Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kirk on the Yankees

Of all the sports fans I have known, Kirk casts the greatest aura of dispassion. This image is by and large fake, as he can actually get quite stirred when his teams lose. But he doesn't like for anyone to know. Officially, Kirk is unfazed by everything and tries to effect the air of the unfazed more and more each year. Here, reproduced by permission, is his response to the possibility of me, one of his closest friends, becoming (gasp!) a Yankees fan.

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Hey Talal -

I read your blog about entertaining the possibility of becoming a Yankees fan and am a little concerned because it almost sounds as if you were convinced the Yankees are not indeed the face of all evil. Actually, to be honest, while the "evil empire" stuff was funny and did apply when the Red Sox team president jokingly used the phrase to refer to the Yankees, I don't think the term really applies as much any more. In those days the Yankees were desperate to continue winning and didn't have the farm system to continue producing top players so they simply outspent everyone. The owner was a real piece of work and was so obnoxious he even was suspended from the MLB for a period during the '70s and '80s. The combination of winning championship after championship, outbidding and overpaying for all the top free agents, and a super-ass of an owner was more than enough to make them the most hated team in baseball. Throw in those obnoxious New York fans and they may have been the most hated team in all of professional sports. On top of that 4 of their top players, three of whom were high priced free agent acquisitions, have admitted to using steroids. There may have been more but I can only think of the four offhand. During that time they were comparable to all the things everyone hates about the Dallas Cowboys only magnified by a hundred.

If you take a step back and look at the Yankees of late '90s objectively any true fan (even Red Sox fans) would have to admit the team truly did win through home-grown talent. Nearly all the top stars during the championship years came up through their system and with the addition of the ultra-classy manager (the equivalent of the head coach in football) Joe Torre along with a front office headed up by another classy individual at GM, Brian Cashman, the team was actually quite likable. One could watch the owner's antics and chuckle because the rest of the team was a real class act.

However, as the team got older and players retired or left via free agency, the owner took a much more active role in demanding instant results instead of allowing the GM to do his job as all other GMs do, by acquiring players through a combination of free agency and the draft. That wasn't good enough for Steinbrenner and thus the Yankee style of management was born - bring in all the biggest names you can get and get rid of any who don't perform as expected right away. Thus the evil empire was born.

A couple of years ago Steinbrenner and Joe Torre decided they just couldn't stand each other any longer and Torre left when his contract was up. Sure, the Yankees made an offer for him to stay but it was an insultingly low-balled offer to such an accomplished manager. The GM Brian Cashman was next on the firing line but he managed to talk Steinbrenner, who was older and in declining health by this point, into the idea of developing their farm system again. The Red Sox had won in 2004 with a team largely made up of mid-range free agents (since the Yankees gobbled up all the top ones) but the Red Sox championship in 2007 contained quite a few home-grown players and Cashman wanted to follow a similar route to long-term success. Steinbrenner surprisingly agreed and the Yankees have at least moved up to "not evil" on the scale of badness. They haven't stopped buying up the top free agents but limit themselves to only a few each offseason rather than gobbling up the entire herd.

The current Yankees are certainly not the evil empire any longer and have even managed to bring up a couple of players through their own farm system, none of whom have yet excelled at the major league level but they at least have promise. George Steinbrenner is now offscreen and his sons Hank and Hal are running the team. Hal seems to be an even-tempered rational sort of guy but Hank shows signs of becoming even more outspoken than his dad. Hank has routinely become an amusing source of never-ending eye-popping quotes.

To say the current Yankees were built through the farm system would be dead wrong, however, at least at the star level. The team managed to grab both the top free agent pitcher (CC Sabathia) and top free agent hitter (Mark Teixeira) this past offseason so they aren't done with the big spending. Their other major stars are either holdovers from the glory years (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, eac of whom came up through the Yankees system in the mid-90's) or are still free agent acquisitions (Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Xadier Nady and Nick Swisher). One guy actually fits both groups, as Andy Pettite came up in the mid-90's as a starting pitcher, left the team via free agency in 2004 and returned to the team via free agency in 2007.

The only current Yankees who are stars or budding stars that came through the system after the championship years are two pitchers, Ching-Mien Wang (legitimate top pitcher) and Joba Chamberlain (budding star), and a hitter who is perhaps above-average (Robinson Cano). While there are a number of other players on their team who came up through the system none are stars or even on the verge of becoming stars. Thus, the Yankees are still acquiring their star power through free agency or riding their aging stars from the old glory days.

All of this is truly little different from all the other big teams - the Red Sox, Dodgers, Cardinals, Cubs, Giants, White Sox, Angels and Braves. All of these teams have some players who come up through the system combined with some free-agent signings of various magnitudes. To say the Yankees are any worse would be a lie but to claim the Yankees are superior simply because they don't grab ALL the top free agents any longer would be a lie as well. The Yankees still do bring in top players, they just do it in the same manner as the other top teams. The true injustice nowadays is how all of these top teams can afford the top players where the rest of the league cannot, but since the vast majority of revenue is locally-generated and there is no salary cap or revenue sharing, this is likely to continue for the forseeable future. Even the top teams have reduced their spending so salaries at the top are dropping a bit, and I believe there is some sort of pseudo-revenue sharing going on but it's just not enough to make the league completely even.

I write all of this in response to your blog where it sounded as if you might be getting some false impressions of the Yankees. I know you may consider me biased due to being a Red Sox fan but in all honesty this is my objective view of the Yankees. I don't feel the negativity toward them that I once did, but like I said they just aren't as hateable any longer.

As long as I'm writing this I might as well give you what I think is the primary reason you should consider the Yankees for your favorite team, as much as I would rather you root for the Sox. The Yankees have perhaps the best team history in baseball and one of the best in all of professional sports. I'd say the top tier of team histories in baseball would include the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants, all of which started as New York-based teams. A close second tier would include the Red Sox, Cardinals, Cubs and White Sox, but it seems as if the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants have been involved in far more of the memorable events and have combined to win most of the World Series. That is the only reason why I was a semi-Yankee fan as a kid, although the Dodgers were still my top team. Yankee team history is so interesting I have a book on it sitting here right next to my Red Sox team history book. My collection would be complete if I could find a good Dodger team history.

You seem to have adopted the teams with the best team histories in other sports. Green Bay and Chicago have far and away the best team histories in the NFL, particularly pre-merger. After 1970 or so several other teams have been more interesting but the Packers still will always have one of the very best team histories in the sport. The same goes with the Red Wings, who were one of the original 6, each of whom have great team histories. I would say that is probably the one characteristic that most closely binds the Packers and Red Wings and going with the Yankees for baseball would fit very well. So would the Red Sox, who also have the added bonus of sharing the word "red" in their nickname along with the color in their uniform with your beloved Wings.

I would have posted this on your blog but, well, it was just too damn long and I didn't really feel like getting into a sparring match with your friend. Keep me posted on your progress as a budding baseball fan and as always feel free to ask questions. I actually have time to answer them this summer!


PS - Incidentally, the Red Sox have beat the Yankees all 8 times they've played so far this season. Just thought you should know when making an informed decision.

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