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It's last place anyone expected to find Yanks

But franchise knows ‘everybody wants to see us fail'
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A strange calm was visited upon Yankee Stadium on Friday night, though it was not something anyone would describe as comforting. No one had been fired, although several people have gotten in the habit lately of watching their backs. The tempestuous owner was in Kentucky, monitoring another of his expensive baubles, a thoroughbred named Bellamy Road. And the crowd was neither boisterous nor venomous, but mostly cold and indifferent.

But there was a discernible feeling around the stadium and around the Yankees themselves that, at any minute, the fissures that have developed in the franchise's mighty hull could rupture and sink the whole blessed ship. And not everyone is getting out alive.

"There's some tension," conceded Yankees Manager Joe Torre. "On a scale of 1 to 10, it's probably at an eight."

The Yankees returned home Friday night, after losing three of four games to lowly Tampa Bay, not really sure what to expect. The franchise had not been in last place so deep into a season since 1995, when Joe Torre was out of work and Derek Jeter was a 21-year-old prospect.

The 25 pinstriped ballplayers in the Yankees' clubhouse represent the most expensive baseball team ever assembled, a $200 million collection of stars and egos that represents years of owner George Steinbrenner's gluttonous approach to roster-building.

Problem is, that team has played itself into an 11-19 record -- or a 102-loss pace -- following Friday night's 6-3, 10-inning loss to the Oakland Athletics, and much to the amusement of many around baseball, there is not an immediately evident way for the Yankees to get out of the mess they have gotten themselves into.

"Everybody wants to see us fail. It's no secret," right fielder Gary Sheffield said. "It's envy and jealousy, mostly."

The Yankees, who trail the first-place Baltimore Orioles nine games, may still reel off a lengthy string of wins, stave off Armageddon and surge to an 11th straight playoff berth. But they are not going to do it like this -- with a 5.16 team ERA, a growing injury list and a patchwork lineup.

Friday night's culprit was closer Mariano Rivera, who allowed three runs in the 10th, thanks in large part to three Yankee errors -- two on one play by first baseman Tino Martinez.

"It's frustrating," Jeter said before the game. "We're not pitching well. We're not hitting well. And we're not playing good defense. No one in here is happy about the way we're playing."

After a late flight from Tampa, where they had lost three straight to a team with a payroll that is roughly one-eighth the size of their own, the Yankees were in their beds by about 3 a.m., and it was only a couple of hours before the newspapers hit their doorsteps, including one in which Steinbrenner appeared to put pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre directly in the line of fire.

"We're just not getting the pitching," Steinbrenner told USA Today. "I don't know whether we have to think of some changes there or what."

Late Friday afternoon, Torre fired back in defense of his longtime lieutenant:

"It's very unfair to lay this at the feet of Mel Stottlemyre," Torre said. "He's one of the most honorable people and the best pitching coach I know. . . . If people aren't aware of that . . . then they haven't been paying attention."

Here, more so than anywhere else, you can't fire the players -- unless you know of teams that are in the market for washed-up stars making between $15 million-$20 million per season.

Torre himself is probably safe for now. Not only is he owed another $19 million on his current contract, but such a firing would almost certainly backfire on Steinbrenner, since Yankees fans have not forgotten -- as Steinbrenner apparently has -- the four World Series titles Torre won from 1996 to 2000.

Another potential target, should the Yankees' malaise drag on, is General Manager Brian Cashman, who already has lost much of his power to Steinbrenner's Tampa-based cadre of advisers, and who is responsible for such ill-fated acquisitions as Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown.

"It's justified to look at this team and wonder what's going on and what we're going to do to fix it," said veteran pitcher Mike Mussina. "The only thing that's unfair is to point the finger at one or two people and say, 'This is the reason this is happening.' It's not one or two people."

In hindsight, the reasons for the Yankees' early-season downfall are obvious: Years of short-sighted free-agent signings that valued gaudy stats and Q ratings over character and career trajectories. A systematic self-plundering of the team's own farm system to acquire more expensive pieces, leaving the Yankees' almost completely without usable prospects. And a disregard for the aging process that seems to be swallowing the talents of many of the Yankees' core players.

"Right now, we stink," Torre said before the game. "When you know what the [problem] area is, that doesn't mean you can automatically straighten it out."

Bellamy Road, Steinbrenner's highly touted colt, races Saturday afternoon in the Kentucky Derby, which means The Boss could be back in his owner's box at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. And soon thereafter, unless things turn around quickly, someone could be heading to the glue factory.