2003-12-19 / Sports

Inside Pitch

By Bryan Hoch
Inside Pitch By Bryan Hoch

AP/Ryan  RemiorzAP/Ryan Remiorz

Is this the shifting of the balance of power in the American League East that Yankees fans have been dreading since the last World Series win in the Bronx?

The Red Sox are ironing out the final wrinkles in a succession of trades that will bring them Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, adding them to an offseason bounty of Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, while the Orioles have their sights locked firmly on teaming Vladimir Guerrero with new acquisition Miguel Tejada. Even the lowly Devil Rays are improving, picking up former Yankee Tino Martinez and outfielder Jose Cruz, Jr.

Oh yes, the Yankees will be plenty strong as well, with new acquisitions Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton leading the way, but this roster signals a changing of the guards for the team: gone are the cohesive clubs of 1996-2000, led by team players like Paul O’Neill and the aforementioned Martinez.

With lefty Andy Pettitte’s defection to the Astros last week, a transaction that had as much to do with respect as it did cold, hard cash – would it really have kill­­ed the Yank­ees to get more serious with Pettitte before cozying up to the likes of Ruben Sierra and John Flaherty? – just three homegrown players remain from that 1996 team that started the Yankees’ latest dynasty: Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera.

Joe Torre (left) and Dwight Gooden (right) welcome Gary Sheffield to the Yankees.Joe Torre (left) and Dwight Gooden (right) welcome Gary Sheffield to the Yankees.

Jeter and Jorge Posada, a late callup in that 1996 season, most notably questioned the Bombers’ heart after their 2002 loss to the Angels in the AL Division Series, leading many to wonder if the signings of players like Jason Giambi had sacrificed an ambiance of togetherness in order to juice the Yankees’ lineup with more star marketing power.

Now, with the BALCO-sullied Giambi’s knees crackling at the relatively young age of 32, and more aging, well-paid veterans like Brown, Shef­field and Lofton on deck, the Yankees increasingly look like a team that’s engineered to win rotisserie-style in 2004, with the future at Yankee Stadium rather hazy.

The Yank­ees dealt perhaps their most valuable young chips in the last few months, first sending pitcher Brandon Claussen to the Reds for third base bust Aaron Boone, and then shipping first baseman Nick Johnson to the Expos to complete the deal for Vazquez. The end result is a veteran-heavy roster that looks solid enough on paper, but as the 2002 Mets proved so equivocally, winter movement alone doesn’t necessarily translate to a division title.

What the Mets lacked that season was chemistry, with Roberto Alomar serving as the poster child for aloof, selfish play, and Mo Vaughn absolutely petrified to go anywhere near a piece of conditioning equipment. Bobby Valentine lost control of that clubhouse by the end of the year, and is it that much of a stretch to wonder if players with such resounding histories as malcontents like Lofton, Sheffield and Brown won’t similarly poison the professional atmosphere of the Yankees?

We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that; not because George M. Stein­bren­ner III doesn’t deserve it for the way he manhandled Pettitte (he does), and not because it doesn’t make for good copy (it most certainly does). But for the sake of Joe Torre, a future resident of Monument Park, he deserves better than to have what could quite possibly be his last season managing the Yankees crash and burn in flames.

• Mets pitcher Tom Glavine and bench coach Matt Galante visited P.S. 42 near Far Rockaway on Tuesday, treating the kids to a selection of Christmas stories read by a real big-leaguer.

"I feel good coming here and spending some time with these guys, brightening their day and letting them have some fun," Glavine told MLB.com. "I know they have a great time with it, and it makes me feel good to be able to do that. Particularly this area, with a lot of the things that the kids here have gone through, it’s nice to be able to put a smile on their face."

And Glavine had plenty of reason to spread good cheer, above and beyond the celebration of the school’s remodeled library. His Mets have become leaps and bounds better in the last few weeks, filling holes with exciting Japanese whiz Kazuo Matsui and Gold Glove centerfielder Mike Cameron. The frustrating Roger Cedeno is headed to the Mariners, where he’ll be half a continent away from any Shea Stadium fly balls, thus improving the Mets’ outfield defense: the old addition by subtraction idea.

The Mets’ plan has been to become younger and faster while keeping their payroll under $90 million, and so far, so good. They still need to pick up a closer and possibly a starting pitcher to tie up their remaining loose ends, but there’s no doubt that the Mets are a better team today than they were on Sept. 28, the last day of the season.

• 2004 will be the swan song for one of the true good guys in baseball, Mariners first baseman John Olerud. The Tacoma News Tribune reports that the former Met, who hit .354 in 1998 for New York, will retire after this season.

E-Mail Bryan Hoch: bryanhoch@ yahoo.com.

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