Abreu leaps into the fire

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

CHICAGO – Well, he's got the clothing part down already. Bobby Abreu walked into the New York Yankees clubhouse at 4:30 p.m. sharp Tuesday, the top four buttons of his white shirt undone. Throw in a pair of jeans so distressed they needed therapy, and Abreu looked ready to hit Marquee and throw back a cocktail or five with Lindsay Lohan.

Just a week after he was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies, Abreu had mastered Yankeespeak, too, deflecting any air of self-promotion to pump how the Evil Empire really isn't that evil.

"When I got to Yankee Stadium," Abreu said, "the crowd made me feel like I'm part of the Yankees already."

Good, good.

"I don't feel like I have to do anything necessarily to win them over."

Cue the screeching record.

That Bobby Abreu feels like his presence alone justifies the Yankees taking on his hefty salary this season and next isn't so much the issue as is the warped sense of success that four championships in five seasons created.

Because to be accepted by New York's vox populi as a Yankee – a real Yankee – you need to win a World Series. And considering only four players on the current roster have rings with the Yankees – Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada – that leaves a healthy hankering for the days of Scott Brosius, Paul O'Neill and Jeff Nelson.

By that definition – however dubious it may be – Jason Giambi still isn't a Yankee, nor are Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Johnny Damon, Gary Sheffield and, least of all, Alex Rodriguez. While Hideki Matsui, Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang seem to get free passes because they've spent their entire careers with the Yankees, imports are held to different standards.

"I have to win, and Bobby has to win, and Alex has to win, and I still think Jason has to win," Damon said. "That's the driving force in what we do."

There are ways to ingratiate yourself, certainly, either with small gestures or big home runs. At the Yankees' home opener, when fans in the right-field bleachers bellowed Damon's name as a part of their daily roll call, he turned around and pointed at them with both of his index fingers, not unlike the greaseball at the end of a bar who scares away all the women. Still, the fans ate it up.

Giambi's moment came May 17, 2002. After signing a $120 million contract with the Yankees, he struggled through his first six weeks and the booing wore on him. All looked lost with the Yankees down 12-9 in the 14th inning of a game against the Minnesota Twins, until Giambi, in a driving rain, hit a game-winning grand slam.

He was accepted – but not a Yankee in the strictest terms.

"No matter how much you're made to feel part of the team, when you come here, you start pressing, and one big swing helped me relax," Giambi said. "But we haven't won yet. Winning a World Series is hard. We've been to the playoffs every year, and you need to win there."

Giambi's situation mirrored Tino Martinez's. In 1996, Martinez replaced a Yankee legend, Don Mattingly, at first base. Mattingly was held to a different kind of standard having starred during the late '80s and early '90s, when the Yankees idea of a good season consisted of only one managerial firing.

In his first 66 at-bats, Martinez went homerless. He struggled through an 0-for-16 slump at home. He heard it from the fans until April 24, when he hit a three-run homer off Cleveland reliever Jim Poole. Fans bellowed "Ti-no, Ti-no," and from then on, he was cool.

When he won four championships, Martinez was an untouchable.

"I don't think that says you're a Yankee," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "You're a Yankee when you put on the uniform and compete alongside these guys here. As far as what the fans seem to sense as a coming out, it's something like that, yeah."

Abreu may soon have that moment. The Yankees have four games against the Los Angeles Angels next week and another three against the Baltimore Orioles. Then comes a five-game weekend series at the Boston Red Sox that could permanently swing the American League East championship and six more games out west before they return home to face the best team in baseball, the Detroit Tigers.

August will determine the Yankees' fortunes this season, and it could determine Abreu's with the Yankees. In his seven games with them, he's hitting .414 with three doubles and three stolen bases. And quietly, they have crept to the top of the AL East standings and currently have the game's second-best record. If Matsui and Sheffield come off the disabled list primed for the pennant race, the Yankees will trot out a lineup every day with All-Stars in all nine spots of the batting order.

So while the burden doesn't exactly fall on Abreu to carry the Yankees, he'd be wise to, say, save his first home run for extra innings.

You know. Just to remind them he's around.

"No," Abreu said. "You've got to win, man. You've got to win."

Maybe he's starting to get it after all.