Reflections on the end of the Steinbrenner era

Josh Phelps can help this team
Pettitte to miss bullpen, start with back spasms

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.

Josh Phelps can help this team
Pettitte to miss bullpen, start with back spasms
  • SBS1981

    why all the hating on wang?

    Here’s the biggest non-battle on this list, though it probably should be more hotly contested than Joe Torre has allowed it to be. Because of financial considerations, it’s a near certainty that Pavano and Igawa will be the Yankees’ fourth and fifth starters to begin the year. (Frankly, I think it’s pretty funny to listen to NYC radio and hear how confident Yankee fans are that their rotation is improved this year; Mike Mussina was great in ’06, but he’s 38, Andy Pettitte was awful for the 2006’s first half, and Chien-Ming Wang isn’t going to post an ERA under 4.00 again.) As for Pavano and Igawa, one is extremely unpopular in the locker room and has 1,001 excuses for his failures, and the other has never thrown a baseball in MLB. Before Monday, Karstens had outperformed them both this spring:

    where does he get off saying that wang won’t have an ERA under 4? the guy has been fantastic and will only get better? and while i can’t stand pavano, how can he trash igawa for not pitching in the majors so far while the entire world slurps matsuzaka even though he is in the same situation? so sick of anti-yankee bias.

  • nyyfaninlaaland

    I keep hearing about all this payroll cutting, but the Yanks are likely to start ’07 with an Opening Day payroll about equal to the year before. The trades of Sheff and Unit get the attention of all, but the addition of Abreu during last season and AP have replaced those salaries. Hopefully there won’t be the need for other injury induced add-ons this season, meaning a lower payroll at year end and for Lux Tax purposes, but to start we’re not down, regardless of Cashman’s quotes.

    And ’08 doesn’t promise significant reductions, unless A-Rod opts out. We’re likely to retain Mo and Jorge, and if Abreu performs his option will likely be picked up. It’s gonna be hard for AP to walk away from $16 mil on his player option – that was the highest ’07 season salary offered to any FA this offseason. All the other big numbers run through ’08. It’s not until ’09 where serious reductions might occur (Posada, Giambi, Abreu, Pettitte, Pavano, Mussina, Farnsworth could all be on the way out). But we’re also opening the new Stadium that season, so I don’t think the org is gonna want a bunch of turkeys out for that.

    Yeah, there’s cheaper kids coming, and the vets who are capable in ’09 will probably want to be there to ring in the House That George Built so might work at a discount or just redued rates due to advancing age. But we’re not folding up the tents and shutting down the teller windows just yet.

  • Superman

    If Igawa fails, don’t say prejudice things against Japanese

    I remember when Hideki Irabu failed as a Yankee, I used to read and hear Yankees fans everywhere saying all kinds of prejudice things against Japanese people. Things like “we should drop an atomic bomb on Irabu’s big fat belly.”

    I hope Igawa does well. But if he fails, don’t say prejudice things. You want to boo him, fine. If you want to say he was waste of money, fine. But don’t say prejudice things against Japanese people. It’s just plain old wrong……….. And for the record, I have no Japanese or Asian blood in my background.

  • Ben

    Guys! Seriously, this is NOT hard.

    This post is about George Steinbrenner. It doesn’t mention pitching; it doesn’t mention Kei Igawa or Hideki Irabu.

    Do not talk about them here.

    If you want to talk about pitching, go to the pitching post. We don’t want to moderate comments, but stay on topic. One request.

  • The College Baseball Blog

    The Yankees will not be the same without George. I am a sox fan and I really love to hate George. It is the reason why the Yankees are so hated in New England. I hope George just rides into the sunset peacefully and there is no major fight over the power of the Yankees.

  • wayne’s world

    Put away the hankies for that felon. The Yanks got good in the late 90’s when Steinbrenner was finally stopped from trading the young talent in the farm system for aging stars with declining skills. If Steinbrenner had been left to his own devices, he probably would have traded the core of that team away.

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