Spring training has hardly begun, but the discussion of the future season has ripened over the winter. There realistically is a chance for about half the teams in baseball to have a shot for a post-season berth, depending on how the mitigating factors play out.
Among the very few teams that look to their future with near a near assurance of October baseball is a Yankee team that has had some tremendous stability over the years. (You can read that last sentence again, the one with “Yankee team” being described with the term “stability”). While the immediate future provides a high probability of continued success, the long-term outlook could be very different.
George Steinbrenner III has owned the team since 1973, and has only seen his investment grow exponentially in value. He’s seen some great successes as well as a long drought of failure that can only be described as the Eighties. While his influence has been seen in all aspects of the organization, some have pointed to the fact that his meddling is a key contributor to the failures of the team. The championships of the 70’s can be seen as taking advantage of the new era of free agency, while those of the late 90’s happened just after Steinbrenner’s suspension from being involved in baseball decisions expired. The team that became the dynasty was really created by Gene Michael and Bob Watson, some have argued, and it’s clear to see that the recent editions of Yankee teams have strayed from the mold that won the championships.
Steinbrenner will turn 75 this July, and it isn’t difficult to see the twilight of his tenure on the horizon. It doesn’t seem likely that a man as driven, obstinate, and competitive as he is will ever give up one of his greatest passions, but it also doesn’t seem likely that he will be able to do this forever. There have already been whispers of one of his daughters taking over, as well as his son-in-law, or one of his sons that work for the team.
It doesn’t seem likely, but there is a chance that Steinbrenner may leave his capacity with the Yankees even by the end of this decade. The vacuum left by his absence will be fascinating to watch, considering the value and revenue of the team is on par with a small country. Whoever succeeds this gregarious owner will have their work cut out for them. While many of Steinbrenner’s decisions, statements, actions and behaviors have been questioned, he has clearly held nothing back from his commitment to winning. He will be a tough act to follow for anybody, relative or not, and only in the best possible scenario will it happen under calm and easy circumstances.
Casting our glance back to a nearer future, the stability of the franchise will probably end with the resignation of Joe Torre, the manager for the past nine seasons. His pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyer, who has also been with the Yankees in that capacity for nine years, will be leaving after this season. The recent era that they have shepherded will come to a drastic end when these two gentlemen are no longer in the fold. Managers and coaches get far too much blame when things go wrong and far too little praise when they go right (just ask Terry Francona). Perhaps the single greatest reason for the success of the last decade has been Torre’s ability to keep Steinbrenner’s continuous interjections from being a distraction. Any new manager, as well as any new coach, must learn this skill quickly, as long as the Boss remains.
The current edition of the Yankees is an older and very expensive team. While it is premature to say that the team is built so that it must win now, the length and cost of a number of contracts will clearly handicap the club in the coming years. They will continue to be very good, they will continue to spend and buy more talent, but they will also have to deal with a little more sanity when spending on free agents. The big question is will Torre and Steinbrenner be there to help?
The easy answer is to say that they won’t. It doesn’t make sense. Who really can see Torre managing in another five years? Steinbrenner will be 80 at that point, and will only be two years removed from still paying off Jason Giambi’s huge contract (assuming the buyout of the 2009 season).
These next couple seasons could prove to be big for both Torre and Steinbrenner, as this may be their best shot to go riding off into the sunset with a championship. Torre can secure his place as one of the greatest managers, but the more interesting scenario would be with Steinbrenner. With a final championship, he could leave his post being on top of the world; leave everybody around him with good wishes and no negativity, canceling out all of the difficult times he’s brought on his employees. The New York media will always love him, because his brash comments have sold more papers than most editors, but leaving as a champ will ensure that the New York papers always compare the new brass with Steinbrenner. “If George had stayed, the Yankees would be better,” would be the battle cry. Those are dramatics the Boss would revel in.
For the moment, the dramatics of the 2005 season will have to do, as the Yankees are primed for another year of playing into autumn. Everyone should enjoy it, if they can, because even in Yankee-land, nothing lasts forever.