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Nothing But Good Times
THESE ARE tight!" said outfielder--first baseman Nick Swisher—who's always saying something—as he performed squats and lunges in an attempt to stretch out a new pair of uniform pants last month in the home clubhouse of Tampa's George M. Steinbrenner Field.
"Yeah?" pitcher A.J. Burnett called back from across the room. "Well, you ain't with the White Sox anymore, dawg. You're a Yankee!"
The snug pinstripes might take some getting used to, but in every other way Swisher has fit in beautifully, loosening up a clubhouse that had grown excessively solemn by last year, when the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1994. It's hard to imagine that the Bronx Bombers will again find themselves pressing at the first sign of a rough patch. Swisher, who delivers pep talks by the minute and always seems to come up with just the right mid-1990s hip-hop song to blast from his iPod boom box, won't hear of it.
G.M. Brian Cashman insists that he traded for Swisher's bat (he has averaged 25 home runs in his four seasons), not his disposition—but the latter has been a welcome addition. "Aw, he's great," Cashman says. "It's nice to have that come our way, because we're a quiet group in there. We're a little sterile now and then, and we need to be livened up. And Swish is just the guy to do it."
In fact, each of New York's major off-season acquisitions has been quickly embraced by the holdovers. "They're just good guys that take their jobs seriously but at the same time like to have fun," says pitcher Phil Hughes. The Steinbrenners, though, didn't commit $423.5 million to starters Burnett and CC Sabathia and first baseman Mark Teixeira for their potential to win any man-of-the-year awards, but to break a streak of eight years without a World Series title. And there's little doubt that the winter's free-agent haul has brought the Yankees within striking distance of that goal.
The arrivals of Sabathia and Burnett have structurally changed New York from a team that has in recent years lived and died with its offense and hoped for the best from its pitchers to one whose success will spring from its rotation—which is second to none. "We've put together over the years a collection of pitchers we thought could be good enough, and it just didn't work out, to be honest," says Cashman. Still, the 28-year-old Teixeira, who has more RBIs (676) over his first six seasons than all but seven other players in history, should help ensure that an offense that was devastated last year by injuries to catcher Jorge Posada and outfielder Hideki Matsui (both of whom are back, though Matsui won't play in the field until June at the earliest) doesn't lag too far behind.
After an off-season in which the Steinbrenners dipped the roster in a greenback-filled river Styx, one spot remains all too mortal—their defense. "I admit that overall we have not been a good defensive team for quite some time," says Cashman, and that's particularly true of the middle infield, where both second baseman Robinson Cano and shortstop Derek Jeter possess substandard range. Even so, the D should be improved from a year ago, thanks to the upgrade at first base from the clumsy Jason Giambi to the two-time Gold Glove winner Teixeira and the installation in rightfield of Xavier Nady in place of Bobby Abreu, who never met a wall from which he wouldn't shy.
And we haven't even mentioned Alex Rodriguez yet. At last report, A-Rod was spending most of his time riding a stationary bike in Aspen, Colo., on track to return from hip surgery in mid-May. When he does, he'll find a team replete with intriguing characters to distract the public's gaze from whatever questionable lifestyle decisions he's made in the past and with plenty of new stars to help diffuse the pressure under which he so often chafes. It will constitute a fresh start for both Rodriguez and the Yankees, who have their most October-ready roster since 2003, the last year they went to the World Series.
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...