Brian Cashman is flittering around the batting cage at Yankee Stadium, making small talk with Alex Rodriguez, cracking jokes with Joe Torre, slapping Ruben Sierra's back. "Loosest I've seen him in ages," says one longtime associate, eyeballing the New York Yankees' general manager admiringly. If outsiders didn't know any better, they might mistake Cashman for a prisoner who has passed his parole-board hearing and is counting down the days until he is freed.

And in fact, the truth may be something very close to that. It is widely suspected throughout the Yankees organization that Cashman, the team's GM for the past eight years, will release himself on his own recognizance once his contract expires on Oct. 31 -- putting him on the job market just in time for potential GM openings in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and elsewhere this winter.

Warden George Steinbrenner won't have Cashman to push around anymore. It's enough to bring the color back to a beaten-down man's face.

Cashman, 38, acknowledges he was approached by ownership representatives earlier this season about a contract extension, but asked that any discussions be put off until after the season. "Let's get what we can get accomplished and let's concentrate on the future at a more appropriate time, which is after we get through the season," Cashman said.

Asked this week whether he has made a decision about his future in his own mind -- even if he is not willing to make it public yet -- Cashman said, "I'm focusing on this team, and the fight we're up against, against Boston and Cleveland. That's where the focus is going to be."

By overtaking the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday night for first place in the American League East -- which the Yankees had not previously held since July 18 -- the Yankees may have staved off Armageddon in the Bronx for at least another week or so. But no playoff-bound Yankees team has ever spent so few days in first place as this one -- seven days so far -- and everyone knows the penalty for missing the playoffs would be steep.

"If we make the playoffs, it will be a relief, because of how hard we had to work," Manager Joe Torre said. "I can't say it's been fun. But it's been gratifying."

There seems little doubt at this point that the Yankees' season will come down to the final weekend of the season, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, at Boston's Fenway Park -- a series that, depending on what happens in the Central and West division races and the wild-card race, could be a winner-take-all affair with the loser being sent home without a playoff berth.

"We control our own destiny," said Yankees ace Randy Johnson, who is nearing the end of his first season in pinstripes. "I'm sure it'll come down to those last three games in Boston."

Since not even Steinbrenner is empowered to fire all the players, it is Torre's rear end that may bear the biggest target if the Yankees' season comes to an end that weekend. Firing Torre, however, would be an expensive bit of bluster for Steinbrenner, who still owes his manager $13 million over the next two seasons. One Yankees official said he thinks it is too large a chunk of money for Steinbrenner to swallow, even if he wanted to.

"I don't think there's any issue for [Torre] next year," said Cashman, who is widely viewed as Torre's biggest benefactor in the organization. "They can't do any better than what they've got . . . I can't speak for everyone else, but I think the entire organization believes we've got the best manager we possibly can have. I know I do."

Still, the New York papers have taken note that former Yankees stalwart Lou Piniella, a Steinbrenner favorite, is expected to become available at the end of the season, after the Tampa Bay Devil Rays buy out his contract as manager following three tumultuous seasons.

"I've never been concerned about managing to save my job," Torre said recently, "because I always manage to win."

Steinbrenner declined a request to be interviewed for this story, but his spokesman, Howard Rubenstein, said, "What [Steinbrenner] has said is that he's just focusing on winning right now. And he's not going to make any comment at all about Joe Torre or Brian Cashman or any of those other issues."

The decision on Cashman, however, is not Steinbrenner's to make -- unless the former shocks everyone by deciding he wants to return. Cashman was first hired by the Yankees as a college intern in 1986 -- recommended to Steinbrenner by a family friend who knew the Yankees owner -- and slowly worked his way up to GM. He has survived longer than any other GM in Steinbrenner's 33 years of owning the team.

Things were fine when the Yankees were winning four World Series titles between 1996-2000, but playoff losses in each of the last four Octobers -- including last year's historic collapse against Boston in the AL Championship Series -- have increased the frequency and intensity of Steinbrenner's tirades directed at Cashman.

"He's hands-on, and I think he appreciates that he has a pretty strong worker bee under him, in me," Cashman said of Steinbrenner. "Some days we see eye to eye and some days we don't. It's not any different than any other employee-employer relationship in any other walk of life."

Should he walk away from the Yankees, Cashman would be an intriguing candidate for any GM opening in the game, particularly on the east coast, where he has deep roots. Cashman played baseball at both Georgetown Prep and Catholic University, and he still has family in the region.

And it just so happens that both big-league teams in his home market -- the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals -- have lame-duck GMs with murky futures. Either team presumably could do worse than stumbling upon a 38-year-old GM with four World Series championships on his resume and a proven ability to handle even the most demanding of owners -- something which might be of particular significance in regards to the Baltimore job.

As with most parolees, the bigger question for Cashman would not be how he handles his last few weeks in confinement, but what he makes of his life when he gets on the outside.

After a summer of struggle, the Yankees are a season-high 25 games over .500 and in first place in the AL East.