2004-02-20 / Sports

Inside Pitch

By Bryan Hoch
Inside Pitch By Bryan Hoch

Joe Torre (left) and Derek Jeter (right) stands next to  Alex Rodriguez. (AP/ Gregory )BullJoe Torre (left) and Derek Jeter (right) stands next to Alex Rodriguez. (AP/ Gregory )Bull

There’s no doubt that the Yankees’ trade for Alex Rodriguez already ranks as the biggest of this very young century. But of all time? We’ll have to wait to see what A-Rod does in pinstripes before dethroning The Babe.

Now that Rodriguez is finally signed, sealed and delivered in New York, ac quired in a stunning trade that you’ve probably read far too much about al ready, it’s time to roll the clock forward and get rid of that formality known as spring training. Yankees fans are ready to start the schedule and see how their Cooperstown left side of the infield meshes on the express track to the postseason.

The only problem is, Rodriguez needs the exhibition schedule, the ex tra ground balls that come with springtime in Florida.

"You can’t replace experience, and you can’t replace time," said Rod riguez, the neophyte third baseman whose studies under defensive great Graig Nettles will begin effective im mediately.

The Yankees may have assembled a lineup capable of challenging the exploits of the 1927 Murderer’s Row, but by taking A-Rod – the game’s best defensive shortstop – and instructing him to man a new position, they may be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

That’s the only way, of course. It’s not as though the Yankees could tell the team captain, Derek Jeter, to abandon shortstop for the new guy in town; even if the smart money says that, on paper, it would improve the Yankees’ glovework. Even if they did, we’d then be endlessly discussing Jeter’s ability to adapt to perhaps the toughest position on the field, the one where scud missiles scream past your ear on a nightly basis.

Unless you’re rooting for the Red Sox or the now-forgotten Mets, there’s absolutely no downside to adding the Yankees’ new prize pony to the mix. As a reigning AL MVP and the best player in the game, A-Rod not only provides a stunning upgrade over hoops legend Aaron Boone at third base, but he also brings significant value and interest to the Yankees and their related products (hello, YES Network) that the $179 million in salary the Yankees are taking on to get the Washington Heights native in pinstripes will probably become a non-issue.

But for that investment, George Steinbrenner needs results. It’s all smiles in the Bronx and in Tampa now, but how will the mood darken when the Yankees lose two straight games for the first time, or when the first ambivalent comment from either A-Rod or Jeter hits print?

The pair claim to have kissed and made up now, their rift healed from a 2001 Esquire magazine interview in which Rodriguez insinuated that opponents don’t fear Jeter in the Yankees lineup. Of course, as things played out, no pitchers really found themselves shaking in their boots facing A-Rod’s Texas Rangers either.

"I think that’s behind us," Rodriguez said. "I think it’s overblown, and I don’t want to waste any energy talking about it."

Is it more of a charade of circumstance than anything else? This could just be the beginning. The Esquire interview is ancient history; what will happen when some fresh meat hits newsprint in the New York tabloids? How will the pair, ex-friends now linked by the common source of their paycheck, deal with season-long sniping from Yankee fans, Yankee haters and the ravenous media?

On his first day in New York, A-Rod said all the right things, telling reporters that "Derek has four world championships [and] I’d like him to have 10."

Six titles in the next seven years (the length of A-Rod’s commitment in the Bronx) is quite the lofty goal, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Yankees now must win the 2004 World Series – even moreso than in years past. The Yankees haven’t won a title since 2000, which must feel like the Eisenhower administration for an organization that was severely spoiled by their victorious late-1990s run.

But, as manager Joe Torre was quick to point out Tuesday, all of the Yankees’ success during that period of dominance came as a direct result of strong pitching, solid defense and timely hitting – Torre’s teams have never won it all riding upon the big-swinging, monster lineup attitude that enveloped the lineup in 2003 and figures to do so again this year.

In fact, as the party raged on at Yankee Stadium in a frenzy of blinking news cameras, screaming repor t ers and grinning club officials, it might have been easy to forget that Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens ever were employed there.

A-Rod is naturally the hot story and will continue to be throughout the season, but the Yankees still have some very serious concerns to settle. Will 37-year-old Kevin Brown (acquired for Jeff Weaver) hold up? How will Javier Vazquez (traded for Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera) adapt to the American League? What will Jon Lieber and Jose Contreras bring to the table?

As strange as it may seem, the most dependable pitcher in the Yankees rotation could now be Mike Mussina by default, the cerebral righthander who’d rather remain quiet in the clubhouse and escape as quickly as possible from the city after games.

There’s little doubt that the Yankees can steamroll through the regular season with the lineup they’ve assembled, riding bats like those of A-Rod, Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi to the tune of six to eight runs a game – "When you wake up in the morning, you’ll know [we] have a very good chance to win that night," Rodriguez predicted — but it’s tough to pound playoff teams into submission based on offense alone.

This week, neither A-Rod nor the Yankees were in the frame of mind to be the black cloud, dwelling upon what might go wrong over a 162-game campaign. It was a time for celebration, to feel the rush of beating out Boston once more before pitchers and catchers even hit the field, and to dream of what could be in just seven short months.

"I’ve come to a point in my career when winning is the most important thing," Rodriguez said. "Only time will tell. I have a lot to prove."

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

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