Return of The Boss? Hal shows spirit

TAMPA, Fla. -- In light of the mounting evidence that the New York Yankees are now suddenly, desperately seeking to hold onto Robinson Cano, I asked a baseball person with intimate knowledge of the Yankees, Scott Boras and the economics of the game in general if there was any chance the Bombers and Cano could reach agreement on a contract extension without having to get into a full-scale bidding war on the free-agent market.

The man responded with an expletive, followed by the word "no.''

Which doesn't mean Cano will not be a Yankee next year, only that the Yankees aren't going to get off as lightly as they have for the past two seasons, when they enjoyed the services of a Rogers Hornsby-caliber player at an Ian Kinsler-level paycheck.

But rather than focus on the likelihood that Hal Steinbrenner's attempt to avoid the feeding frenzy of free agency will fail, Yankees fans should be encouraged by the fact that he is at least willing to play the game.

As another source told me on Wednesday, "This is the first time since George died that it appears a Steinbrenner is actually running the Yankees.''

Translation: That $189 million? Forget about it. Large checks are about to be cut, not payroll.

For Yankee fans who pine for the good old days when The Boss never saw a hole in his roster that couldn't be stuffed with money, this is reason to break into song. Happy days are here again.

The same goes for agents like Boras, who were dismayed by Hal's short-lived Era of Fiscal Responsibility, believing they had lost the biggest player in their game.

And it's great news for Cano, whose affection for New York and interest in continuing to play for the Yankees seems genuine.

Now, he won't have to consider giving the only team he's ever played for a hometown discount. Not that Boras would allow that, anyway.

In any case, Hal's recent words and deeds indicate if not a sea change in his thinking, at least a shift in his perception of how the Yankees should be run.

Up until a few weeks ago, he seemed to be under the impression that the New York Yankees were a business, like IBM or the American Shipbuilding Company once owned and operated by his old man.

Now, he seems to realize that the only bottom line that truly matters with the Yankees is the win-loss record, and preferably of games played in late October.

Technically, he was right last spring training when he said, "Plenty of teams win without the kind of payrolls we have.''

But the Yankees aren't plenty of teams. In fact, for the longest time, until Magic Johnson and his friends decided to get into baseball, they were the only team of its kind.

And while technically any GM should be able to build a winner for less than $189 million, the Yankees were never content with merely being a winner.

Under George Steinbrenner, they needed to be the biggest winners of all, all the time. And that takes money.

So the fact that Hal Steinbrenner has decided to set aside a long-standing team policy -- neither Derek Jeter nor Mariano Rivera nor Joe Torre nor Joe Girardi were ever offered an extension of an existing contract -- is a strong indication that he has decided to go back to doing business the way The Boss would have.

Certainly, he must know Boras has no intention of allowing Cano to accept any deal until every last bid has come in. The super agent has his rules, too.

But it could be that by letting Cano know how much he wants him back, Steinbrenner is also letting the rest of baseball know that the sleeping bear is rousing from its nap.

There is no doubt that a year ago, he was serious about trimming the payroll to $189 million, to keep his team under the new revenue-sharing threshold that kicks in for the 2014 season.

"It was an absolute mandate,'' a source told me.

But recently, it has become obvious that the expected windfall from the payroll cut -- as much as $60 million in rebates and luxury tax reductions -- is likely to be a whole lot less, since three of the teams that had been expected to qualify for revenue sharing (Atlanta, Washington and Toronto) are now expected to be successful at the box office, and thus are no longer eligible for baseball's version of corporate welfare.

And there is another, more visceral reason for Steinbrenner's attitude adjustment. He seems to have learned what his father instinctively knew: That everyone loves a winner, but nobody likes a finance geek.

According to the proverbial insider with knowledge, Hal was "freaked out'' by the negative reaction from Yankees fans at what they perceived to be a trend toward "cheapness'' from a club that had always been known for wild extravagance.

(I'm not privy to the internal financial workings of the Yankees, but it's possible that advance season ticket sales for 2013 have reflected that perception.)

In any event, someone within the Yankees organization apparently did the math and came to the conclusion that cutting tens of millions of dollars in payroll would cost the club hundreds of millions in the long run, if only through the devaluing of the brand.

Over the past five years, baseball's revenues have gone nowhere but up. This is certainly no time for the Yankees' payroll to be going down.

The immediate beneficiary of Hal's epiphany, of course, is Cano, because just the fact that the Yankees are in the game is bound to raise everyone else's level of play. By that I mean the Dodgers, the Nationals and whoever else feels like buying a lottery ticket on the best second baseman in the game now knows it's going to take some serious coin. And Cano is going to make some serious bank, maybe even rivaling the 10-year, $275 million deal the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez in 2007.

But the secondary beneficiaries, of course, will be Yankees fans, who for a while there thought they might have to live in the same world fans of just about every other team live in. A world in which you have to make do with whatever's already on the shelf, and no money to go out and buy something shiny and new.

Perish the thought.

Hal Steinbrenner has thrown his wallet back into the game. And that means the stakes have just gone up, for everyone.