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May 14, 2006

Given a chance, Crosby is ready, thanks to Mattingly

By Johnette Howard

Don Mattingly would tell you he was just doing his job as Yankees hitting coach. But even so, he waited a while last season to tell Bubba Crosby what he was thinking.

Crosby had a lot on his mind as he was yo-yoing between the Yankees and the minor leagues. Mattingly, who was in his first year as a Yankees coach himself, certainly could've said he had more important players to concentrate on. But he didn't.

The kid was trying to stick in the big leagues. And something Mattingly saw in Crosby's game kept gnawing at him. He took a special interest in the kid.

"I finally went up to him and said, 'Bubba, we gotta talk,'" Mattingly recounted yesterday.

What has happened since is one of those under-the-radar stories that are easy to overlook until the star-studded Yankees find themselves in a situation like the one they're in now.

Leftfielder Hideki Matsui fractured his wrist Thursday and is out for months, perhaps the season. Rightfielder Gary Sheffield is on the 15-day disabled list with a sore wrist. Crosby - the Yankees' perennial boy on the bubble, a player who knows a trip to the minors could always be a day away - is one of the last outfielders the Yankees have standing.

The help Mattingly has been giving him not only could mean a few more wins for the team in this time of need, it could be the difference between Crosby having a 10-year big-league career or being one of those guys who just quietly fade away.

See, everyone knows having to rely on someone like Crosby is not the sort of position the Yankees usually find themselves in. When everyone was healthy and Bernie Williams was the DH, the Yankees' 2006 batting order featured past All-Stars in the first eight batting order slots. When the Yankees lose someone important, the expectation is always that they'll go out and get another star to plug in, not risk the high stakes they're playing for - not even for a few weeks - by writing someone like Crosby into the everyday lineup, then being patient.

Crosby knows all that, of course. In a clubhouse full of Bentleys and Jaguars, he's the equivalent of a Camry. The car you drive only when you have to.

In a way, it's made Crosby a sympathetic figure, someone fans root for. He's been the guy who keeps getting knocked down and getting back up.

Crosby has never exactly said he was devastated when the Yankees signed Johnny Damon to fill their centerfield void after saying they were very content to go with Crosby as the starter. But deep down, it had to hurt, even if he couldn't have been surprised.

It is harder to rationalize Joe Torre's decision to start recent call-up Melky Cabrera, whose accomplishments can't even match Crosby's, in Matsui's place.

Crosby is back to feeling as if every day is an audition. All he said yesterday is, "In my situation, there is pressure."

So when Mattingly came to him last season, Crosby was willing to listen. Mattingly told him he needed to do a reckoning of himself and realize "how important it is to be realistic about yourself as a player."

Crosby stands only 5-11 but appears two inches shorter. He'll never make a living hitting home runs. So the uppercut that he had developed had to go, Mattingly said. They've replaced it with a shorter swing that allows Crosby to ride out long stretches out of the lineup better, make more contact, take more advantage of his speed.

"He's not going to make any money hitting the ball to leftfield [in the air] or even to centerfield in the air like he was," Mattingly said of Crosby, still a work in progress. "He's a guy who can play all three outfield positions, run, steal a base for you. There's a place in this league for guys like him. He's a player. What I told him was, 'This is going to help you.' "

It did help him last September, as he went 7-for-15 in one stretch and added a walk-off homer against Baltimore en route to hitting a respectable .276. He's hitting .259 this year, but since April 26, he's 7-for-22.

Crosby still won't make anyone forget Matsui or Sheffield. And Torre, for now, is more inclined to start Williams and Cabrera ahead of Crosby, noting that perhaps Cabrera will turn into the rookie sensation that Robinson Cano was last year.

For the second straight game, the Yankees got all their runs on homers yesterday, refuting the idea that life without Matsui is going to necessitate more small ball. But if it does, Crosby is ready. More than he's ever been.

Said Torre, "He's certainly given us a reason to play him."