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After Time at the Top, An Age of Anxiety

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, June 28, 2005

BALTIMORE

Two desperate teams met at Camden Yards Monday night, acting like their three-game series this week in late June might decide whether either would still be playing in October. And the Orioles and Yankees might just be right about that.

With the world champion Boston Red Sox flying high, the American League East probably isn't big enough for both these old rivals. The Orioles, so recently red hot, are now ice cold and injured; they face a brutal schedule and are in danger of a season-rupturing collapse. The $200-million payroll Yankees, in a competitive coma all season, know they need a sudden spark. Otherwise, they face rough odds of even winning a wild-card spot against the Orioles and other such resuscitated riffraff. So, there was a reason that the Yankees' Carl Pavano drilled Brian Roberts in the back with a fastball after a home run by Larry Bigbie. And that Daniel Cabrera retaliated with a 96-mph fastball that went behind Alex Rodriguez, getting both benches warned.

There was a reason the home crowd razzed Sammy Sosa as he stranded five runners, went 0 for 4, grounded into a double play and booted a ball in the outfield to set up a Yankees run. And, in the pivotal moment of the game, there was definitely a reason that Orioles reliever Steve Kline went ballistic and got ejected, knocking his own manager, Lee Mazzilli, into home plate umpire Marty Foster.

After being called for a crucial eighth-inning balk that set up the go-ahead Yankees run in a 6-4 comeback win, Kline was still furious in the clubhouse. If his intensity sounded like a September tone of voice, then that was typical of the intensity in this series, which seems like a season-defining crisis to both teams.

"I think they favor the Yankees. The umpires suck up to them," said Kline in a blue locker room monologue after the Orioles' sixth straight defeat. "There's a little favoritism there. I might get in some trouble for that. But I already said it."

The batter, Jason "Giambi called time. I stepped off the rubber. You could hear the Yankee bench" yelling "Balk," said Kline, who was called for two damaging late-inning balks earlier this season. "Once you get hit for it once, the umpires look for it. That was a bogus call. I was deliberating whether to put [home plate umpire Foster] in the Cobra Clutch. It was a great game until that happened."

It was a close game, at any rate, tied at 4 until Jorge Posada took second on the balk and scored on a sacrifice fly -- thanks to his extra base -- later in the inning.

Tempers ran so high that even Mazzilli, a gentleman's gentleman to the point of being criticized for not showing more on-field emotion, blew his top in his office, cursing a TV reporter for questions about why he didn't ask Sosa to sacrifice bunt after a leadoff walk to Rafael Palmeiro in the eighth inning. "How do you bunt a Hall of Famer who has probably never bunted in his life?" Mazzilli asked. "That's a dumb [bleeping] question."

And so forth. The point is not the words, which were commonplace, or Mazzilli's anger, which was negligible compared with the 25th-best office tantrum of any Earl Weaver season. What mattered, what showed through in this game, was the raw anxiety and concern on the part of both teams that a season, or at least a major chunk of it, was on the verge of escaping their grasp.

The cause of all this torrent of emotion before an almost packed and extremely bipartisan house of 45,801 was the current shape and obvious trends in the AL standings. The Orioles were in first place in the American League East for 62 straight days. In the last week, they've fallen 2 1/2 games behind the scalding Red Sox, who recently won 12 of 13. Just as bad, the plummeting Orioles play their next 12 games until the all-star break against as brutal a schedule as they face all season, including four more games against the Yankees and four with the Red Sox.

"Got some holes in the boat," said coach Rick Dempsey, referring to the absence of Eric Bedard and Javy Lopez, who are on the disabled list for more than a month and gone until after the break, as is Melvin Mora, who is out with a hamstring strain. Before the game, when he was in a far better mood, Mazzilli quipped, "Gotta go see if we've got nine."

"What we cannot afford to do now is lose 10 of 12 and be nine games out at the all-star break. We have to keep the damage down," said the Orioles' Jay Gibbons, aware that a string of division losses can lead to the swift burial of a whole season.

Veteran B.J. Surhoff echoed the message, saying: "Everybody has bad periods. Minimize the damage. Just manage to keep your head above water until you get healthy and get hot again. Right now, we'd [still] be in the playoffs. It's only June."

However, one Oriole was a bit more candid about the emotions that grip floundering teams as they fall from a glorious spring to a stumbling summer. "You can try as hard as you want, but sometimes when a team has one of these funks, it's like it's written on the wall," he said.

For the Yankees, that writing has been on the wall all season. And it has said, "Is the era of the Joe Torre Yankees over?"

On a night like this when the Yankees overcome another crummy start by (four years, $40 million) Pavano and get the game-winning RBI from struggling center fielder Bernie Williams, it's hard to guess the answer.

Is this one of the Yankees' periodic imitations of life after which they play like demoralized (but very wealthy) dogs for a solid week? Or will the currently crippled Orioles, deep in their funk, be so accommodating that, by the time the Yankees leave town, the New Yorkers will think well of themselves again? No matter what everybody else, including George Steinbrenner, thinks.

Make no mistake, the Yankees arrived at Camden Yards in a gold-plated hearse, dragging their $200 million payroll and a 38-37 record behind them like tin cans tied to a bumper. Actually, the Yankees rolled up in a bus. But anybody who thinks they look dead enough to stuff in the baseball boneyard can certainly make that case. Many in baseball can't wait.

To add the perfect grace note, just before the Yankees entered their dugout, a flack for Steinbrenner issued another of the owner's endless self-serving "statements." This one amounted to a Declaration of Disassociation from his own team.

"My patience is a little short by the fact that the team is not performing up to its great capabilities. The players have to want to win as much as I do," said the Boss.

Steinbrenner "hasn't lost his fighting spirit," proclaimed the owner's personal publicist. "He said, 'We'll never give up.' He wants this message to be conveyed."

Okay, George, you big baby, we get it: It's Not My Fault.

Rounds two and three of this midseason rumble await us. All is in readiness. Boss broadsides. Brush-back hostility. Charges of age-old Yankees bias. An angry manager. A slumping slugger who's hit 60 homers three times but is now, as Mazzilli says, "Trying to hit five-run homers every time up." A Yankees pitching rotation so battered that Chien-Ming Wang starts Tuesday.

You never know when seasons turn. For two teams, it may be happening this week.

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