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Game 7 stages of grief

NEW YORK -- The Yankees embarked on Day 1 of what will be the most painful offseason in franchise history. Regret, second-guessing, self-doubt -- you name it, it'll be on George Steinbrenner's buffet table. Yankees employees are bracing for a blizzard of score-settling, although The Boss was off to a peaceful start on Thursday, issuing a statement congratulating the Red Sox and assuring GM Brian Cashman he'll be back in 2005.

Still, no one expects the Game 7 collapse to go unaddressed for very long. Even if Cashman survives a coup, he and the rest of the Yankees hierarchy will be on a Tampa-bound plane by next week, asked to explain an ALCS collapse that'll serve as the Yankees' permanent open wound.

Steinbrenner brushed by reporters who waited for him outside the stadium Wednesday night, but he hung around long enough to see friends and family of the Red Sox celebrating on the infield, posing for pictures at home plate. On the streets outside the ballpark, thousands of Red Sox fans reveled in the Yankees' demise, as if some corrupt regime had just been overthrown.

One by one, the Yankees voiced their regret, although not one of them took responsibility. Not Alex Rodriguez, who closed out the series going 2-for-17. Not Gary Sheffield, who was 1-for-17 after being quoted calling the Red Sox "a walking disaster." Not Kevin Brown or Javier Vazquez, who combined to put the Yankees in a 6-0 crisis in the second inning in Game 7.

Not even Joe Torre looked inward, despite a wobbly series. He told reporters on Thursday, "There's nothing I'd re-do, with the information we had at the time."

He was referring to every one of his critical decisions, including his choice of Vazquez to replace Brown in the second inning. Did Torre somehow forget that Vazquez had allowed Johnny Damon two home runs on June 29, or that his troubled right-hander had allowed 33 HRs in 2004, the most of any Yankees pitcher? Did Torre consider the consequences of Vazquez grooving a fastball to Damon, which he predictably did with the bases loaded?

That 6-0 deficit indeed ruined the Yankees, who spent six innings demonstrating just how wide the gulf was between them and the 1996-2000 core. Other than Derek Jeter, no Yankee got the ball out of the infield against Derek Lowe. Instead, the images of the Yankees' lack of heart were everywhere -- from Hideki Matsui leading off the second inning swinging at a borderline 2-0 pitch, despite being down by six runs; to A-Rod being booed by Yankees fans after his final at-bat of the season; to Tom Gordon, who, according to one team source, was so unnerved by October pressure that he was throwing up in the bullpen during Game 6.

Of course, Torre can also argue that he delivered the Yankees to the doorstep of a sweep. And he's right: Mariano Rivera was standing on the mound with a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 4. It's not Torre's fault that Rivera issued Kevin Millar a five-pitch walk that eventually tied the game and sent it into extra innings.

But in Game 5, Torre inexplicably allowed the shriveling Gordon to keep pitching in the eighth inning after David Ortiz's leadoff HR. Rivera, who was already warming up, remained in the bullpen as Gordon walked Millar and allowed Trot Nixon a hit-and-run single that put runners on first and third. Only then did Torre make a move, asking Rivera to accomplish a miracle -- keeping the Red Sox from tying the game, which he could not.

Later, in the 13th inning, the Yankees were strangely passive after Sheffield reached base on a strikeout-passed ball. Torre never gave Sheffield the chance to take advantage of Jason Varitek's unfamiliarity with Tim Wakefield's knuckleball. Had Sheffield stolen second, instead of being erased on Matsui's subsequent fielder's choice, he might've been on third and scored on another Varitek passed ball later in the inning.

A day later, some Yankees quietly wondered why Torre had become so conservative. One theory is that he missed Don Zimmer, who in the words of one AL scout was the "risk-taker" in the Yankees' war room for eight years. Without Zimmer, and with rookie bench coach Willie Randolph at his side, Torre gave away the initiative, forcing the Yankees into a die-or-die circumstance in Game 7.

For once, the players didn't respond to the manager's calm reminder that they, not the Red Sox, were the American League's best regular-season team. They, not Boston, won the East. And the Yankees were the ones with the October pedigree, not the Sox. Just to reinforce the point, Steinbrenner trotted out Bucky Dent to deliver the ceremonial first pitch and had Yogi Berra catch it.

It was touching, but nevertheless desperate. Despite having the home-field advantage in the last two games, the Yankees never led, making you wonder if the Bombers of the Tino Martinez-Paul O'Neill-David Cone era would've ever gone down so quietly. Steinbrenner will obviously spend wildly to nudge the Yankees closer to their golden era formula, even though $170 million is already committed to next year's payroll.

The Yankees will likely sign Carlos Beltran and trade Vazquez, even if it means absorbing a large portion of the $35 million that's owed him. And Brown will never pitch for the Yankees again, even if the Yankees have to summon the Salvation Army to cart him away, along with the $15 million he's owed in 2005.

The money is limitless, but what did it get Steinbrenner in 2004? For $184 million, the Yankees became the equivalent of a '70s-era gas guzzler -- huge and loud and impossible to ignore. But step on the pedal, as the Yankees did in Game 7, and there was nothing under the hood.

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.