Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 19, 2016

The New Boss, Very Unlike The Old Boss

By the time this coming weekend’s games are in the books, all thirty baseball franchises will be one-quarter of the way into the longest season. As Yogi said about the lengthening afternoon shadows in left field at the old Stadium, “it gets late early out there.” While making definitive pronouncements about ultimate outcomes would be a fool’s errand, one can say with certainty that the early days are over. No more delighting in a single hit raising a batting average by seventy points, or lamenting as a pitcher’s untimely surrendering of a three-run homer sends his ERA through the roof. The Great Game is fully into its rhythm now, players and fans alike ready for the patient unwinding of events as the long days of summer beckon.

Already the first managerial casualty has been announced. Fredi Gonzalez, the Cuban-born skipper of the Atlanta Braves was dismissed earlier this week. Gonzalez produced a pair of winning records while leading the Marlins in 2008 and 2009 despite Miami having the lowest payroll in the majors. Given the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Bobby Cox in Atlanta starting in 2011, Gonzalez averaged 93 wins in his first three seasons. But his team slipped below .500 last year and management, having already begun a rebuild in 2015, went into full tear down and start over mode this year before the Braves move to a new suburban stadium in 2017. Everyone expected Atlanta to be bad, but a nine-game losing streak out of the gate, leading to a record that has the team on pace for 120 losses, was worse than even the pessimists imagined. John Hart and John Coppolella, the executives who gave their manager a roster better suited for a team in AAA, probably weren’t going to fire themselves; so Gonzalez had to go.

Given the current major league standings, if instead of 2016 the calendar told fans that it was ten, twenty or thirty years ago, it’s quite likely that despite Atlanta’s dismal record Fredi Gonzalez would have been the second manager shown the door. Going into a four game set in Oakland Thursday evening, the New York Yankees sit five games under .500 at 17-22, already seven games behind the Orioles and Red Sox in the AL East. The Yankees actually won four of their first six games, but they were below .500 by the end of the season’s second week and haven’t threatened the break-even mark since. If George Steinbrenner were still in charge, Joe Girardi might well have been ahead of Gonzalez in the line at the unemployment office.

From his 1973 acquisition of the club until the hiring of Joe Torre prior to the 1996 season, a move that was widely derided by the Gotham media at the time, Steinbrenner changed managers twenty times. Billy Martin alone went through the Steinbrenner revolving door on five different occasions, a number that likely would have been higher but for Martin’s untimely death in 1989. Steinbrenner also employed eleven different general managers over the first thirty years of his ownership.

Bob Lemon replaced Martin midway through the 1978 season and led New York to a championship, but that only bought him a few months grace into the following season before he was fired, even though the Yankees had a winning record at the time. Lemon reprised his role late in the 1981 season and again was the skipper as the Yankees went to the World Series. But after New York lost to Los Angeles his days at the helm were again numbered. After the team missed the playoffs every season for more than a decade, Buck Showalter took the Yankees back to the postseason in 1995. But Steinbrenner was willing to renew his contract only if Showalter agreed to fire the team’s hitting coach. When Showalter refused he became one more in the long list of former Yankee managers, paving the way for Torre’s arrival.

As Yankee fans well know, even four championships and twelve straight playoff appearances didn’t guarantee job security for Torre, who was rumored to be on the way out whenever his team hit a rough patch. Steinbrenner made a routine of offering profuse apologies to the fans at the end of every season that didn’t end with a parade up Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes. With his health fading, the decision to part ways with Torre after the 2007 season was one of the last in which the owner known simply as the Boss played any meaningful role.

After the 2008 season day-to-day control of the team shifted to Hal Steinbrenner, the younger of George’s two sons. So this week at the quarterly owners’ meeting a new Steinbrenner generation was asked to respond to what is looking less and less like a slow start and more and more like a lost season in the Bronx. For as bad as the Yankees actual record is, their Pythagorean Win-Loss Percentage, given their sizable negative run differential, is even worse. Forty percent of their opening day rotation is on the disabled list, as is their designated hitter. New York has one starting position player hitting over .280. Mark Teixeira, who led the team in homers last year with 31 despite having his season cut short by injury, has hit just three so far this season; and third baseman Chase Headley was the last everyday player in the league to record an extra base hit.

But while the younger Steinbrenner mentioned Teixeira and Headley, along with starting pitcher Michael Pineda, as players who were underperforming, he did so without being harsh; and he made a point to praise Girardi and his staff. “The coaches and manager, I think they’re doing all they can. I think they’re doing a good job. I’ve got no complaints there,” said Steinbrenner, as reported by the New York Times. He also had kind words for general manager Brian Cashman, and seemed to take the long view about his team’s difficulties. “It’s never enjoyable to struggle, but it does make one stronger and wiser I believe,” said the new Boss. “You’re not going to learn all life’s lessons by winning all the time, that’s for sure.”

There is great truth in that last statement from Steinbrenner. For all of his father’s bluster and bravado Yankee fans, or at least most of them, have always understood that championships are not a birthright and every team goes through periods of transition. Still to have those words spoken by someone with the last name of Steinbrenner is proof beyond measure that in the Bronx, a new generation is in charge and a new era has fully arrived. It is a time characterized by realism and the acceptance of league parity brought on by revenue sharing and the ability of teams far from New York to cash in on lucrative cable television deals. It is also a time in which for the near term at least, Yankee fans will apparently have to accept a noble pursuit of strength and wisdom in place of chasing championships.

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