Posted by Sean Doyle, October 5, 2013
Image by Sean & Colin Doyle
Graphic by Sean & Colin Doyle
What does being a Yankee fan say about you? Are you a mean-spirited, front running, self important putz with a fragile ego who blindly salutes the dark flag of a corporate monolith? Or are you an earnest, reflective follower of the great national pass time and it's most honored ball club? Or perhaps both, a conflation of pride and greed, tradition and vulgarity?(1)* I will say this, there is something quite contrived about the typical "Yankee-Hater" with all their posing and posturing and half-hearted protests about payroll inequality and "Goliath" name calling. These are the same fans in Boston, Chicago, Philly, Detroit, Atlanta, and LA who rave like lip-quivering tweens at Bieber convention every time their team scoops up a prized free agent, but can't quite square the circle when the Bomber's do the same. It's fine of course, and painted in the landscape when you are on top, it's just the outrage always came in a tad too manufactured for my taste.
To their credit, the Yanks have often made it laughably easy for their detractors (see Here and Here), serving up a detestable moments and questionable decisions with the casual frequency of franks at a ballgame. After all, we as humans are hardwired to root for the underdog and the Yankees are most certainly not (and never, ever will be) the underdog. They play in the number one city ever, have the number one player (Ruth) ever, have the most championships of any major American franchise ever. It seems there is no end to the hyperbolic adverbs one can attribute to the pinstripes. They are ballgame uber alles, an Empire without end.
So great is their cultural saturation that the word "Yankees" is now synonymous with both baseball and success. Merely utter the word Yankees aloud in a room full of strangers and you're likely to pop the temperature gauge a few nods. Love them or despise them, the Bombers do inspire a genuine passion in all. Ask yourself, How many "Bleacher Creatures"would gladly step in front of a bullet for Derek Jeter? Now ask, how many Royals', Ray's or Buc's fans would so the same for their lead dog? And gladly? Not a chance.
II. MEET THE NEW BOSS, NOT THE SAME AS THE OLD BOSS...
When George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in January 1973, the bombers hadn't been to the playoffs in eight seasons, hadn't finished higher than 5th in five of those eight. Over the subsequent nine seasons they had five 1st place finishes, won four Pennants, and captured two World Championships. As the great Lou Mannheim aptly observed, "You can't get a little bit pregnant, son." This is sage advice, particularly as it involves running a baseball team in the Bronx. (Basically, Hal, you are either in or you are out.) Thus, you can't run the Yankee's like something else, because they aren't something else, they are the YANKEES. It's win now, win forever, or die trying. The Boss understood this axiom as well as he understood the very city itself. It was a rare symbiosis he achieved, and sustained, between himself and the fan base. His sons seem oblivious to this great bargain.
The Yankees finished 85-77, in 4th place, 12 games behind the division leading Boston Red Sox. That last sentence was difficult to write. See, I don't necessarily mind missing the playoffs, or even going through a mild rebuilding process, as long as there is some kind of coherent strategy inspiring the downswing. Near as I can see, the only motivation for the mediocre product on the field is Hal Steinbrenner's peculiar luxury tax reduction fetish. (2)* When historians look back 100 years from now, they'll see that one man placed a mild balance sheet improvement ahead of glory. The irony is that Hal will be rich whether or not the Yankees pay the luxury tax for the next ten straight years, or never pay it again.
So here's the rub Hal, you will never be known for anything but owning the Yankees (and that's not a knock, its just the odds of him being involved with something of greater import than NYY is highly statistically slim) therefore you will be judged solely for what happens during the small period of time you are blessed to run this historic franchise. For better or worse, these are the metrics that posterity will use to judge, and all the important numbers are running right away from you.
Attendance has declined virtually every year since the new ballpark opened in 2009. That's somewhat to be expected, as many other ball clubs have experienced a similar drop once the "new toy" honeymoon period winds down. Sure the shine can't last forever kid, but only five years later and we're diving faster than the Mets in September (Or any other month, for that matter).
Of greater concern are the television ratings. It's one thing to decide to save a couple hundred bucks and forgo a long car ride by staying home, it's entirely different when you are simply ignoring the product when it's sitting free in your living room. Currently, the Yankees are averaging half (HALF!) the television ratings they were getting in 2009, down from nearly 5 to 2.52, and dropping. There is no greater measure of fan apathy than that metric.
Is it simply wins and losses? Perhaps, but I'd say it goes deeper than that. This harks back to the aforementioned symbiosis between the owner and his/her fan base. It's a relationship like any other. Let's face it, for the longest time us Yankee fans had a sugar daddy who spoiled us rotten and it occasionally made it feel "as when the world was new." Now, the Yankees don't feel special anymore. We have a bloated payroll larded with refugees from the netherworld of bad contracts (Vernon Wells, Alf Soriano, etc), a lackluster farm system, and worst of all, a disinterested dance partner. Listen Hal, you have to be honest with yourself... did you really give it your best short or did you half-heartedly assemble a roster of middling mid-carders? See that's my whole issue with Prince Hal's hapless reign, his heart just doesn't seem that into it. Nobody wants to be on the bad side of an asymmetric relationship. No matter how weird, or (at times) abusive George was, we always knew he loved us and would take care of us. We forgave his sins because he always minded the big picture. For Boss George it was win the last game of the season, or call it failure.
III. COLD SOUP
Is this to be the new Bronx paradigm? 80-90 wins a season? An occasional wild-card berth every 3 years? Sixty to seventy percent attended home games? 2.0 (and below) TV ratings? A couple of aging (smirking) veterans helping us scrape along? A dispassionate lukewarm borderline absentee owner? A championship (maybe) every fifteen to twenty years? In other fucking words, every other team in baseball! WTFF?? We committed to a certain way of doing things here in NY the day Harry Frazee sold us Babe Ruth for a sack of magic beans (or whatever). Now ninety-some odd years later we are turning into the Milwaukee Brewers East?? Hal, If you want to manage a balance sheet and eek out a small profit then why don't you go run a couple of West Tampa Golf Courses, because in the Bronx we are in the Empire Business. That's our tradition. You know what? Screw Prince Hal, this is New York! Bring on Halsenberg!
Because nothing stops this train, nothing.
*(1) I certainly proved to be both with this article...
*(2) I'm well aware of the potential savings to be had by (the Yanks) dropping below the $189 million payroll threshold in 2014. The Bombers could in such a scenario reduce their forward luxury tax rate from 50% to 17.5%. This hypothetical reduction would have enormous prospective economic benefit for the organization. My contention lies with the idea that several seasons should fall casualty to this ambition. If we can pull it off - great, if not - oh well, but I don't want to lose two or three years of competitive baseball for it.