Air not so apparent

Will 2004 be Joe Torre's last as manager of the Yankees? If so, it could also serve as a test run for his successor.

Originally Published: November 5, 2003
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The Yankees are only a few weeks into their offseason refurbishing project, and already a fresh rumor weaves its way through the Pinstripe community at the rate of one a day:

Willie Randolph and Don Mattingly
Joe Torre's revamped staff, from left: Willie Randolph, Don Mattingly and Rich Monteleone.

Andy Pettitte, who met with the Astros on Tuesday and is also being pursued by the Red Sox, has thrown his last pitch as a Yankee. Or maybe not.

Alfonso Soriano has played his last game at second base, ready to begin a new career in the outfield in 2004. Or maybe not. He could be part of a trade that'll bring Curt Schilling to the Bronx.

Bartolo Colon is on the way. Or is it Javier Vazquez? Or consider the curtain rising on David Wells, who promises to return somewhere, somehow, despite impending back surgery. He might be a Yankee again next summer. Then again, maybe not.

For years, the Yankees have indulged similar winter dramas, which, if nothing else, served to rescue the baseball purist from the clutches of the NFL and NBA. No matter how intense the news-buzz, though, the Yankees could always count on one iron axiom: No matter how many trades were made or free agents were stuffed into George Steinbrenner's shopping cart, Joe Torre would restore calm to the entire organization.

But that, too, might soon change.

For the first time since 1996, Torre no longer speaks about a limitless commitment to his job. Instead, Torre intends to finish out the final year of his contract in 2004, and, according to friends and even members of his staff, will finally walk away from Steinbrenner.

Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who recently decided to return for the '04 season, said a major factor in his decision was, "being able to finish up with Joe, both of us having this last year together."

Asked if he was convinced Torre would sever his ties to the Yankees after 2004, Stottlemyre said by telephone on Tuesday, "I get that feeling, yes."

If that's the case, next winter's rumor engine will be fine-tuned to cope with only one monstrous issue: Who'll replace Torre? Today, the two leading candidates are Willie Randolph and Don Mattingly, both of whom are similarly poised as apprentices on Torre's staff.

Randolph, who's been the third-base coach for a decade, is now Torre's bench coach, replacing Don Zimmer. And Mattingly has been hired by Steinbrenner to serve as the Yankees' hitting instructor -- not just as a tribute to Mattingly's hitting skills, but because the Boss nearly idolizes him.

Ever since Mattingly retired after the 1995 season, Steinbrenner has tried to pry the first baseman away from retirement -- if not to resume his career, then to coach, to scout, to manage, even join the front office. Anything Mattingly wanted, it seemed, was his. All Donnie Baseball had to do was ask.

"He's in there with the rest of us now. He's no longer exempt from that [bleep]."
Joe Torre on Don Mattingly

Of course, Randolph has the better-looking resumé to replace Torre in 2005, having tutored Yankees infielders like Soriano and Derek Jeter since both were rookies. Quiet and professional, he's been in the clubhouse every day of the current golden era, while Mattingly has been tending to his horse farm in Indiana.

Still, Mattingly has that superstar glow that Steinbrenner can't resist. Even Torre sees it.

When asked about Mattingly as managerial material, Torre said recently, "I don't think there's any question in my mind. He can take it as far as he wants."

Question is, does Mattingly even want the job? He told Steinbrenner he'd serve as a coach for one year, just as an experiment to test the separation from his family. It's been eight full seasons since Mattingly lived the plane-bus-hotel life, and there's no guarantee he still has the stomach for it.

Nor are there any promises that, as an on-the-books employee, Mattingly will be granted immunity from Steinbrenner's mood swings. Torre dryly noted, "He's in there with the rest of us now. He's no longer exempt from that [bleep]."

If Mattingly does survive and ultimately replaces Torre, it'll be an obvious disappointment to Randolph. He makes no secret of his desire to manage the Yankees -- to manage any major-league team -- and realizes the end of the Torre-era offers, if not his last chance, perhaps his best one.

"It is what it is. All I can do is prepare myself for an opportunity, and hope that sometime, somewhere, an organization will have confidence to give me a shot," Randolph told the Bergen Record. "I'm a keeper of the game. I teach. I work. I give it up to the kids because I want them to gain the knowledge that I gained."

Randolph went on to say that in a perfect-world setting, first-time managers get hired because, "you're qualified, and you're prepared. Not just because someone is taking care of their own." But after years of job interviews which produced good will and handshakes and not much else, Randolph is clear-eyed about the future.

He knows the Yankees' next manager will be picked by Steinbrenner -- winning records, personality and experience aside. Even if the 2004 Yankees win the World Series, it's possible The Boss will use a championship to elegantly show Torre the door.

After years of waiting for his chance to once again become the Yankees' public front man, replacing Torre with a rookie manager would be The Boss' ultimate power play. And with the coming one-on-one between Mattingly and Randolph ... well, the NFL and NBA won't stand a chance.

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.