Pinstripes and needles

Tim Brown

NEW YORK – By Tuesday morning, gray clouds and a bracing chill had arrived from the north, scattering bits of infield dirt across the mound's tarp, stirring the bunting draped along Yankee Stadium's loge and mezzanine.

The clubhouse was crowded with U-Haul boxes, small square ones for the spikes and clothes and photos, tall rectangular ones for the bats.

A seventh consecutive October will pass without a championship in the organization of heaping payrolls and imposing expectations, the Yankees sitting it out while the youth and energy in Cleveland, Arizona and Colorado press on, while the blood rivals from Boston play on.

By early Tuesday afternoon, a Yankees PR man stood in the clubhouse and threatened to withdraw all access if news organizations didn't call back their photographers from the front of Joe Torre's home in Harrison, N.Y.

"They're all over his property," Jason Zillo said. "I've called all the tabloids."

George Steinbrenner had practically drawn a map himself, two days before putting words and hammer into suspicions Torre's job was in peril. Now Torre was at home, reduced to a curiosity and killing the morning on the phone with general manager Brian Cashman and members of his coaching staff.

Cashman, who last October convinced Steinbrenner to allow Torre the final year of his contract, said he will meet with Steinbrenner again "in the coming days."

Asked if he would again negotiate for Torre's future here, Cashman said, "I'll reserve comment."

It is unclear if Cashman will have a say.

"I don't know," he said. "[Steinbrenner] has always picked the manager here. Obviously, I had a great deal of input in last year's process. So, we'll see."

Don Mattingly, Yankee legend, Yankee bench coach, and quite possibly Torre's successor, referenced the last few days, Steinbrenner's win-or-out edict, and the coming circus potential while passing through the clubhouse.

"I've been here a long time," Mattingly said. "You understand how things work. So, coming to terms with the way it is here is something that's not that hard for me.

"Without a doubt, the things that Joe has done here, led the organization, treated people, he deserves to be treated with respect. Anything less than that, to me, would be unacceptable. He deserves that."

Mattingly repeated that theme often, as though he feared an ugly, prolonged process or another outburst from The Boss, anything that would diminish Torre's 12 seasons in pinstripes.

Torre and Mattingly spoke by phone Tuesday.

"Joe sounds like he's in a pretty good frame of mind," Mattingly said. "Obviously he has feelings, and it hurts if you're not getting treated right. I told him he should be treated with respect. Anything other than that is not right. Sometimes it's the way it goes here, but it's still not right."

Mattingly, for the moment, stands in the speculation with Joe Girardi, along with Tony La Russa, Larry Bowa and Tony Pena, as candidates to replace Torre, should Steinbrenner follow through on his threat. While he called it "a great job," Mattingly said the man who redecorates Torre's office will find the comparisons difficult.

"Not very easy," he said. "I would think it's like following John Wooden or something. It's pretty much a no-win situation for someone coming in here, to live up to what he did. It's not going to happen. It's not necessarily a great situation."

The challenge becomes greater still if Alex Rodriguez abandons his contract, a distinct possibility given all of the chances Rodriguez has been given to deny that he would, along with the fact Cashman said again he would not compete for Rodriguez on the free-agent market.

"That would be my position, yes," Cashman said. "That would be my strong recommendation."

But, he added, "Anything's possible. We'll see. All this stuff is going to be rushing to the forefront over the next 30 or 45 days."

In his weekend interview with The Bergen Record, Steinbrenner said he expected Rodriguez to return, even if that meant tearing up or extending the existing contract.

While Rodriguez was again less than productive in the postseason, he also had his best offensive season and will again be the American League MVP.

The desperation for middle-of-the-lineup bats in places such as Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Francisco, along with a relatively poor free-agent class, makes the climate a good one for an unattached A-Rod.

Doug Mientkiewicz, the resident A-Rod expert, shook his head when asked if he had a gut feeling for his friend's plan.

"I just know I saw a different Alex this year," he said. "It had to do with the surroundings."

But, he said, while the two talk all the time about a lot of things, "This, we haven't spoken two words about this."

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