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, 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 we're as dubious as everyone else that Damon's fun-loving attitude 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 ...
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.