Hal Steinbrenner and the age of Yankee austerity
“Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next.” – George M Steinbrenner III.
“There are ballplayers, and then there are Yankees.” – George M Steinbrenner III
For twenty-five years, the New York Yankees were built around those two pillars, set down by their inimitable owner and foremost cheerleader. In many ways, Mr Steinbrenner’s pursuit of those ideals altered the baseball landscape forever.
He blazed a trail by spending astronomically to bring the greatest players to New York, which in turn enabled him to win and honour Yankee tradition. His famous demand that a championship-calibre team don the hallowed pinstripes every single year became ingrained in the team’s identity, as the Bronx Bombers forged a new and formidable dynasty.
However, that sentiment has gradually eroded under Hal Steinbrenner, George’s son. More pragmatic and sensible than his father, Hal is conscious of budgets and taxes and consequences. Accordingly, the Yankees’ objectives have been unclear in recent years, as the retirement of legends such as Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter created an impression of glory while the team quietly slipped down the standings and out of perennial World Series contention.
In the last ten years, as baseball has grown to a multi-billion dollar industry, only the crosstown Mets’ payroll has increased less than the Yankees’, of all thirty franchises. Fans are naturally becoming impatient and are seriously beginning to question the motives of ownership amid another frustrating winter.
Why the ghost of George Steinbrenner is wrong
The Yankees are presently stuck between two philosophical pillars. On one hand, the key decision-makers feel some sense of obligation to compete, to appease the legacy so slavishly created by King George. The Yankees also have a global fanbase and omnipotent brand that generates otherworldly revenue. It is important to keep those elements happy.
However, on the contrary, baseball is now played in a different financial environment, with tighter restrictions on spending making a youth movement more logical for sustainable success. Prospects have never been so valuable, and farm systems so scrutinised.
Therefore, right now, the Yankees are trying to vaguely honour Steinbrenner’s ethos of perpetual success while also transitioning to this new era. That is why the roster is so unbalanced, as fading stars like Alex Rodriguez mix with rising phenoms like Luis Severino.
One worry is that the veterans will bottom-out while the youngsters are not ready to assume the mantle. That is a distinct possibility in 2016, when Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and CC Sabathia will be 38-years old on average, and when Severino, Rob Refsnyder and Aaron Judge may not be ready to take on the full responsibility of frontline duty.
The unpopular philosophy of Hal Steinbrenner – visionary or cheap?
Yet the truly frustrating thing for many observers is that this problem is almost entirely of Hal Steinbrenner’s own making. When you are the New York Yankees, generating more income than almost any other sports team on the planet, competing for the World Series every year and developing a strong farm system need not be mutually exclusive. That they currently are reflects badly on the front office and those imposing the future vision of this organisation.
For instance, last year, Yoan Moncada, an elite Cuban talent, was available for mere money. This was an ideal opportunity for the Yankees to replenish their system with an ersatz number one draft pick. However, perhaps upon direction, Brian Cashman never got seriously involved in the negotiations, which was illogical. Some fans even cancelled their season ticket subscriptions based on that decision alone, viewing it as a true indicator of the hierarchy being unprepared to compete for the most expensive talent.
When such glaring opportunities are missed, it becomes obvious that, for some strange reason, Hal Steinbrenner has willingly imposed austerity on the New York Yankees. He prioritises profit over glory on the field, a clean balance sheet over world championships. In the right context, his fiscal responsibility would be highly admirable and, even in the Bronx, it is not without utility, but erecting a spending ceiling for the Yankees smacks of misplaced greed and makes baseball a less interesting place as a result.
Are the Yankees cheap?
Indeed, the Yankees’ recent desire to get younger and reward the graduates of their own system is somewhat refreshing. After all, in previous eras, many lamented George’s endless hiring of free agent mercenaries at the expense of homegrown kids. However, Hal and Cashman now seem to have gotten the balance wrong in the other direction. The Yankees may be placing too much stock in their prospects and, in turn, are wasting a golden opportunity in terms of the greatest free agent class of recent times.
A decade ago, it would have been difficult to comprehend the Yankees sitting out of a market containing elite talent like David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton. However, so far this winter, that is all we have heard from industry experts and insiders. The Yankees, once built for greatness via the free agency route, just are not interested at this moment.
To varying degrees, they were burned by huge deals for Rodriguez, Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury, making the front office even more reticent to spend money. On the back of three lukewarm seasons, and with a cast of unreliable players, that is an outrageous gamble, which could backfire spectacularly and have serious ramifications for the brand and fan contentment in the immediate future.
Do the Yankees have a fan engagement problem?
Whether they admit it or not, the Yankees are already experiencing an attendance problem because of their uninspiring roster. The team drew 3,193,795 to Yankee Stadium last year, which was officially the lowest in sixteen years. However, in real terms, the situation is even worse, because those statistics count the number of tickets sold rather than actual turnstile clicks. Last season, the sad sight of a half-empty Yankee Stadium became commonplace, with the upper deck rarely even approaching quarter-full status for many games.
This should send a clear message to ownership and management: fans will buy tickets out of habit and love for the team, but more people are deciding not to attend the games because, frankly, there is not a star attraction in pinstripes to warrant the effort.
Incidentally, 2015 potentially saw the first Yankee team to lack a Hall of Fame figurehead since the days before Babe Ruth. From the Bambino, and on through Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly and Derek Jeter, there has been at least one Cooperstown-bound player on the Yankees every single year since 1920. Depending on how you feel about the tenuous chances of A-Rod, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, that lineage has now ended, which is shameful, in all honesty.
The Yankees are still suffering from allowing Robinson Cano to leave for Seattle. He was the next great homegrown Yankee, the heir apparent to Jeter’s throne. Now, for the first time since they played in the Polo Grounds, the Yankees are without a definitive icon, a straw that stirs the drink and attracts attention around the globe. Many hope that Bryce Harper will be that guy once he becomes a free agent after the 2018 season, but the fact that Yankee fans must resort to such fragile dreams is another damning indictment of the present regime.
Of course, Cespedes is not necessarily that guy, either. Likewise with Upton and Heyward. Nevertheless, at a most basic level, any one of those players would undoubtedly make the Yankees better in 2016. Moreover, the free agent pool is incredibly weak for the next few years, so the opportunity cost of not retooling this offseason would be tremendous.
Ultimately, the Yankees will probably sit tight for another winter, try to swing a few minor trades for the 2016 versions of Nathan Eovaldi or Didi Gregorius, and hope to construct a team that teeters on the boundary of competition. In the prevailing wisdom of this strange era, front offices are almost content building teams in the 85-win range, which will create the illusion of being in playoff contention with the additional Wildcard races but not cost too much in terms of payroll.
In the current landscape, that is the way to make profit, compete for the postseason and fill the stands. It is a placation of all facets, but a satisfaction of none. And how George Steinbrenner would have hated such insincere scheming. How he would spin in the grave at the state of modern baseball and his most beloved team.