It was late August when Johnny Damon took a long, hard look around the clubhouse and was appalled at what he saw.

“Let’s go (bleep-bleepers), wake up,” Damon shouted. The center fielder had had enough of the Yankees’ listlessness; it was so disturbingly different from the crazy energy he once shared with the Red Sox at Fenway. But instead of rallying the Yankees, Damon was met with silence.

That, and a cold stare across the room from Randy Johnson. Damon was so unnerved by the apathy, he later asked a team official, “Did I do something wrong?”

Sadly, that incident serves as a microcosm of the 2006 Yankees, and is why George Steinbrenner will soon fire Joe Torre. Despite the billion dollars he’s spent since the last world championship in 2000, The Boss has only a series of October failures to show for it. The Yankees are rich, but soft. They can hit, but not when it counts. They talk about pinstripe tradition, but the roster is plagued by petty rivalries and jealousies that act as a cancer in the postseason.

Derek Jeter can’t stand Alex Rodriguez and refuses to come to his defense. Mike Mussina doesn’t like A-Rod, either, although, come to think of it, the Stanford grad hasn’t much use for any of his teammates. No one talks to Johnson. Everyone thinks Carl Pavano is a joke. The Yankees’ best pitcher, Chien-Ming Wang, is isolated by his limited knowledge of English.

On and on, the list of dysfunctions keeps going. Instead of a dynasty, the Yankees have become a newer version of the Braves – consistently outplayed by younger, hungrier teams such as the Diamondbacks (2001), the Angels (2002 and 2004), the Marlins (2003) and now the Tigers.

Steinbrenner has only two choices now: He can fire Torre or trade A-Rod. They’re the ones who must answer to the Yankees’ consistent underachievement.

By all accounts, The Boss already has decided it’s Torre who’ll go, ready to replace him with Lou Piniella. Brian Cashman will lobby to keep Torre, whom he considers a personal friend, but in this case, the general manager will be outvoted and the end of the Torre regime will come “in the next 24 to 48 hours” according to one person familiar with Steinbrenner’s thinking.

Torre spent most of 11 seasons turning the Yankees into a class, mature organization that was once the envy of the industry. But little by little, his magic has dissolved. The Yankees have become addicted to the All-Star-at-every-position philosophy, and the bloating that’s followed is found in more than just the payroll. The Yankees’ egos are such that they no longer hustle their way to victories. Instead, they’ve been relying on nuclear superiority.

Most of the time, it worked. That lineup was indeed the best the American League has seen in decades, maybe ever. But there’s still no substitute for hard work and old school enthusiasm. When the Yankees ran into a young team that refused to be intimidated, such as the Tigers, “They just curled up and died” said one major league executive. The Yankees somehow became convinced they could win by simply being the Yankees. They had no Plan B, and that’s because Torre was so withdrawn from his troops.

Say this much for Joe Cool. He refused to fake his way through temper tantrums. He’s not that kind of manager or person. But the Yankees need new fire now, which is why Piniella is warming up in the bullpen.

There are risks here, of course. Sweet Lou isn’t nearly as media savvy as Torre and is certain to let his famous temper betray him sooner or later. The old newspaper wars with The Boss already are peeking over the horizon. But in the short term, he is exactly what the Yankees need.

Piniella also may be Rodriguez’s last hope in New York. Finally, there’ll be someone to act as A-Rod’s advocate since it was never going to be Jeter, and it was obvious that Torre had no use for the third baseman, either. The decision to bat A-Rod in the Nos. 6 and 8 spots in the ALDS was an open declaration by Torre that he’d given up coddling A-Rod. It was Torre’s way of telling Steinbrenner: It’s him or me.

And that was the ultimatum that likely will lcost Torre his job.

Maybe the Yankees will morph into a different team now. Maybe Piniella can get in peoples’ faces the way he used to in the ’80s. Maybe he can get A-Rod to stop feeling sorry for himself. Maybe Piniella can get Yankee fans off Rodriguez’s back, too.

But if Sweet Lou replaces Torre, the first order of business will be to instill the old code of Yankee toughness that was the signature of the Billy Martin era. One scout who’s watched the Yankees this year said, “It used to be that teams were afraid of the Yankees, but not anymore.”

The Yankees never looked as tight as they did in Game 4 against the Tigers, which is exactly how they played Game 7 of the 2004 League Championship Series against the Red Sox, which was a clone of Game 4 against the Angels in last year’s ALDS. Coincidence? Not anymore. It’s become a pattern of failure.

Each time, Torre took the high road, refusing to blame anyone in the clubhouse. He’s a good man who deserved greater effort from his millionaires. But it’s also true that a team assumes the personality of its manager; the Yankees took Torre’s calm and used it as an excuse to become docile.

The result? Everyone on the block knows the Yankees will crumble if you stand up to them.

And you know what they say about a bully: He’s just a coward turned inside out.


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