TAMPA, Fla. – A few hours into the day before pitchers and catchers were to report to George M. Steinbrenner Field, and five days before various third basemen and the rest of the roster were due to report, general manager Brian Cashman granted that great organizational strain lay ahead, and manager Joe Girardi predicted that another organizational stumble would mean his job, and these did not feel like the first words or early hours of a remade dynasty.
Maybe they will be.
After all, the last one began with the headline, "Clueless Joe."
It did not, however, begin with a statement from Park Avenue in which the baseball commissioner reminded the world that steroids users were cheats who "shamed the game." And while that's becoming a rather long list, the only man mentioned in the press release was Alex Rodriguez.
This dynasty, the one that would be carried along by CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira and Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes and Rodriguez himself, the one that would see Derek Jeter drift elegantly into his late 30s and Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte into retirement, will have to begin in crisis, if it is to begin at all.
The early arrivals dressed Thursday morning in gray T-shirts, YANKEE BASEBALL, whatever that intends to be, in blue on the front. In the minor league facility down the street from the former Legends Field, they stepped into the fog and threw their bullpen sessions and took their batting practice. Jorge Posada tested his shoulder in the cage and Jeter yelped involuntarily on the long throws from the hole. Chamberlain threw easily alongside Hughes, who appeared thicker and threw hard.
This is the ballclub that threw almost a half-billion dollars at a third-place AL East finish, but the season's enduring story will not be the economic sledgehammer swung by another generation of Steinbrenners. Sabathia's New York baptism will be worth some splashy headlines. And the city will adore Teixeira, a player underrated because of years spent in Texas and Atlanta, but he is quiet and measured and unassuming.
Yet if it all fails, there is almost no scenario in which Rodriguez does not wear the blame.
This is the ballclub built to be a machine, like the '98 club that pitched to every part of the game, that burned out opposing staffs with its offensive patience and power. It is the ballclub built to win No. 27, and then more, because it's been eight years and $200 million payrolls shouldn't ever go home in September, and because free agency's best pitcher and best hitter are theirs.
And yet the general manager shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
"This is an issue we are going to have to deal with," Cashman said of A-Rod's predicament. "Obviously we have the goal of trying to win. A lot of things are going to occur between now and [October]. … This is one of them."
And the manager, optimistic as he is, actually entertained a question whose premise ended in the Yankees missing the playoffs again and whether, if so, he'd be canned because of it.
"I don't necessarily think about those things," Girardi said. "But, as you state the question, you're probably right."
The question is, you'd suppose, whether Rodriguez has to be the best player in the game in order for the Yankees to win.
And then, the follow-up, whether he is capable of being that player, considering how his life is constructed at the moment.
Rodriguez's plan is to arrive in camp Tuesday with the rest of the position players. It sounds as though he'll gather the media, read a statement and then try to get on with playing baseball. According to those who know him well, he has continued to train and to run his days the way he'd run them had he never been exposed, trying to buck up under the humiliation of a life's work cheapened.
The book is coming, too, apparently in mid to late May, and that will only restart the poking, unless it leads the career obituary. It will ask if Alex Rodriguez is collapsing, and baseball fans will draw their own conclusions, and Yankee fans will turn to the bottom line: Is he or is he not hitting? Are they or are they not winning?
On the verge his second season as their manager, Girardi did not promise a tranquil season. Not for the Yankees, and certainly not for Rodriguez. And while a professional grinder such as Girardi certainly would have his views on the men who opted for pharmaceutical shortcuts, it is his job to offer his hand and heart to Rodriguez, which he did. Rodriguez may or may not need it, or take it.
"Obviously this is something he brought on himself," Girardi said. "But you still don't like to see people hurting."
He said he has not considered what would happen to the Yankees were Rodriguez unable to stand up to all that is coming, the written words, the shouts from bleachers across the American League, all that can't be predicted. What if A-Rod can't play through it? What then?
"I have not thought about if that happens, no I have not," Girardi said. "Because I am an optimistic guy. And I believe that Alex really does want to get through this. Is it going to be hard? It's going to be really hard.
"I think it is important to get him to where he feels that he is comfortable on the field, so that he can relax on the field and put up the numbers everyone is accustomed to seeing him put up. Some guys thrive in different situations. Some guys thrive more in controversial situations. Some guys thrive in pressure more. Everyone ticks a little bit different. But is he important to our club? Absolutely."
So it begins. And this was the day before Day 1.
- Joe Girardi