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To look at him, you would never mistake him for a runner. Stump Merrill's body is short and stumpy, just as the nickname suggests. Time and again, his doctors have advised him against pushing that body through the streets on a pair of hopelessly arthritic knees.

But Merrill runs anyway, admittedly with a gait more purposeful than swift. Eight years ago, he ran a 10-kilometer road race near his home in Topsham, Maine, and he finished dead last.

That night, at a post-race party, he vowed it would never happen again. The next year, he would get his revenge. A friend liked the sound of it, and the race has been known as "Stump's Revenge" ever since.

Clearly, Merrill does not enjoy finishing last. But early this month, he stepped into the most important race of his life, and again found himself laboring in the rear of the pack.

"I'm not happy with where we are in the standings," said Merrill, the new Yankees manager. "But we're trying to do the things necessary to get out of the basement in the division, and if we continue to play the kind of baseball we're capable of, it won't be impossible."

Merrill, who served six years in the minors as a good-field, no-hit catcher, has spent 14 years as George Steinbrenner's willing, dutiful servant. He has managed at every minor-league level. He has been the Yankees' administrative coach, the so-called "eye in the sky," and first base coach. He has accepted every call, while keeping his mouth shut and waiting for his chance.

He got it on June 6, when Steinbrenner jettisoned Bucky Dent and handed the job to Merrill, who had been managing the Yankees' first-place, Triple A club at Columbus.

In New York and around the nation, reaction to his hiring was predictable. Just who was Stump Merrill, and why had Steinbrenner, after so many years of putting big names in the manager's chair, turned his team over to a faceless company man?

In any other organization, Merrill's ascension might have been seen as a matter of course. He had managed 11 seasons in an organization supposedly bereft of young talent, and yet he'd always produced winning records.

He had a .590 career winning percentage. He'd won seven division titles and three league championships. Indeed, why not Stump? Maybe, for once, Steinbrenner had given the job to the main who was best suited for it.

"Let's put it this way," Merrill said. "I think I've paid my dues. The Man has taken care of my family for 14 years, and I have some respect for him for that."

He refers to Steinbrenner as simply "The Man." He knows The Man's volatile nature. He also knows that some see him as a managerial caretaker, and assume Steinbrenner will eventually bring in some idle, established name to take his place.

"It comes with the territory," Merrill said. "I'm managing in New York and I'm basically a no-name person. But I don't worry about those things. I've been around the game a long time. I've been in this organization a long time, and it's not like I'm not aware of what I got myself into.

"I didn't come into it with blinders on," he said. "All I know is I'm going to do the job to the best of my ability every day, and let the chips fall where they may."

The job is not an easy one. He must develop talent while trying to please The Man with victories. He has done it everywhere else, so he didn't see why the big leagues had to be any different.

But it hasn't been easy. The Yankees lost nine of their first 12 under Merrill and found themselves with the worst record in baseball. People who follow the team say the losses weighed heavily on him.

Merrill, gray and balding, looks older than his 46 years, and he seemed to be visibly aging before their eyes. He returned from a road trip, and his wife, Carole, said he looked like hell. He agreed with her. He felt like hell too.

"I've always taken losses to heart," he said. "The thing with me is, I get it out of my system in the first half hour to 45 minutes, then I start pointing to the next game."

"He kind of wears it on his sleeve," said Yankee reliever Dave Righetti. "That can be good and bad. It all depends on how you show it and where you show it."

By all accounts, Merrill has kept his personal anguish inside the manager's office. Around his players, he is bright and upbeat, a players' guy. He says it doesn't matter whether it's the low minors or the high-paying majors: Players are human; they need support most of all.

"Stump brought a real positive attitude to the clubhouse," said Roberto Kelly. "We can use that. When you're not doing well, it's nice to have a manager who keeps telling you he believes in you."

Maybe he's having an effect. Entering Saturday's game, the Yanks had won four in a row, a season high. Even more encouraging was the manner in which they did it -- coming from behind twice and winning Friday night in 15 innings after blowing a five-run lead.

For a week, at least, the Yanks looked like anything but the game's worst team. And Merrill seemed to be enjoying himself. He appears comfortable in the midst of the voracious New York media, exchanging playful banter on clothes, women, just about any subject you could imagine.

Now, if only he could find the time to run. He's been too busy running his team to run the streets.

"My wife says, 'Have you been running. I know what happens when you don't run.' I get fat. It's been a constant battle all my life. I was ready to go this morning, but I forgot my stuff. Ah, it's my own fault, lack of self-discipline or whatever you want to call it."

Anyway, he's finally in the big race after all these years. Whatever his eventual finish, that's a triumph in itself. This isn't Stump's revenge, but his reward.

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