Tamed Zoo Calm, Quiet Mark Surge Of Yankees

Posted: May 19, 1998

NEW YORK — The soft purr of success has replaced the growls and grumbles in the Bronx Zoo. Stirred to ferment so easily in the past, the New York Yankees, baseball's hottest and most quietly confident team, are experiencing pinstriped peace in 1998.

``We don't get too high,'' third baseman Scott Brosius said, ``and we don't get too low. We don't look back, and we don't look ahead. We just come in every day and focus on the job at hand.''

In other words, though their stadium might be crumbling, these 28-9 Yankees don't intend to crack.

Even their refurbished clubhouse, which feels more like an elevator than a locker room because of its plush carpets, freshly painted walls and muted soft rock, reflects this businesslike attitude. There are no card games in sight, no boisterous behavior. Teammates acknowledge each other with little more than polite nods as they pass in the quiet room.

And while the themes expressed on the undergarments of most baseball players are either off-color or off-the-wall, the pensive words on Darryl Strawberry's blue T-shirt speak to the subdued spirit of his '98 Yankees:

``Carbon is to steel as perseverance is to the character of man.''

Let's see the New York tabloids make a back-page headline out of that. In fact, with the Yankees having won 27 of their last 32 games, the city's feisty tabloids have been forced to fill their pages with news of victories and not vexations.

``I wouldn't say that we're boring,'' reliever Darren Holmes said. ``But we definitely are a very professional group. And winning the way we have been only adds to that feeling. There is an air in here every day that we're going to win.''

These $72 million Yankees are deep, well-rounded, and off to one of the best starts in their glorious history despite a 1-4 beginning. Given a roster studded with stars such as Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, David Cone and Chuck Knoblauch, that's hardly surprising. What is shocking is that they've accomplished it even though:

* Cone has not pitched nearly as well as his 5-1 record, his ERA a swollen 6.46. And the staff ace, Andy Pettitte, is only 5-4 with a 4.42 ERA.

* Their two major off-season additions, Knoblauch and Chili Davis, have helped little - Davis has been hurt and Knoblauch is hitting .238.

* Their best all-round player, Williams, distracted by his uncertain contractual status, didn't hit his first home run until his 120th at-bat.

* The team's closer, Mariano Rivera, was on the disabled list from April 6 to April 24 because of a groin strain. Coincidentally, the day after he went on the list, the Yankees started on a 22-2 tear.

* They have allowed 13 runs twice this season. And won.

* They have blown four save opportunities. And won.

``I don't have to tell these guys much,'' manager Joe Torre said. ``The one game that comes to mind for me was after we had won two games in Detroit. That Sunday, they came out and they all had fire in their eyes. We had four different individuals at four different times saying something like, `Come on, let's win this. Let's get this one.'

``They weren't assuming we're going to win because we won the first two games and because supposedly Detroit wasn't as good as some other teams. We lost that game, 2-1, but I felt satisfied that these guys had the right attitude.''

Like a crafty boxer, the Yanks can win slugfests or strategic duels with good opponents, and in the mismatches, they can floor a foe with a first-round knockout.

In the current home stand, which will resume tonight when the slumping Baltimore Orioles arrive, Williams' bat has awakened and the Yankees have bludgeoned teams with displays of power. Moreover, David Wells, whose lackadaisical performance two starts earlier inspired one of the season's few disquieting moments, threw a perfect game Sunday.

And in a 3-2 win over Kansas City, the Yankees scored the decisive run when Chad Curtis blooped a double to right, Brosius moved him to third with a right-side ground ball, and Joe Girardi successfully squeezed him home.

Big ball. Little ball. It's hard to put a baseball label on these diverse Yankees.

``We've been able to win games in a lot of different ways,'' Brosius said. ``We haven't been reliant on just one facet of the game. We've been winning with pitching. We've been winning with offense and with defense. We've had the right people come through and pick the team up at the right time.''

One of them has been Brosius, the free-agent third baseman who has been among Torre's most pleasant surprises. Brosius had been expected to share third base with Dale Sveum, but his .318 average at the bottom of the loaded lineup and his superb defense have made him irreplaceable.

``I've since found out that there were a number of clubs who liked him,'' Torre said, ``and I now know why. He's played great. Like after Curtis' double the other night when his ground ball set up that run. The little things like that that he does make an impact.

``Scoring a run like that was something we did a lot in '96,'' a year in which the Yankees won the World Series. ``We had to do that to score then. The difference is that this year we have the ability to do everything.''

Another surprise has been Strawberry. The rejuvenated 36-year-old is hitting .272, and has seven homers and 19 RBIs in only 81 at-bats.

Then there's Hideki Irabu. The hefty righthander, who practically sank in '97 beneath the weight of his tag as the ``The Japanese Nolan Ryan,'' has been the Yankees' best starter in '98. Through five starts, he is 2-0 with an ERA of 1.11. In 32 1/3 innings, he has 30 strikeouts and only 10 walks.

Last year, Irabu's behavior was as bad as his control. He sulked and stomped during and after starts. Now, his English constantly improving, the player teammates call ``Boo-Boo'' moves about the clubhouse - and the mound - like a veteran.

``He's more relaxed,'' Torre said. ``He's got better body language. He seems to be having some fun. He's one of the guys now. I think last year he underestimated what he had to face and overestimated himself, considering that he didn't have any spring training.

``This year, he went through spring training with us, and once he got confidence in his breaking ball, he's been doing it. In terms of tools, he's as good as there is.''

As he spoke, legs crossed, hat back on his head, the words coming easily and confidently, Torre resembled a Bronx buddha. His perpetual calm is the perfect antidote for New York agitation and the perfect persona to play opposite owner George Steinbrenner.

That calm was evident earlier this season when, after the Yankees' 1-4 start, the jump-the-gun tabloids reported that Steinbrenner was considering replacing his manager with Davey Johnson.

``I've been fired three times before, so I really have trouble worrying about these things,'' Torre said then. ``If it happens, it happens. If I worry about it, I'm cheating everybody.''

That afternoon, the Yankees blew a big lead before rallying to thump the Oakland A's, 17-13. Neither the team nor Torre has looked back since.

The timing for all this could not have been better for Steinbrenner. With his team playing .750 baseball, the owner has been able to shift his considerable nervous energy toward the hunt for a new stadium.

As long as the Yanks remain the hottest sports story in town, his dream of a billion-dollar Midtown facility to replace Yankee Stadium becomes easier to sell to fans and politicians.

His push began immediately after the home opener when he complained publicly about the 75-year-old stadium's inadequate toilet facilities. When, the following Monday, a beam crashed into loge seats in the empty stadium, Steinbrenner saw opportunity. And when the Yanks returned from a 7-1 road trip to a disappointing midweek crowd of 16,006, he lambasted the stadium's Bronx location.

``The traffic and parking are horrendous,'' said Howard Rubenstein, a public relations consultant working with Steinbrenner on plans for a new stadium. ``The skyboxes are inadequate. Things like the bathrooms and seating are sort of uncomfortable. . . . And all the other teams with new stadiums outdraw him.''

One night last week, the Yankees beat the Texas Rangers. While the Rangers, caught unaware by a one-day taxi strike, complained about having to ride the crowded subways, the Yankees remained typically focused.

``This streak we're in,'' Torre said, ``I don't even like to talk about it, because sooner or later, the law of averages is going to catch up with you.''

It will happen. The Yanks will lose a few straight. The tabloids will be clamoring for Torre's head. Steinbrenner will say something stupid. But, unless their early-season confidence is only a clever mask, the '98 Yankees will take it all in stride.

``You can never relax here, and I'm not sure that's such a bad thing,'' Cone said. ``It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you challenged. But I think this team is professional enough to go with the ups and downs and come out better for it.''

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