So why do we think they'll win it all? Here's why:
1. More sanity
Last year this time, the Bronx Zoo was in full don't-feed-the-animals frenzy. The Bombers were coming off their most embarrassing postseason el foldo in history. Jason Giambi was trying to dodge getting his contract voided. It was Johnson's first spring as a Yankee. Matsui's contract negotiations weren't going well. Etc., etc.
But even worse, Cashman was in the final year of his contract and dropping hints that he wouldn't mind bolting for saner pastures. And Torre and Steinbrenner weren't even on speaking terms.
Now Cashman's deal is done through 2008. Steinbrenner was seen several times this spring literally plopping himself on the couch in Torre's office to banter with the manager. And the clubhouse vibe was amazingly serene, upbeat and downright jovial. So for a month and a half, these Yankees actually seemed normal. Who knew?
"It seems like everyone in here gets along great," Damon says. "You never heard that before."
2. Everybody loves Damon
How many ways will the Yankees feel the impact of Damon? Let's count them.
On offense? Yeah, good place to start. Damon has scored 100 runs eight years in a row. No other leadoff hitter in the last seven decades can make that claim.
On defense? You bet. Damon may not be Ichiro out there when it comes time to throw the ball [ of Jeff Francouer, he launch a ball from right field into the seats behind third yesterday]. But he can sure catch it. He reached so many more balls in the outfield last year than Bernie Williams that, over 150 games, Damon would have turned 101 more fly balls into outs than his beloved predecessor, Bernie. That's a lot of doubles.
In the standings? No doubt. You can't just add Damon to the Yankees. You have to subtract him from the Red Sox. Coco Crisp is a terrific player. But he isn't anywhere near as patient, as savvy or as charismatic as the guy he's replacing.
In the clubhouse? Sure looks that way. We were as dubious as everyone else that Damon's fun-loving ambiance would fit into the Yankees' more serious, more structured way of life. But so far, so good.
"I know we're accused of being corporate," Cashman says. "But we have a lot of guys who have fun. I think they go corporate in front of the press, only because there are more people watching. But Joe Torre runs a pretty loose ship. He lets guys be themselves. So we're not looking for guys to come here and change."
3. The deep blue pitching staff
If everybody stays healthy …
Those words were heard more in the Yankees' camp this spring than: "What time does the bus leave?"
But that'll happen when your two best starting pitchers -- Johnson and Mussina -- will be a combined 80 years old by the end of the season. And when your No. 3 starter, Chien-Ming Wang, was told he needed shoulder surgery last July (but never had it). And when your fourth and fifth starters -- Pavano and Wright -- spent more than 200 days on the disabled list last summer.
It's hard to find anyone who doesn't believe that the pitching staff is this team's biggest potential black hole. But here's why this year isn't going to be a rerun of last year -- when the Yankees had to rip through 14 starting pitchers and 28 pitchers altogether:
This year, they've backed themselves up with depth they didn't have last season.
There should be no Darrell May or Tim Redding one-and-done debacles this season. Beside the five starters we mentioned above, this team also has last year's two miracle saviors, Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small. Beyond them, Scott Proctor this spring looked like a guy who could step in and start and not embarrass anybody. And waiting in Triple-A is rising prospect Matt DeSalvo, who opened eyes with his 1.13 spring ERA.
That's nine potential starters. "And as you know," Cashman chuckles, "we'll need them all to do what we want to do."
The bullpen also has been retooled, with Farnsworth, Mike Myers, Ron Villone and Octavio Dotel moving in to build a new bridge to the great Rivera, who is obviously really slipping. He faced 27 hitters this spring -- and gave up one hit.
But there is one more major difference between this year's staff and last year's: The 6-foot-10 ace looked like an ace all spring. Johnson got his mechanics locked in early, bonded with new pitching coach Guidry, and says: "I feel really good."
4. Bombs away
Is there a better lineup in baseball than this one? We can't find one.
True, there's only one addition: Damon. But here's the difference he can make:
The Yankees finished just 14 shy of 900 runs last year, even though they finished last in the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage by their center fielders.
So guess which team's center fielders finished first in the league in batting average and slugging (and second in OBP)? That, of course, would be the Red Sox, whose primary center fielder was a fellow named Damon.
5. They're the Yankees
As a friend of ours told us last week, you can never go wrong picking the team with the most talent to win the World Series. Let alone the team with the most money.
And that's the Yankees. Their payroll is down $10 to $13 million, depending on how you calculate it. But they still write the biggest checks around. They still start an All-Star at every position except second base. And even though their pitching staff may not be a win-the-World Series kind of staff, it's certainly a make-the-playoffs kind of staff.
So even in an American League with so many good teams that Cashman calls it "a nightmare," the Yankees are the safest bet to reach the playoffs. And after that, says Jeter, "you don't have to be the best team. You just have to be the hottest team."
Only nine players on this roster, though, have ever won a World Series. And the men who won elsewhere often wonder what it would be like to win in New York.
Take Randy Johnson. The team he won the World Series with -- the 2001 Diamondbacks -- played in a city that had never won any title in any pro sport. So winning here, he says, can't possibly be as exhilarating as winning was there.
"When something is actually expected of you," the Unit says, "it's not quite as exciting."
But Damon -- whose title in Boston was literally a life-altering experience for millions -- isn't conceding that.
"I think it would be just as fun," Damon says. "It all depends on the players you have. If winning the World Series is not a big deal, that wouldn't be right. And if you look around this clubhouse, there are a number of guys in here who have never won. So to me, it's not an issue. You've got to enjoy every single opportunity, because they don't happen that often -- not even here."
Damon recalls well how the Red Sox "became America's Team" when they won. And he's even predicting the same thing could happen if these Yankees win, now that they're actually (gulp) "slight underdogs."
OK, so they're not underdogs in the way, say, George Mason is an underdog. But it has been 5½ years. And the White Sox, A's and Indians have seemed like trendier picks this spring. And there sure has been lots of Red Sox and Blue Jays talk.
But come on. Could the Yankees actually make themselves, um, lovable? Hey, why not? If Donald Trump could pull it off, why couldn't this team?
"This is the greatest franchise on this planet," Damon says. "Everyone knows what the New York Yankees are. You either love 'em or you hate 'em. And it's my turn to love 'em."
So now can he charm about 75 million other Americans into loving 'em right along with him? Get back to us in seven months. Just as soon as the 2006 Yankees finish their 27th parade down the Canyon of Heroes.