Is Steinbrenner Retarded?
Each of the last several autumns in Boston, there is one day when the city breathes a collective sigh of relief . . . the day the New York Yankees are eliminated from the postseason. That may seem like sour grapes to some - the Sox were eliminated several weeks before on the heels of a miserable August and only slightly better September after all - but it's more about not having listen to talk of a 27th World Championship. At least for one more year.
Now that I've had a few days to reflect on the Tigers' three straight victories to knock the Yankees out, I'm a bit shocked that we all didn't see this coming a mile away. And the even better question is: Why didn't Steinbrenner, for all his supposed business savvy, see it coming?
You've all met this person somewhere along the way in your lives. The person who gains status - or thinks they do - by spending more than everyone else. The attitude of "I paid more, therefore it must be better." Well, that's the Yankees.
I know people chuckle when the Red Sox say that they can't compete financially with the Yankees. That seems like a ridiculous sentiment coming from the team with the second highest payroll in baseball. But think about it another way . . . the difference between the Yankees and Red Sox payrolls (approximately $200M to $130M) is several times larger than the difference between the Red Sox and the next highest team. Even though the Red Sox are out-spending 28 teams, the Yankees are spending more than 50% more to field their team.
And a scary-looking team it was. Current or former all stars in every spot in the line up. Hitting at he top of the order Derek Jeter hit .343. At the bottom of the order Robinson Cano hit .342. In the middle they had the rejuvenated Jason Giambi (I'm sure he's clean now) hit 37 HR and Alex Rodriguez, a player who by all accounts has experienced a horrific, half-season-long slump, somehow managed to hit 35 HR, drive in 121 RBI and post a .914 OPS. And don't forget Jesus turned Judas Johnny Damon, who hit a career-high 24 HRs.
And yet they lost three straight games to a Tigers team that did everything they could to erase the gigantic lead they had built up. How can that be?
Well, here's the thing, King George spends a lot of money but he spends it as if it is in limitless supply. And when you do that, you might get the player you want, but you don't get good value on those players. Think about how the Yankees have been going about their business. They identify established superstars and then out-bid the competition - occasionally only bidding with themselves. A perfect example is Damon, who they were able to sign because they offered him more years than the Red Sox did. That's fine for one or two players who you may feel are that missing piece, but the Yankees do that a lot.
Aside from the expense of this tactic, the Yankees are also suffering because they are bringing players who are on their way down performance-wise rather than on their way up. You can say what you want about Josh Beckett's difficult first season in a Red Sox uniform but I don't think there is a reasonable baseball mind out there who doesn't believe that his best years are ahead of him. On the other hand, how many people expected the 40+ Randy Johnson to be as good or better than he was earlier in his career.
Think if it were real estate. How would you feel if you bought a house at a price that equated to $200 per square foot only to find out that everyone else in the neighborhood paid about $120 per square foot? You'd feel like you got screwed and no one would accuse you of being a business genius. Yet year after year, that is exactly what Steinbrenner does - or rather forces an otherwise competent General Manager, Brian Cashman, to do - all the while being lauded for how much he wants to win.
As if that weren't enough, the Yankees also seem to over-spend in the wrong place. Their star-studded lineup averaged 5.7 runs per game this season. I'm sure there is a sabermatician out there somewhere who could give me a formula for this but I can't imagine that it would have cost them even five victories had they average 5 runs a game (120 runs less for the season). And if they had reappropriated the money and improved their pitching, I suspect they would have won even more games by reducing their team ERA by 0.25 runs per game.
The thing that I don't understand is how the Yankees could have lived the formula for success and then suddenly forgotten it. Between 1996 and 2000, the Yankees won four out of five World Series with home-grown talent like Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada (who, if Kenmore Square t-shirts are to be believed, "smells like pee"), Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza, and consummate team players like Scott Brosious and Tino Martinez. They made it look easy . . . keep your core of young players together and bring in veterans and SOME superstars to help them along. Those teams were automatic.
But somewhere along the line it's as if Steinbrenner traveled back in time to his old meddling ways and his organization has paid the price. As a Red Sox fan, I love it. I really loved watching my team embarrass the Yankees and win the series in 2004, but watching the Yankees try to figure out how they lost is a more than adequate offseason diversion.
It seems clear as day now. If the Yankees are to get back to POSTSEASON prominence, Steinbrenner needs to stay the hell out of the way and let his baseball people do their jobs. I guess the good news for Yankee Haters everywhere is that seems like the most unlikely scenario.
Enjoy the ALCS, George. Nice turtleneck.