|Wednesday, January 15
Updated: March 13, 5:02 PM ET
There's a method behind King George's madness
By Jayson Stark
Are they really the Evil Empire? Or are those ever-lovable New York Yankees just run by a brilliant, ambitious, far-sighted businessman who cares more about winning than anybody else on the face of the baseball-playing earth?
Are they an overzealous, occasionally possessed franchise that can't stop accumulating stars, starting pitchers and payroll dollars, whether they need to or not? Or are your new-millennium Yankees just using their hard-earned wealth of riches to the max to keep on winning and keep building even more riches?
Uh, sure. Exactly.
Just depends on whom you ask. Boy, does it depend on whom you ask.
It sure is hard to know what to make of those New York Yankmeisters, isn't it? There has never been any franchise in sports like them. We know that. And there has never been an owner in sports like George Steinbrenner. We know that, too.
And because of that, it's safe to say the Yankees are the most beloved, most hated, most admired, most detested, most relentless, most insatiable, most profitable, most spend-aholic team in the land.
And this winter, they've been more confusing than ever. To everyone but themselves, that is.
A few weeks ago, I went on vacation, right after the winter meetings. At the time, the Yankees were firmly committed to cutting costs, lopping payroll and becoming more frugal than ever.
By the time I returned to work a few days ago, those same Yankees had signed Jose Contreras, Hideki Matsui and their old pal, Roger Clemens, to contracts that will eventually pay out $63.1 million.
Their payroll after all that, by MLB's computations, was over $170 million. And after outmaneuvering the Red Sox on Contreras, then working a three-team deal Wednesday with the White Sox to keep Bartolo Colon out of Boston, those dastardly Yankees were being accused by every New Englander except Adam Vinatieri of being cutthroat, out of control and even downright evil.
If you're not on one side or the other in that feud, it can be hard to know what to make of the Yankees. And their fascinating offseason. And their full-speed-ahead approach to Life After The Labor Deal -- a deal that was essentially aimed at, well, them.
So we're going to try to help you sort it out -- with the assistance of assorted baseball officials, competitors and even admirers of George Steinbrenner (yes, he does have some). Here goes:
The Labor Pains
With their $170-million payroll, they spend about five times more on players than the Devil Rays. The hope, said baseball COO Bob DuPuy, was to reduce that top-to-bottom gap "to 2-to-1 or 3-to-1."
"The NFL ratio is something like 1.3 (to 1)," DuPuy said. "The NBA is a little worse. The NHL is a little worse than that. But no one is close to ours."
The implication, naturally, is that the reason no other sport is close is that it's all the Yankees' fault. (Of course.)
Yankees officials declined comment for this story because they're no longer discussing any part of Yankees life that could be construed as relating to the labor deal. But before they adopted that policy, Yankees president Randy Levine said recently, "It takes two to tango."
"Everyone knows how much revenue sharing and luxury tax we pay," Levine said then. "You can't close the (payroll) gap if spending is down by the people on the bottom. And the spending at the bottom is down. ... That's a bigger story than what we're doing."
In fact, it just might be. It's a clear violation of the spirit of that labor deal to have a team like the Royals get a 25 percent increase in their revenue-sharing check, receive $20 million from their fellow clubs and still cut payroll. There should be just as much outrage over that than over anything the Yankees have done.
Still, there seems to be a general sentiment that the Yankees' offseason spending spree -- even if it's mild by their standards -- is proof that the luxury tax isn't working. But DuPuy disagrees.
"I don't think anybody expected that there would be totally consistent behavior by 30 clubs overnight," DuPuy said. "And this agreement was never designed to ensure that. The way this deal works is, if you want to spend X amount of dollars and you believe it's necessary to spend X amount of dollars to be super-competitive or overstocked, then it's going to cost you X amount of dollars (in tax). Just like if you want to drive a Lexus, that's going to cost you X amount of dollars more, too."
So the fundamental Yankees question is: If you have a team that recognizes that cost and is willing to pay it, does that make that team evil? Or are the Yankees just adapting (expensively, we might add) to the new rules of a new game in their own way?
"All the whining about the Yankees needs to stop," Levine said last month. "We play in a league. We play by the rules. We pay the luxury tax. We're complying with every rule. These are the Yankees. They're George's team. He has the money. He can do whatever he wants with it. And what he wants to do is win. Other owners may not feel it's as important to win or to fill their seats or to appeal to their ticket-buyers. That's OK. But don't criticize us."
And he still manages to inspire more venom than Mark Cuban, Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder put together.
Steinbrenner runs an operation where winning the World Series is the only thing. Period.
So this winter, you hear all sorts of rumors about the rampage Steinbrenner has been on in the wake of the Yankees' first-round ouster by the Angels:
Oh, Steinbrenner is also a boss capable of remarkable acts of kindness toward his employees. Yet an official of a National League club who has known Steinbrenner for years calls him "sociopathic" and "histrionic" and a guy who "has got to be in the limelight."
"He wants to put a winner on the field, and that's good," the club official said. "But what he does to the people inside there -- man, he takes years off their lives."
To which another baseball man who has long been friendly with Steinbrenner says: What else is new?
"He treats his employees the same all the time," the baseball man said. "He doesn't just treat them that way when they don't win. He treats them that way when they win, too. His schizophrenic behavior with his employees is legendary. But his commitment to winning is also legendary."
That's a great thing if you're a Yankees fan. But after a winter in which Steinbrenner added digs at Joe Torre and Derek Jeter to his standard rants and raves, our buddy Peter Gammons suggested the Boss has gotten so insatiable, he has actually taken the fun out of winning for his troops and his fans. There's some truth in that.
But Steinbrenner's supporters say that even if that's true for some people, it beats the alternative.
"Hey, he's involved in a sport," says one friend of Steinbrenner. "Sports is about winning. George puts winning at a premium. So what? How is that wrong? That's why you get into the business. Why did George get into this business? He wanted to win, and he wanted to make money. And he's been very, very successful at both."
"You know, you need seven starters to win a championship these days," said one GM the other day. "Just usually, you keep a couple of them in Triple-A."
OK, so the Yankees don't need all seven of those starters. But they're the Yankees.
And halfway through last season, when they were leading the major leagues in home runs, they didn't need to trade for some other team's leading home-run hitter (Raul Mondesi), either. And they didn't need to go out this winter and sign the leading home-run hitter in Japan (Matsui). But they're the Yankees.
That may make Steinbrenner less popular in Boston than Bill Buckner. But it's amazing how few of the Yankees' competitors even get agitated anymore when the Yankees load up.
"I don't even worry about it," said another AL East general manager, Toronto's J.P. Ricciardi. "I knew coming into this job that they would be like this, so it's not surprising. You always know the Yankees are there. It's like playing football in the Big East. You know you have to play Miami sometime. So when you compete with them, you just work on trying to beat them. We don't get caught up in worrying about how they do it. We just worry about our own house."
Mark Shapiro, Cleveland's GM, says: "I don't look at the Yankees with envy. I don't look at the Yankees with jealousy. I don't look at the Yankees with resentment. I look at them as an organization that makes good decisions with their money and plays the game the right way. There's a lot more to like about the Yankees than to dislike, even as a competitor. If you're another organization trying to compete with them, you need to frame what you need to do internally, not judge yourself against someone else."
Clearly, that's easier for them to say than it is for their good friends, the Red Sox, to say. After the Yankees signed Contreras last month, Red Sox owner John Henry grumbled: "It's very difficult to bid against a team that has an unlimited budget."
But obviously, even the Yankees don't have an unlimited budget. It's just less limited than everyone else's. That's all.
"I think John Henry should worry about the Boston Red Sox and let us worry about ourselves," Levine said at the time. "As Mr. Steinbrenner said, John Henry wasn't complaining when George made him five times the amount of his initial investment when he was a partner on the Yankees."
Other teams besides the Red Sox complain about the Yankees, naturally. Heck, during the labor talks last year, complaining about the Yankees was more popular than "American Idol." But outside of Boston, those Yankees-Red Sox battles appear to be a source of more entertainment than controversy.
"They've got a right to do what they do," one NL club executive said of the Yankees. "As we've all learned, just because you spend a lot of money doesn't mean you're going to win a lot of games. They've got the resources to do what they do, and they do it well.
"So they signed a guy like Contreras. Yeah, it gave them a surplus. But that surplus also allowed them to keep certain players (like Contreras and Colon) away from other teams. If you've got the resources, who cares if Contreras makes 15 starts and spends the rest of the year in the bullpen? If he's in Boston, he might make 30 starts and win 15. It means they have to pay more luxury tax, but to them, it's all relative. Whatever they have to pay in tax isn't as bothersome as Contreras pitching in a Red Sox uniform."
But just because the Yankees kept upping the ante (and the payroll) this winter doesn't mean they aren't paying attention to the labor deal.
They're well aware of how much tax they'll have to pay if they can't move Mondesi, Sterling Hitchcock or Rondell White. But they're also well aware that in a year, the contracts of Clemens, Mondesi, White, Hitchcock, Andy Pettitte, Robin Ventura and David Wells all expire. That's more than $50 million off the books. So they're in the midst of a long-term retooling, not a succession of one-year quick fixes.
They also needed to take only one look at the throng that showed up for Matsui's press conference this week -- a throng bigger than your average Devil Rays crowd -- to look at his signing as a business deal as much as a baseball deal.
So there's a method to their madness. But does that mean it isn't sometimes madness all the same? Well, no. It's just classic Steinbrenner madness.
More important, though, does it mean it's already time to write off a brand new labor agreement as a failure?
"We shake our heads (in the commissioner's office) sometimes, much like many fans do, about some clubs' (translation: the Yankees') occasional signings," DuPuy said. "But all we can do is collect our revenue sharing and hope it works."
And what's the Yankees' response? They keep telling the world that if it doesn't work, it will be the fault of 30 teams -- not one.
"The days of trying to shed or hide your own problems by blaming the Yankees are over," Levine said last month. "If the people in other cities, or other owners, or other players, or anybody, has any complaints, we pay millions of dollars in revenue sharing. There are teams that are getting millions and millions and millions in revenue sharing. Those teams should worry about their own business and be as creative as we are.
"The Yankees," said Randy Levine, "are about winning."
And now, after this winter, we know they're about winning whatever it takes -- tax or no tax. Even if they have to change the nickname of New York to the Evil Empire State.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.