• Sal Maiorana

The big Yankee question: Could Tino replace Donnie Baseball?

TAMPA - If only the low expectations of the New York media, and the fan backlash Joe Torre was sure to receive in replacing the well-liked Buck Showalter, were going to be his only problems when the Yankees showed up at their brand-new spring training complex in Tampa, ending more than three decades of winters spent in Fort Lauderdale.

First and foremost, Torre was not going to have the franchise’s most popular player of the past decade, the captain, Don Mattingly. His contract ran out following his one and only playoff appearance in 1995, and given his injury history the Yankees opted not to re-sign him as a free agent.

When no other team expressed an interest, Mattingly chose to sit out 1996 and perhaps make a return in 1997, but that never came to pass and he officially retired in January 1997, a sad end to a great career and deprived of the World Series championship he had long sought.

To replace Mattingly, the Yankees acquired Seattle’s Tino Martinez in a trade that also brought relievers Jeff Nelson and Jim Mecir, New York parting ways with catcher Russ Davis and pitcher Sterling Hitchcock. Martinez was a player on the rise and coming off his best season, 31 homers and 111 RBI, and as long as he could handle the pressure of playing in the Bronx and replacing a Yankee legend, he would be fine.

At the other corner was aging third baseman Wade Boggs, while the middle of the diamond would be patrolled by journeyman second baseman Mariano Duncan, and an unproven rookie with just 51 major-league plate appearances on his resume named Derek Jeter.

With Bernie Williams in center and Paul O’Neill in right, two of the outfield positions were set, but left field was another matter and Torre had to find an answer among Tim Raines, Gerald Williams, Ruben Sierra and Ruben Rivera.

At catcher, Joe Girardi was brought in to replace departed Mike Stanley, and while Girardi was strong defensively, his bat was much lighter than Stanley’s.

As for the pitching staff, there were all kinds of questions when the team showed up at Legends Field. Jack McDowell had bolted for Cleveland via free agency, Hitchcock was gone in the Martinez trade, and Melido Perez would miss the year with an injury and never pitched again in the majors.

Once the exhibition games started, David Cone – who became the highest-paid pitcher in baseball after re-signing with the Yankees – was experiencing control issues and compiled an ugly 6.14 earned-run average. Jimmy Key, coming off rotator cuff surgery that limited him to five starts in 1995, was also struggling to find his way. And Scott Kamieniecki, who’d started 17 games in 1995, was throwing creampuffs and getting roughed up all across the Florida circuit.

Torre figured the wily veterans, Cone and Key, would get things worked out, but beyond that, he wasn’t sure what he had. The plan was for left-handed free agent pickup Kenny Rogers to fill the Hitchcock void; that the once-great Dwight Gooden, out of baseball nearly two full years, could find some of his former magic; that rookie Ramiro Mendoza could eat some innings at the bottom of the rotation and in spot starts; and that promising lefty Andy Pettitte would improve on his 12-9 rookie record.

One area Torre wasn’t concerned about was the bullpen. John Wetteland was a top-notch closer who’d saved 31 games in 1995; Nelson looked like a solid right-handed setup man with his sharp-breaking slider; Bob Wickman had been a reliable middle man with 63 appearances in 1995; oft-troubled Steve Howe could get lefties out; and Mariano Rivera had shown great potential after the decision had been made to convert him from starter to reliever.

“We’re going to constantly be compared to what last year’s team did,” said Cone. “It makes it all the more important to play well early and really develop our own identity as a team. Right now, we’re searching for our own identity. We’re trying to figure out how good we can be. There are still some question marks.”

If nothing else, the atmosphere in the clubhouse had changed and Torre’s more laid-back, almost fatherly approach was quite a departure from the hard-driving Showalter.

As the team broke camp and headed north for the season-opener in Cleveland, backup catcher Jim Leyritz said, “It’s not a control freak atmosphere. You enjoy yourself in the clubhouse, but when you walk out the door, we’ve got work to do. Joe has established that.”

Despite so much change in the organization, one thing remained a constant for those who wore the pinstripes. It was World Series or bust, even though the Yankees hadn’t been to the Fall Classic since 1981 and hadn’t won it since 1978.

“We’re always expected to win in New York,” Boggs said. “It comes with the territory. We were expected to win the World Series last year and fell short. So we’re expected to win, to carry on the tradition of the past teams and what the Yankees exemplify.”

NEXT post on March 27: Derek Jeter has quite an MLB debut