Keidel: There Remains Something Charmingly Evil About This Empire
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By Jason Keidel
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You’re not the only one befuddled by the EKG spending patterns of the New York Yankees.
All year Hal Steinbrenner pounded us with his solemn vow to follow a new business model of pecuniary pinstripes, treating the $189 million salary cap like a financial firewall. But his newfound frugality lasted until the first pretty free agent showed a little leg.
In truth, the apple dropped right next to the tree and bounced off the trunk. Our two glowing examples are 2008 and 2013. After missing the playoffs for the first time since Joe Torre was hired, the Yankees spent more than $400 million in bagging big-name free agents like A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira.
Hal just flexed his checkbook again, dropping $471 million on Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and, the apparent pick of the litter, Masahiro Tanaka, the mysterious, fireballing pitcher from Japan.
If you add up the two forlorn offseasons the Yankees spent $912 million.
You’re not the only one who was bewildered by their fear and loathing over Robinson Cano’s $240 million while doubling down on the rest. It seems the Yanks were steadfast in their budgetary discipline. Until they weren’t.
And thank goodness for that. Not only are we spoiled Yankees fans better off, but so is baseball.
Dynasties are good for business. The Yankees don’t own the standings anymore, but they are a box office monolith, the first financial monarchs of the sport. Fans need a Goliath, a singular, heated and hated entity. The Bronx Bombers have been that for a century.
The Yankees draw for many reasons. Beyond their place as the best team in baseball history, they are theater, a road show, an amalgam of good and bad. A-Rod is not the progenitor of drama. The Yankees are the team of Ruth, the bad boy behemoth, the Sultan of Swat and Swine and Swig and Brothels; and Gehrig, the patron saint of the sport who played hurt and humble literally until he died.
You may think A-Rod was the first miscreant. The key demo doesn’t remember my generation’s dance with dysfunction. The Bronx Zoo Yankees made this iteration look tame. Just Reggie and Billy, alone in a ring, could have sold out MSG.
Mike Francesa had a gripping, 30-second chat with a caller on Wednesday who compared the Yankees to a drug addict. The shopping orgies are the Yankees’ version of a fix, the caller asserted. Mike agreed, saying that the Yankees built this behemoth and must feed it.
That’s all true. And it’s all good.
Sports are indeed entertainment, and the Yanks are always that, and have been since King George swindled CBS in 1973.
The only sad commentary spawned by this is about us. We say winning is the penultimate priority, but in truth it has become more about star gazing and Q ratings than winning. When Derek Jeter and A-Rod weren’t in the lineup last year, attendance and TV ratings tanked. Depending on your source, numbers were down around 30 percent, which proves my point that this limestone martini bar they call a ballpark has priced the proletarian out of the game.
Who goes to the new Yankee Stadium? The Abercrombie crowd. By their sixth Pinot they’re jumping like baboons before the nearest red-lit camera, using their iPhones to take a picture of themselves, entirely unaware of the inning, the score, or the day of the week.
Back in 1996, easily the most enjoyable Yankees team since 1978, there were very few stars in the Yankee Universe. Jeter was a prospect.
Mariano was a setup man. Pettitte was a pup. Bernie was still growing and Joe Girardi was catching over Jorge Posada.
But now we care more about celebrity than celebrating victory. So perhaps we are the dope fiends and Hal Steinbrenner is our connect. He sells us the sexy, the swagger, the stars. And we snort, smoke, and shoot it up.
It used to be that winning, while expensive, was also very lucrative and enjoyable on its own. But you get the feeling fans will watch a .500 club with A-Rod and DJ more than a .600 club with Rodriguez in Miami and Jeter in Tampa trying to fix his twice-snapped ankle.
Obviously, the goal is to have both, victory and vice, Bogart the bold ink on the front and back page. But I’d hate to think that once Jeter leaves he will take half the fans with him. We are already labeled front-runners and bandwagoners who can’t name one Yankee prior to 1995.
Believe it or not, Jeter will retire. Soon. And we will forget about him and root for his replacement. (Anyone still clamoring for Bernie or Tino or Posada?) Hopefully. The least we can do is give the next guy the same chance we gave the last guy.
But there is comfort in knowing someone named Steinbrenner still funnels the funds back into the ballclub, no matter the cost, or games they’ve lost. We all win when Darth Vader dons his mask.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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