Syd Thrift and the suddenly thrifty George Steinbrenner were an odd fit in 1989


The 1980s were not the best years in Yankees history. Even though New York won more games (854) than any other team during the decade — the Tigers were next with 839 wins, so it wasn’t a small gap between first and second — the club did not go to the postseason from 1982-89 and only three times did they finish higher than third place in the AL East. That came after four pennants and two World Series titles from 1976-1981.

The Yankees went 85-76 in 1988, only the the second time they finished with a sub-.530 winning percentage since 1975. They won 97 games in 1985, 90 games in 1986, 89 games in 1987, and then those 85 games in 1988. It was not a good trend and George Steinbrenner wasn’t happy. The team underwent a bit of a facelift that offseason as Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph were cut loose, Jack Clark and Rick Rhoden were traded away, and Steve Sax and Andy Hawkins were signed as free agents. The club also tried and failed to trade for Dale Murphy and Lenny Dykstra.

Steinbrenner’s most notable move came in the middle of Spring Training in 1989, when he named Syd Thrift the new vice president of baseball operations. Thrift had been the GM of the Pirates from 1985-88, inheriting a team that won 57 games in 1985 and building them into an 85-win contender by 1988. Although he wasn’t around to see it, Thrift laid the foundation for the Pittsburgh clubs that went to three straight NLCSes from 1990-92. Steinbrenner wanted him to work the same sort of magic for the Yankees.

The Yankees started the 1989 season 1-7 and were 11-12 when Thrift made his first major move, trading young left-hander Al Leiter to the Blue Jays on April 30th for Jesse Barfield. Barfield was an impending free agent who was three years removed from his career 40-homer year. The team had refused to trade Leiter all offseason. ”Leiter has a great future, but when you can trade a young unproven pitcher for an everyday player, you do it every time,” said Thrift to Murray Chass.

New York went 11-15 in their next 26 games and were all but out of the race by June 1st. In early-July, in advance of the trade deadline, Steinbrenner decided to cut costs. He didn’t allow Thrift to travel to scout players. “We’re cutting back on expenses,” said the Boss to the New York Daily News. “We’re trying to run this thing like a business. Nobody ever pointed a finger at George Steinbrenner and said he’s cheap. But we have a budget, like any business, and we have to stick to it.”

The Yankees had a $20M payroll at the time, highest in the AL, plus they were spending a healthy amount on scouting and player development. “That’s almost $7.3M for player development and scouting alone,” added Steinbrenner. “I don’t think any other team has that high a budget. And that doesn’t include an $800,000 payroll for scouts, $435,000 in travel and expenses for scouts, the cost of computer hardware. It’s just too much, and we’re going to have to cut back.”

Thrift. (AP)
Thrift. (AP)

It was an odd move, to say the least. One source told the Daily News that Steinbrenner “has the biggest private television contract in the history of professional sports and he’s saving money by keeping Thrift in his office … To keep him in New York is definitely self-defeating.” Another said “Syd’s main strength is that he is an evaluator of talent. He has to see what’s going on. George has even stopped him from going to Columbus overnight to see the farm system. Why did the man even hire him?”

So, while stuck in his office, Thrift helped engineer trades that sent Rickey Henderson back to the Athletics — Henderson reported to Spring Training late and was an impending free agent who had been a malcontent for much of the summer — and Mike Pagliarulo to the Padres prior to the trade deadline. Henderson brought back Luis Polonia and two relievers (Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret), Pags the forgettable right-hander Walt Terrell.

The Yankees went 10-19 from the date of the Henderson trade through August 19th, when Steinbrenner fired manager Dallas Green. Green, like Thrift, wanted to rebuild the team through player development. Thrift refused to publicly support the managerial change, and, less than two weeks later on August 30th, he resigned as senior vice president. He was only five months into his five-year contract.

“He talked to me for a long time earlier today and said that his reasons for leaving the Yankees were personal and as far as I am concerned, they will remain personal,” said Steinbrenner to reporters. The Yankees went on to finish the season at 74-87, their worst record since going 72-90 in 1967.

From the start, Thrift and Steinbrenner were an odd fit. Thrift had the resume and was an old school baseball man who, despite trading Leiter (Leiter almost immediately blew out his shoulder in Toronto), wanted to build the team from within, as he had done with the Pirates. He and Green were on the same page.

Steinbrenner, however, was an instant gratification guy who wanted immediate results. Both he and Thrift also had outsized personalities that clashed and clashed often. Cutting back on the scouting budget was as much about making Thrift’s life miserable as it was cutting costs. It was a relationship that was doomed to fail from the start.

Steinbrenner, Torre, and Martin on Hall of Fame’s Expansion Era ballot

George Steinbrenner, Joe Torre, and Billy Martin are part of the 12-man Hall of Fame ballot to be voted on by the 16-member Expansion Era Veterans Committee next month. Marvin Miller and former Yankee Tommy John are also on the ballot, which you can see right here. Twelve votes are required for induction. Electees will be announced on December 9th, the first day of the Winter Meetings in Orlando. The Boss should be a lock, but who really knows with this stuff.

A non-inclusive list of things George Steinbrenner hasn’t done since 2010

Ghost Boss.
Ghost Boss.

When the Yanks completed their series to forget against the Mets last night, I knew someone would write it, and of course, Ian O’Connor drew the short straw. Keep in mind that George Steinbrenner had not been well for some time and passed away at the age of 80 in 2010. Allow me then to present a non-inclusive list of things the Boss would have done if he were still alive.

If the Boss were alive…

Perhaps it’s time to put this tired trope to bed.

On realistic expectations

There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, that George Steinbrenner would have been furiously scrutinizing the Yankees organization had they been eliminated from the postseason in the ALDS round. His wrath would have probably begun by challenging the players’ performance (not to mention, their resolve), and ultimately wound its way through each level of management. After a few tension filled weeks of wondering who the latest casualty of the proverbial chopping block would be, decisions would be made and life in Yankeeland would continue.

After all, winning championships was second only to breathing in Steinbrenner’s book. Consequently, ever since Steinbrenner took charge, New York has experienced a culture shift like no other franchise had before (in my opinion). Winning became valued above all else; so much so, that anything short of a championship was deemed a failure — a failure deserving of immediate recourse. Of course, this model appealed to a large population of fans who sought immediate compensation every time they experienced “disappointment” (despite the fact that the Yankees enjoyed far more overall success than many other organizations).  Obviously, it frustrated many fans as well as organizational moves weren’t always well thought out.

Unfortunately, this mentality revolves around extremely lofty expectations that are nearly impossible to fulfill (which makes the Yankee dynasty years all the more incredible). It has also led to a lot of very shortsighted, reactionary decisions over the years. My generally-very-level-headed-colleagues were petitioning, on Friday, for the immediate removal of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher (because that’s simple!) since they “sucked and weren’t clutch.” Despite the fact that the pitching staff did a largely brilliant job, Girardi received more than his fair share of criticism as well.  How dare he pull Ivan Nova?  How dare Nova not show more grit and deal with a little arm discomfort?  It wasn’t just the knuckleheads at work though; a not-so-rational Twitterland was in full freak out mode the day after the Bombers stranded eleven on base and lost the game.

While Hal Steinbrenner’s recent comments weren’t quite as provocative as his father’s undoubtedly would have been back in the day, they still managed to reinforce the “win all or bust” mantra. Steinbrenner remarked, “I personally share in our fans’ disappointment that this season has ended without a championship. That is, and always will be, our singular goal every season. I assure you that this disappointment will strengthen our resolve to field a team in 2012 that can bring a twenty-eighth championship to the Bronx. That work starts now.”

Personally, I see this type of passion as something of a double-edged sword. Sure, as fans, we invest ourselves whole-heartedly. We love our team. We bleed pinstripes. When they win, we win. When they lose, we lose. Or, at least, that’s how it feels to us. It’s also great that the team constantly strives for success and is willing to improve each offseason; I think that’s what all successful organizations should do.  Perhaps, though, we may want to consider another shift in culture though. Maybe if we can shift our expectations slightly, we can once again appreciate how much effort it takes to simply have the opportunity to win a championship year in and year out. World Series are the ultimate thrill, but making the playoffs and witnessing a representative effort is still pretty exciting too.

The Boss Files: George Steinbrenner, FBI informant

Updated (Tuesday, 12:51 a.m.): In order to gain a pardon for his 1974 conviction stemming from illegal political campaign contributions, George Steinbrenner helped the FBI on “certain highly confidential national security and criminal justice matters” throughout the 1970s and 1980s, documents released today show. As the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press reported, the documents were released in response to a FOIA request at the time of Steinbrenner’s death, and they highlight how Steinbrenner worked with the Bureau and NYPD over the span of 11 years to help clear his reputation. Anyone interested can read them all right here.

One of the more intriguing files released was a memo from a discussion Steinbrenner had with the FBI about his conviction. Steinbrenner in the late 1970s, blamed his lawyers for “advising him to make the illegal campaign contributions.” He thus tried to secure the pardon for business purposes. He wrote in a letter that his felony record “has adversely affected my business and professional activities [and] limited my participation in civic, charitable and community affairs. A pardon would, I believe, substantially reduce or eliminate that effect and would permit me to contribute more of my services to my community.” The Yankees had no comment on the documents.

Photo of the Day: The Boss, in bronze

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The Boss has been memorialized in bronze. As Neil Johnson of The Tampa Tribune reported this morning, a life-sized statue of George Steinbrenner now stands at the entrance of the stadium that bears his name at the team’s Spring Training complex down in Tampa. A formal dedication ceremony will take place on the morning of February 26 before the Yanks’ Grapefruit League home opener.

Standing on a three-ton polished granite base, the 600-pound bronze version of the Boss is wearing a suit and a 2009 World Championship ring, the last title the team won under his watch. Yankee Stadium plays host to a statue of George already, but he did a ton for the Tampa community. It’s only right for him to honored in his home town.

With estate tax restored, a look at George’s passing

When George Steinbrenner died in early July, many commentators noted his perfect timing. The Boss passed away during the one year in which Congress had allowed the estate tax to lapse, and it seemed to be the perfect Steinbrenner coda to a long and controversy-filled life in baseball.

Of course, at the time, we knew Congress wouldn’t be silent on the matter forever. Even though the estate tax would been restored by default in 2011, Congress acted to restructure the estate tax and make it retroactive for 2010. For the next two years, the estate tax will be collected at 35 percent of all probate assets with a $5 million exemption. Only around one-half of one percent of Americans will have to pay the tax, but with the way the new tax bill is structured, the Yankees and its owners will have to pay something even though George passed away while the tax had lapsed.

Paul Sullivan of The Times explained what this means for those who died with large estates in 2010. He wrote late last week:

Under the estate tax wording in the bill, the heirs of people who died this year will have two options for a tax bill. If they chose to treat the estate by the tax laws in place in 2010, they will have to calculate the capital gains on all assets in the estate to determine if the value is above a level the Internal Revenue Service is allowing. This “artificial step-up in basis” is $1.3 million to any heir and $3 million to a surviving spouse.

The other option is to apply the 2011 law, which would exempt the first $5 million of the estate and impose a rate of 35 percent on anything above that. This is far more generous than the 2009 law — a $3.5 million exemption and a 45 percent tax rate — which many people thought would be reinstated.

Leading estates lawyers, including Ed Koren, a Holland & Knight attorney who represented Steinbrenner, said that folks with estates over $10 million would opt to pay the capital gains tax at 15 percent. Koren spoke to the point about the Yankees as well, and it sounds as though the team and family were well prepared for the Boss’ death.

“I can assuredly say that the Yankees wouldn’t have been on the block this year if there was an estate tax. It has to be an aggressive and ongoing approach,” he said of insulating as much a portion of a large estate as possible from the tax. “I represented George for 22 years.”

George had become, for better or worse, the poster child for the lapsed estate tax, but even as Congress has restored the tax, the Yankees and the family should be just fine. They have money and access to very good lawyers. I’m not at all surprised.