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New York's Yankees: The Autumn Of Their Years - 1964 . . . Oh, I Mean: 2007! (Part I)...By Nelson Lardner

Bullies frequently succeed in sublimating their worst tendencies for a while . . . or even for sustained periods . . . but sooner or later, the worst comes out, to the distress of all who may actually rely on the bully for comfort and succor.

Once the giant shakes loose of his restraints and decides to throw his weight around, well-meaning people who find themselves in the way had better duck.

Since the New York Yankees' most recent team peak, resulting in four world championships in five years from 1996-2000, incremental disintegration has followed. That late-millennium powerhouse, an inspired blend of stars and roleplayers, largely aided and abetted by the emergence and evolution of one of baseball's all-time relief pitchers, Mariano Rivera, took no prisoners. Largely assembled through the sustained wisdom and peerless talent judgments of General Manager Gene (Stick) Michael, that group was in large part the modern personification of grace under baseball's pressures, as were most of the better Yankee teams of the past 85 years.

As with most of history's resilient ballclubs - from many different MLB cities - attention to the construction of a baseball TEAM (not a slapdash conglomeration of fantasy/statistical stars, many of 'em out more for themselves than for the group) was paramount.

Succeeding editions, assembled subsequent to the 2000 group which dismembered the crosstown Mets in five, didn't fit the ideal profile which brings postseason success. The latest string of Yankee outfits which came up short under Joe Torre were built more for the regular season, with sufficient sheer batpower to assure post-season participation. But with too many pitching decisions made with a view to the glorious past, rather than the uncertain future, old and/or worn-out arms failed to sustain the pinstripers far into October.

Eager to flex his muscles, and supported by the bulk of the so-called Yankee Tampa "braintrusters" (a debatable term, when one weighs dollars invested against recent results), Hank Steinbrenner took the lead tough-guy role as the Yank hierarchy painted veteran manager Joe Torre into a corner. The Yankees' calculated offer of a one-year incentive-laden deal (which amounted to a significant pay cut, unless the Yanks won the '08 World Series) was designed to rub a proud man like Torre the wrong way, and succeeded. Within days, Dodger Manager Grady Little saw the handwriting, took a buyout, and yielded the L.A. manager's chair to Torre, giving the veteran a three-year deal at a cut below the $5,000,000-per-annum base he rejected on principle from the Bronx Bombers, with ex-Yankee bench coach Don Mattingly and third-base coach Larry Bowa going along for the ride.

Torre's willingness to drag Donnie Baseball with him cross-country says good things about Mattingly, who lost the final competition for the open Yankee job to ex-Marlin skipper and Yankee player Joe Girardi. But . . . the dice in that game may have been set and loaded long, long before.

After essentially cooking his own goose with Florida late in the 2006 season, Girardi sidestepped any immediate managerial offers on the rebound, and instead took a job as a Yankee analyst with the franchise's YES cable network for the 2007 season. The move killed two birds with one stone: (a) it kept Girardi off the 2006 managerial carousel, and (b) it provided Girardi the opportunity to get a sustained look at the prevailing Yankee talent pool.

Steinbrenner Management, Inc., has long preferred the Girardi type . . . smart, tough, and one not reluctant to get after a player who might benefit from a sharp mental nudge. One need only recall Billy Martin. Not that Girardi IS Martin; he's blessed with far greater basic intelligence. But Girardi also maintains a chip-on-the-shoulder, football-style (ex-HS quarterback, here) mental attitude which isn't ideal for a Yankee squad topheavy with veterans - and unlikely to be receptive to elementary reminders.

It's crystal clear you can look for some meaningful personnel changes for 2008, which even the Yankees are quietly referring to as a "transitional year", as the boys spend their last season in their ol' Yankee Stadium home. The list of pivotal free agents includes NO ONE under the age of 32, now that the Scott Boras/Alex Rodriguez tagteam has squashed all rational possibilities of the Yanks retaining A-Rod at the bargain rate made possible by the annual $7 mil subsidy from the Texas Rangers from the previous deal . . . eliminated, since Boras and his boy have decided to test the free-agent waters.

Roger Clemens is ancient history, in more ways than one. It's impossible to conceive that the new, relatively penny-wise Yanks would even consider buying another ticket to ride that old hoss, given how absurdly expensive each of his half-dozen wins were in '07 (over $4 mill, per). To satisfy Steinbrenner Senior's insatiable hunger for ex-Red Sox warrior types? That yen will be stifled, especially since anyone with an eye for statistics can quickly discern that the likes of Mike Lowell would be wholly unsuited for broad Yankee Stadium success.

There are multiple viable options out there for the Yankees as they look to maintain semi-respectability while rebuilding on the fly. What is NOT out there are a bunch of helping hands eager to give the New Yorkers sweetheart deals on legitimate top talent. We'll explore the Brave New Yankee World in greater depth, in Part II.

Nelson Lardner

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