The Boss and I, we go way back. George probably doesn’t know it, but on July 30, 1990, I was sitting in Yankee Stadium as the crowded cheered his suspension from baseball.
That was, of course, before the glory days of the 1990s when, all of a sudden, Yankee fans got used to winning. We couldn’t criticize Steinbrenner anymore because his money was responsible for the lust we as fans had for winner. And year after year, the players his dollars put on the field fulfilled our basic yearning for World Series titles.
Now here we sit in 2007, and the last time the Yanks won the World Series, I was in high school. But despite years of post-season losses, it’s hard to grow disillusioned. The Yanks have made the playoffs every year since 1995. They’ve lost some close series, won some close series and have provided a generation of Yankee fans with new memories of postseason heroics.
But something else is happening in 2007, something off the field that will shape the Yanks for years to come. The end of the George Steinbrenner Era is upon us. Over at Yanks Fan vs. Sox Fan, Peter Abraham sat down for a virtual interview. During the exchange, Abraham dropped this gem:
I think we are already at the post-Steinbrenner phase. His health is one of the most closely guarded stories in sports and that is obviously because it is fading. I believe that Brian Cashman, Randy Levine and Steve Swindal make 95 percent of the decisions and once George gives up his title or passes away, Swindal will be the man in charge with Cashman at his side. I like Steve a lot, his recent arrest aside. I think he will do what is right. But I don’t believe you’ll see the Yankees with a payroll $50 million higher than any other team.
Of course, Abraham isn’t the only one noting Steinbrenner’s waning power and health. Ken Auletta, in a recent New Yorker piece about Howard Rubenstein, noted that the PR guru has done all he can to shield a frail Steinbrenner from the press and public. Memory loss, old age, it doesn’t matter. It’s clear that Steinbrenner is not the force he once was, and personal feelings toward Steinbrenner aside, his is a fate I would wish on no one.
The end of George’s reign as emperor of the Evil Empire evokes some nostalgia in me and fear for the team’s future. Luckily, the fear has been quickly assuaged, but I’ll get to that shortly. The nostalgia, on the other hand, won’t fade. George has always been part of the Yankees circus. Even as they tore through the leagues in the late 1990s, a George eruption or some backhanded statement-cum-threat was just a long losing streak away.
When the Yankees won in the 1990s, there was George sitting front and center basking in the adulation. Maybe he hogged the spotlight a little too much since it was, after all, Paul O’Neill and Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams and many others who brought the trophies to New York. The Boss just signed the checks. But he was out there grinning just like the rest of us were.
In the 2000s, the Yankees’ performance, their wild spending and Steinbrenner’s declining health seemed to go hand-in-hand. Steinbrenner began to issue vague statements about “true Yankees” (Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi) and “warriors” (Gary Sheffield and Carl Pavano). He made moves to get Raul Mondesi and Randy Johnson. He became baseball’s own Veruca Salt. He wanted to lock the whole world up in his pocket. He wanted it now.
Life even imitated satire. A 2003 article in The Onion read, “Yankees ensure 2003 pennant by signing every player in baseball.” Two years later, with the arrival of Randy Johnson, The Onion seemed strangely prescient.
Steinbrenner’s free spending and wild antics were good for the fans too. We saw a powerhouse team that could score six runs a game take the field every night. We saw some of the game’s best pass through the hallowed halls of Yankee Stadium. We saw four million fans trek up the Bronx for a glimpse at the Yankees. We saw World Championships and bitter, historic defeats. And that’s where the doubt creeps in.
As George Steinbrenner fades from the Bronx and a new management team take over, will the Yankees be as willing to poor their financial resources out on to the field? Will they maintain at win-at-all-costs strategy? I don’t know, but I’m afraid the temptation to pocket some more profit may come into play.
In that interview, Abraham notes that the Yanks’ payroll will come down a bit. When the team outpays their competitors by $50 or $70 million and overpays for marginal talent, it’s okay for the payroll to decrease. But the payroll shouldn’t decrease to the detriment of the team on the field.
So far, Brian Cashman has shown he can built a win-now and win-later team. The Yanks have plenty of young talent climbing through the ranks of their farm system and, pitching doubts aside, have an overabundance of Major League All Stars filling out their 25-man roster.
If Cashman, Levine and Swindal keep it up, the Yanks can leverage their financial power as the number one team in the number one media market in the country. They can leverage their baseball operations knowledge to construct a solid on-field Major League product and a wealthy young farm system spewing out prospects.
But for the fans, as George fades away and the Yanks are left in new hands, we the fans are going to wonder. George Steinbrenner and his wallet provided us with comfort. His spending was our security blanket, and that security blanket is gone. As this era ends and a new one begins, I hope we see smart baseball moves and smart spending. I do after all want that elusive 27th World Championship just as much as the Boss has yearned for it since we were a few outs away in 2001. I want it now.