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YANKEES MAY FIND BEING SO ABYSMAL IS BENEFICIAL

Don Mattingly has read the names over and over again in the New York dailies, and he has heard the constant refrain on the radio call-in shows. Rickey Henderson. Jack Clark. Jay Buhner. Doug Drabek. Jim Deshaies. The roll call of players the Yankees have let get away is as long as it is depressing.

"Hey, you can go back to Willie McGee," Mattingly said Sunday afternoon. "They traded him, too. But what good does it do to talk about all this stuff now?"

Indeed, there seems no point in considering what the Yankees might have been, or what they once were, but rather what they have become -- an unquestionably bad baseball team, maybe the worst in baseball and, quite conceivably, the worst collection of Pinstripers since early in this century.

Late Sunday, the Yankees left Toronto with a 25-42 record, the worst in the major leagues. If they continued at that .377 pace, and they seem perfectly capable, the Yanks would finish with their worst record since 1913, the year before a kid named Babe Ruth made his major league debut with the Red Sox.

To get an idea of how bad things are these days, you have to consider they left Toronto on the wings of a 4-3 road trip, and actually had been playing some of their best ball of the season. Afterward, it was almost pathetic to watch the New York media prodding the players, trying to elicit some encouraging commentary on the state of the season.

"Well, we're still in last place," said Steve Sax, a sanguine presence even at the worst of times. "But I don't like to hear all this stuff about it being too late. It's not close to being too late."

Still, the greatest hope for many Yankee fans is that it could be late in the ownership tenure of George Steinbrenner. Baseball recently concluded an investigation of Steinbrenner's association with Howard Spira, a known New York City gambler, and The Boss might be facing a suspension or even banishment from the game.

Meanwhile, his team has been playing the game with relentless incompetence. The Yankees' pitching has been consistently mediocre, and it has been the brightest aspect of the team. The hitting has been abysmal. The Yanks are last in the American League, by a sizable margin, in runs scored. They are last in slugging and on-base percentage, a lethal combination.

Perhaps the most telling offensive statistic of all is they are drawing only two walks a game. It's an astonishing figure, and a fitting testament to the franchise. Steinbrenner, perhaps the least patient owner in sports history, has assembled a bunch of hitters who are as impatient as their owner.

"There isn't any question that we have some guys who have been chasing the ball out of the strike zone," said manager Stump Merrill, who took over when Steinbrenner fired Bucky Dent June 6. "Yeah, it's (a lack of) patience. That's part of it."

Ironically enough, the Yankee organization finally appears to be showing signs of patience. Merrill, the 18th managerial change in as many years, represents a departure for Steinbrenner. Rather than bringing in an established name, he went for an anonymous company man with a proven record of developing players and winning at the same time.

And over the last few weeks, the Yankees have dipped into their farm system for young bodies, showing an apparent willingness to sacrifice the present. Utility man Jim Leyritz, third baseman Mike Blowers and pitcher Alan Mills have all come up from Columbus. Playing time has been given to the flamboyant Deion Sanders, despite his .128 batting average.

"Well, I think there was a need for it," Merrill said. "The club was struggling, so we reached down and got what we felt was there. And we may reach down some more before it's over, depending on how we do."

Outwardly, at least, the players seem hopeful of getting back in the race. In a way, though, their woeful record could be a blessing. In the past, when the Yankees were on the verge of contention, the organization often would go for the quick fix at the expense of the future. If the team remains in the cellar, it should be easier to resist such temptation.

The wisest course now is to nurture whatever prospects they have, and to hold on to their draft picks. Because of past deals, this was the first year since 1985 that the Yanks had their first-round selection.

"I've seen a continued growth as far as young kids," said Leyritz, 26, who has hit .304 since his recall from Columbus. "The minor leaguers believe they have a chance to play for the organization. Before, it was 'Let's just have a good year in the minors and they're bound to trade us.' That was the attitude most kids had.

"They've given the kids an idea that they're going to build within the organization. I believe they'll take a few more chances on some of the younger kids. I think they learned over the last five years that you can't just bring in someone who has been successful somewhere else and expect them to be successful right away in New York."

They had to learn it the hard way, and they're paying for it in a big way now.

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