown nucleus: second baseman Alfonso Soriano, he of the ninth-inning World Series home runs, got shipped to Texas.

Now the Rangers are in the playoff race, and Rodriguez-though on a pace for more than 40 home runs-is best known in the New York papers for batting like Mario Mendoza with men on base. When he comes to the plate in Yankee Stadium, the apathy is like a mind-clouding mist; fans barely remember to boo after he makes an out.

There are numbers behind the malaise, and behind the Red Sox’s confidence. As of Monday, the Yankees had outscored their opponents by 61 runs for the season. Boston had outscored its foes by 148.

Statistics enthusiasts like to use those numbers to estimate how many games a team ought to win in a given season. True, through some combination of Torre, Rivera and luck or Yankee magic (depending on your belief system), the Yankees have habitually played better than the runs totals say they should. But not that much better. By the figures, the reason the Red Sox are closing on the Yankees is that, given the two team’s run totals, Boston ought to be 81¼2 games ahead.

And even if the Red Sox are cursed or incompetent-again, the Yankees’ chosen mission isn’t supposed to be beating the Red Sox. It’s being the best team in baseball. But the numbers say Oakland and Anaheim are substantially better than the Yankees, too-to say nothing of the Dodgers, the Braves, the Cubs and the Cardinals, the last of whom are already past 90 wins and have outscored the opposition by nearly 200 runs. The mountaintop is a long way off.

With the numbers offering little help, on Sunday Torre went back to the magic, putting Jeter in the leadoff spot. By the time he batted, the Orioles were ahead 3-0; Vazquez, the pitcher of record in the 22-0 game, had served up a three-run homer to Palmeiro in the top of the first. Jeter-the team captain, the myth, the champ-hit a scorching shot off the third baseman’s glove and raced all the way into second as the ball died on the outfield grass.

Then, with one out, Jeter broke for third with the pitch. The Orioles catcher, panicking, threw wildly past the base; Jeter bounced to his feet and sprinted home. The crowd remembered how to roar.

In the locker room afterward, Jeter denied, with practiced bland dishonesty, that his round-the-bases jaunt had been in any way situational: that being sent to bat leadoff, with his team down 3-0 and on a two-game skid, with the Red Sox thundering up behind them-none of that had affected his thinking. “Nope,” he said. “I would have done the same thing [regardless].”

It was a happy moment for Yankee fans. The Orioles, stranding a dozen runners, had stayed stuck on three runs all game. The Yankees scratched their way back into a tie, then asked Rivera to hold the tie in the ninth. This time, despite putting a runner on third base, he did. And in the bottom of the inning, the Orioles’ own closer melted down-in concert with his manager-issuing four walks, two of them intentional, to push Jeter across home plate with the winning run.

The swarm of reporters around Jeter’s locker wanted a verdict: He had scored three runs, turned a key defensive play and generally thrown himself all over the diamond. Does Jeter, according to Jeter, have the special ability to play his best in the biggest games, when it counts the most?

In the name of modesty, the captain offered a not-quite-sequitur. “I play in a lot of them,” he said, “so I enjoy those type of games.” Well enough. And what does it mean when you’re playing those type of games against a losing team?