Failing health diminishes the boss' Yankee presence

NEW YORK - George Steinbrenner's declining health is an open secret in New York Yankees quarters now. No longer must discretion rule the day. From here at Yankee Stadium to the club's Tampa, Fla., offices, team employees theorize about the principal owner's precise medical condition.

With so many questions looming about both the titular boss and his kingdom, it made sense that the woeful Yankees marked Steinbrenner's 77th birthday Wednesday with a 6-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium. George couldn't even enjoy the short-term euphoria of a three-game winning streak, not with "Best-Pitcher-on-the-Planet" Johan Santana on the mound for the bad guys.

"Today was a quality game," Yankee manager Joe Torre said afterward, and shortstop Derek Jeter noted that the team has played better the last few days. Of course, back in the day, Steinbrenner would have spat upon such empty verbiage, especially with the schedule now halfway complete and the Yankees posting a 39-42 record.

Alas, Yankees fans yearning for "the George of old" - and there are a lot of you out there - might as well wish for the Yankees to sign the Loch Ness Monster to play first base. It won't happen, because it can't happen.

n A-Rod may skip All-Star game: Alex Rodriguez hasn't decided whether he will play in Tuesday's All-Star game or use the three-day break to rest his strained hamstring.

The Yankees slugger, who leads the major leagues with 28 homers and 80 RBIs, topped fan voting for the game in San Francisco with 3.89 million votes. He hurt his left hamstring Monday night when he tripped over Twins first baseman Justin Morneau's ankle while beating out a potential double play.

"I told the guys I'll let them know Saturday ... but if I feel like this, probably not," Rodriguez said Wednesday. The third baseman added he would still go to the All-Star game even if he decides not to play.

n Smoltz to return to Atlanta with shoulder discomfort: John Smoltz will return to Atlanta on Thursday and meet with Braves doctors about his right shoulder discomfort.

The 40-year-old pitcher will likely skip his final start before the All-Star break, which begins Monday. Smoltz will meet with doctors Friday to discuss what type of test is appropriate, the team said.

Smoltz (9-5, 3.07 ERA) was selected to his eighth NL All-Star team Sunday. The game is Tuesday in San Francisco.

n Dodgers' staff continues to thin : The Dodgers' pitching staff took another hit Wednesday when Randy Wolf, one of three starters with at least eight victories, went on the 15-day disabled list because of soreness in his left shoulder.

Wolf joins starter Hong-Chih Kuo, who was demoted to the minors last weekend and went on the DL on Wednesday. Right-hander Jason Schmidt is already out for the season after elbow surgery, and reliever Yhency Brazoban is sidelined because of a strained right shoulder.

Wolf (9-6) will have an MRI today and will miss his next scheduled start Sunday. He departed after three innings against Atlanta on Tuesday because of tenderness in his shoulder.

Reliever Joe Beimel remained in the hospital Wednesday while undergoing further tests after complaining of heart palpitations during batting practice Tuesday. The left-hander has no history of heart problems and initial testing did not show a cause, a team spokesman said.