- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The New York Yankees are winning again, which means it’s time to rev up the complaining and criticizing. You will hear, with their $183 million payroll and All-Star lineup, that the Yankees are too big, too powerful, too rich. They are ruining the game and trying to buy a pennant, which is wrong because they are trying to buy a World Series.

Today’s Yankees, well, they’re a nice team. The Yankees of yesteryear were a dynasty, the greatest in sports.

The Yankees of long ago did not simply try; they just did. They won far more and with greater authority than today’s Yankees. For the better part of five decades in general and one remarkable 18-year span in particular, the Yankees shattered any pretext of competition.

Today, when he walks into the clubhouse, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is literally surrounded by the most expensive team assembled in any sport. Here a Gary Sheffield, there an Alex Rodriguez, everywhere a Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, Jason Giambi, Jose Contreras, Javier Vazquez or Hideki Matsui, all acquired via free agency or trades.

And don’t forget the home-grown Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, Yankees for life, probably, because the Yankees can afford to keep them.

Cashman, the 36-year-old Catholic University graduate, is, along with owner George Steinbrenner, responsible for putting it all together. Cashman was asked during spring training what he made of the relentless drumbeat of criticism and the accusations that his team is single-handedly destroying the competitive balance in baseball.

“The criticism has been the same whether it’s 1924 or 2004,” Cashman said. “It’s the same stuff, year after year. All I know is they’ve been complaining about the Yankees for quite some time. Since I’ve been here it’s been that way, and it was well before me and it will be well after me.”

The complaining, briefly supplanted by panic when the Yankees stumbled out of the gate before winning 10 of their last 12 games, might be the same. But the tone is decidedly different. It is a serious, angry tone, tripping alarms and punctuating fire and brimstone warnings that unless something is done the game will be ruined. Heavy stuff.

But the Yankees are different, too. They are not as good as they once were, back in what many wistfully recall as the good old days of baseball.

For all their wealth and success during the last decade, for all of Steinbrenner’s ceaseless presence and pressure and need to spend that supposedly unfairly tips the scales, the Yankees are no match for their ancestors, who dominated the game like no other team in any sport.

“Nobody wanted to change the system then,” notes author and former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton.

It began, of course, after Col. Jacob Ruppert bought Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox in 1920. The first pennant was in 1923. From that point, throughout the 1920s and 1930s and into the 1940s, they were baseball’s best and most recognizable club.

But Yankees supremacy reached a new level after World War II when, from 1947 through 1964, they won 15 pennants and 10 World Series — including five straight — in 18 seasons. One of the rare times they did not finish first, 1954, they had 103 wins in 154 games.

With Hall of Famers like Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and the ever-present Yogi Berra, plus an endless supply of replacement parts, they were so good, so coldly efficient that it was said that rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel or General Motors, depending on your industrial giant of choice.

Then, as now, they were baseball’s richest team.

But instead of exploiting free agency (which didn’t exist) or trading for superstars and their crazy salaries, they put their resources into scouting and building a vast farm system. There was no amateur draft, either, a great equalizer today.

They also acquired relatively inexpensive, good-but-not-great big league players from teams like the Kansas City Athletics, a “small-market” club if the term had been invented.

Example: In 1959, A’s outfielder Roger Maris hit .273 with 16 home runs and 73 runs batted in. Traded in 1960 to the Yankees for several of those spare parts (including Don Larsen, who pitched the only perfect game in World Series history), Maris was the American League MVP the next two seasons and broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. Such was the power of the pinstripes.

People hated the Yankees, for sure, but it was mostly in good fun. In the 1950s, during the height of the dynasty, “Damn Yankees” ran on Broadway for two years. It was a lively, lighthearted musical-comedy, a whimsical fantasy.

Now look. ESPN recently devoted three tortuous, prime-time hours to something called “Yankees on Trial,” which attempted to determine legally whether the franchise was hurting baseball. It was set in a courtroom with a real judge and real lawyers and real jurors, shrouded in a grave seriousness that made the hearings on POW abuse seem like, well, “Damn Yankees.”

The verdict, by the way, was “not guilty.”

That was for show. For real were hearings in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives and commissioner Bud Selig’s “Blue Ribbon Panel,” all focused on a presumed competitive imbalance in baseball. The subject might be valid for discussion, but it’s always the Yankees being trotted out as Exhibit A. Selig went so far as to institute a luxury tax on payrolls to deter the free spending. Steinbrenner, naturally, ignored it.

On radio talk shows and TV and the Internet, in print and inside the executive suites, there has been one big hissy fit.

Kansas City Royals fans a few years ago protested baseball’s economic imbalance. They threw fake money on the field and walked out in the fifth inning. Of course, it was during a Yankees game.

Last year, after New York won the bidding war for Contreras, the Cuban-born right-hander, Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino dubbed the Yankees the “Evil Empire.”

After the Red Sox blew their chance at getting Rodriguez during the offseason by trying to reduce his contract, only to see him go to the Yankees, Boston owner John Henry said the Yankees are “a team that has gone so insanely far beyond the resources of all the other teams.”

“Sour grapes,” Steinbrenner replied.

He also could have mentioned that Boston’s $127 million payroll is No. 2 behind the Yankees and might be construed as insanely far beyond, say, the $29.5 million payroll of Tampa Bay.

That, however, is not the point. The point is, no matter how good the Yankees seem to be today, they aren’t what they used to be.

How can a team that has failed to win a World Series the last three years be wrecking the game when, once upon a lifetime, they absolutely laid waste to it?

During the 18 seasons of what might be called the “Yogi Yankees,” New York played in a single, eight or 10-team American League. While winning all those pennants and finishing no lower than third, they had an aggregate winning percentage of .624.

Let’s say the current Yankees “dynasty” began in 1994, when New York finished first but had no World Series in which to play because of the strike. Call them the “Derek Yankees,” after Jeter, the All-Star shortstop whose first full season was in 1996. In the ensuing 10 years, as Steinbrenner has outspent everyone by millions, they have compiled a .604 winning percentage, managing to reach or exceed the Yogi Yankees’ 18-year average exactly twice.

The Derek Yankees have won eight division titles, six pennants and four World Series. That’s impressive. But after taking three straight Series from 1998 to 2000, they have not won in the three seasons since.

The Yogi Yankees never went more than two seasons without winning a Series before the dynasty crashed in 1965. They won five in a row from 1949 to 1953.

The Derek Yankees finished first in the American League East the last six years, not even the best among current streaks. Not even close. The Atlanta Braves have won 12 straight division flags in the National League (omitting the strike year). During the Yogi Yankees’ run, no other team approached their success.

And it’s a lot easier to beat out four teams in the AL East than seven or nine teams in a unified, old-school American League. On the other hand, the Derek Yankees have to survive two playoff rounds to win the pennant.

The Yogi Yankees often had their World Series ticket punched by Labor Day or the Fourth of July. And we didn’t have Congress looking into it.

During any four-year period, the Yogi Yankees won more games than any other team. No one called for a luxury tax. The Derek Yankees, the same dark force that is threatening to destroy the sport, have fewer victories in the last four years than both Oakland and Seattle and just one more than Atlanta.

NBC and HBO broadcaster Bob Costas, who always wore his heart on his blazer when it came to being a Yankees fan, does not deny the Yogi Yankees outperformed the current model. Then why so much resentment now?

For one thing, Steinbrenner.

“He should get credit for running a good organization, and he does many good things, but he is a caricature,” Costas says. “He’s a blustering, out-front person. He projects a sense that the purpose of the baseball season is to play the Washington Generals to the Yankees’ Harlem Globetrotters. People resent that sense of entitlement.”

As rich as the old Yankees used to be, they were constrained by the same rules that constrained the players, i.e. no free agency. The rules now are far less restrictive, and the Yankees, playing by the rules, have capitalized.

“It’s not the dominance that sports fans resent. It’s the perceived reason for the dominance,” says Costas, whose thoughts on baseball run deep enough that his name has been proffered as a candidate for commissioner.

“Fans didn’t resent the Bulls winning six championships, because there was nothing untoward about the way that team was built. They got Michael Jordan with the third pick in the draft, and they got Scottie Pippen in a draft day trade. They were career Bulls.

“With the Yankees, it isn’t dominance but the perception is the deck is unfairly stacked. I think fans can accept some degree of [economic] inequity, but when it’s so vast it almost isn’t sporting.”

Inequity? Rubbish, or something similar, says Jim Bouton, whose landmark 1970 bestseller, “Ball Four,” rocked the baseball establishment. He has continued to poke at the powers that be.

“It’s a charade,” Bouton says not only of using the Yankees as the poster child for baseball’s economic disparity but of the economic disparity, period.

“It has nothing to do with the Yankees,” Bouton says. “The owners needed to create a problem, and the solution is that the players should take less money. … It’s obvious that small-market teams do have a chance.”

Many have doubts about that, even though so-called small-market or moderate-sized payroll teams, the Florida Marlins and Anaheim Angels, have won the last two World Series. But there is no doubt that from the late 1940s into the 1960s, fans of other American League teams were resigned to their teams having almost no chance of playing in October.

Nowadays, largely because of the three divisions in each league and the wild card, more teams and their fans have hope. The Yankees? They are one of many good clubs. Indeed, they might prove to be great, especially if Jeter starts hitting and the pitching holds up.

Generations ago, they didn’t have to prove it. You knew they were great.

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