- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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TAMPA, Fla. -- In the English language, there are certain combinations of words that should never appear together.
"Derek Jeter" and "apathetic," for instance.
"Mariano Rivera" and "unreliable."
"Alex Rodriguez" and "affable."
And "New York Yankees" and "underdogs."
Overweight, maybe. Underdogs? Never.
And yet, that is beginning to shape up as the theme of the early portion of this training camp, that somehow, in some way, the New York Yankees, with their 27 World Series championships, their $200 million payroll, their $1.6 billion ballpark and their own regional television network -- not to mention George Steinbrenner's DNA coursing through the organization -- are underdogs in the AL East.
The Little $200 Million Ballclub That Could.
Mark Teixeira, No. 3 in their lineup and No. 4 on your list of the game's five highest-paid players -- all but one are Yankees, by the way -- used "underdogs" to describe himself and his teammates Saturday morning.
Later in the afternoon, Brian Cashman, the GM who has power-of-attorney over Hal and Hank Steinbrenner's formidable checkbook, welcomed the opportunity to use the word as a motivating tool for his ballclub.
And in between, Joe Girardi, the manager who has at least four All-Stars in his everyday lineup and the league's two best closers in his bullpen, had to be prodded to admit that calling the Yankees underdogs was a characterization you don't hear very often.
And yet, you get the feeling you will be hearing it quite often this season, as the "us against them" mentality that dominates lesser locker rooms begins to pervade the Yankees' clubhouse. The Yankees might take to wearing a scarlet "U" on their sleeves the way they wore a commemorative patch for The Boss last year.
Of course, it's kind of a tough sell when your clubhouse makes the Palace of Versailles look like a beach bungalow. Even the players may have a difficult time actually believing it.
And yet, is it out there and has been ever since Cliff Lee spurned the Bronx for South Philly, and the Red Sox began to stock up on bats and arms.
Suddenly, Everyone -- whoever they are -- is picking Boston to run away with the division while predicting the Yankees, champions two seasons back and winner of 95 games last year, will have to go for their lungs just to sneak into the playoffs.
I'm not sure whether this is meant to engender sympathy or derision. Probably both, depending on what part of the country you live in and who you root for, or against.
But I do know it is patently ridiculous.
Calling the Yankees underdogs is not only inaccurate, it's insulting. It's like hearing a ballplayer who is making nearly $10 million this year say he needs to have a big season so he can make "a LOT of money" next year. (This really happened today, but I won't tell you who said it.)
The Yankees are underdogs the way Bernie Madoff is a philanthropist, Carl Pavano a warrior and Jeter a slacker.
Right now, the Red Sox are the better team. On paper. But the last time anyone checked, the games were played on grass and clay. And a year ago, the Yankees and Red Sox were supposed to be so close in talent you could only separate them with a feeler gauge.
Of course, the Tampa Bay Rays wound up winning the division. The Yankees settled for the wild card. The Sox finished seven games back.
I know, I know, injuries, bad luck, blah, blah, blah. Who's to say it can't, or won't, happen again? Who's to say that great (on paper) Boston starting rotation won't underperform again?
The Yankees are short on starting pitching right now. They're loaded in just about everything else. And there aren't too many teams in baseball that wouldn't leap at the chance to trade their everyday lineup for the Yankees', plus the financial wherewithal to plug any leaks that might pop up.
Buster Douglas, he was an underdog. So were the 2003 Florida Marlins. The Yankees, at best, are co-favorites. At worst, they are a second choice in baseball's best division, and a strong one at that.
It is stipulated in many places that the Yankees not only want to win every year, they need to win every year. Their stadium alone -- that ravenous beast that must feed on the wallets of between 45,000 and 50,000 affluent souls 81 times a year to remain healthy -- dictates that they can't afford to be underdogs, or also-rans.
And the ingrained philosophy of this franchise ensures that whatever needs to be done to ensure that the Yankees remain not just competitive, but elite, will be done.
"I think that's a good approach," Cashman said of the self-applied underog label. "I want [them] to believe we have to fight, scratch and claw for it. We've borne the target of being the hunted. Let's be the hunter, see if that works well for us."
Of course, it is Cashman who will bear the blame if the 2011 Yankees really underperform, and it is Cashman's responsibility to locate and acquire the solutions.
So far, his offseason has earned him a big, fat F, but as he has insisted all along, it's a long season with plenty of opportunities for a team with the means and motivation to rectify its problems.
"On paper, it's Boston, yeah," Cashman said Saturday. "I think right now if you're gonna pick somebody it would be them. They've accomplished all their roster goals. I have yet to accomplish all of our roster goals. So I think anybody who's being objective would say at least on paper they've got the inside lane, but it doesn't mean you win the race. I would say, don't count us out."
As if anyone was going to.
These are still the New York Yankees. The word "underdog" has about as much right to appear in their lexicon as the word "pauper."
Yankees as underdogs? Yeah, they're The Little $200 Million Ballclub That Could.