For two weeks the Yankees exhibited the kind of shopping anxiety normally seen at a mall half an hour before closing time on Christmas Eve. They waffled between sluggers Juan Gonzalez of the Tigers (who wasn't interested in them) and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs (who proved too pricey even for the Yankees, with the Cubs insisting on five players in return). Meanwhile, every day that passed seemed to bring another lugubrious Yankee performance during what would turn out to be a 15-26 funk that dropped New York behind the Blue Jays in the American League East.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman briefly interrupted his search on June 26 to ask Indians assistant G.M. Mark Shapiro how to deliver a 1999 World Championship ring to Cleveland scout Gary Tuck, a former Yankees catching instructor. In the course of that conversation the Indians smelled a customer. They offered the Yankees lefthanded-hitting outfielder-DH David Justice.
According to one American League general manager, Cleveland had been trying to trade Justice for two years but "couldn't give him away, not even for a bag of balls." Justice had recovered from two off years, though, to hit 21 home runs for the Tribe this season (albeit with a tepid .265 batting average), and the Yankees had to have somebody after whiffing on Gonzalez and Sosa. Well in advance of the July 31 trading deadline, New York made an impulse buy. Last Thursday the Yankees gave up outfielder Ricky Ledee, 26, and two prospects to be named in hopes that Justice—who went 1 for 10 with two RBIs in three games against the Devil Rays last weekend—can ignite an offense that at week's end ranked 10th in the league in runs.
Never mind that Justice is a career .225 hitter in 271 postseason at bats or that he doesn't address New York's vulnerability to lefthanded starters (8-13 against them) or that the club is on the hook for $18 million through 2002—a price that scared off East rival Boston, for one—for a 34-year-old DH apprentice who's played 150 games in a season only once. What mattered was that the Yankees admitted a level of urgency never before seen in their five-year run under manager Joe Torre.
The nearly frantic Red Sox, 9-18 in June and 12th in the league in scoring, chose the flea market rather than the mall for their shopping. Last week they added journeyman third baseman Ed Sprague from the Padres and first baseman-DH (and Frontier League alum) Morgan Burkhart from the minors.
The Yankees, still armed with prize prospects like infielder Alfonso Soriano and third baseman Drew Henson, next figure to address a shaky pitching staff that includes righthanders Roger Clemens and David Cone (six wins in 30 combined starts) and righty Ramiro Mendoza (on the DL with a sore shoulder). The Phillies' Andy Ashby, the Pirates' Francisco Cordova and Jose Silva, the Astros' Jose Lima and the Cubs' Ismael Valdes have been mentioned as solutions. As for Boston, G.M. Dan Duquette said he still is looking to improve the club's production at first base and DH. The Rangers' David Segui and the Phillies' Rico Brogna are likely to interest the Red Sox.
So far the only obvious winner is Cleveland. Without Justice and centerfielder Kenny Lofton, whose $8 million option for next season the club is unlikely to exercise, the Indians have created payroll flexibility to recover quickly from an injury-ravaged season. Cleveland assured itself of being a big player in a potentially huge free-agent market. "For six years we've traded to add a player or two," says Cleveland G.M. John Hart, whose team ended the week 10� games behind the White Sox in the American League Central. "Maybe this is the time to save our resources."
No such signs of capitulation could be found in New York or Boston, where the shopping season has only just begun.