NEW YORK -- He's the easiest target in sports -- flush with cash, and willing to spend it without guilt or shame. To the soldiers of the anti-Yankee army, George Steinbrenner represents everything that's wrong in baseball. The Red Sox's hatred of The Boss borders on obsession. Bud Selig is next in line. Most Yankee employees feel the same way, but are too intimidated to say so on the record.
Of course, the players -- and, naturally, their union -- are more forgiving, since Steinbrenner is the overseer of a $180 million payroll. Signing with the Yankees, especially as a free agent, is the equivalent of holding a winning lottery ticket. Because of their limitless resources, the Yankees are baseball's version of Microsoft, which makes Steinbrenner Bill Gates in a turtleneck.
But if the U.S. government challenged Microsoft's monopoly, shouldn't baseball do likewise with the Yankees? It's an issue that's raged for nearly a decade, as the Bombers have doubled and even tripled other teams' payrolls. The question, in naked form, is this: Is Steinbrenner driving the sport onward, serving as a necessary counter-balance to owners who won't spend? Or is Steinbrenner driving baseball's economy into the ground?
The Boss' most logical supporter is Brian Cashman, the GM entrusted with the Yankees' wealth. Cashman understands outsiders' envy, but says there's more to Steinbrenner than mindless check-writing.
"If you think of a business as a circle, most people stay within that safe harbor," Cashman said. "George Steinbrenner has taken risks over time that extend past that small circle, and those risks paid off. Now his business plan is much larger than when he started because he's not afraid to operate outside of the business plan."
Cashman went on to say, "a lot of other teams have the chance to get a player for the stretch drive, but they say, 'we're not going to do it if we lose money. Unless we can guarantee a profit, we're not doing it.' It's that black and white. (Steinbrenner) is willing to take on that kind of player, even though he says, 'now, you better win.' "
That philosophy is either a form of madness, or borne out of an admirable desire to win, however single-minded. What's certain, though, is that Steinbrenner is willing to re-direct the Yankees' profits back into the team's operation instead of his personal coffers. With Steinbrenner turning 74 this summer, one associate says The Boss is less interested in wealth than his legacy.
"At this point, it's not about the money for George. He's working on his tombstone," is how the associate put it.
Clearly, Steinbrenner's interest in the Yankees as an entity eclipses his relationships with employees. For every act of generosity -- repeatedly standing by Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry through their drug problems, for instance -- The Boss is even meaner and pettier than ever. A year ago he contemplated saving money by canceling office workers' dental insurance. More recently, Steinbrenner ordered his staff to work the day after New Year's, just because he was angry that David Wells had signed with the Padres.
Other owners and GMs have their issues, too. Red Sox president Larry Lucchino called Steinbrenner's Yankees "the evil empire" -- an epithet that touched off a summer of animosity between the two organizations. But even those who have no personal quarrel with The Boss are angry with his economic self-absorption.
Said one GM, "the Yankees raise the salary level for good players, and make them impossible for other teams to afford them. The fact that the Yankees have the money to overpay for Tom Gordon or Steve Karsay to be setup men is totally unfair. No other team in the league can do that. And if the Yankees spend $4.5 million on Andy Morales and $17 million on Drew Henson and they're wrong, it should hurt them. But the Yankees brush it off. It would cripple most organizations."
Cashman has little sympathy with such thinking.
"You have only $50 million? Tough, find a way to win. That's your job," he said.
Actually, there are those who flourish with a fraction of the Yankees' resources. The A's, for example, are the anti-Bombers, as penniless as they are fearless. Surprisingly, though, GM Billy Beane is quick to praise Steinbrenner's economics.
"What you have to remember is the Yankees don't spend more than they make. There's obviously a method to their madness. The real evil is spending what you can't afford," Beane said. "As much as the Yankees spend, they still only have a 25-man roster, so that creates opportunities for us. We can trade for a guy like Chris Hammond and have the Yankees pay a significant amount of his salary.
"It's like a shark feeding on a swordfish carcass. You have to choose from the chunks of flesh that fall off."
Beane does separate Steinbrenner from the rest of the organization, however, singling out Cashman as "the glue that holds the Yankees together."
Likewise, Mets GM Jim Duquette says, "Brian is the best thing that ever happened to the Yankees."
If Steinbrenner is mean and petty, moody and irrational, Cashman gives the Yankees organizational equilibrium. Although the Bombers are perceived as undisciplined and financially out of control, Beane said, "they're a very, very well-run organization. Whatever you want to say about Steinbrenner, he was smart enough to hire Cashman and (Joe) Torre."
As a result, the Yankees' strength has created a windfall around the league. People either love or hate Steinbrenner's creation, but no one ignores it, as the Yankees were No. 1 in road attendance in 2003. When the Bombers are in town, everyone profits, a fact not even the Mets could dispute.
"The three games we have at (Shea Stadium) against the Yankees (during interleague play) are sold out because of the Yankees," Duquette said. "Those are three games we wouldn't have sold out otherwise. There's no question a strong Yankee team benefits the Mets in that way."
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.