- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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NEW YORK -- Brian Cashman spent Monday afternoon in his Yankee Stadium office, grateful for a day off -- which, as it turned out, was an act of mercy from the schedule-maker. It was a moot point, actually, since an afternoon thunderstorm would have postponed any game in New York. But the GM nevertheless realized how fitting it was to watch the rain come down.
"Hopefully, it'll wash away all the bad memories of the last two weeks," Cashman said. "For me, the players, for everyone."
To say the Yankees are in organizational shock is the mother of all understatements: they go into a three-game series with the pitching-rich A's as the worst-hitting team in the American League, their batting average lower than even the Mets.
The situation is so bleak, George Steinbrenner has already distanced himself, issuing a statement that put the burden of fixing the Yankees squarely on the shoulders of Cashman and Joe Torre.
"It's in their hands," the Boss said, telling us plenty about the owner's reaction to being swept by the Red Sox last weekend. Yankee insiders say Steinbrenner, who was in Tampa, blistered Cashman by telephone all three days, demanding to know how a $182 million lineup could have been shut out for the series' final 14 innings.
Cashman assured Steinbrenner there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the Yankees, other than the monstrous slump which has consumed them all. Indeed, it's the perfect story: Derek Jeter is 0-for-25. Bernie Williams is down to .167. Gary Sheffield has one home run in 68 at-bats, and is worried his jammed thumb isn't healing. Jason Giambi is batting .204.
The pitching staff has its crises, too. Mike Mussina can't hit 90-mph on the radar gun anymore. Jose Contreras looks like he'd rather face Fidel Castro than Manny Ramirez. Jon Lieber is returning to the rotation on Friday -- a month late.
How did it all sink so fast? Even Torre, the eternal optimist, said on Sunday, "to try to pretend nothing's wrong is a pretty tough sell right now."
So the better question is: how can the Yankees repair the damage? Cashman says there are no major changes being contemplated, for now, anyway. Asking Steinbrenner to be patient borders on professional suicide, but the GM still thinks time is still the Bombers' truest ally.
"There's no question we got handed an old-fashioned butt-kicking, but now is not the time to start blaming or pointing fingers," Cashman said. "We have to rally the troops, hug each other, all of that. No one's happy about the way we're playing, but you have to remember, we're just 20 games into the season."
Still, this is the kind of collapse no one saw coming, and Steinbrenner has fired managers and coaches for underachievements similar to this. He dismissed Yogi Berra in less time in 1985. And it took him only a few weeks to fire hitting instructor Rick Down after the Yankees were shut out by Josh Beckett in Game 6 of the World Series last year.
No one's suggesting Torre is in trouble, especially since he signed a three-year contract extension last month. And Don Mattingly, Down's rookie replacement, remains untouchable in the Pinstripe family. Not even Steinbrenner dares to take on the most popular Yankee player of this generation.
But opponents quietly wonder if the Yankees' relentless pursuit of superstars in the last five years is finally catching up with them. Although the Bombers are undoubtedly more talented than, say, their 1998 edition, that team had the perfect mix of role players. Today's Yankees have only one offensive profile -- swing for the planets -- and that creates opportunities for a smart opposing pitcher.
"The Yankees have a great lineup, but they have a lot of guys who aren't used to making outs," is how Curt Schilling put it. In other words, the Bombers are losing touch with the importance of a leadoff walk, or the psychological damage a successful hit-and-run play inflicts on the other dugout -- or simply hitting the other way.
Those sciences have been replaced by Sheffield, whose swing borders on violence, and by A-Rod, who until last week was swinging at everything, turning himself into an automatic out. Trouble is, the core of the earlier Yankee-engines, Jeter and Williams, has vanished, leaving Cashman in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why.
"I'm sure if you look back on his career, Derek has had these kind of slumps before," the GM said. "And I know we've struggled in the past. It's part of every season. I know last May, I didn't feel good about this team and we ended up going to the World Series. So you have to see this in its proper perspective."
So, for now, no trades. No Randy Johnson, no Ken Griffey Jr. No one's getting fired, least of all Torre or Mattingly. For now, anyway. But the words of Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi haven't been forgotten by the Yankees. Ricciardi told the New York Post last week he thought the Red Sox were the best team in the American League, and that was before the sweep.
"Right now, J.P. is right," Cashman said. "Our job is to prove him wrong in the long run."
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.