Owner in Back Seat As Yankees Revive

NEW York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has managed to keep a low profile almost all season long, and look where his team is - battling neck-and-neck with the Toronto Blue Jays for first place in baseball's American League East.

His return to baseball, after being banned 2-1/2 years for associating with an admitted gambler, hardly started out quietly. A media circus greeted his grand entrance at spring training, and he allowed Sports Illustrated to trumpet his return by posing him in Napoleonic garb for the magazine's cover. Inside, he wore a robe bearing the message "The Boss is Back."

Thus far, however, Steinbrenner has left the Yankees' on-field fortunes in the hands of manager Buck Showalter - with none of the unsettling outbursts or firings for which the team's principal owner is famous. Who knows? If this keeps up, the Yankees could make the playoffs for the first time since 1981. ACC shapes soccer tradition

Basketball has long been king in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but the ACC has begun to stake its athletic reputation to another sport, too: soccer. Six member schools are rated among Soccer America magazine's preseason Top 20, led by top-ranked Virginia, which begins play this week and is seeking its third straight national title. Others on the list are Duke, Clemson, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, and North Carolina.

A long, mild fall, institutional commitment, excellent coaches, and football's nondominating posture help account for soccer's foothold in the mid-Atlantic region.

The women's programs in the ACC are also well established. Last year, for example, North Carolina beat Duke in the national championship game. Led by national team coach Anson Dorrance, the North Carolina women have monopolized the postseason during the past decade.

The pool of talented women players has begun to disperse, however, as calls for gender equity find schools paying greater attention to existing programs or adding new ones (more than 100 during the past five years). With 22-player rosters, soccer enlists the largest number of participants of any women's sport, a fact not lost on administrators painfully aware of football's huge rosters. Awkward timing for Stanford's Walsh

Roughly two weeks after the Pacific-10 Conference threw the book at the University of Washington's football team, penalizing it severely enough so that Coach Don James resigned, the Huskies open their season Saturday opposite one of the program's leading critics. Stanford coach Bill Walsh didn't bring Washington down, but he did accuse the school of fielding an "outlaw program."

He apologized for the remark, but given Walsh's prominence as a former coach of the San Francisco 49ers and a network TV analyst, the comment got wide play. For Walsh, therefore, walking into Husky Stadium so soon after the conference announced its two-year probation of Washington may be a ticklish task. Padres open scoring floodgate

The San Diego Padres briefly shrugged off their third-worst record in baseball last week to impersonate a major-league powerhouse. Against St. Louis, they scored 13 runs in the first inning during a 17-4 rout. Cardinal rookie Allen Watson, who was trying to become the first St. Louis pitcher since 1932 to win his first seven decisions, retired just two batters and gave up eight runs before heading for the showers. Game-fixing allegation jars hockey

The National Hockey League is investigating a report, denied by exiting team owner Bruce Firestone, alleging that four Ottawa Senators players were guaranteed special treatment in return for helping the team lose its last game. The defeat gave Ottawa the NHL's worst record (10-70-4) and the first draft pick. Even if this implausible-sounding story (which, strangely, does not implicate a goalie) proves false, the league surely will consider adopting the National Basketball Association's format, in which t he top draft spots are determined by a lottery of the league's lesser teams. The system was devised to discourage late-season tanking.

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