Bronx bombshell

Jeff Passan

DETROIT – Alex Rodriguez cannot come back to the New York Yankees next season. Neither can Joe Torre. Not after the Yankees doddered their way to another paper championship and real-life choke.

It is time for a change in New York, and though the scapegoating will start with Rodriguez, the Yankees must realize it does not end there. Disposing of Rodriguez – whose vacation to the Bermuda Triangle during the postseason now is officially a trend – is a necessary fix. Jettisoning Torre – manager for the four Yankees championships between 1996 and 2000, and now the manager for a pair of $200 million teams that couldn’t even crack the American League – is an emotionally trying, yet ultimately prudent, business decision.

No longer is talent enough to save Rodriguez’s career in New York. Torre regarded him enough to drop him and his $252 million contract to the No. 8 spot in the Yankees’ lineup for their 8-3 loss Saturday against wild-card Detroit, which after a 3-1 series victory surges into the AL Championship Series against Oakland.

At the same time, Torre’s tinkering with a lineup that scored the most runs in baseball this year was a microcosm of the neuroses he showed throughout the series and an indication that, perhaps, he no longer is the best-suited person to manage the Yankees. He hit Rodriguez sixth, fourth and eighth in the series’ final three games and benched Gary Sheffield in Game 3 and Jason Giambi in Game 4. Meanwhile, Detroit manager Jim Leyland stuck with what had worked all season and saw his every move go to script as Torre’s team, undone by its bats, flopped like a fish gone ashore.

“Plain and simple, they dominated us,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not like we lost by one run or two runs. They absolutely kicked our ass.”

An apropos culmination, certainly, for a year in which Rodriguez struggled to handle the rigors of New York and didn’t acquit himself in the playoffs, either. He finished this series 1 for 14, his mark a lonely single, and threw away a routine ground ball for good measure. After the season-long skirmish with himself, Rodriguez said he felt relaxed in the postseason. If by relaxed he meant carrying himself like somebody was trying to extricate his spleen with a butter knife, yes, sir, did he ever.

However happy a face Rodriguez tried to wear following Saturday’s loss, the blue-hued circles under his eyes gave him the expression of a tired fighter. Rodriguez tried to say the right things. The Yankees fought and he was proud, and he wanted to come back to New York next season.

Whether he does is almost completely up to Rodriguez. He has a no-trade clause in his contract, which runs for another four seasons. Why he wants to stay with a team that clearly doesn’t want him – batting Rodriguez eighth was no accident, nor were the cluster bombs thrown at Rodriguez by Torre and Jason Giambi in the Sports Illustrated piece that illuminated the divide in the Yankees’ clubhouse – is as much a testament to Rodriguez’s fear of the failure label forever chasing him as it is proof that he really does believe he’ll right himself.

“My commitment is 100 percent unconditional,” Rodriguez said. “I want to be a Yankee. I don’t want to go anywhere. And I can’t be more clear. I hope they don’t want to trade me because I don’t want to go anywhere.

“If they’re dying to get me out of here … I hope not.”

The official word, from general manager Brian Cashman, on whether the Yankees support Rodriguez.

“Yes,” Cashman said.

And in the future?


Cashman did not expound. He was headed off to assess the damage, though he already had done it with a firm mandate: “This is going to be a long winter.”

It could, in fact, rival the winter of 2004, when Cashman dealt with the fallout of the Yankees’ collapse in the ALCS against Boston. Amid thoughts Torre might bolt New York, Cashman, in April 2004, had rewarded Torre with a three-year contract extension for $19.2 million that ends after the 2007 season – and no sooner, if Cashman has his say.

“No,” Cashman said. “Obviously, I have people above me. But the question’s coming to me so I’m answering it how I see it.”

In this case, it might not matter. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner could sharpen his ax one final time before handing off the franchise to his son-in-law, Steve Swindal. Though his health has deteriorated and Steinbrenner’s public proclamations are now limited to one-sentence responses with little context or substance, he knows the difference between winning and losing, and he knows the Yankees have done plenty more of the latter recently.

The attitude is pervasive. Torre has had six years to change it and hasn’t, and for all the emotion tied to his history, Torre’s present is substandard.

New York’s brass made a conscientious decision to buy a team of superstars, chemistry be damned, and handed them over to Torre expecting him to shift his formula and make it work. It was a reasonable expectation that turns out to have a flaw: Torre succeeds with the right players – the types that populated his championship teams – and while he can handle a pack of alpha dogs, he does not thrive with it.

He knew Sheffield, returning from injury, would turn into a nuisance if he sat during the playoffs, and Torre shifted him to first base, a position he mangled during the Detroit series. Instead of considering using starter Chien-Ming Wang on three days’ rest for Game 4, Torre stuck with Jaret Wright, whose best effort would have been mediocre and actual effort was dreadful.

When Torre went to fetch Wright after 2 2/3 innings, he walked back to the dugout with his head hanging. The crowd of 43,126 waved orange towels at Torre, though white flags might have been more fitting.

“What can you do?” Yankees closer Mariano Rivera said. “I don’t worry at all. He did tremendous this year. He did real good. The money cannot do the job that we have to do. We’ve got to do our job and, simply, we didn’t do it.”

Nor does the fact that Torre led the Yankees to a 97-win season and the best record in baseball mean he did his job, which is to win championships. And therein lies the problem: The Yankees, so saddled with terrible contracts such as Giambi’s and Randy Johnson’s and Carl Pavano’s and Wright’s, and so bereft of young pitching aside from Wang and the soon-arriving Phil Hughes, can’t blow up the team. By proxy, they must change who’s in charge.

It’s not you, the Yankees mean to say. It’s me.

There are good options to replace Torre. Joe Girardi won three rings with the Yankees as a player and coached under Torre before leading Florida to its surprising 2006 season, though he may be too much like Torre for his own good – and that is a first, because Torre, for all of his inadequacies with these Yankees, has proven himself among the game’s best.

Lou Piniella is another choice, once a Yankees player, twice a Yankees manager and a success everywhere but Tampa Bay, and that’s no sin.

Around the clubhouse, players were mum on what the offseason will hold, with Derek Jeter, the captain, speaking for all: “Not worried about changes right now.”

And still, it would be naïve to deny the Yankees do need changes, for the short and long term. There is no worse feeling than helplessness, and it was on display with two outs in the ninth inning. With Robinson Cano at the plate and the season on the line, Alex Rodriguez stood in the on-deck circle, looking helpless, and Joe Torre sat in the dugout, feeling helpless, emotions woven together in what might have been their last moments spent in a New York Yankees uniform.

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