NEW YORK – No one in the clubhouse wants to acknowledge it. So the New York Yankees go about their business these days in the robotic, programmed fashion needed to maintain the illusion that this is not a transition season, and that everything, one week into June with last place on their résumé, is A-OK, yes, sir, tip-top indeed.
In a back corner, Jorge Posada, the Yankees' catcher and a veteran voice of reason, is playing again after missing more than a month with a bum throwing shoulder. Once the crowd around him dissipates, it's a fair time to ask about the mounting evidence that the Yankees organization, though never admitting so, is recasting itself for the future with lessening concern for this season, save the occasional verbal scud fired by owner Hank Steinbrenner.
Posada, ever proud, said: "We don't do that here."
However it's versed – transition, recast or, egad, rebuild – the Yankees hate to concede they're in the midst of it because such practices and winning are usually mutually exclusive.
Writing an obituary on the Yankees now would be foolhardy, of course, because it's only June, they're back to 31-31, and $200 million, no matter how irresponsibly spent, buys talent. On this date last year, the Yankees were 27-31 and didn't make it over .500 for good until July 14. Yet by season's end they'd won 94 games and the wild card, though another first-round playoff exit sullied any good faith borne of the comeback.
Still, anyone in pinstripes honest enough with himself would concede that this is not a go-for-broke team and will not mortgage any of the future for a little boost this season, and even though in the grand scheme that's a positive, in the Yankees' world it might as well be a white flag.
And so it was across the clubhouse, to a man known for his honesty. Johnny Damon, who branded himself and his 2004 championship Boston Red Sox teammates "idiots," does not bow to the altar of Gotham platitudes. In fact, he was just finishing up an interview with the New York Daily News in which he intimated that the recent move of lockdown reliever Joba Chamberlain to the starting rotation bothered him.
Same question for Damon as was posed to Posada, whether he gets the feeling that this could become a transition season.
"Late in spring training, I thought so, yeah," Damon said. "Detroit was one of those teams we felt like we'd be competing with. We know about Toronto and Boston. We thought Tampa Bay might be a year away, but they're here now, playing with a lot of confidence and energy.
"It doesn't sit well, because you want every year to have the chance to get to the playoffs and win the championship."
Mistake this not for defeatism. Damon is a realist of the highest order, and reality shows that the changes are more than cosmetic.
The implementation of Hank Steinbrenner as the Yankees' mouthpiece and his brother, Hal, as the puppeteer changed the dynamic with general manager Brian Cashman, whose contract, mind you, expires at the end of the season. Cashman still runs the franchise as though he's in for the long haul, passing on free-agent patch-ups and sticking rookies Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy into the rotation, a decision, ill-fated though it may have been, that came in conjunction with the team's new manager, Joe Girardi. He, too, supported Chamberlain's move to the rotation, one that makes the Yankees bullpen look like a permanent Mr. Hyde, and one that was necessary for next season, when veteran starters Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte likely will be gone because their contracts expire.
They'll be joined by Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano, Kyle Farnsworth, LaTroy Hawkins and, presumably, Bobby Abreu, and for the Yankees it will be the day they are finally freed from the chrysalis of largesse. The seven make a combined $84.25 million, and even if the Yankees do pursue free agents Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia at $20 million-plus apiece, no longer will they be a complete financial monstrosity.
The path there may not be so easy. Chamberlain's transition should be complete after two more starts, so that concern may be overblown. The bullpen, in tatters, offers no such hope, unless Farnsworth and Hawkins suddenly figure out the concept of pitching well in high-leverage situations and the kiddie corps matures.
Even then, this is tenuous territory, the AL East being what it is and the Yankees what they are.
"We've been through this plenty of times," Posada said. "It's just a matter of getting some consistency from the starting five and getting going here."
Adversity, yes. Not last place this deep into the season. Not since Posada arrived. Not since any of the Yankees were in the major leagues. The last time was 1990, a team with Tim Leary, Chuck Cary and Dave LaPoint as its top three starters and one that, no surprise, finished 67-95.
Now, this is not a 67-win team. It's not a 77-win team. The Yankees will probably win about 87 games, and for most other franchises, that's a good showing. The same double standard that doesn't allow the Yankees to consider themselves in transition makes an 87-win season – especially one with no playoffs – a failure.
"We always say, 'Wait until after May to see where we're at,' " Damon said. "Now it's like, 'After June, we'll see where we're at.' We've got Posada back. Joba's finding his way. After this month, we'll know. This is the time where teams start pulling away from the division and others start losing ground."
Damon remembers 2005, the year after the Red Sox won the World Series. They could have re-signed him. They chose not to. They let Pedro Martinez walk to the Mets and Orlando Cabrera to the Angels. They missed the playoffs in 2006 but readied themselves for the coming seasons. And last year, they were champions again, and positioned well for the future this time.
He sees the same from the Yankees, and he's right: Between the young pitching and a loaded farm system, they are in good shape. New York isn't a last-place team and won't be, not anytime soon.
"We're still going out there and planning on winning and developing at the same time," Damon said. "It's possible."
Just not easy. To do or acknowledge.