Monday, September 17, 2007

Stop Worrying, and Learn to Love the Yanks


Published: September 16, 2007


In a version of the '80s alternative band The Replacements, a young trio of rockin' pitchers has arrived to push out the cranky, arrogant and gluttonous tenets of Yankee loathing.

Go ahead and despise Planet Pinstripe if you must because the franchise of excess has mistake money to absorb debacles like Carl Pavano or because A-Rod is forever precious. Go ahead and sneer at Yankee Inc., because Boss revulsion is part of your DNA or because you'd rather gnaw your arm off than watch the miracle comeback the Yankees produced against Boston on Friday night.

Otherwise, Yankee hate seems so synthetic, so manufactured. Really, you have to force it when the Boss is only venomous in caricature as he slip-slides away into the background.

Odious is so yesterday now that the Yankees' sleepless crossing guard, Brian Cashman, is directing decisions, now that his boy band of Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain has arrived as cheap, blissful and innocent members of the team's Happy Meal crowd.

They are so cute at this age — before hubris or entitlement or big money kicks in. They come without baggage or attitude or mercenary labels. They come as a refreshing option to the organization's villainous past. Not long ago, the Yankees possessed a crotchety AARP club of antisocial pitchers who could stare holes — or punch holes — into cinder block walls. The oppressive Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson lorded dark clouds over everyone.

Now, there is the sound of children laughing — or at least 20-somethings having a blast.

"I'm excited about any trip; I'm like a kid in a candy store," Chamberlain said Friday after his first tour of Fenway Park. "I've walked around a little bit. You've got to step back and take it all in."

Among the youth crew, Chamberlain is the overnight sensation of mythic proportions who has managed to keep his luminary status from going Britney Spears.

"We're impressed with Joba, how he has handled everything," Cashman said. "That's part of someone's development, not just the physical side on the field, but how they're doing off the field. And we'll take great care to make sure he stays balanced."

Joba Rule No. 1: Bubble Wrap his Yankee arm from harm. Joba Rule No. 54: Bubble Wrap him from the Manhattan scene.

"A lot of times, as you've seen, the extra attention can go to someone's head and make them someone they prefer not to be," Cashman said. "You see that in pop stars. We don't want that."

They have enough leftover divas, if only in reputation. Mike Mussina, the meticulous pitcher of prickly fits, has been humbled a bit as he battles for his spot in the rotation. Roger Clemens, months removed from his Shakespearean balcony scene, doesn't generate the same antipathy for being a luxury-item bust given the way his body has been breaking down.

Jason Giambi, a confessed steroid cheat whose signing before the 2002 season triggered the new Yankee era of greed, is more of a forlorn figure than a detested one. He remains upbeat — if jagged from his Red Bull devotion — but is lost in the field and sporadic at the plate.

Pitiful lot, right? And yet, here the Yankees are, aboard Alex Rod8riguez's magic carpet ride, whisking toward the playoffs with youth to lighten the mood and brighten the outlook and threaten the Red Sox.

Boston, has its own prodigies with the no-hit wonder Clay Buchholz now in the bullpen and the hot-hitting Jacoby Ellsbury pushing center fielder Coco Crisp from Red Sox memory. And Boston, too, has plenty of petty cash to cover bad investments like J. D. Drew.

Both teams are hybrids — partly built for now, partly assembled for the future. More than with Boston, the Yankees' season has been saved by homegrown additions. It's the way it used to be, back in the '90s, before the Yankees' payroll went from $40 million to a peak of $200 million in '05. Farm figures like Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte alighted to change the staid dynamic of the clubhouse.

Now it's child-friendly again, part of the Cashman plan. His panic signing of Clemens aside — call it a momentary relapse in overspending rehab — the team is heading in a better direction with a Yankee version of The Replacements.

"Our business is baseball," Cashman said, "and all I did was simplify it, which is you've got to get back to basics, and that's the amateur pipeline. You can't spend all the money on the top-level guys. There are way too many perils."

Perils, like collapsing in the playoffs since 2001. The Yankees are still an embarrassment of riches — the envy of every general manager under a thrift-shopping mandate — but there is less to loathe with the Boss as a phantom, with the live-for-now era over.

To conjure genuine hate for the Yanks is becoming more difficult — but, of course, not impossible.



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