What's everybody else's excuse?

Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2001

OK, so Babe Ruth's daughter is pulling for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

That's one.

But Julia Ruth Stevens lives half the year in Sun City, about 30 miles from Phoenix. Which means she and another 3 million or so of her neighbors in Maricopa County come by their rooting interest honestly.

So what's everybody else's excuse?

''I'm not sure,'' Stevens said over the phone from her home Tuesday.

''Because if the Yankees were playing the Braves, I would definitely be for the Yankees. It really is an appealing team. They have that wonderful manager, Mr. Torre, and the owner, Mr. Steinbrenner, was very kind to my family, and so much of the country's sentiment right now is with New York.

''But even with all that Daddy meant to the city, I think it would be nice to give the other fellas a chance,'' she added. ''You know, to let the underdogs win just once.''

Just not this once. This is the one time that a Yankees win would feel more right than inevitable.

These are not her father's Yankees -- nor your father's, for that matter -- even if a few of them seem old enough to be. Heck, Don Zimmer is old enough to be your grandfather.

But that's beside the point.

The reason to root for these Yankees is that nobody plays the game better. You want spectacular, check out Derek Jeter going into the stands headfirst to catch a foul popup. You want fundamental, check out Tino Martinez timing his run between second and third on a slow grounder in the division series wrapup against Oakland, screening the Athletics' Eric Chavez just enough to make the third baseman's attempt to field the ball cleanly a nightmare.

Sure, the Yankees' opening-day payroll of $109.7 million makes them the richest team in creation. But the Red Sox were on the hook for only $200,000 less and the Dodgers for $800,000 less, yet nobody is howling about breaking those two clubs up. Sure, the Yankees have tradition -- 38 pennants, three straight World Series titles, four in the last five years and 26 since baseball started keeping count. But this bunch takes nothing for granted.

''It's not the uniform,'' said Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella, who wore the Yankee pinstripes in four World Series appearances as a player. ''You can put purple and green on this bunch over there, and they are going to play well.

''Yeah, you've got the monuments, and you've got this and that and there's lot of things to lean on. But you've still got to play baseball when the umpire says, 'Play ball!'''

No team has done that better in the postseason since Joe Torre took over in 1996. Most managers have their hands full trying to keep a team full of high-priced stars happy, but his trials have been considerably harder than that.

His first World Series, Torre had to keep his club on an even keel while his older brother, Frank, waited in a hospital room for a heart for a heart transplant. Three years later, the tables were turned when Joe had prostate cancer. In the final few weeks of that season, three of his players lost their fathers. But he always found a way to keep their eyes on the prize.

And if adversity is the measure of a champion, then the Yankees might as well collect their hardware now. The events of Sept. 11 have made them America's Team as much as New York's, but that might present Torre with his most formidable challenge yet. Asking this team to win for a city isn't fair. Yet asking them to win for themselves would seem selfish.

''I don't think it would be fair for me to say that that's been our motivation, because we've done this before this tragedy, and we've always been a highly motivated team.''

Referring to the police, firefighters and rescue workers who have been honored before each home game the past few weeks, Torre added: ''But for sure, they are in our thoughts regularly.''

It may not sound like much of a story by comparison, but the Diamondbacks are happy to be cast in the role of speed bump. After all, the franchise is only 4 years old, with a new ballpark, trying to sink its roots into a place that's never been a stronghold for the game.

''For years and years, I was a Yankee fan, no matter who they played or what the situation was, and even though my husband is a lifelong Red Sox fan,'' said Stevens, whose book about her father, titled ''Major League Dad,'' came out earlier this summer.

''But since we moved out, watching the baseball park go up and the way the community adopted this team has been special.''

Stevens, 84, is legally blind and she needs binoculars to take in a game, but that hasn't kept her from attending a handful of games this year, including the playoffs. She's still waiting to hear from friends about tickets for either of Arizona's first two games at home.

''I still love the atmosphere of a baseball park, the noise, the excitement, all the things going on,'' she said. ''I know New Yorkers might find it strange to see me rooting for the Diamondbacks, but I remember this much from Daddy's time. Whoever plays the Yankees is going to need a lot of help.''

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

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