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YANKEES NOTEBOOK

Rivera's status for opener uncertain

NEW YORK -- Home in Panama following a terrifying accident that left two of his family members dead, Yankees star closer Mariano Rivera was absent from the club's early-afternoon workout at Yankee Stadium yesterday.

Manager Joe Torre said there's a chance the 34-year-old Rivera could return to the Bronx today, but he could not predict what the righthander's status would be for Game 1 of the ALCS tonight.

"If he's here, obviously it would be wonderful," said Torre, allowing for the possibility that Rivera might need more time at home in Puerto Caimito, where he and his wife Clara rushed to Sunday. "If he's not, then we understand that."

In the midst of the Yankees' celebration Saturday, following their ouster of the Twins in the Division Series, Rivera learned that his wife's cousin, 35-year-old Victor Dario Avila, along with Avila's 14-year-old son by the same name, were both electrocuted in a freak accident while tending to the swimming pool at Rivera's home.

According to numerous reports, the 14-year-old Avila, barefoot and standing on a wet deck beside the pool, errantly reached out and touched a newly installed electric fence. The charge coursed through the boy's body, and the elder Avila charged at him in hopes of breaking the connection. Both father and son were pronounced dead at the scene.

"This is a private matter for him," said Torre. "But he's a very public person, so it's really tough."

Rivera piled up a career-high 53 saves this season, and has had 40 or more in five of the last eight years.

"Ultimately, as we all know, his priority is to his family," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "When he left, we told him, `Just take the time you need -- as long as it takes. What's happening here is secondary.

"I think his plan is to try to be here. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen."

"I can't put myself in his exact shoes," said pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "But I think he'll handle it OK. This is an unusual circumstance, obviously, but I think he's trained himself over the years to block things out."

Whoa, daddy
Mike Mussina, who one or two lifetimes ago was on the Red Sox' wish list, will get the ball tonight, opposing Curt Schilling.

Well accustomed to the hype -- what New Yorker with at least one month's experience isn't? -- Mussina dismissed comments recently by Pedro Martinez in which the Sox veteran righthander said the Yankees own him, to the point that they are his "daddy."

"Do I have to comment on that, really?" said Mussina. "It's just something he said when he was frustrated. I mean, I'm sure he's going to hear it a lot [from Yankee fans in Game 2]. But he's still going to go out there and pitch a postseason game, so I know he's going to be prepared."

Mussina's father-in-law died March 1, an experience, he said, that allows him to understand some of what Rivera must be going through.

"It's going to be difficult," said Mussina. "I mean, your focus is not 100 percent there. It just can't be. Can he go out there and perform at the level we hope he can, and that he expects to be able to? I don't know. I don't think any of us can really know."

A comeback line
Veteran shortstop Derek Jeter held court with the media at his locker for as long as reporters wanted to talk to him. Asked the key to the Yankees rolling up a major league-record 61 come-from behind victories, the wry Jeter said, "Uh, falling behind early. That always helps." Also, when reminded of a spring training wish in which he hoped the AL title came down to a Red Sox-Yankee rematch, he said, "I said that?" And Jeter on Torre's success in the Bronx: "He doesn't treat everyone the same, and that's good, because everyone's different. But he does treat everyone fairly." . . . The hype and buzz around this matchup brought Torre back to his childhood in New York, when bad blood between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants ruled the day's headlines. "It's the love of the game" said Torre. "It's the need to go on, and I grew up with the Dodgers-Giants series. I hated the Dodgers even though I lived in Brooklyn, which wasn't safe to do because I was a Giants fan. It was on 12 months a year and you were arguing with your friends and it was an intensity. Jackie Robinson was traded to the Giants and then quit, all right. That gives you an idea that it was the last thing he wanted to do."

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