It will be an offseason of great change for the New York Yankees, but it seems that the flawed perceptions of the team's ownership will endure, despite George Steinbrenner ceding operational control to his sons Hal and Hank. Last weekend, Hank Steinbrenner fired back at soon-to-be former manager Joe Torre. The reprisal came after Torre criticized the Steinbrenners' contract offer that reduced his salary by more than 25-percent, used the 2008 postseason as a stick and carrot and made the one-year term of the contract a ball and chain the manager would have had to drag through the New York news cycles during every losing streak and after any questionable pitching change.
The first clue that Hank's reality is just as skewed as his old man's is that he won’t let logic stand in the way of a good argument. In response to Torre’s criticism of the contract, Hank shot back: “Let’s not forget what my dad did in giving him that opportunity — and the great team he was handed.” The implication of course is that it was the team that won all those World Series between 1996 and 2000. If that's true, then how come it's the manager's fault when the Yankees underperform?
In making that statement, Hank is proving just as narrow minded as his father — fixated only on results and not on the events that led up to them. When they see their Yankees not winning the World Series, they see it as a failure. When they hear themselves criticized in the press, they fixate on all of the bad, bad words but turn a blind eye to the bad, bad decisions that precipitated them.
If the Steinbrenners expected Torre to actually accept that contract offer, they were ignoring the totality of the scenario. First of all, there's the fact that they were slashing the salary of a guy who has led his team to the playoffs 12 straight years. What other manager in the entirety of baseball gets a pay cut after turning a 14.5-game deficit into an actual pennant race in the season's final month?
True, $5 million a year is still more than any other manager makes, but Torre has to negotiate more obstacles than any other manager — obstacles that include an impossibly demanding ownership.
It's also true that with the incentives the contract could have been worth $8 million, but teams use incentive-laden contracts with players that need to prove something to the ball club. Joe Torre has made 12 playoff appearances and won six American League Pennants and four World Series. What more was there to prove? Did he need to show that he could win the American League on command? That's essentially what the deal stated he needed to do if Torre expected to have a job in 2009. The one-year term was another slap. Every manager in the final year of a contract is under the microscope. Combine that truth with the attention paid by the New York media and Torre would have been on the business end of the Hubble Telescope in 2008.
The Steinbrenners have been spoiled by success — success that Joe Torre provided — and because of that, their perspective is all wrong. When they looked at the 2007 season, they only saw the Yankees' postseason failures and placed the blame on Torre's shoulders. Nowhere in their calculations did they account for the failures of their high-priced roster. They completely overlooked the fact that Kei Igawa was banished to Single A Tampa or that Roger Clemens performed exactly as most 45-year-old, past-their-prime pitchers do. They ignored Derek Jeter's October that saw him rack up more rally-killing double plays than extra base hits. Heck, the Yankees' opening day starter, Carl Pavano, spent more time surfing Web M.D. than on the pitching mound.
Yet somehow those factors meant Torre needed to come back at a discount, needed to be penalized for shortcomings beyond his control. And moreover, Torre needed to earn his job for 2009.
The conclusion the Steinbrenners should be drawing is that they are hurting their team. The expectations are unreal and add unnecessary pressure to an already hard-to-endure situation in New York. Has anyone seen Jeter smile in the past year? He used to be this happy go lucky kid, that would walk around the clubhouse talking to “Mr. Torre” and enjoying himself. Now he looks like he’s spent the summer in a trench in Gallipoli circa 1915.
The demands on winning, the businesslike approach to the game, neither of those things are new to the Yankees and no one expects that approach to change. New York Newsday ran a back-page photo of Don Mattingly, Joe Girardi and Tony Pena — all candidates to replace Torre — with the headline “Doomed.” However, that approach can and should change. Now, with the transition of power from George Steinbrenner to his sons, is as good a time as any for a course correction. And if the Yankees are to return to dominance under a first-year manager and with a potentially vastly-altered roster, such a change just may be a necessity.