Baseball: Dandy signs for Yankee doodler: The New York Yankees, once the big cheese of the Big Apple, are ready for a revival. Richard Weekes reports

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The Independent Online
INEVITABLY, the American media called it the 'Storm of the Century', as if the Almighty had gone into co-production with Don King, but all the rain and wind that whipped across baseball's spring training grounds in south Florida last week could not cool the ardour of the New York Yankees.

The club who were known simply as America's Team during their long years of domination - when Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson bestrode the Bronx - may at last be emerging from the big sleep of mediocrity. They have 22 World Series victories to their name, but the last Series ring to go on a Yankee finger was 15 years ago. Last year they flattered by winning their first six games, but by October it was the same old deception, as they finished 76-86, their fourth losing season in a row. Not since 1981 have they won their division.

However, the Yankees chequebook was flourished at free agents over the winter, and when the squad arrived at their Fort Lauderdale base last month there were five new faces to get to know. The addition of Jimmy Key, who has notched up more than 12 victories for the Toronto Blue Jays every year since 1984, and Jim Abbott, whose pitching feats are the more astonishing since he has the use of only one hand, give the Yankees' starting rotation a much more solid look.

The batting line-up also gained some clout with the signing of the third baseman Wade Boggs, who fled Boston after an unhappy and unproductive year but who is a five-times American League batting champion, and the outfielder Paul O'Neill, a member of the Cincinnati Reds team that won the World Series in 1990. Neither was the team's defence neglected: Spike Owen, a livewire shortstop, came aboard from Montreal.

Together with established fixtures like the veteran first baseman Don Mattingly and the powerful home-run hitter Danny Tartabull in the outfield, the new-look Yankees ought to mount a strong challenge to Toronto in the AL East when the season gets under way on 5 April.

Some of the new faces might have been different had the Yankees had their way. Gene Michael, the club's general manager, spent much of the winter sweet-talking, dining and dangling big bucks in front of the pick of the free-agent crop. In turn Barry Bonds, Pittsburgh's National League MVP, Greg Maddux, the NL pitcher of the year, Terry Steinbach, the Oakland catcher, and the top-ranked pitchers Doug Drabek, David Cone and Jose Guzman received offers totalling dollars 122.5m (pounds 83m). In every case bar that of Bonds, they eventually went elsewhere for less money.

What was behind this outbreak of Gotham-phobia? Were these superstars leery of the set-'em-up, knock-'em-down New York media, the boorish fans, the crime figures in the Bronx? Or was it the George Factor?

On 1 March, George Steinbrenner came bounding into the Yankees' camp as his two-and-a-half-year suspension from the game came to an end. The team's principal owner had been banished by the then commissioner, Fay Vincent, for paying a gambler, Howard Spira, dollars 40,000 (pounds 27,000) for dirt on Dave Winfield, then a Yankees player, with whom Steinbrenner had been feuding. An astonishing illustration of the commissioner's now defunct powers, it was as if Graham Kelly could kick the Edwards family out of Old Trafford for some minor peccadillo.

But Steinbrenner is no stranger to arguments with the game's authorities. When he returned to Fort Lauderdale, it was 17 years to the day since he completed the first of his three suspensions, for making campaign contributions to one Richard Nixon.

Before he was put on ice a third time, Steinbrenner's iron rule over the Yankees made Ken Bates look about as interventionist as Milton Friedman. He hired - and fired - no fewer than 18 managers during his first 20 years at the helm. The chop could come with Stalinesque suddenness. For Yogi Berra it came 16 games into the 1985 season, since when the former Yankees hero has not put a foot inside Yankee Stadium.

Steinbrenner's latest interregnum does not appear to have mellowed him. Asked whether he would be a kinder, gentler George, he replied: 'You know what happened to the last kinder, gentler George? He's out of the White House and living in Houston.

'Trepidation is natural,' he continued. 'I was scared of my dad when I worked for him. Leadership is my package. If it includes trepidation, so be it.'

All of which ought to have the present Yankees manager, the fresh- faced William Nathaniel Showalter III, or Buck to his peers, trembling in his cleats. If he is, he does a good job of hiding it. At 36 the youngest manager in the majors, Showalter, who has actually got as far as a second season, dismisses the threat of Axeman George. 'I may be naive, but I've got too many other things to worry about,' he says.

A company man who has been with the Yankees for 17 years, he echoes a theme of his boss in turning the negative of the free-agent refuseniks into a positive. 'At least it weeded out the non-motivated players,' he says. 'Most players find New York a great place to play.'

For now Showalter's position seems secure. The Yankees are top of the AL spring training league. Steinbrenner offers nothing but bonhomie, willing the return of the Yankees' great years by surrounding himself with icons from that time. Reggie Jackson is back with the club as a special adviser to the owner, who is also thinking aloud about drawing on DiMaggio's experience and seeking a rapprochement with Berra.

Yet even his expressions of praise carry a double edge. 'This team can be anything it wants to be,' he said recently. 'This team can do anything it wants if it wants it bad enough. The ball is squarely in their court.' The Yankees have been warned.

(Photograph omitted)