Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 23, 2021

Putting Profit Ahead Of History In The Bronx

Tuesday marked thirteen years since the New York Yankees played the 156th game on the franchise’s 2008 schedule.  September 21st was a Sunday that year, but the contest against the Baltimore Orioles was much more than a weekend diversion as summer turned to fall.  The old baseball cathedral that sat across 161st Street from the site of the current Yankee Stadium was packed, for from the moment that year’s schedule was released fans knew the final regular season game at the big ballpark that began as Ruth’s and would end as Jeter’s would be played on that Sunday.  With a week of contests remaining, the Yankees had a final road trip ahead, but the team had already ceded the AL East race to Tampa Bay, and was on the brink of elimination in the Wild Card standings.  By the time home plate umpire Angel Hernandez called “play ball,” everyone knew that after eighty-six years, it was closing time.

It was an emotional night for Yankees fans.  But the very real sense of loss that was palpable in the stands and kept most of the crowd there long after Mariano Rivera recorded the final out of a 7-3 New York victory was ultimately not about the steel skeleton covered by 20,000 cubic yards of concrete that formed the hulking mass next to the elevated #4 subway line.  Sentiment aside, in future years few fans would look back longingly on the narrow and sometimes low-ceilinged corridors that made up the public concourses of the old Stadium.  What was being mourned were the memories of all that had occurred on that singularly special piece of sports real estate. 

The Yankees did not go to the postseason in 2008, but the old Stadium hosted World Series games in thirty-seven years of the eight-plus decades it stood, and the Yankees emerged victorious from twenty-six of those season-ending showdowns.  Both numbers are unmatched records of franchise success.  The Yankees went to the World Series at least once in every calendar decade they called the old ballpark home.  There were fallow years of course, most notably 1964 to 1975, during most of which CBS owned the team and treated it as just another corporate profit center, and a similar interregnum from 1982 to 1994, when George Steinbrenner, spending freely but not wisely, consistently failed to sign a supporting cast for Don Mattingly.  But there were also dynastic periods, from the progenitor one with Ruth and Gehrig, to the fabulous fifties with Joe passing the torch to Mickey, to the Core Four years as one century turned to the next.  All of it happened there, on ground that has now been remade as public ballfields where the Great Game is played by kids.    

But time flies.  The Yankees’ current home has sat across the broad multiple lanes of 161st Street from Heritage Field, as the old site is now called, for more than a decade.  Just like its predecessor, the new Stadium was christened with a championship, the franchise’s twenty-seventh.  But since 2009, the Yankees and their fans have had no parades up New York’s Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan.  That remarkable streak of consistent greatness as measured by World Series appearances ended with the passing of the 2010’s.  And as this season winds down, the Yankees sit on the farthest edge of the playoff race, headed for the postseason one day, out of contention the next; dependent not just on the team’s own results, but also on the numbers on the out-of-town scoreboard above the right field bleachers.

It is all very unlike the history that was celebrated on that September Sunday in 2008, yet what alarms fans the most is not just their team’s place in this year’s standings, but the lengthening string of seasons without a title and a growing sense of opportunity lost.  Just a few years ago, GM Brian Cashman was hailed for his ability to remake the roster on the fly.  Faced with a down year in 2016, he traded away aging and expensive veterans to stock up on young talent.  But unlike many franchises that subject fans to multiple seasons of cellar dwelling while rebuilding, the so-called Baby Bombers formed the nucleus of a squad that went all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS the very next year, ultimately falling just short of a World Series appearance at the hands of a team fans now know cheated its way to a title. Cashman then dispatched manager Joe Girardi in favor of the less intense Aaron Boone, who was supposedly more relatable to a younger roster.  Another Bronx dynasty appeared to be taking shape.

The franchise is quick to celebrate Boone’s teams winning 100-plus games in each of his first two campaigns.  But for fans in the Bronx, the longest season is but prelude, and as the Baby Bombers have grown up, the results that matter have been lacking.  One division title in four years.  Two early postseason exits in the Division Series round, with just one trip to the ALCS.  A regular season record far short of expectations in both the truncated 2020 season and this year, all leading to dim hopes for a deep postseason run in the next few weeks, assuming the Stadium’s lights are even still on come October.  The notion of a new dynasty now seems laughable, as an ever-louder chorus calling for both Boone and Cashman to go rises from New York fans.

But there is no indication that owner Hal Steinbrenner shares their impatience.  Instead, the evidence suggests his focus is on the franchise’s balance sheet, not its pursuit of a 28th championship.  At the July trade deadline, he voiced support for both his GM and field manager while criticizing Yankee players.  Even more telling was the least noticed trade Cashman engineered that week.  In a pure salary dump, he sent pitcher Justin Wilson to Cincinnati for the ever-popular player to be named later.  Wilson pitched poorly after signing with New York last winter, but the team’s larger concern was the $2.6 million his contract counted against MLB’s luxury tax threshold.  Unloading that salary enabled Cashman to make other moves without crossing the threshold, a clearly stated priority for Steinbrenner.  However, to get the Reds to take Wilson, the Yankees had to include Luis Cessa in the deal, thus giving up a bullpen stalwart who excelled at middle relief while also giving the team a spot starter option. 

Two months later, with a relief corps worn down by heavy use, the Yankees sorely miss Cessa.  But the team remains safely under the luxury tax limit, so Steinbrenner’s priority has been met.  Based on his public pronouncements he’ll remain satisfied, irrespective of the Yankees’ place in the standings, if people are buying tickets.  Since the new Stadium is one of Gotham’s major tourist attractions, that modest goal shouldn’t be a problem.  After all, many of those visitors for a day never realize that from Babe’s Opening Day home run, to Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech, to Joe’s hitting streak, to Yogi jumping into Larsen’s arms, to Mickey homering off the façade three different times, to Reggie going back-to-back-to-back, to Jeter becoming Mister November, almost all this franchise’s storied history occurred across the street. 

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