Sunday, August 12, 2007

Center Field and Center Stage Are Cabrera’s

Published: August 13, 2007


A quiet young Yankee takes over center field now, in the minimalist tradition of Bernie Williams, following an expensive, short-term rental named Johnny Damon. For the time being, Melky Cabrera attracts little attention inside the clubhouse, speaks Spanish softly and carries a hot stick.

“You put him in there, and now you can’t take him out of there,” Manager Joe Torre said before his Yankees beat the Indians, 5-3, at Jacobs Field, sweeping what was supposed to be a showdown series with a compelling blend of arrogance and exuberance, experience and youth.

For the bargain salary of $432,000 on a $200-plus-million roster, Cabrera stretched his hitting streak to 17 games yesterday, his average over .400 for that stretch, with a home run in the seventh inning and a single in the ninth that was followed by a stolen base and Derek Jeter’s run-scoring hit. Those two apparent tack-on runs turned into the winning margin when Mariano Rivera struggled in the ninth, not that Cabrera cared to brag on them.

He celebrated with a plate of food, watching on television as the Red Sox lost in Baltimore, their lead over the Yankees in the American League East shrinking to four precious games. Cabrera took a long shower, left the topic of the surging Yankees to the others, including Jason Giambi, who hit a home run for the second straight day.

That doesn’t change the fact that Giambi is a part-time player now, as is Damon, thanks largely to Cabrera. That’s roughly $36 million combined being paid this season to Giambi and Damon, whose bodies weren’t holding up to the rigors of playing every day, anyway.

Only the Yankees can afford to survive such errors of financial commission, but the bigger news is the roster transformation. These are not your staid post-Paulie (O’Neill) Yankees anymore, plodding along and chanting the existentialist mantra: “We’ll win because we earn.”

Cabrera had a birthday Saturday, his 23rd. Robinson Canó, who had three more hits yesterday as his average soars above .300, is 24. Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, the rookie pitching jewels who locked down the Indians here in the series opener Friday night, are 21. Everyone says there are even more acclaimed young arms in the minors. The ace of the staff, Chien-Ming Wang, is an ancient 27.

“It feels a lot like when we all came up in the mid-’90s,” said Jeter, referring to himself and other homegrown Yankees — Williams, Jorge Posada and yesterday’s winner, Andy Pettitte.

At the risk of sounding insensitive, the absence of George Steinbrenner — whose health has reportedly been declining — in the daily operation of the team must be cited. The previous commitment to youth occurred when the Boss was under suspension by Major League Baseball.

Whatever his role, Steinbrenner must be enjoying what he’s been watching since early last month, when General Manager Brian Cashman was still on his “big hook,” and the Yankees were a mile behind the A.L. playoff leaders. Writing them off was never a good idea, however, only an opportunity to remember how the baseball season can make false prophets of us all.

It’s a six-month roller-coaster ride, challenging our instincts, toying with emotions, the range of which stretch from Barry Bonds to Rick Ankiel. The season tricks and it teases, but it also instructs. Patience, people. Listen to St. Torre when he says: “You just hang around, go through the streaks. That’s what the season is about, being able to fight through the dark times.”

Even when your team has outspent everyone by tens of millions, you wait for it to evolve, to decide which piece goes where, whose time is up, whose future is now.

The Yankees couldn’t afford Damon’s weak arm in center anymore. He’s a spot player now in left and center, a part-time designated hitter, along with Giambi. Center belongs to Cabrera. “Ninety percent of the time, that’s what it’s going to be,” Torre said, unequivocally.

He thinks the veterans are on board, but added, “Buy in or not, there is the reality.”

There is the evidence unfolding night after night. Torre watched Cabrera cut off Víctor Martínez’s drive into the right-center-field gap Saturday — a ball that could have easily gone to the wall for a triple — and throw back across his body to Jeter to narrowly miss nailing Martínez at second.

The captain, Jeter, was impressed, offering this full endorsement: “It’s the things that Melky prevents from happening with his arm. He has to play every day.”

Of course, there is a lot of season left, more dips and loops and challenges to a manager’s conviction. Last fall, Torre gave in when the playoffs came around, went for the graying, distinguished Yankees look and wound up with a lifeless, joyless team.

Not this time, he said. Cabrera’s the man, Yankees youth will be served. No turning back.



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