The Boss up to old tricks in New York

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

NEW YORK -- Off to the best start in their storied history, the New York Yankees should be enjoying this season. Instead, there's suddenly tension between the manager and the Boss -- something commonplace for years until Joe Torre came along.

Even a 14-0 mark for their starting rotation (the only such streak to start a season since 1900) and a 16-3 overall record could not cover up the first public spat between owner George Steinbrenner and Torre.

Steinbrenner crossed swords with 13 managers until hiring Torre in 1996 and ushering in a period of tranquility, not to mention four World Series championships. The era of good feeling ended abruptly over the weekend, with a dispute over Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras and his minor league assignment.

"It's not something that can just be washed away," Torre said Monday. "I'm over it, but I'm not going to pretend it never happened."

The clash brought back memories of Steinbrenner's battles with Torre's predecessors. The Boss has been down this path frequently.

He fired Billy Martin five times. He fired Lou Piniella and Bob Lemon twice each. He fired Dick Howser after a season in which the Yankees won 103 games.

Piniella, now managing Tampa Bay, wanted no part of the Yankees' latest soap opera.

"Oh, please," he said Monday. "I've got enough problems here without thinking about anything else."

After Monday's 15-1 loss to the Yankees, Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was in no mood to worry about Torre and Steinbrenner.

"I didn't know there was an incident," he said. "I'm in my own little Dome here and I've got enough to worry about. I played in New York, so I know what you're talking about."

Torre wanted Contreras farmed out to Triple-A Columbus and was stunned to have Steinbrenner assign the right-hander to the team's minor league complex in Tampa, Fla., instead.

Torre felt the misdirection play damaged his reputation for being honest with players. "Turns out, I'm the liar here," he said Sunday. "That, I'm not crazy about."

The manager always seemed above the fray in the Bronx, insulated by instant success -- the Yankees won the World Series in his first year, touching off another dynasty for the most successful franchise in sports.

Torre took the team to three more World Series titles in 1998, 1999 and 2000, winning 14 straight Series games over one stretch. He is in the middle of a three-year, $16 million contract and won his 700th game as the Yankees' manager Sunday, fifth in team history.

Job security

"I never worry about my job," he said when the Contreras matter developed. "I have more security here than I ever had in my life. If I worry about my job, I can't do my job."

But with no world championships in the last two years, Steinbrenner has started to squirm.

Over the winter, he criticized Torre's coaching staff, something the manager did not appreciate. Then a frontal attack on shortstop Derek Jeter caused a major flap in spring training.

Torre has always been diplomatic about these matters. Even after the Contreras affair surfaced, he tried to hold his tongue.

"I am angry but respectful," he said. "You try to say what's on your mind, but you try not to let anything fester."

Whether that will happen this time remains to be seen.

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