NEW YORK -- The year was 2000 and the Yankees were, by their own standards, consumed by worry. June was coming to an end, and in general manager Brian Cashman's words, "it was obvious the plan we thought would work, wasn't." The Bombers had lost 7-of-9, and had fallen three games behind the first place Blue Jays.
Worry? It was worse than that. A line of sweat traced from Tampa to the Bronx, directly to Cashman's office, who to no one's surprise, was on the phone -- or as he put it, "looking to move the furniture."
The Yankees were sniffing around for a trade, an exercise practically written into their DNA coding. In this case, though, it was too soon to start canvassing. Most clubs were still sorting out the results of June's amateur draft, not ready to decide if they'd be buyers or sellers in July. That's why Cashman's phone call to Cleveland's then-assistant GM Mark Shapiro was purely benign.
Cashman was merely trying to send a 1999 World Series ring to former bullpen coach Gary Tuck, who'd become an Indians scout in 2000. During the course of conversation with Shapiro, the Yankees GM casually asked, "what are you guys up to these days?"
Cashman was stunned by Shapiro's answer.
The Yankees are in better shape today than four years ago -- in first place, although marginally, but 19-8 since May 1 -- with most of their in-house issues resolved. But every time Cashman picks up the phone, he uses the Justice deal as the standard of success, if not the winning-lottery-ticket scenario.
The right fielder/DH didn't just embrace the Yankees, he practically carried them in the second half of the 2000 season, hitting .305 and slugging 20 home runs in 275 at-bats. Justice may have been the single most important factor in the Yankees' surge, as he was named MVP of the AL Championship Series and the Bombers went on to win the World Series.
Of course, adding a player of Justice's caliber -- and subsequent success in Pinstripes -- will be hard for the Yankees to match this summer. For one, Cashman has no real pressing need, or really any room, for an everyday player other than perhaps at second base. Given the available options, which include both Aaron and Bret Boone, the team appears ready to stick with Enrique Wilson.
The same goes for the starting rotation, which has mostly stabilized, even as Jose Contreras continues a bipolar summer, having been knocked out by the Orioles in the first inning on Wednesday night after allowing five runs. Instead, Cashman is hunting for bullpen help to supplant or replace Felix Heredia and Gabe White, although he's quick to admit, "there's not much out there yet. Teams are still deciding where they're going, and no one really starts thinking about trades until after the draft."
But Cashman also stresses that ownership of first place guarantees nothing, especially the Yankees' inertia.
"In all the years I've been here, there's been one team -- in 1998 -- that didn't need changes," he said. "It's just not realistic to say we're not going to need anything. Obviously, I'm under more pressure than most teams to make a deal, even right now."
The rotisserie fantasy, of course, would be to add Randy Johnson, once the Diamondbacks are convinced there'll be no comeback for them in the NL West. George Steinbrenner has always coveted Johnson, although Yankees officials tend to believe Arizona owner Jerry Colangelo when he says the Big Unit will retire as a Diamondback, especially after his perfect game in May.
The other, more attainable possibilities include Freddy Garcia and Kris Benson, but that's assuming the Yankees want to displace either Contreras or Jon Lieber. And there's been enough talk about Carlos Beltran, for whom the Yankees would instantly rearrange their outfield. Said one executive, "obviously, we'd love to have the guy, but there isn't much chance we can get him."
Of course, Cashman is the first to admit trade-deadline frenzy has its dangers. Just a year ago, the Yankees dealt their best pitching prospect, Brandon Claussen, for Aaron Boone, who barely held his own before his dramatic home run in Game 7 of the ALCS. Even though he sent the Yankees to the World Series, the Yankees closed the books on what was a disappointing, if not failed, experiment when Boone tore up his knee playing basketball during the winter.
That deal was completed practically at the 11th hour, on July 31. Other recent trades the Yankees regret include Raul Mondesi (July 1, 2002) and Jeff Weaver (July 5, 2002) and just about everyone in the organization guessed wrong on Jay Witasick (June 23, 2001).
Still, it's the idea of finding another winning lottery ticket that keeps Cashman going. And calling. And asking another GM the time-honored question -- what are you guys up to?
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.