And why Hank and Hal won’t either
It’s always entertaining when New York Magazine, the tabloid of the city’s vibrant magazine world, pushes itself into the sports scene. Their pieces are so full of broad generalizations, sweeping proclamations and incorrect facts as to obscure any larger point the magazine might be trying to make.
This week, with the Yanks’ season nearing an end and the team sitting uncomfortably in fourth place, Chris Smith examines the current state of Yankee ownership and wonders if the Yankees are fading without George Steinbrenner around to right the ship. “As the tyrant fades away and his team fades with him,” the magazine’s headline writers say, “it has now become all too apparent that the Boss was really the straw that stirred the drink.”
The only problem with this argument is that it’s just not true, and we’re once again stuck with a tired media trope that, if repeated often enough, becomes accepted fact.
Smith’s argument starts out with some A+ revisionist history concerning George Steinbrenner. It was Steinbrenner’s outbursts, he says, that fueled the Yankees for all of those years. Never mind that Steinbrenner’s outbursts amounted to squat. Never mind the more important fact that the Yankees’ 1990s dynasty was assembled when George Steinbrenner was barred from baseball.
In his prime he was an imperious bully. But George Steinbrenner was also a bully with a vision, and his impatience and his money revived a moribund franchise and propelled the team to six world championships. Steinbrenner did a lot of mean-spirited and dumb things, but his sense of urgency permeated the organization. And not coincidentally, Steinbrenner took the Yankees from a threadbare castoff valued at $10 million to a thriving behemoth worth more than a billion dollars. The TV network he created, called YES, has become a bonanza, and next year, another Steinbrenner dream will come true—a state-of-the-art, cash-minting, $1.3 billion new stadium.
The official line is that George Steinbrenner remains deeply involved in decision-making. But he had become a less forceful presence even before he got sick. And now that he’s almost completely offstage, his children have been forced into running the show. The two sons, Hank and Hal, are divided by their twelve years and their very different personalities. More threatening to the long-term success of the team, however, is the heirs’ ambivalence about actually taking charge of the franchise. So a question that for 30 years had a laughably simple answer—who’s running the Yankees?— is instead more complicated than it was seven months ago, at the start of the season. What’s clear is that life after George is going to be very different for the Yankees—and, in some ways, far more difficult.
This line is so official that the answer to it doesn’t really matter. Who’s running the Yankees? For better for worse, as we’ve debated all season long, Brian Cashman is running the Yankees’ baseball operations. Sure, he’s running it with the tacit and not-so-tacit consent of the Steinbrenners, but when push comes to shove, the show is Cashman’s to run.
When the Yanks acquired Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte, that move originated with the GM. When the Yanks didn’t sign Gerrit Cole, Cashman’s assistant Damon Oppenheimer bore the brunt of the blame. The Front Office is its own functional unit, and while Smith can pine for the golden years of King George, the Yankees are better off with Cashman in charge.
Now, we know that Hank Steinbrenner seemingly likes to insert himself into baseball operations. Every time he talks, the Yankees’ Front Office follows through. Tampering on CC Sabathia? Sure. Win or else? Sure. Except that’s not true.
Because Hank, unlike his father, hasn’t backed up the blather by firing or blaming anyone inside the organization, he quickly went from endearing to irrelevant. One indelible indicator of how he’s viewed within the organization came from Suzyn Waldman, the fiercely loyal Yankees radio broadcaster. In May, during an interview on WFAN, Waldman casually said, “I don’t think anybody pays attention” to Hank’s pronouncements. Accurate as her analysis is, the fact that Waldman was willing to say it publicly, without worry of discipline by Yankees management, was a telling indication of the political dynamic: No one is scared of Hank.
Now, Hank isn’t irrelevant. He or Hal — it doesn’t really matter — signs the checks. But he can talk until he’s blue in the face; nothing happens because of it. That much is clear. The reason why he’s irrelevant, according to Waldman, is because no one’s paying attention. That’s not a complaint; it’s an indictment of the newspapers who keep putting Hank’s pontifications on the back pages. No one should be paying attention because his words alone don’t cause action. And that’s not a bad thing. When George would burst out, the Yanks would lose.
And then we move on to facts. Who needs them?
Cashman was prepared for 2008 to be a rocky transition year, and the team actually stayed in the race longer than many expected. Unfortunately, the youth movement Cashman championed has been a dud so far. Ownership may push him to reload fast: The Yankees could shed $85 million in payroll this winter, as contracts with past-their-prime players like Hideki Matsui come to an end.
The youth movement has been a dud because two pitchers didn’t do what we expected them to do. Meanwhile, the Yanks’ organization had arguably its best season since the early 1990s, and two of their teams have advanced to the playoffs. They’ve developed Joba Chamberlain; they’ve graduated a bunch of bullpen arms. The youth movement isn’t a one-year experiment, and even then, this year has been a guarded success. It’s going to pay dividends and soon.
Also, Hideki Matsui’s contract doesn’t end until after next year. Nothing like bad information to undermine your argument.
Of course, another possibility is more hot air. “Randy and Brian have put together a very functional leadership group,” says one prominent baseball agent. “Hank and Hal are more of an aggravation than anything. I don’t think Brian would be there after all these years if he couldn’t really run the club.” If the brothers decide to bring back Cashman, they will essentially be relegating themselves to figureheads.
As opposed to what they are now?
Smith’s article is designed to sell papers. It relies on the regular media caricatures to paint a picture of an organization that isn’t dysfunctional. As far as the fans are concerned, the year was not a good year for the Yanks. The team is a disappointment in that we all expect the Yanks to win every year. But in another regard, as a year of transition under a new manager and with a new plan focusing both on development and wise investment to build a team that can win more than once, this year was a step in the right direction. I don’t expect New York Magazine to pick up that point though.