Un-Cranky Yanks

030507 article cover Un Cranky YanksTAMPA—Brian Cashman, the pale, wonky general manager of the New York Yankees, was perched on a bench behind a batting cage. It was Feb. 23, slightly before noon, the UV index was swelling, and the Yankees were in their fourth workout day as a full squad in spring training.

As he watched this year’s crop of players, Cashman talked about the high-priced, youth-deprived Yankee rosters of the recent past as one of the reasons that the team hasn’t won a World Series since 2000.

“After we lost the 2001 World Series,” he said, “philosophies within the organization changed, and we became more of a veteran-only situation, not protecting our draft picks and trading quite liberally. That certainly hurt our ability to do some things going forward.”

George Steinbrenner, the team’s willful owner, had made many of those fateful decisions. But since Steinbrenner handed full control to his young G.M. in 2005 on his way to taking a less visible role, Cashman, 39, has instituted a fairly drastic policy shift.

These Yankees have scaled back on the relentless pursuit of each and every big name on the market, banking instead on a mix of acquired All-Stars and young homegrown talent. Sure, they’re still the Yankees, with a payroll somewhat lower than the $200 million monstrosity of two years ago, but which still leads the league.

The big difference now is that the team is no longer being built around overpaid malcontents like Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson and Javier Vazquez.

Cashman is trying, in short, to recreate the magic of the likeable-but-relentless Yankee teams that won four championships from 1996 to 2000.

On Saturday, Feb. 24, the brain trust that assembled those teams had a powwow. Standing alongside the first-base dugout with Cashman was Gene Michael, the canonized Yankee super-scout; Bob Watson, the former Yankees G.M. and now a vice president of Major League Baseball; and Ernie Acorsi, the recently retired general manager of the New York Giants, who was there as a guest.

Their conversation shifted from light clubhouse gossip—how tough-guy third-base coach Larry Bowa rubs himself with baby oil after every shower—to Watson’s playing days, when he would steal opponents’ signals and whistle them to Reggie Jackson.

Cashman said that he was trying to convince former catcher Mike Stanley to come out of retirement and coach—in part because of his uncanny ability to steal signals.

“You know who would never steal signals is Jeter,” he added admiringly. “He doesn’t want any extra information. He wants to go up there and take on a pitcher one-on-one.”

“Like basketball,” said Acorsi.

“Yeah, and you know who is exactly the opposite? A-Rod,” Cashman continued. He was referring to Alex Rodriguez, the ridiculously talented two-time league M.V.P. whose late-season form has been inconsistent as a Yankee.

Cashman speculated that A-Rod “always has too much information. He thinks he knows an entire pitcher’s profile, and then he’ll take educated guesses.” When he gets into slumps, Cashman said, it’s often because of an information overload. It’s what makes Rodriguez occasionally “look so bad.”

The high-profile pair of Jeter and Rodriguez—Derek and A-Rod—has become a fixation both within the organization and in the media, which caricatures them, respectively, as the embodiment of the team’s glory years in the 1990’s and of the more recent assemblages of mercenary also-rans. Jeter, who came out of the farm system in 1995 to lead the team to four championships in five years, is an untouchable saint; Rodriguez, the late addition with the record-breaking contract, is an arrogant choke-artist.

Rodriguez, under intense pressure from reporters to be less distant, publicly conceded last week that his relationship with Jeter has faded since he joined the team in 2004.

The next day, his infield mate reacted peevishly. “Everyone assumes they know what our relationship is,” Jeter said. “They see us on the field—if one person gives another one a look, it’s a story. If we’re at opposite ends of the bench, people say it’s a story.”

In reality, their relationship seems less hostile than, well, nonexistent. On the morning of Feb. 23, Jeter had just finished batting practice. While he was putting away his bat and helmet, Rodriguez came jumping into the empty dugout from the clubhouse and was standing right next to his teammate. Jeter, who didn’t see Rodriguez, turned around and bumped into him. Jeter continued past on his way to the field, then turned and offered a belated “Sorry.” Rodriguez ignored him.

But this pre-season soap opera—and another involving the temperamental starting pitcher Mike Mussina criticizing the oft-injured pitcher Carl Pavano—is the sort of thing that Cashman is trying to root out. Such dramas are symptoms of a team built rotisserie-baseball-style—a compilation of statistically impressive individuals whose sum is decidedly less than its parts.

A Baseball Academy

The Yankees of 1996 to 2000 were built around a nucleus of stand-up standouts from the minor-league system—Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte—augmented with savvy trades and free-agent signings.

Now, with players like 19-game-winner Chien-Ming Wang and outfielder slugger Melky Cabrera, the Yankees are deliberately moving back in that direction. And the players are taking notice.

Consider Scott Proctor, a 30-year-old reliever. He was acquired from the Dodgers in 2003 and bounced between the majors and the minors until last year, when he led the American League in appearances.

“In years past, you wouldn’t see guys like Melky and Wang and myself really get a significant chance,” said Proctor. “They might get a call here or there, but not thrust into major roles.”

The clubhouse has a decidedly young feel—almost, at times, like a baseball academy. On Friday, Feb. 23, the pitching coach and former Yankee great Ron Guidry pulled up a chair to talk to one of his youngest relievers, 25-year-old Brian Bruney.

Bruney had an ice pack slung over his right shoulder and was groaning about a tough day.

“The other day, I threw three or four of the best breaking balls I’ve ever thrown in my life,” Bruney said. “Today, I couldn’t throw them 58 feet.”

Guidry told him to calm down.

“The more you do it, the easier it gets,” Guidry told him. “You can’t get pissed off with yourself ’cause you’re not throwing the ball right.”

Guidry told him to keep it simple, just as he did as for the Yankees in the 1970’s. “When I was pitching, Munson didn’t have any signs, he just did this.” Guidry waved his hand. “And then I just threw it as hard as I fucking could. If I were your size, I’d be running up there saying, ‘Hit this. Hit this, motherfucker.’”

Guidry is one of several former Yankee greats now patrolling the clubhouse. There’s also the talismanic former first-baseman Don Mattingly, still immensely popular among players and fans, who is Joe Torre’s bench coach and the apparent next-in-line for Yankees manager.

Little Things

Spring training takes place during high-school hours. Players show up to the park around 8 in the morning, and their days end before 2.

It’s not exactly a tough physical workout. For about 30 minutes, there’s some stretching and sprinting. Then it segues to playing catch, batting practice and fielding some grounders. Even with temperatures approaching 80, only a handful of players seem to break a sweat. Indeed, last Thursday, when highly touted Japanese import Kei Igawa was throwing for one of the first times against live Yankee hitters, Torre unleashed a big yawn during the third pitch.

Things were equally relaxed in the clubhouse. Proctor and Doug Mientkiewicz flipped through hunting magazines; Robinson Cano sipped his morning Red Bull; pitching prospect Matt DeSalvo read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.

Reliever Ron Villone, a New Jersey native, helped Taiwanese starter Chien-Ming Wang sort through piles of fan mail; Mike Myers, the lefty reliever, told Wang that he was going to the library to read to some kids.

“A what?” asked Wang, who is still learning English.

“A library,” Myers offered. Wang stared back blankly.

“It’s a big building with books,” Myers said, before giving up.

Perhaps the clearest example of Cashman’s new-look Yankees is the first-base platoon of smooth-fielding Doug Mientkiewicz and scrappy but largely unproven Andy Phillips. Four years ago, the Yankees would never have settled for two weak hitters playing at baseball’s most muscular offensive position.

“Hey, I’m just here to win you a gold glove,” Mientkiewicz said to Jeter one morning before workouts.

“For me to be able to play first base, there’s got to be power and offense from a lot of other positions, which is what they have here,” Mientkiewicz said later in an interview. “I’m the guy who does a lot of hitting and running, and a lot of bunting guys over and moving guys over on ground balls, and a lot of little things.”

Mientkiewicz is one of several players who give this year’s team a little diversity, as opposed to the bloop-and-blast baseball that the Yankees have been playing.

Torre, a small-ball National League manager at heart, admires that versatility.

“He’s going to put the ball into play, which to me is hugely important,” he said.

“We have some options and some depth now,” Torre continued. “Brian worked his tail off to put us in a position where we don’t have to scratch our heads and say, ‘Where are we going look now?’ We have some options and some depth that we haven’t had in some time.”

The New Guys

One of those options is Philip Hughes, a hard-throwing 20-year-old prospect from California.

Last Thursday, Hughes had a pitching session that he wasn’t totally pleased with. When he returned to the dugout afterwards, he swore mightily. He said afterwards that he didn’t locate his fastball well and that his breaking balls were sloppy.

(The next day, he was on the back pages of the New York Post and the Daily News being heralded as the next Roger Clemens. Maybe Hughes was being too hard on himself, or maybe the New York media is a little exuberant about these Yankees—or maybe both.)

Later, Hughes was sitting in the Yankees clubhouse along with the team’s top hitting prospect, 22-year-old Eric Duncan, swapping stories with punch-lines like: “Then he said, ‘Can you go back to your room?’”

Despite their youth, they carried themselves like seasoned veterans. “Yeah,” Duncan said at one point, “I got a text from him at like 7 saying, ‘I’m just in early to do some running.’” They both shook their heads in disgust.

The Yankees who will take the field, of course, are still very much a roll call of big acquisitions: Rodriguez, Mussina, Pavano, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu.

But young studs like Hughes and Duncan represent the new direction that Cashman is plotting for the team. In the recent past, one or both of those players might have been traded to find a suitably high-profile everyday starter at first base. Now, they are coddled like the prize players the Yankees hope they’ll become.

Cashman is now is in his 10th year as general manager, and he hasn’t won a championship in six years—after winning consecutive championships in his first three years.

He explained how he’s recalibrated the Yankee mission.

“In April 2005, George said it was up to me to fix it,” said Cashman on Thursday, standing near the batting cage at Legends Field.

He was wearing sunglasses, white Adidas sneakers and an untucked, extra-long polo shirt. He clutched a leather folder against his chest.

“We didn’t go outside the organization big-time to fix it,” he continued. “We promoted Wang, [Robinson] Cano, Aaron Small and made a minor deal for Shawn Chacon. In 2006, we did sign Johnny Damon, but at the same time, when we had injuries to Matsui and Sheffield, we used Cabrera from our system.

“We haven’t used big trades from using our system, so we used lower-level guys that weren’t in our Top 10 to get Bobby Abreu. Then, this free-agent season, we protected our draft picks. We waited for Andy Pettitte not to be offered arbitration, just like, the year before, I waited for Mike Myers not to be offered arbitration. I need to retain the draft picks and cultivate the system and let it grow, and do it as much as I can.”

The emphasis now, he said, is on building from within.

“You only tap off from outside the organization,” he said. “It’s a finishing-off situation. You need to have your system and then use trades and free agency to finish it off.”

Simple.