Last night, the Yankees closed out the Angels, advancing to the World Series and, we imagine, making journalist Matt Taibbi that much unhappier about publishing this prediction for the 2009 season back in April:
[A]t the first sign of … trouble — the first six-game losing streak in May, the first whispers of a Joe Girardi firing in June — [the high-priced Yankee free agents] will all scatter like rats to the far corners of the Yankee clubhouse and start making cell-phone calls to their agents and whispering to the press. That’s the way it’s always been with high-priced free-agent teams, from the Dan Snyder Redskins to the Malone-Payton Lakers to the Yankees of the A-Rod era.
And unless the karma gods decide to spend the summer in a diabetic coma, it’s almost certainly what’s going to happen to this year’s Yankees. God, is it going to be fun to see. Nothing is more entertaining than watching the rich choke on their own greed.
Of course, the Yankees didn’t go on a six game losing streak in May, or in any other month. They did lose five in a row in May, but rather than scattering like rats, they split their next four games before winning nine straight, putting them seven games over .500. After that, they never looked back, finishing the season with a 103-59 record, by far the best in baseball.
So Taibbi’s prediction didn’t pan out, but in all fairness, it was an extremely bold prediction. The Yankees were coming off a third-place finish, true, but they had added the top three available free agents to replace large contracts with a pitcher far past his prime (Mike Mussina), a broken-down designated hitter (Jason Giambi), and an entity that may have been merely an accounting error, rather than a flesh-and-blood human being (Carl Pavano). They were clearly a force to be reckoned with.
But Taibbi didn’t think his prediction was bold at all. In fact, he seemed to think that colossal failure was pretty much business-as-usual for Cashman’s Yankees. Indeed, most of the article is dedicated to debunking the myth that Cashman isn’t to blame for the apparently massive failures of his team. Cashman gets off the hook, according to Taibbi, because his “wunderkind reputation [is] still riding off the fumes of those world championships his first three seasons — championships that, in reality, were seeded years earlier by former Yankee personnel legend Gene (Stick) Michael.”
So those three consecutive World Series rings don’t count. Fair enough. Just how awful have the post-2000 Yankees been? In 2001, they took a lead into the ninth inning of game seven of the World Series. They were back again in 2003. Indeed, the Yankees followed up on those three championships by reaching the postseason for seven more consecutive years (for a total of 13), before finishing third last year.
The whole of Taibbi’s case, then, rests on the 2008 season, in which the Yankees “fell behind a Cape Cod League team called the Tampa Bay Rays.” Actually, that Cape Cod League team also outperformed Taibbi’s Red Sox, and ended up in the World Series.
But we’re citing facts, which is perhaps unfair to Taibbi, who is more interested in feelings; specifically, his feeling that the Yankees are a bunch of jerks, working in league with the really big jerks in the financial world:
With his shameless, blatant attempt to buy a World Series with a half-billion-dollar shopping spree at a time when the rest of the country is scrounging under the couch cushions for ramen money, Cashman has laid the foundation for 2009 to be maybe the most entertaining year for non–Yankees fans in the history of baseball. We are all trailing six car lengths behind, waiting for the pinstriped truck to jackknife and explode in a giant conflagration of scandals and finger-pointing. In an age when huge, irresponsible financial bets have brought Western civilisation to the edge of collapse, Cashman’s Yankees are perfectly positioned to become an object lesson in everything that has gone wrong with American society in the past eight years or so.
It’s hard to know what to make of this invocation of the financial crisis. Did the Red Sox and Dodgers divert funds from payroll to help shore up the housing market? Or is Taibbi a radical anti-Keynesian: “the rich should stop spending money until the economy apologizes for what it’s done!” If a Yankees loss was somehow symbolic of everything wrong with American society, are all those Yankees wins this season a sign of everything right with American society? An affirmation of a pin-stripe recovery?
Leaving that aside, “attempt[ing] to buy a World Series” is an odd charge to level against a GM. The job of the general manager is to assemble a baseball team via the amateur draft and free agency. This is accomplished by exchanging US currency for agreements to play baseball. The better a player is at the latter, the more he can expect of the former. All of which is to say that buying a World Series is the job description of a GM.
Did Cashman do this blatantly? We should hope so. A GM shouldn’t be coy about buying a World Series any more than a fireman should be about extinguishing fires. Did he do it shamelessly? Of course! Why should he be ashamed of doing his job?
We can’t imagine. But there is a good reason he shouldn’t be too proud of himself: he has far more money to spend than any other GM in the game. 30 general managers try to buy a World Series every year, but they aren’t working on a level playing field. Money doesn’t insure success, and poor teams can have successful runs, but–pace Michael Lewis–it is simply impossible for a small market team to be at or near the top of the standings every year the way the Cashman-era Yankees have been.
Oddly enough, though, this isn’t Taibbi’s argument at all. Indeed, he argues that money is actually harming the Yankees:
What Brian Cashman has accomplished as GM of the Yankees over the past few years, in turning a perennial World Series champ into a third-place also-ran, is like walking into a backstage party for Led Zeppelin with a two-pound bag of coke and a 28-inch penis and failing for a whole night to get laid.
Cashman managed to discover the one avenue through which limitless money and power under the current Major League Baseball rules can be a competitive disadvantage. He found that if you pack your roster from top to bottom with pathologically needy, egomaniacal, paranoid megamillionaires aged 30 and up, you can more or less permanently block the development of the choice, hungry, 25- to 30-year-old talent group that serves as the core of virtually all winning baseball teams.
After literally an entire season without a postseason appearence, New York understands the pain that Cubs fans have had to endure. That’s what happens when your young talent is “more or less permanently” blocked.
But we do have once question for Taibbi: if the $200 million payroll has been a disadvantage under Cashman, how do the Yankees keep winning so many damn ballgames every year?
Maybe it’s the pinstripes.
Photo courtesy of Nick Ogawa
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