TAMPA, Fla. — Ten years ago almost to the day — I double-checked on the Internet — I was in the spring camp of a Yankees team coming off a World Series championship, just like this one.
The prevailing story line, I distinctly recall, was how uncharacteristically turmoil-free Yankees camp had been so far. David Cone called it "ominously quiet," which turned out to be eerily prescient.
Sure enough, that very day, Darryl Strawberry — still an active player, having helped the Yankees to back-to-back titles — was revealed to have failed a drug test, effectively ending his career.
Frenzy ensued, the tabloids went wild, and all was back to chaotically normal in the tumultuous world of the Yankees. It didn’t deter them, by the way, from winning a third straight title in October.
I bring up that anecdote because one of the current story lines in Yankee camp is how uncharacteristically turmoil-free Yankees camp has been so far. The headline in the Bergen Record‘s spring kickoff column was, "For once, craziness no longer surrounds Bombers." Joel Sherman, the great baseball columnist of the New York Post, had a piece last week headlined, "All’s calm in Yankees universe — for now."
The "for now" is a wise addendum, because as Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told Sherman, "Crisis is always lurking."
But for now, it’s all sunshine and light, and why not? The team is loaded with high-priced talent, even without departed Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Melky Cabrera. The mercurial wrath of George Steinbrenner, the source of so much prior angst, has been all but silenced in his advanced years. And last year’s elusive title — the Yankees’ first since 2000, an interminable and unacceptable drought in their eyes — has loosened the tension considerably.
One would think that having icons Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera heading into the final year of their contracts would cause a little bit of a stir. But those two are so stoic, and the belief that the Yankees would never let either shed their pinstripes so prevalent, that the issue is moot before it’s even an issue.
On Feb. 25, Alex Rodriguez met the press, and he did so in the infamous "Tent of Shame," the same makeshift gazebo where last year A-Rod, like Andy Pettitte before him, had to fess up to steroids transgressions.
Only this time, A-Rod was talking to the large assemblage of media about how "magical" last year turned out to be after reaching what he called "rock bottom" with the steroids admission; how he’ll never again have to hear that he can’t produce in the clutch or be part of a championship club.
What should have the rest of the American League concerned is not merely the "liberated" Rodriguez, to use his words, or the Yankees’ $200 million payroll. But, rather, the fact that without Steinbrenner’s meddling Cashman is running the team with vision and prudence.
The Yankees, perhaps not to the same extent as the Red Sox, but increasingly so, are everyone else’s worst nightmare — an amply-budgeted team operated with progressive sabermetric principles and player-development-centric sensibilities.
Instead of trying to assemble the best team money could buy the Yankees limited their free-agent acquisitions to Randy Winn (one year, $2 million) and Nick Johnson (one year, $5.5 million).
Yes, they did trade for Javier Vazquez, taking on the $10.5 million contract the Braves couldn’t handle. They are, deep down, still the Yankees. And they made a bold trade to acquire Curtis Granderson, who will effectively replace Damon, whose presence will be missed.
Like every team, they have their issues and their questions. Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are battling for the No. 5 starters job (after the murderer’s row of C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Vazquez and Andy Pettitte), while Girardi must decide whether Granderson or Brett Gardner will play center. The four Yankees with five rings — Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte and Jorge Posada — are all getting long in the tooth.
But the Yankees have just one vision, a title repeat. As Marcus Thames, trying to earn a bench job, said Feb. 25, "I’m sure as soon as they won, as soon as they soaked it all in, I guarantee you, Derek and the others started working out, getting ready to win another one."
Added Granderson, "Guys are still hungry, that’s the big thing. You can’t get complacent by any means. That’s even more difficult for the guys who were here, and just as difficult for those of us coming in. We can’t come in and say, ‘Oh, they won last year, it’s going to happen again this year.’ Once you get a title, you’re instantly hungry, but at the same time, everyone instantly wants to beat you. When you’re on top, people want to knock you off the top."
Just the sort of focused message that managers love to hear. All the right notes are being sounded in this serene, focused Yankees camp.
(c) 2010, The Seattle Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.