Sports Nut

Steinbrenner Spread Too Thick

With the signing of Mike Mussina, it’s become clear that whatever is going to stop the Yankees, it probably won’t be another team. Nobody can afford to spend on Steinbrenner’s scale. Even if all the Yankees’ aces turn into David Cone in the middle of next season—and that could certainly happen, pitchers are a fragile lot—General Manager Brian Cashman will break out the checkbook and reload, just like he did this year with Denny Neagle (who turned out to be pretty fragile himself, but never mind).

It is far more likely that the Yankees will eventually short-circuit the dynasty themselves, just as they did in the early ‘80s. That run began in 1976, and though they won just two World Series over the next six seasons, they took five division titles and four American League pennants. This was a powerhouse, almost on par with the current group, and they were undone by an unusual set of circumstances. First, there was personal tragedy, the plane-crash death of Thurman Munson in 1979. It was a terrible blow, although it should be remembered that 10 seasons of catching had wrecked Munson’s body, and his skills were eroding pretty fast. The Yankees stumbled in 1979 but took their division again in 1980 and went to the World Series in 1981. Around that time, however, Steinbrenner decided to rebuild the team for an era of speed baseball that never materialized. He also signed Dave Winfield, who was to the Yankees of the ‘80s what Patrick Ewing would be to the Knicks of the ‘90s—a great player who wasn’t quite great enough to get a ring.

The Yankees spent the decade as a second-place team, and most baseball people agreed about why. “The problem with the Yankees,” wrote Bill James in 1988, “is that they never want to pay the real price of success. The real price of success is not the dollars you come up with for a Jack Clark or a Dave Winfield or an Ed Whitson or a Goose Gossage. It is the patience to work with young players and help them develop. So long as the Yankees are unwilling to pay that price, don’t bet on them to win anything.”

Good thing Bill James is not a betting man. Though they’ve developed a handful of excellent young players since then—Jeter, Williams, Posada, Rivera—they’ve never given up on the conviction that money, not patience, brings championships. For the Yankees, there’s no such thing as rebuilding; it’s a euphemism for “can’t afford to win right now.” But James still had a valid point. What he did not foresee in 1988 was that the Yankees would spend so much. Throughout the ‘80s, Steinbrenner signed a lot of free agents but usually counted on one big signing to put his team over the top. He expected every free agent to be Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirs the drink. More often, he got Jack Clark, who was not all that bad, but you needed about three Jack Clarks to win, and Steinbrenner only signed one a year (as well as a useless Bob Shirley or two). A championship-free decade was very bad for the Boss’ mental health, and he ended up getting booted out of baseball for three years because he hired some lowlife to dig up dirt on Winfield.

When Steinbrenner returned, he opened the vault like never before, the team started steamrolling over the rest of the league, and that’s where we stand today. You should never discount the possibility of Steinbrenner losing his head again and bringing the dynasty crashing down around him. In the near term, he’s faced with the succession of Joe Torre, which should have all the Sturm und Drang of Jack Welch’s retirement from GE, and that could easily be bungled.

More likely, however, is that money, or lack of it, will lead to the Yankees’ downfall. There is no way of knowing Steinbrenner’s financial health. We have known for a long time, however, that he cannot count on the shipbuilding business on which his fortune was originally based. And in this pre-recession moment, the outlook for baseball—and the Yankees, in particular—is far from encouraging. Consider a few facts: We are coming off the lowest-rated World Series ever, and the value of national TV contracts has dwindled to a pittance. The Yankees, of course, have always been fortified by their lucrative local deals, but what’s the future of that? At the close of a 12-year, $500 million deal with MSG, the Yankees entered negotiations by arrogantly proposing a 10-year, $2.4 billion contract. MSG coughed and stammered, and finally worked out a one-year deal for a relatively paltry $50 million. When that concludes, the Yankees are hoping to pull off some elaborate arrangement with IMG, which would likely have huge numbers attached, but it sounds tricky (for one, it’s unclear who exactly would carry the games, IMG does not own any cable channels) and vulnerable to whatever ill financial winds may be blowing by then. Then there’s the much-vaunted partnership with the New Jersey Nets, the least relevant major-sports franchise in the New York area. This was the default deal after the negotiations with Cablevision, owner of the Knicks and Rangers, fell apart, and it has the whiff of a synergistic fantasy. The Yankees might be expecting a bonanza from a new stadium deal, and Rudy Giuliani’s inclined to give George everything his heart desires. But watch the city’s dormant liberal establishment spring to life when the mayor tries to push through a colossal giveaway in the midst of a recession.

Finally, there are some big bills coming up. Add a million or two to whatever A-Rod signs for and that’s what Steinbrenner will have to fork over for Jeter (in part to sustain the fiction that Jeter is as good as his pal). Then there’s Rivera and Posada, and after next season, they’ll have to replace Brosius, Martinez, and O’Neill—will Steinbrenner be content to go with kids or low-priced vets? Depending on what his cash flow looks like, he may not have a lot of choice. Even Steinbrenner can’t afford to spend like Steinbrenner forever. And that’s what will open the door for someone to finally steal a World Series away from the Yankees.