Early Exits Getting Old

Tuesday, October 9, 2007; Page E01


Joe Torre
Yankees Manager Joe Torre watches from the dugout as his team goes on to be eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for the third straight year. (Kathy Willens - AP)

Say goodnight to Joe Torre's Yankees, baseball's core team -- win or go down in October flames -- for the last dozen years.

Those vividly memorable days, with Torre sipping his soothing hot tea in the Yankees' dugout and calming the annual Bronx madness all around him, are now at an end, in all likelihood. He sees it, all but says it and prepares for the ax. For the third straight season, his Yanks were blasted from the playoffs in the first round, this time in just four games by the Cleveland Indians.

"Whatever the hell happens, I'll look back on these 12 years with great, great pleasure. . . . The 12 years felt like they were 10 minutes long," Torre said with resigned finality after Monday night's 6-4 defeat in which New York was a no-show, trailing by the third pitch of the game and never coming closer than the final margin.

The world knows that the Boss, 77-year-old George Steinbrenner, was quoted two days ago saying that he would fire Torre if the Yanks didn't win this series, at the least. That's three straight years of rumbling from the volcano, but now the lava looks real and Torre knows it. "I would appreciate it if we had no vigil sitting outside my home, like we've had the last couple of years," said Torre, wryly, to the carnivorous New York media that, mostly, amuses or amazes him, but never raises his pulse.

Will he manage again somewhere some time? "Not in the next three days," he said. "Let's see what happens. Whatever comes next, if I have options, I'll look at it. I'm certainty not ready to move somewhere and not do anything, I can tell you that."

All the worse for Torre's fate, he may actually have had a hand in this final outcome, picking a starting pitcher -- 19-game-winner Chien-Ming Wang -- on just three days' rest who was knocked out without retiring a batter in the second inning. Meanwhile, aging star Mike Mussina, the hurler Torre bypassed on normal rest, was fairly effective in 4 2/3 innings of relief, allowing two runs. Subtract Wang's four runs, substitute Mussina's effort, factor in three Yankees homers and, to any second-guesser, maybe there is a Game 5.

However, the true reason that this period in Yankees history must almost certainly end is the cumulative disappointment of the last seven Octobers on the Yanks, including the mountainous pressure on several key players who have endured it all. As Derek Jeter lined out to end the fourth, grounded into a double play to kill a crucial two-on rally in the sixth, then popped up to open the ninth, you wondered if even the most imperially impervious Yankee could finally feel the Big Apple thumb screws.

To ownership, a seven-year itch without a World Series win is more than merely galling; it's mortifying. And that's what the truly rich, walled by their wealth, find intolerable, no matter how foolish their subsequent decisions. This season, the Yankees paid more that $210 million in payroll, poor babies. Once again, the Yanks were the best team money can buy. Luckily, in baseball, money apparently can't beat the best. Not anymore. Not, at least, under the Boss's ludicrous edict that anything less than a World Series win is a failure. In baseball, the gap between teams, no matter the gulf in salaries, isn't great enough to bear such demands.

So, since '00, Steinbrenner has forked over $1.3 billion in salary for an assortment of Miss Congeniality consolation prizes. These Indians, like the Diamondbacks and Rockies who will play for the National League pennant, all have payrolls of about $70 million. That is about one-third of the Yankees', or, for reference, barely more than the '06 Washington Nationals.

Now, the fuse will presumably reach the dynamite at last and the Yanks can hire a manager, probably Don Mattingly or Joe Girardi, perhaps even Tony La Russa, who is not half so well suited to managing this complex, flawed and idiosyncratic team as the man he already has. Who but Torre, after a 21-29 start, could have rallied the Yanks to the game's best record after that nadir?

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