The Yankees’ ‘championship-or-bust’ credo is a vacuous marketing ploy

Any lingering illusion that the New York Yankees adhere to a ‘championship-or-bust’ ethos can finally be laid to rest. Faced with a flawed, creaking roster, yet somehow within striking distance of a wildcard berth, the not-so-Evil Empire chose to practically sit out the 2023 MLB trade deadline, intransigence crystalised. It was the continuation of an existential crisis on River Avenue, which echoes the pained murmurs of a vexed and exhausted fanbase.

The needs were obvious, the targets clear, but aloof general manager Brian Cashman did nothing – except watch rival executives improve their teams while the Yankees flailed hopelessly between adding and subtracting. Once obsessed with winning at all costs, pushing the boundaries of finance and stardom, the Yankees are now just another cautious ballclub mired in mediocrity. Their deadline insouciance affirms that underwhelming approach.

“Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing,” George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ late patriarch, once said. “Breathing first, winning next.” For decades, that edict permeated every facet of an organisation trained to despise losing. In the Bronx, failure was defined as anything short of a World Series title, of which The Boss delivered six during his tumultuous reign. His was the definitive vision of a Yankee age, and those who did not comply were unceremoniously dismissed.

Now, though, under the reticent aegis of Hal, George’s youngest son, ‘championship-or-bust’ has morphed into a vacuous marketing ploy. It is a boldfaced lie, in fact, because the latter day Yankees operate within shallow, self-imposed limitations designed to avoid irrelevance and protect the bottom line. Above, say, 85 wins – enough to keep the Stadium full through September – nothing really matters anymore. The complacent regime will keep running it back, taking fresh cream from the top while the cake crumbles below.

Sure, the Yankees of Hal and Cashman say they are more committed to winning than their contemporaries. Every year during the traditional pinstriped autopsy, they parrot the same weary narratives about a ‘championship-calibre’ operation. However, more than scant lip service to a bygone Yankee birthright, the insulting subterfuge is purely delusional. Actions speak louder than words, and the Yankees rarely act. Hence another trade deadline where desperate deficiencies were not addressed. Hence another stretch run of numbing agitation. Hence another season without a World Series appearance, let alone a triumph – the fourteenth in a row. Stasis has set in with the Yankees, and those in charge are in no rush to reverse it.

Cashman will probably say a diluted trade market offered few difference-making solutions. He will say the returns of Aaron Judge, Nestor Cortes, Jonathan Loaisiga and Frankie Montas are akin to mid-season upgrades. He will say the Yankees had a lot of conversations with other teams but balked at prohibitive asking prices. Do not listen. In truth, the Yankees were desperate for offensive help today, yesterday, a week ago, a month ago. They rank 29th in batting average, 27th in on-base percentage and 22nd in wRC+. Failing to add at least one adequate hitter is a dereliction of duty – especially for franchise valued at $7.1 billion.

Heck, the Yankees needed reinforcements last winter, when the subtraction of Andrew Benintendi nullified the addition of Carlos Rodón. Yes, they re-signed Judge to a long-term extension, but they did nothing to build a functional offence around him. Manager Aaron Boone has started nine different left fielders this season, and they have hit .233. Even the 43-year old corpse of Nelson Cruz would be an upgrade at this point, though the Yankees are too stubborn to admit they were wrong and rectify bad decisions.

Once perennial needle-pushers, the Yankees are now content to live off former glories. They are content to sell Legends Suite tickets to Wall Street yuppies and interlocking NY caps to oblivious fashionistas while doing the bare minimum to succeed. They are content to blend in, quite remarkably, anathema to the credo that once made them great.

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MLB teams, payroll as percentage of revenue, 2022-23

Team

2022 revenue *

2023 Opening Day payroll **

Payroll as % of revenue

New York Mets

$374 m

$353 m

94%

San Diego Padres

$324 m

$248 m

76%

Toronto Blue Jays

$294 m

$209 m

71%

St Louis Cardinals

$258 m

$175 m

68%

Chicago White Sox

$276 m

$181 m

65%

Philadelphia Phillies

$398 m

$243 m

61%

Colorado Rockies

$286 m

$171 m

59%

Minnesota Twins

$267 m

$153 m

57%

Los Angeles Angels

$371 m

$212 m

57%

Texas Rangers

$366 m

$195 m

53%

Atlanta Braves

$425 m

$203 m

47%

Houston Astros

$407 m

$192 m

47%

Detroit Tigers

$260 m

$122 m

47%

San Francisco Giants

$421 m

$187 m

44%

Arizona Diamondbacks

$276 m

$116 m

42%

New York Yankees

$657 m

$276 m

42%

Chicago Cubs

$451 m

$184 m

40%

Milwaukee Brewers

$294 m

$118 m

40%

Miami Marlins

$238 m

$91 m

38%

Los Angeles Dodgers

$581 m

$222 m

38%

Seattle Mariners

$363 m

$137 m

37%

Kansas City Royals

$260 m

$92 m

35%

Boston Red Sox

$513 m

$181 m

35%

Cincinnati Reds

$250 m

$83 m

33%

Cleveland Guardians

$268 m

$89 m

33%

Tampa Bay Rays

$248 m

$73 m

29%

Washington Nationals

$356 m

$101 m

28%

Pittsburgh Pirates

$262 m

$73 m

27%

Oakland Athletics

$212 m

$56 m

26%

Baltimore Orioles

$264 m

$60 m

23%

 
Sources: 
* Statista
** USA Today

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While admittedly flawed, payroll-as-percentage-of-revenue is the most accessible metric for gauging an organisation’s burning desire to win. Sure, there are nuances around front office, scouting, player development, luxury tax and analytical expenditure, but the basic arithmetic holds true: the more income ownership funnels to player procurement and roster construction, the more it yearns for a championship. It is that simple, really, and the Yankees are midmarket franchise by that measure, frustrated by a fiscal ceiling of their own imposition.

The true win-now, win-at-all-cost owners in modern Major League Baseball are Steve Cohen of the Mets and Peter Seidler of the Padres. They are far flung apostles of Steinbrenner imperialism, and good on them. Rogers bankrolls the Blue Jays pretty well, too, while John Middleton is bold with the Phillies. Even the White Sox, Rockies, Twins and Diamondbacks commit more of their revenue to player salaries than the Yankees, whose thrift is comparable to that of Milwaukee and Miami. No wonder a revolt is brewing in the bleachers. Loyalists have had enough.

If the Yankees were genuinely committed to winning, as in the days of yore, they would have dealt for Justin Verlander today, but they did not – Houston did. If the Yankees really wanted to compete, as mandated by George, they would have pursued Max Scherzer yesterday, but they did not – Texas did. If the Yankees truly yearned to push the envelope, they would have grabbed Cody Bellinger weeks ago, but they did not – the Cubs caught fire and kept him. Such is life under the Bronx baseball dictatorship.

Ignorance mixed with obstinance left Cashman scrambling for spare parts in the final hours before the deadline. When acquiring Dylan Carlson becomes a best-case scenario for the New York Yankees, you know things are beyond broken. Cashman did not even pull the trigger on that deal, though, amid a complete breakdown in organisational thinking. The Yankees added two relievers – Keynan Middleton, a generic sixth inning guy, and Spencer Howard, ticketed for Triple-A – but otherwise stood pat. They should have just raised a white flag above the hallowed façade. At least that way, their true intentions would have been easier to decode.

It would not have been the first banner raised at the Stadium this week, either. “’The Boss’ would never allow this” read a solitary, forlorn flag dangled by a disconsolate fan in the upper deck on Tuesday night, as the Yankees lost, 5-1, to Tampa Bay. It is a familiar lament, bordering cliché, in Yankeeland, but it is undoubtedly true. George would never allow this, but Hal does. That is the reality we now inhabit, in an age where Yankee exceptionalism is all but dead, and no amount of verbal backlash will make management listen.

Yes, there is more to baseball than winning, as mentioned earlier in the week. What irritates diehard Yankees fans, though, is the tone-deaf propaganda. If ownership wants to run a nimble operation, believing a World Series can be won beneath the luxury tax threshold, that is their prerogative. It may even be an efficient modus operandi. But why lie to your fans? Why garble outdated messages? Why say one thing and do the other? Arrogance, entitlement and invincibility – that is why. The Yankees run on that monolithic triad, but it is sadly no longer earned. ‘Championship-or-bust’ has lost all meaning, and loyal rooters are tired of hearing it.


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