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For Shane, It's Now Or Never

Today

Vs. Tigers

7:30 p.m

TV: MSG

Radio: WABC (770)

Shane Spencer has one more month, at most, to prevent the Yankees

from trading for Detroit's Bobby Higginson or another everyday

outfielder, to prove that he can be that guy. And that's about as ironic

as any situation you'll find with the Yankees these days.

It was Spencer's monster month last September, when he batted .421

with eight home runs and 21 RBI, that was supposed to guarantee him a

chance to be a regular in the big leagues this season. Yet, as of today,

Spencer's been to the minors and back once already, he hasn't started

more than seven consecutive games and he has only 93 at-bats, which

isn't even a month's worth.

Spencer's been a victim of several circumstances, including his own

failure in spot duty, a bout with salmonella and Don Zimmer's choppy use

of the leftfielders the first six weeks of the season.

And exactly none of that matters now.

The Yankees have held exploratory conversations with the Tigers

about Higginson, whose lefthanded bat would be extremely dangerous at

the Stadium, and have talked to other clubs as well. Spencer can stop

the talks with his own bat, but he's only got until July 31, the

non-waiver trading deadline, at the latest. He didn't invite the

challenge, but he's not shying away from it either.

"I don't care about pressure," Spencer said Sunday in Baltimore. "I

wish I had bases loaded, two outs and a chance to win the game every

at-bat."

That's fun, Spencer recognizes, playtime for pay. It's nothing like

the pressures he's experienced in the rest of his universe lately.

Spencer's grandmother, with whom he was extremely close, died two

weeks ago yesterday in Shirley, Ark., where Spencer's mother had cared

for her the past five years. Annie was 81, and including the great-great

variety, she had 78 grandchildren.

"She had another three on the way," Spencer said. "They start young

in Arkansas."

Annie's funeral was two days later, or more precisely, three days

after Joe Torre had given Spencer a chance to play every day. Having no

idea how many more chances like that he'd get, Spencer chose his job

over attending the funeral. His mother understood and supported the

decision, but Shane knew she was hurting and could use his support.

"She cried when she heard the national anthem the first time she saw

me in New York," he said.

Around the same time, Spencer took stock of his own life and broke

up with his girlfriend of 2 1/2 years, a relationship she thought was

headed for marriage. He knew that wasn't going to happen and he wanted

to devote more time to baseball, to hanging out in the clubhouse longer

before and after work, but the decision still weighed on him, distracted

him.

Millions of Americans deal with the same stuff every day, but that

doesn't make it easier for a 27-year-old man, especially one who has a

month to save his job. No matter how heroic he was on the ballfield last

September, he's made of flesh and blood.

Compartmentalizing your emotions, Torre says, is the hardest part of

sports.

"That's why it's tough to play this game," Torre said. "You try to

put things here, here, here, and as an athlete, you do, but it's very

difficult."

Spencer thinks he's got a handle on it now. He met with Torre last

week in Tampa to talk about his situation, and in retrospect, Torre says

he noticed Spencer swung the bat poorly those few days after his

grandmother's death. But since they talked, Spencer is 7-for-22 with

three home runs, including a game-winner, a double and four RBI. "Now

I'm ready to play," Spencer said. "I'm not making excuses, but now I'm

ready."

He has to be. He's only got a month to prove it.

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