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Those Yankees: Ya Gotta Like 'em, Like It or Not

Historically, American sports fans have been divided into two camps: those who pledge their everlasting allegiance to the New York Yankees and those who consider them cod liver oil in cleats.

This athletic Mason-Dixon line finds one group enamored of the city's robust image, the team's General Motors-type tradition, and the regal quality of such legendary stars as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle. Another group, meanwhile, finds these qualities off-putting.

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A funny thing happened on the way to this year's World Series, though. The Yankees assembled a team that election-year politicians must envy for its potential to attract independents and cross-over supporters.

The pinstripers heading into Saturday's Series opener (against either St. Louis or Atlanta) in New York may be as likeable as any team in the club's long existence. Assuring it of wider public popularity than usual are Manager Joe Torre and the team's two top everyday players, centerfielder Bernie Williams and rookie shortstop Derek Jeter.

All three guys bring a certain air of grace, dignity, and humility to a sport that needs more of these qualities, as it continues to pick up the pieces after the fan-alienating 1994-95 work stoppage. Bob Costas and his fellow NBC broadcasters made no attempt to hide their satisfaction Sunday night in seeing the moist-eyed Torre gain a long-awaited date in the World Series.

Don't let Torre's deep-set, brooding dugout eyes fool you, Costas told viewers of New York's pennant-clinching victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Torre is a warm, classy man who people are only now happily "discovering."

Amid the euphoria in the visitors' clubhouse, Torre said that he had become accustomed to watching the World Series on a "20-inch television," never anticipating that he would be in that 20-inch picture this year.

"I thought when I got fired by the [St. Louis] Cardinals last year that that would be my last managing job," Torre said with no hint of bitterness. "Being asked to manage the Yankees was like a bonus. It's a team that will spend money to get players."

He went on to say that even working for demanding owner George Steinbrenner, who has changed managers 20 times since taking over the team in 1973, never created any anxious moments. Torre said that what he expects of himself was concern enough.

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Steinbrenner clearly liked the job Torre did even before playoff victories over Texas and Baltimore and announced that the Brooklyn native would stay on as manager, a vote of confidence that almost seemed superfluous.

Torre, who wears the World Series ring of brother Frank, a former Braves player who has been hospitalized for weeks, took over the highest paid team in baseball, yet one for which expectations were generally not all that high. Several key players (Don Mattingly, Jack McDowell, Mike Stanley, and Randy Velarde) were lost to retirement and free agency. Thanks to Torre's deft handling of a reconstructed roster, however, numerous new acquisitions have been melded with the holdovers to form a division champion.

Many observers viewed the arrival of seasoned vets like Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and Cecil Fielder with curiosity and a degree of skepticism. The latter two were added to beef up the team's long-ball power, a move that for a while appeared counterproductive. Few criticized it, though, after Strawberry and Fielder helped to propel the team to its 4-games-to-1 triumph over Baltimore in the American League Championship Series.

Fielder, the Michelin Man of major-league sluggers, joined Strawberry in uncorking home runs that fueled a six-run, third-inning rally, which effectively demoralized the Orioles Sunday and led to their 6-4 defeat and third straight loss before the Camden Yards faithful.

The only game that Baltimore won came in Yankee Stadium the day after New York won the disputed series opener (the contest in which 12-year-old Jeff Maier had a Andy Warhol moment deflecting a ball over the fence for a game-tying Yankee home run).

Torre actually predicted in spring training that the Yankees would win the division, a reflection of the confidence he had in his players, who pulled together to justify his faith in them and end his World Series drought.

In 36 years as a player and manger, Torred had never before made it to the Series, even in 1971, when he won a batting title playing for the contending St. Louis Cardinals. He initially entered the majors in 1961 with the Braves, shortly after brother Frank had helped the team to back-to-back World Series appearances.

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