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Cameramen, Divas, andSpring Training
Through sunglasses, Joe Torre watched a Legends Field infield drill that first day of spring training in late February 1998. He looked at second base and saw Chuck Knoblauch where a year ago he had a disgruntled Mariano Duncan still stewing about not getting a multiyear deal, and an often-confused Pat Kelly who was the regular second baseman one minute and a pinch-runner the next. It didn't help that neither one hit enough to please and their defense was below average.
Now he had Knoblauch, a free agent hired away from the Minnesota Twins, a legitimate leadoff hitter who would enable Torre -to bat Derek Jeter second. And Knoblauch was coming off a Gold Glove year,time All-Star who had to be better than Duncan and Kelly.
At third base was Scott Brosius, acquired from the Oakland A's in a trade for the underachieving pitcher Kenny Rogers. Torre had no idea if Broslus could hit enough to warrant playing a corner position on a team that was expected to win it all for the second time in three seasons. After all, he had a brutal 1997 in which he batted .203, a departure from his career average of .267. Still, he was a solid fielder and would more than make up for the departures of Wade Boggs, whose hunt for 3,000 hits landed him in Tampa playing for something called the Devil Rays, and Charlie Hayes, whose Me-First reputation was in San Francisco, where he would be Giants manager Dusty Baker's starter.
Of course, first base and shortstop were rock-solid, with Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter performing beyond expectations. Behind the plate, Joe Girardi was back and the youngster Jorge Posada was worth further consideration.In the outfield, Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill had center field and right field locked up. Left field was more of an open question, but it was a happy dilemma to be choosing between Darryl Strawberry, Tim Raines, and Chad Curtis.
Offensively, Torre knew the lineup that added Chili Davis certainly had enough muscle, even if Brosius had a mediocre year. What other A.L. team could send up to the plate a lineup that included Knoblauch, Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, and Davis?
So, defensively and offensively, things looked decent. But did Torre have enough arms?
"Everything we do is based on pitching, and that is the biggest question mark for us, absolutely," Torre said.
Dwight Gooden had gone to Cleveland after trashing Torre on the way out of the Bronx, and Kenny Rogers was in Oakland. Torre was left with David Wells, David Cone, Hideki Irabu, Andy Pettitte, and Ramiro Mendoza.
Yes, Wells was coming off a career-high sixteen wins, and pitched a wonderful game against the Indians in the playoffs. But could he be counted on to be the staff ace? Would that negative body language Torre talked about so much in 1997 surface too many times for the manager's liking? Could Wells stay focused for six long, grueling months?
When Wells reported to camp eight pounds over the desired 240 pounds, Torre mentioned it and then let it go. No sense getting into a pissing match with a guy he knew he was going to need. And besides, Wells had arrived heavier to his first camp a year earlier and admitted to beating the Indians in the A.L. Division Series while pitching at 250 pounds.
Then there was David Cone, who at thirty-five was coming off shoulder surgery. Would his arm hold up? Would he be as effective? And Pettitte had done a wonderful job of hiding back spasms across the second half of 1997, but there was no guarantee he could avoid them again. And Ramiro Mendoza had just 26 major league starts on his resume Could he last a season?
The key to the picture seemed to be Hideki Irabu. A $12.8 million bust in 1997, Irabu was no longer an international marketing cash cow for George Steinbrenner's trophy shelf. It was time for Irabu to step up.
"I think it will be different for him because his attitude and approach will have to change," Torre said of Irabu, who was 5-4 with an obese 7.09 ERA in 13 games (nine starts), and a lightning rod for criticism due to a surly attitude and minimal work ethic in 1997. "Last year he was dropped out of the sky and into the middle of a season that was not easy to handle. Spring training will tell us, but he will definitely have the opportunity to win a starting job.
"Shape and weight go hand in hand, but if you go through spring training," Torre explained, "you may be able to carry some extra weight and get away with it. But if you are not in shape and have the extra weight, it's impossible. I have heard reports of twenty pounds, but we'll wait until he gets on the scale."
In his first spring outing on March 10 in Winter Haven against the hated Indians, Irabu showed his disgust with the umpire's strike zone and appeared to give up when things didn't go his way early. Furthermore, he got involved in a beanball war that ultimately resulted in Luis Sojo having his wrist broken by Jaret Wright.
Afterward, Joe Girardi criticized Irabu for acting in the same immature manner he had a year ago. Three days later the Yankees didn't know what to think in regard to their huge investment when he got into a confrontation with a Japanese television crew.
The outburst followed Irabu's strongest outing of the spring, When he shut out the Tigers across four innings. In discussing the effort with American media, Irabu was jovial. Later he was anything but.
Irabu believed he was having an off-the-record conversation with Japanese writers whom he believed had been far too critical and were invading his privacy. Keiichiro Hoashi, with Tokyo Sports Broadcast, turned his camera on. Irabu told him to turn it off and Hoashi fired back at Irabu, who then put his hands on the $60,000 camera.