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Bronx burns with questions

Latest failure casts Torre's future in doubt

NEW YORK - The Yankees have become one of the great mysteries of modern sports. All of that talent. All of those resources. And nothing to show. When was the last time they won a meaningful October game? 2003, Game 7 of the ALCS (the Grady Little-Pedro Martínez game) is probably your answer.

Consider their 2004 ALCS meltdown against the Red Sox - up, 3-0, only to lose the next four games in one of history's biggest chokes. Add the 2005 Division Series loss to the Angels. Then there was last year's miserable offensive performance against the Tigers in the Division Series. The latest failure was bowing to the Cleveland Indians in four games in this year's ALDS, sealed with last night's 6-4 loss in their home ballpark.

Add it up and you have a team that has put its fan base, its owner, and itself through a little bit too much pain.

If you're George or Hal or Hank Steinbrenner, or team president Randy Levine, the likely conclusion you will draw this morning is that you have probably seen enough.

The Yankees, facing the very beatable Paul Byrd in Game 4 with a chance to send the series back to Cleveland for a deciding game, whiffed on a few early opportunities to take control, while 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang pitched more like a 19-game loser, failing to get out of the second inning in the biggest start of his career after allowing nine hits and eight runs in 4 2/3 innings in Game 1.

George Steinbrenner issued an ultimatum to Joe Torre in the Bergen (N.J.) County Record Sunday morning - win the series or lose your job - and so it appears Torre's tenure, which includes four World Series titles, will come to an end after 12 years - unless someone in the organization can save him. As was the case last season.

Torre surely wants to stay on, but he became more reflective over the last couple of days.

"I'll go home for the next few days and enjoy the things I don't get to enjoy during the season," he said after last night's loss. "This will be my decompress time.

"I'd appreciate it if we had no vigils sitting outside my home like I had the last couple of years. You guys have me here and whatever you need, I'm here for you, but I appreciate the privacy."

The final chapter may come within 24 hours.

How can a team so stacked with high-priced veteran talent and very promising young players not be able to get out of the first round of the playoffs? How can such a team have lost 13 of its last 17 playoffs games?

Those are the questions that Torre and general manager Brian Cashman do not have answers to.

"When you manage players, they're like your children," said Torre. "Maybe some of them will make A's and some of them will make C's, but they work their butts off either way. And you hug them. That's the way I basically feel about those guys."

The Yankees battled injuries and fought back to capture the wild card with a very strong September - they won 22 of their last 30 games - but regular-season accomplishments don't really count in New York. Making the playoffs for a 13th straight season was significant, but when you've won four rings during the run, and you have the biggest payroll and the greatest expectations . . . the 21st century has not been kind.

"This club has a bright future," said Torre. "There's no question that the quality of the individuals is impressive."

Asked whether he wants to be part of that future, Torre said, "I'm not going there. This has been a great 12 years no matter what happens from here on out. I'll look back on these 12 years with great, great pleasure."

As they are set to open a new ballpark after next season, the Yankees likely need a new leader. Torre has been a tremendous manager, one whose calm, cool style was likely the reason the team didn't panic when it looked as though the Red Sox were going to win the AL East in a landslide for much of the season. Torre also has been a tremendous ambassador for the city and the sport, always walked with dignity, as difficult as things have been for him at times.

But Torre's demeanor also could be part of the reason the Yankees weren't able to find the spark to pull through when it counted the most.

Cashman should survive because he'll be able to point to the many young players who have come up through the system, ones he held onto rather than pawning them off for more high-priced veterans. Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Joba Chamberlain, and Phillip Hughes are players the Yankees will count on in the future.

Steinbrenner and Cashman have difficult decisions besides Torre.

If Torre is gone, they may consider Joe Girardi, Don Mattingly, or Larry Bowa to succeed him. This is a decision that could split the organization, as players are so against a Torre firing that they could protest by fleeing as free agents. Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Alez Rodriguez are in that boat. There's also an outside chance the Yankees could soften the blow by hiring Tony LaRussa if he decides not to return to St. Louis.

Rodriguez had one of the greatest seasons in recent memory with a .317 average, 54 homers, and 156 RBIs, but once again in the playoffs he struggled, shut down by C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona in Games 1 and 2. His seventh-inning home run last night accounted for his first postseason RBI in 55 at-bats.

Posada is the heart and soul of the team, and losing him would be hard. Rivera, perhaps the greatest closer of all time, came in with Torre. The Yankees hold a $16 million option on Bobby Abreu. They'll also have to decide whether to make Chamberlain a starter or keep him as Rivera's replacement.

Andy Pettitte will have to decide whether to return or retire.

"I haven't decided," Pettitte said. "The major reason I came here was because of Joe. I can't say what I'm going to do after this."

And Torre? What will he do?

"If I have some options, I'll look at it," he said, "because I'm certainly not ready to move somewhere and not do anything, I can tell you that."

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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