Friday, May 06, 2005

The Empire Crumbles

A lot of people hate the Yankees. There isn't an in between, it seems. You either love them, or you hate them, and this extends beyond the borders of Massachusetts.

The fact is, I love them. The Yankee mystique is in my skin, and its at the heart of the foundation of my passion for the greatest game in the world. When I was young, Yankee baseball grew inside me. My Dad loved them, and loved telling me about them. I was all ears. I endured some difficult times, too. This was back when the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins led the league in payroll. When Jesse Barfield and Danny Tartabull manned the outfield. When Andy Hawkins headlined a porous rotation. It was tough, enduring 100-loss season after 100-loss season. It was even tougher watching my idol - Don Mattingly - never make it to the postseason.

Fast forward to 2005, and it would appear that not much as changed. The Yankees are now tied for last place in the AL East with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, courtesy of a three-game losing streak to the aforementioned D'Rays. The payroll is tops in baseball, but the heart, hustle and charisma that epitomized past Yankee teams is AWOL.

To be honest, there's absolutely nothing likeable about these NY Yankees. They are old. They are slow. They aren't fun to watch. And perhaps thats at the heart of why the Yankees have won as many games as the Pirates, and its now May 6.

You see, I don't dislike the Yankees in any way. Most of their disdain is brought on by the fact that they spend so carelessly and freely, and that their pockets are seemingly endless. This would appear - and has been apparent in the past - to create a distinct advantage for the Bronx Bombers. This year, however, it's certainly not the case.

But don't hate the Yankees because they can afford a $200 million payroll. There may be an obvious comparitive advantage, but it's not their fault. They are only playing the game the way the higher-ups dictate. They are only doing whats best to win. Wouldn't you want the same out of the Pirates, Reds, etc.? Would you be upset if your own was Allard Baird, and he wasn't spending what was available to improve the Royals?

That's not the case with the Yanks. They do what they are allowed to do to win. They aren't as good of an organization as the Twins, A's, Marlins, and of course, the Braves, but they may be the best business organization. They rake in millions upon millions for endorsements, television, tickets, etc. It's not their fault they are successful and business savvy.

No, the only reason to dislike the Yankees and their $200 million dollar team is the man writing the checks. For ages, George Steinbrenner wouldn't pick up the pen and sign the players needed to win. He was content to rake in as much revenue as possible playing before the nation's largest market and with the world's biggest fan base in his back pocket. He didn't put the players around Don Mattingly to win.

It took a young, upstart baseball mind - Brian Cashman - to revive the Yankee mystique. It took his eye for talent, and his concept for winning baseball, to pull the cobwebs off Steinbrenner's checkbook. Even with the Yankees' penchant for taking on huge contracts midseason, New York's success was homegrown.

When Steinbrenner took over the Yankees in 1973, he vowed to do whatever it took to win. And except for a period in the 90s when he decided to stow away the checks and horde money, he has. He always signs - and oversigns - aging players coming off of career years (think Sheffield in his final year with the Braves), but often pays the price. He doesn't care about prospects, and routinely trades them away without a second thought.

The Yankees' late 90s success and four World Series rings was Cashman convincing Steinbrenner otherwise. They held onto their future middle infield of Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, they held on to Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte, and they stuck with struggling starting pitcher Mariano Rivera. They made intelligent, low-priced acquisitions that were more like role players than star players. Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosious, Wade Boggs, Joe Girardi, David Cone, Chad Curtis and Charlie Hayes all fit perfectly into Cashman's concept. The Yankees homegrown talent was winning, and the free-agent pieces patched it together to bring in championships.

In the past few years, I've been clamoring that the Yankees were destined for a big fall. I criticized the signing of Gary Sheffield. Cashman had Vladimer Guerrero getting fitted for pinstripes, and Steinbrenner went over him and signed Sheffield himself. Cashman, while recognizing the dire state of the pitching staff, coveted Carlos Beltran to fill a hole in centerfield. The Boss wanted 41-year old Randy Johnson.

The Yanks have emptied their farm system in the 21st century, relinquishing the rights to Wily Mo Pena, Yhency Brazoban, Dioner Navarro and Brad Halsey, to name a few, while receiving little in return. Their pitching staff is falling apart, and their defense is horrendous.

I don't love the Yankees with the same passion as I did growing up as a kid. Most of that is due to the fact that lovable stars like Tino and Mattingly have been shunned, while high-priced names like Giambi, Sheffield and Kevin Brown have tarnished the Yankee name.

Players like Jeter and Posada, and people like Joe Torre and Cashman, deserve better. The Yankee fans deserve more from their organization.

Don't fault the Yankees for spending money. It's what you would do to. Just fault the man upstairs for tarnishing the games greatest franchise.

It's easy to hate the Yankees, but as a Yankee fan, it's easier to hate George Steinbrenner.


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