George Steinbrenner was more than a mere baseball mogul. For better or worse, his time at the top of the New York Yankees ladder changed the game forever. During the latter years of the Steinbrenner era, as the landscape became the free market free-for-all Steinbrenner so encouraged during the first two decades of free agency, the Yankees became a symbol, an empire that ruled baseball with an iron (golden) fist.
Steinbrenner died in July though, and the evidence has rapidly accumulated ever since: Without the Boss behind the big desk inside the team’s new palace, the empire is in an irrevocable decline. Free agent ace Cliff Lee made that official Monday night. In a stunning resolution to a nearly James-ean free agent drama that unfolded after dark on one of the shortest days of the year, Lee chose the Philadelphia Phillies’ five year, $100 million offer over monumentally more lucrative offers from both the Texas Rangers and the Yankees.
Of course, there is so much more to the story. Lee did not merely pass up $50 million more to pitch in Philadelphia rather than New York; he did so despite perhaps the Yankees’ most aggressive courtship of a free agent since Roger Clemens. Lee spurned the Yankees in a way that no one, while Steinbrenner still breathed, would have dared to spurn them. Steinbrenner, for all his faults as a short-sighted and short-tempered personnel manager, had a certain charisma when it came to luring in their truly important targets.
As recently as two winters ago, the team rather easily scooped up CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira. The team simply did not miss when they really, truly committed themselves to a player. Steinbrenner was emperor, and he left no territory unconquered. Mere months after his death, their most prized target has rather easily defied conquest.
Meanwhile, as they always do when great empires begin to fall in on themselves, emboldened rivals have begun to directly attack the Yankees. The Red Sox, who never really displaced the Yankees as baseball’s unilateral power even during their mini-dynasty in the middle of the last decade, have so thoroughly beaten the Yankees this winter that, if the season began tomorrow, they would probably win the AL East by 10 games. They signed Carl Crawford, whom the Yankees had also briefly considered, and traded for Adrian Gonzalez.
With the Yankees missing out on Lee, the Red Sox may be better in every facet of the game next season: offense, pitching and defense. Meanwhile, the Phillies now look like a surefire favorite to win the NL pennant, and the Rangers are younger and deeper than New York. They reportedly have interest in Adrian Beltre as a consolation prize after losing Lee, which might make them as good as the Yankees.
Finally, consider the eroding talents and loyalties of the core group that made the Yankees so great over the past 15 years. These men are the generals who have facilitated this empire’s great military victories. In the wake of Steinbrenner’s retirement and subsequent depth, these generals have found themselves dealing with his son Hal, a rather bumbling (or at least underwhelming) successor. The ensuing frustrations and gaffes, while perhaps nothing George himself could have avoided, reflect the strain on New York's critical power centers.
Is this the end of the line for the Yankees as a solitary superpower?
Derek Jeter squared off with Hal in a rather embarrassing exchange that was as bad for morale as it was for public perception of the unified Yankee front. Nor should Jeter have felt sufficiently entitled to assume such a standoffish posture: He had his worst offensive season in over a decade this year, and his defense at shortstop went from bad to worse. In other words, the empire’s greatest general is now a mildly rebellious and eminently impotent leader.
Mariano Rivera, whose contract negotiation ostensibly went much more smoothly, reportedly came close to an alarming turn of his coat. His representatives reached out to the Red Sox, who eventually (at the urging of his agents) made him a contract offer. That was probably a leverage move by Rivera and the agents, and it worked to the tune of a two year, $30 million contract. Still, it never used to be that Yankee legends would use the Red Sox (or anyone else, but especially Boston) to create leverage in a negotiation with management. Rivera had a great 2010, but at 41, he too is beginning to show his age.
If Jeter has gotten a bit big for his britches and Rivera has apparently pondered an unimaginable defection, the most outwardly rebellious and problematic of the old Yankee guard is still Jorge Posada. Posada had no contract disputes to muddy the water this winter, but he has spent the past two seasons as an aging malcontent, getting into tiffs with manager (and former teammate) Joe Girardi, ceasing to catch for A.J. Burnett and battling injuries that mount as he ages.
Mind you, it is not as easy as merely replacing those guys. They cannot be easily replaced. The Yankees farm system is decent, but they simply will not be producing five future Hall of Fame players again within the next decade. That was lightning caught in a bottle, and it's tough to do twice.
Meanwhile, GM Brian Cashman may be running into more walls than he thought as he tries to hold the whole contraption together. Cashman recently called himself the “director of spending” for the Yankees, which could hardly have sat well with the younger Steinbrenner. The two men have struggled to present a coherent message about the Yankees’ plans for the offseason that it is not at all hard to imagine Lee electing the more stable environment of Philadelphia.
So it is. The builder and leader of a great empire is dead, and in his stead stands an insufficient successor upon whom only heredity has conferred that privilege. The public heads of state (i.e. Girardi and Cashman) seem intent on gaining increased autonomy within the reorganized regime. The men who have won the empire’s greatest battlefield victories are beginning to fade from their former glory, and discordant feelings among them threaten the unity of the troops in the field. The Huns are crossing the Alps, and the richest empire in the history of the baseball world lacks the wherewithal to hold them off.