Why the 'Boss' is always on the warpath

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2003

He dreams of the day when there will be a sports league with no managers or players, just owners. No need for actual games, just wall-to-wall meddling.

And George Steinbrenner will rule there, too.

In the meantime, he practices on the Yankees.

The first real pitch of this baseball season is almost a month off, but the Boss is already in midseason form. He has called manager Joe Torre soft, chastised star Derek Jeter for staying out late, assigned general manager Brian Cashman a very important book report and ordered the working stiffs at his spring-training stadium to stay out of the lunchroom.

On top of that, after signing a Japanese import nicknamed ''Godzilla'' to an appropriately sized contract, he is about to push his payroll though the $150-million barrier. Two years without a World Series title appears to have put him in a perpetually foul mood.

Those are just a few of the reasons veteran Steinbrenner-watchers sense a career season might be in the works.

''I haven't paid attention to it. I really haven't,'' new Tampa Bay manager and former Yankees hero Lou Piniella said Tuesday. ''I've got my hands full right here.''

But a moment later, Piniella smiled. Nobody who ever worked for Steinbrenner forgets what it was like. Not only that; however the story ends, they never stop keeping tabs on the operation.

''That camp was always a little livelier than most. I think the first few years that Joe was there were quieter. And I think,'' Piniella paused once more to chuckle, ''it's gotten a little livelier.''

A little?

There are an extra 100 or so Japanese reporters in camp to cover Hideki Matsui. Most days, Torre conducts a separate press briefing for them, in addition to fielding questions from all of New York's 100,000 or so media outlets. And it's not like Torre gets a break in the clubhouse.

Though Jeter said publicly he's put the Boss' tirade behind him, privately he's still stewing. Now, soothing his superstar shortstop looks like a small job compared to the peacekeeping duties Torre and Cashman may have to perform once pitcher David Wells' tell-all book turns up on the shelves.

Still, old-timers insist the commotion around Legends Field is nothing compared to the days when players fought with teammates, the manager or the Boss -- or in the case of Reggie Jackson at various times, all three. Besides, exposes are practically a Yankee tradition. Before Wells, there was Jim Bouton's ''Ball Four'' and Sparky Lyle's ''The Bronx Zoo.''

So when Torre was asked about the added distractions this year in camp, he replied, ''It doesn't keep me up at night. I don't have to rehearse what I say. I try to take the temperature of the players in the clubhouse. Everything seems to be fine.

''It's just busy,'' he added, finally. ''There's a lot more questions that are not about baseball.''

This was around noon Tuesday, at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, where the Yankees were scheduled to play archrival Boston. As he talked, Torre leaned back on the bench in the first base dugout. For a guy who is supposed to have a lot on his mind, he looked calm.

In an hour or so, New York would send Jose Contreras to the mound against Boston. That may have been a coincidence -- or maybe not.

A few months ago, at the winter meetings in Nashville, the Red Sox brass boasted about having Contreras all but locked up. Then the Yankees swooped in and stole the Cuban right-hander, and just about every other player on Steinbrenner's wish list.

That's not only the reason Boston president Larry Lucchino called the Yankees ''the evil empire,'' it's the best thing about working for the Boss. Because he refuses to stand pat, because he will take a flyer on almost anybody who can play and keep them regardless of baggage or cost, there is always something to look forward to.

Like the home run Matsui hit off Cincinnati left-hander Jimmy Anderson in the first spring game -- it was shown on TV in Tokyo live at 3:45 a.m. Or like the perfect game Wells pitched five years ago, which according to the galleys for his new book, came while he was ''half-drunk.''

When reporters cornered Steinbrenner on Monday to find out if there would be repercussions because of that, and a handful of similarly thorny issues raised in Wells' book, the Boss replied that the responsibility for deciding disciplinary measures had been turned over to Cashman and Torre.

''I'm letting my men handle it,'' Steinbrenner said, just before wading into a crowd of Japanese reporters, embracing one and welcoming them all. ''We're so glad you're here,'' he said.

Just up the Florida coast from where the Yankees played Tuesday, Piniella could feel the chaos that swirled around his old team, his old boss in the middle of it all, ensuring there was some method to the madness. He knows if you work for Steinbrenner long enough, you learn to thrive on it.

''Once the season starts, and once the umpire says, 'play ball,''' Piniella said, ''they seem to play awfully well.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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