Love your enemies – Part 1 (the Yankees)

“Scott, your commentary is excellent, but you need to retain SOME sense of objectivity when discussing my beloved team.”         Email from B.A.B.E.S. member Bill C.

December 1, 2012

I hope that you all had a blessed Thanksgiving and that it properly prepared you for the December holidays.  As we enter the season of Advent, Hanukkah and Kwanza, considered the “most wonderful time of the year” even by those who adopt a secular point of view, I have been thinking about my attitude.   I confess that I have been less than kind lately in my posts, particularly toward the professional media; and of course I am never kind toward the Yankees.  In the Spirit of Christmas, the December holiday I observe, I have decided to try to better apply one of the teachings of its principal figure, who urged His followers to “love your enemies.”  What better place for me to start than with the New York Yankees?

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like NYY.  Hardly any post goes up on this site that does not contain a snide comment about the Evil Empire in general, or the Steinbrenners, A-Rod or even Brian Cashman, specifically.  I confess that even when I expressed some sympathy for A-Rod in  “Leaves of Grass”  (10/22/12), it was with a cynical, belittling tone.

Although I’m sure no one in pin stripes – either the uniforms or the suits – has lost any sleep over what I think about him, lately I have begun to feel badly about it myself.  Well, not really “bad,” but just a little unsure of myself. Self-doubt is so uncommon for me that I was actually beginning to analyze this strange feeling when I received Bill’s email quoted above.  His “beloved team” is, of course, NYY, and the timing of his gentle rebuke seemed more than an interesting coincidence. (Can a Yankees fan be gentle? – Oops, there I go again).

As most of you know, my main criticism of NYY has been that there is no honor, or shouldn’t be, in winning World Series titles by simply spending the most money to assemble a team of the most productive players then available at each position.  That has been the NYY business model for over a century, starting shortly after the franchise relocated from Baltimore in 1903 to become the New York Highlanders (changed to the Yankees in 1913).  Babe Ruth was, of course, their best purchase in 1920 (even though he was already the highest paid player in baseball), but he was certainly not the first.  Many one-sided trades were made because the Yankees had cash to send along with players (this didn’t just start with the “Boss”).  Some owners, however, would not sell their best players for cash, and it wasn’t until Marvin Miller broke the reserve clause in 1975 that NYY’s standard operating procedures were fixed.  (More about Mr. Miller, R.I.P., and the MLBPA in the next post.) What was to come through free agency was foreshadowed by the signing of Catfish Hunter, who became available due to a contract SNAFU by the A’s and promptly was made the highest paid pitcher in the game – by NYY, of course.

Many Yankee free agent signings followed, as we all know. Some generally successful, like Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi (?) and other big hitters, as well as pitchers Roger Clemens, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key and David Wells (twice!).  Many others were not so successful.  A few of my favorites are: A.J. Burnett, Kenny Rogers, Hideki Irabu, Kyle Farnsworth and Carl Pavano!  Old habits are hard to break.

Just consider NYY’s 2012 roster:  No. 1 starter – free agent (highest paid at the position); 1st baseman, free agent (highest paid at the time); 3rd baseman, free agent (highest paid of all MLB players); right fielder, free agent to be (agreed to trade just so he could play for NYY); catcher – free agent; DH, free agent; closer (after Rivera’s injury), free agent  (signed as set-up man for closer money).

With the possible exceptions of Martin at catcher and Ibanez at DH, where is the skill in assembling that line-up?  Maybe some credit is due for the Swisher and Granderson trades, but despite all these transfers, who was their best player?  Most would pick Robinson Cano, homegrown.  And who was/is their Captain, the heart and soul of the team?  Derek Jeter, homegrown, of course.  Thus, the only two Yankee-developed players in the starting 9 happen to be the team MVP and the team captain.  Do you see my point?  If you don’t, take a look at Richard Justice’s current column on MLB.com (“Winning the Off-Season Doesn’t Always Translate to Title,” 11/29/12). He gets it, and probably explains it better there than I am here.

To be clear, my dislike is not just because NYY has won so much. I admire greatness in sport that leads to domination, such as with Jack Nicklaus (my childhood hero) or Tiger Woods or Roger Federer – all of whom I faithfully cheered for in every single competition (even when Tiger was being unfaithful).  The fact is that they were/are the best at their craft, and it is our obligation as sports fans to respect their athletic greatness.  And that brings me back to my point, where is the craftsmanship in buying the best player at each position?  Isn’t that the reason most NBA fans objected to LeBron and Chris Bosh conspiring to play with Dwayne Wade in Miami?  Where was the sport in that?  Of course, winning an NBA title proved harder than most expected, just as winning a World Series remains hard no matter how much money is spent.  In addition to NYY, consider BOS, LAA, MIA and LAD.

Anyway, back to NYY, which has actually fielded teams that I liked, or at least respected.  The 90’s dynasty team was built around very likable players Bernie, Tino, Paul, Derek, Jorge, Andy and Mo, most of whom the Yankees developed.  (Can you believe that 3 of those last 4 will STILL be on the 2013 roster?)   And even if you hated the way he handled the bullpen, you have to admit that Joe Torre was, and is, a likeable guy. And who could dislike Don Zimmer (other than Pedro Martinez)?  Certainly those teams had some high-priced free agents, but the heart and soul of the teams, and the reason why they won championships, were the players that NYY developed and who grew up Yankees, not those who were already grown-up and tried to change their stripes through the power of green.  Most of the time the pressure of that green, added to  inflated expectations and the stress of living in NYC, leads to failure – not championships. To me, there is simply something more admirable, perhaps even noble, about the titles won with Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Ford (all lifelong Yankees), than those won with Jackson or Clemens or Rodriguez or any other established star who moved to NYY at the peak of their careers.

However, there is reason for me to back off my criticism of NYY other than just to get into the Christmas spirit.  Consider this quote from Hal Steinbrenner last Spring announcing that the team will reduce its payroll to below $189 million by 2014:

“If you do well on the player development side, and you have a good farm system, you don’t need a $220 million payroll,” Steinbrenner said, in a rare public appearance Thursday. “You don’t. You can field every bit as good a team with young talent.”

Brian Cashman, meet Billy Beane.  Truthfully, Cashman has done a nice job finding important pieces for the club over the years and, who knows, with less money to spend perhaps he will look harder and finally be recognized as an astute GM.  And be honest, NYY fans, wouldn’t World Series title #28 achieved with less than the highest payroll in MLB feel just a little sweeter? I think so and I would welcome it (well, at least tolerate it).

So, here is my Christmas gift to NYY:  I pledge to be nicer toward you and, perhaps, even to become an admirer if you begin to win the old-fashioned way – with players you developed or believed in when most other teams did not.  In addition, I will try to follow my manager’s directive and start to love you, my baseball enemy.  If that happens, how can we remain enemies?

And I think that is His point.

(JSR) © 2012

 

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