The Yankees: A Reflective Essay (Part 2)
by Paul Semendinger
January 15, 2021
(You can read Part 1 of this essay series HERE.)
People remember what they want to remember…
Some people remember the George Steinbrenner years as turbulent, chaotic, and riddled with a long period of failure. Other people remember just the successes.
Both of these perspectives are correct, of course.
The 1980s were a turbulent and chaotic period. If the Yankees’ goal is to win pennants, the 1980s were largely unsuccessful. As I shared in Part 1 of this short essay series, I did not enjoy all managerial changes, the constant arguing with players, and all of that. I also didn’t enjoy the fact that the Yankees often came up short in their quest for a pennant.
The years between 1978 and 1996 were filled with disappointment. There were lots of disappointments.
But, outside all the times Billy Martin (and others) were hired and fired (which drove me crazy), the Yankees of the 1980’s, until 1989, at least, were fun to root for. Great fun.
And then it all fell apart. Before the 1988 season, the Yankees acquired Jack Clark. They were going for it. In 1988, though, things just didn’t come together. Rickey Henderson was traded. Bad times loomed. The Yankees finished in 5th place. 1989 saw another 5th place finish.
And then, in 1990, the Yankees were a last-place team.
George Steinbrenner was soon suspended by Major League Baseball… and in the short time he was gone, the Yankees became good again – and quickly. They finished in second place in 1993 and were in first when the strike hit in 1994. 1995 saw the Wild Card. And 1996 World Series glory!
I was there, with my Dad, for Game Six, when the Yankees once again won it all.
The Glory Days had returned.
And they stayed great for a long long time. There was no question about the Yankees’ commitment to winning, to being the best.
And they were the best, for a long, long time.
It’s fun to be a Yankees fan. To have enjoyed the greatest moments, and to have “suffered” through the long years without a championship.
People talk about other cities having a more passionate fan base, but I’m not sure that’s true. Yankees fans, like me, love the team unconditionally.
We get frustrated when there are times we feel they are going in the wrong direction. But, even with the frustration, there is a love and a sense of being part of something special.
One thing is true, as a Yankees fan, I am greedy. I am greedy for more wins, more great moments, more championships. Flags fly forever. There can never be enough of them.
Between 1993 and 2009, the Yankees finished in first or second place every single year. They went to the post season 13 times. They went to seven World Series, winning five of them.
George Steinbrenner is correctly criticized for trading away great young talent in the 1980s. Some of those rash decisions probably cost the Yankees more pennants and much glory.
There is one big point that is hardly ever written about – George Steinbrenner learned from his mistakes. When he came back from his suspension in the early 1990s, he still flexed his financial muscles to bring in the best talent, but he also held on to his best talent. It was a different approach that the “new” George brought – And it worked!
The Yankees’ greatest era since the 1950s came because of the new approach they used – keeping the young core, developing the good young talent, but also signing great international talent and acquiring best players in the game when necessary.
One saw in that period what the Yankees could be when their used their baseball minds, baseball resources, and tremendous capital.
The Yankees of 1993 to 2009 were successful because of their young homegrown talent (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Ramiro Mendoza, Jim Leyritz, Ricky Ledee, and others). But, they were also successful because they acquired a host of other players through trades (David Cone, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Cecil Fielder, Chuck Knoblauch, Roger Clemens, David Justice, Alex Rodriguez, and others) and by spending big on big-time players (including resigning some of the players they acquired in the trades, like Cone and A-Rod, but also in grabbing players like Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and C.C. Sabathia).
The model the Yankees used in that period was one that allowed for their success. They invested, completely, at every level, in the team.
What made those years so fun was the fact that the commitment to winning was never in doubt. It was never in question. The Yankees were always in it. They didn’t always win. They didn’t always get every great player. There was often great heartache when they lost. (The pain of 2004 stays with many… ) But, still, the mission statement and the message were the same. “We are the Yankees. We will do whatever it takes to win.”
This is why those were some of the glory years.
What is missing today, and has been for so long, is that same energy, passion, and commitment to the winning ends.
A great young Yankees core was developed in the years around 2016-17. The commitment to that core has never been in question. What hasn’t happened is that the other pieces haven’t been brought in to supplement and support that good, possibly great, young core.
In their early years, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada were never expected to carry the team. Andy Pettitte was never asked to be the #1 pitcher. The weight of success wasn’t placed squarely on their shoulders.
It’s different today. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino (among others) never had that luxury. They were thrust into the spotlight and were expected to be the big stars immediately. The Yankees’ core young talent of today were never permitted to slowly develop into the superstars they might have become because they were denied a great supporting cast to help bring them to their greatness.
When players have been brought in, and there have been a few, they were brought in, seemingly with reluctance, and at a much slower pace than when the Yankees had been successful. For every Giancarlo Stanton trade, there were months, even years, of inactivity. Gerrit Cole was brought in last year. That was great. But the off-season that preceded and the one that followed were marked by inactivity as stars, generational talents, and difference making ballplayers were signed or traded for by other clubs. Some of those players, the extra pieces that could have made the difference, helped other clubs win championships of their own.
That is the big difference between the success the Yankees enjoyed until (about) 2009 and the lack of ultimate success they have seen since. The total commitment to winning has gone away.
Today, rather than using the Yankees’ great financial strength, and continually bringing in game-changing talent, the Yankees seem to be more proud of finding lesser talents, who shine for briefer periods. They seem more proud of finding the lesser-known would-be star (Aaron Hicks, Gio Urshela, Luke Voit, Didi Gregorius – even D.J. LeMahieu) than by attracting and bringing in the greatest talents. It’s great when diamonds in the rough are nurtured and those players become stars, but what is also clear is that that approach hasn’t brought the Yankees the success that the franchise is supposedly defined by. We also haven’t seen long-term payoffs from those players. Their light, their star, seems to burn out quicker.
Some writers, fans, commentators and such today like to say things like, “If George Steinbrenner were around, he would have traded Judge…” Statements like that are made without any basis of fact. The George Steinbrenner of the 1980s might have traded Judge. He might have traded Severino, Sanchez, and many others, but the more recent George Steinbrenner, the one who ran the team the last 17 years of his life, learned from those mistakes. The approach from 1993 on was to have the baseball experts make the baseball decisions with the support of Steinbrenner’s full financial backing.
I also hear today comments like “Steinbrenner wanted to trade Jeter (or Mariano Rivera, or Bernie Williams, etc…)” What is missing from those statements is the obvious follow-up – “BUT HE DIDN’T.”
There was also nothing wrong (and in fact it was a smart strategy) to listen to offers for the Yankees’ prime talent. Sure, the Yankees had discussions about trading Jeter. Why wouldn’t they have had discussions like that? What great business doesn’t consider all options? Considering something and doing something are two extremely different things.
Just as the Yankees of 1996-2009 were defined by the fact that they didn’t trade Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera and found great success because of that, it might also be true that the Yankees of 2017-2027 will be remembered because they didn’t trade Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, or Jordan Montgomery (to name a few) which could, one day, define their lack of success in this period. There are times when it does make sense to trade young talent.
What is true is the Yankees of today have allowed difference-making stars go to other teams. In 2030, people might look back on the Yankees of this period and wonder how they let so many talents pass by. Only the future knows.
This, too, is the fun of being passionate about a team. We invest so much in them. We want, desperately, for them to win.
I began this reflective exercise with words, “I love the Yankees.” That’s so true. Love brings passion and energy and so much more.
Because I love the Yankees, I bring that passion to the way I root and cheer them on. I want them to win. Always.
I am enthused when the Yankees make big deals – when they are all in.
I love when the stars come to town. I love seeing championship flags.
Let’s Go Yankees!
(As I was completing this article, the news broke that D.J. LeMahieu was resigned by the Yankees. That could be, and hopefully is, a positive step in the right direction… a step to help the Yankees be big winners in 2021 and beyond!
Then the news broke that the Yankees signed Corey Kluber… and all of a sudden it felt like a different time, like the good old days when the Yankees were wheeling and dealing and doing what they needed to do!)