23 April 2005

Run the bums the F-U-C-K out. (BR)

Time to break this geriatric non-team down and start over

It was electrifying, gratifying. It was October, 1996, I was thirteen years old, glued to the carpet in front of the television. An entire childhood and proto-adolescence of baseball fandom reached a glorious peak, as five ounces of rawhide and red lace fell into the glove of second-string third baseman Charlie Hayes, ending my hometown New York Yankees' eighteen-year championship drought, and I brimmed and buzzed until Christmas.

Nearly ten years later, the most successful, profitable, and storied sports franchise in the history of the world are unwatchable. The reasons are multitudinous.

In the rush to mollify disgruntled fans and attract new ones after the 1994 players' strike fiasco, the bigs at MLB made a conscious decision to emphasize the big, sexy offensive aspects of our National Pastime. As our sports, culture, and politics seem to prove and re-prove every day, Americans don't dig nuance, intricate strategy or slow builds. The team owners, for their part, realized that bloated player salaries are part of the modern fan's interest in the game, the business aspect, as well as interpersonal beefs between players and other players, players and management, management and other management. Everything would be used to sell the game except the game itself.

For all his boisterous public castigations of his team (not that they haven't deserved it so far this year), Yankees owner George Steinbrenner does not give a shred of a fuck whether his team wins. He is in the business of selling tickets and tees and bobbleheads. Of course profits are buoyed by a winning team (Championship gear - speaking of, I wish they'd sell the losing team's championship merch, too, you know, the swag they have on the ready before the series starts so that the merchandising aspect of either outcome is covered, who wouldn't love a 1986 Red Sox World Champs bumper sticker?), but moreso by personalities. This may be why the franchise of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Mattingly would keep a fat, roided-up dick like Jason Giambi (.235, 3, 5 in 16 games) around, even with the controversy and zero-production.

What happened? The Yankees didn't fit the "Evil Empire" epithet when Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said it. In 2002, five of the nine Yankees starters were high-producing, homegrown talent. Three of the other four (excepting Giambi) - Raul Mondesi, Robin Ventura, and Rondell White, were fairly conservative pickups who didn't knock anyone's fence down. Compare it to today, where the three natural-born Yankees in the starting nine are Jeter, Posada and Bernie Williams - and Bernie's almost certainly in his last year as a starter. Since 2002, the Yankees organization has practically eliminated player development from its vocabulary. A plethora of promising young players, Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Brandon Claussen, Brad Halsey, Dioner Navarro, Nick Johnson, have all been pimped out to teams eager to get rid of some payroll bulk in the form of stars who are near the ends of their respective careers, underproductive, or cause problems in the clubhouse.

The problem is not the Yankees having the highest payroll in baseball. Someone has to. The 1996 Yankees also had the fattest budget in the Bigs. But the difference between the Yanks' 1996 payroll of $61.5 million and the next-highest payroll that year (Baltimore) was only $6.4 mil (to put this in perspective, do-nothing reliever Steve Karsay will make $6 million even this year), 11% more than the Orioles. In contrast, the Yankees' current budget figure of $205 million (a 333% increase over the 1996 numbers, meanwhile check out the inflation stats for the past ten years), a truly filthy $84 million, or 40% more than the Red Sox, who rank second.

More importantly, the '96 Yankees were a team of men with character who played hard, emphasized fundamentals, and won the World Series. Brown, Sheffield and Rodriguez, as talented as they are, aren't fit to carry the jocks of players like Boggs, Cone and O'Neill, who belonged to a different, and objectively better era of baseball. Looking into the dugout last year after game seven of the LCS, I didn't see a teary eye, a single head buried in hands, nothing like that. Either the 2004 Yankees knew they deserved to lose, or just didn't care.

So it's not just spending money. It's spending money idiotically. At least trading for Kevin Brown allowed the Yanks to dump 2003 World Series goat Jeff Weaver (for whom the Yankees traded Lilly, an effective lefty starter in the vein of Jimmy Key, something they could use today), but they still have to pay this worthless, moody bum $15.7 million and change this year no matter how many five-run first innings we have to sit through, no matter how much physical abuse he inflicts on himself for his own mound impotence. Alex Rodriguez can be counted on for nothing more than putting up solid-looking numbers by season's end and striking out with men on base when a hit is needed. The jury's still out on Randy Johnson. An ineffective bullpen (at least Tom Gordon only gets $3.75 million to blow leads) has unduly bloated his ERA, but the opinion seems to be that the Unit has lost a little summin-summin on his heater. Which isn't to sneeze at a 96-mph fastball coming from a lanky monolith, but whatever he's got left, he doesn't have a hell of a lot of it.

The bright side here is the opportunity to cut a lot of this dead weight after '05's end and invest that money in scouting and player development. Latin America, Southeast Asia and yes, even some enclaves in the United States are overflowing with young baseball players who would sell their mothers to Alpo for a chance to play in the Bronx. Find those kids and harness their skills, but also teach them small-ball and humility, and again make this franchise great, instead of a great big joke.

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