JOCKBEAT 2021

Missing Person Report: Have You Seen Hal Steinbrenner?

Yankees baseball requires an owner whose actions reflect the franchise’s values, not one who delivers a depressing exit interview every season

by

For the first time in a long while, the New York Yankees are the least exciting team in the entire city. 

Just across town, the Mets sit at the top of the National League East division and feature the most dominant pitcher in the sport of baseball. On the gridiron, Jets fans (foolishly) await the debut of their newest savior — QB Zach Wilson — as the Giants were seen dropping boatloads of cash and draft capital on a handful of impact players. The Nets are favorites to win the NBA championship, while a young Knicks team brought Madison Square Garden roaring back with their unlikely playoff berth this season. 

The Rangers and Islanders aren’t looking too bad themselves. The Blueshirts put the NHL on notice with a season that was light years beyond their initial rebuild schedule, while the Isles are currently one round away from the Stanley Cup Finals.

But then you have the Yankees, the absolute pinnacle of New York City — and, pretty much, North American — sports, who, with 27 world championships, always set expectations high. And currently, a baseball team that is painfully mediocre despite a really talented roster. 

The thing is, their owner is missing. Have you seen him? Sources say he hasn’t been spotted since the 2009 World Series.

Hal Steinbrenner officially took control of the Yankees in 2008 for his ailing father George — the spontaneous and abrupt owner who fired and spent his way to 11 American League pennants and seven World Series trophies. 

With George’s health deteriorating fast, Hal and his late brother, Hank, went on a shopping spree to get one last gift for their father: the 2009 World Series Championship. In perhaps the most exciting free agency period for Yankees fans ever, New York signed pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to seven-year, $161 million and five-year, $82.5 million deals, respectively. They also brought on first baseman Mark Teixeira for eight years at $180 million.

Essentially, they purchased themselves a World Series that off-season.

But lately, with the Boss gone since 2010, son Hal hasn’t shown the kind of urgency he did in 2009, nor the kind that his father ruled by during his 37-year reign. George was notorious for being hands-on to a fault. Like him or not, the Boss’s domineering presence over team personnel decisions combined with his no-bullshit attitude nearly always meant an entertaining product was on the field at Yankee Stadium. And that’s just the way he wanted it. George was his own team’s biggest fan. 

Most of the time, he ran the team like a Bleacher Creature, too. Famous for his frequent firings and penchant for throwing preposterous amounts of cash at players, there was never a dull moment with Steinbrenner’s Yanks. Famed manager Billy Martin was fired so often by George that it became a running joke on Miller Lite commercials. Bob Lemon was fired a few games into the 1982 season — just a few months removed from guiding the team to a World Series appearance. Yankees legend Don Mattingly was once benched because he refused to abide by the grooming standards the Boss put in place. 

The Boss set this management style in the first innings of his ownership reign, bringing Oakland Athletics superstar Reggie Jackson to the Yankees back in 1976. New York had just lost the World Series months prior, and George wanted to take that next step. His squad would go on to win the 1977 title, with Jackson winning World Series MVP. They’d repeat in 1978.

Just a few years earlier, Steinbrenner signed the first MLB free agent ever to exist: future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter. Many attribute the explosion of big-money deals in major sports to George’s trigger-happy nature during free agency. 

With George, the good always came with the bad — he was not a man known for patience. When the mid-’80s rolled around and the Yanks were in the dumps, he made moves. To the dismay of many New Yorkers, those moves included trading the likes of Willis McGee, Fred McGriff, and Jay Buhner — the latter inspiring one of the most popular scenes in sitcom history on Seinfeld

One day, though, The Boss got caught with the pine tar too far up his bat. It turns out Steinbrenner had paid gambler Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield, the man who The Boss had given the richest contract in sports in 1980. Winfield, a phenomenal player and one of the lone bright spots for those 80’s New York teams, drew the ire of Steinbrenner for underperforming in crunch time. George, remembering Reggie Jackson’s postseason dominance from the late ’70s, which earned him the nickname Mr. October, slapped Winfield with the moniker Mr. May and hired Spira in an attempt to rid himself of the expensive right fielder. The consequences were harsh: the MLB banned Steinbrenner for life …  temporarily.

When the Boss returned three years later, in 1993, GM Gene Michael had already drafted and started developing the core players that would turn the Yankees into the dynasty that won championships in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Steinbrenner, naturally, would still have some input on how that dynasty would take shape — he fired manager Buck Showalter after the 1995 season in favor of a guy named Joe Torre. 

But if George’s tendencies — unpredictable and absurd yet somehow effective — are a perfect match for Seinfeld, Hal could have slid into a role on The Big Bang Theory, which, with its bland yet sometimes ironically funny humor and shameless implementation of the hot-girl-next-door trope, did just enough to keep you from flipping the channel.

Since taking over, Hal has opportunistically echoed the words of his late father but has mimicked his actions more sporadically with each year. Following the 2020 postseason, Hal took a page out of George’s playbook when he publicly apologized to Yankees fans for not fielding a more successful team. New York had just played a win-or-go-home American League Divisional Series Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays, in which their star-studded offense sputtered to a 2–1 loss. Within his apology was the admittance that he himself was responsible for the failures of the team, a quote that seemed to indicate that moves from this lower-case “b” boss could be on the horizon.

So, the Yankees let Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ walk during the off-season —  probably wise moves, with the exception of Tanaka. The real issue is how they went about fixing their rotation, which was then left with superstar Gerrit Cole as the only reliable starter. It was quite a bold strategy. In picking up former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and Pittsburgh Pirate Jameson Taillon, New York hoped to build an ultra-high-ceiling rotation for 2021 that would depend on Domingo German and Luis Severino returning to full form at various points during the season. However, those four starters had only pitched a combined one inning during the 2020 season

Big surprise: it didn’t work. Taillon has posted a dreadful 5.74 ERA in just over 53 innings pitched. Severino’s comeback from Tommy John surgery took a step back last week because of a groin injury. Kluber, while pitching exceptionally early on (including a no-hitter on May 19), is expected to be out for about two months with a shoulder injury. The only exception is German, who has a solid 3.88 ERA in 12 starts. 

Even if this plan had worked out, free agency bargain hunting to fill out important roster holes is a strategy meant for the Oakland A’s of the league, not the New York Yankees. One of the best pitchers in baseball, Trevor Bauer, was a free agent this past off-season, and before you question how unrealistic it would’ve been to sign the top available free agent in back-to-back off-seasons (Cole was signed in 2019), just take a look at the team Bauer ended up inking a deal with. The Los Angeles Dodgers gave Bauer $102 million over three years, adding that kind of money to a payroll that already included southpaw Clayton Kershaw’s $31 million per season. Oh yeah, they also recently signed star outfielder Mookie Betts to the second-richest deal in Major League Baseball history. 

Take notes, Hal. 

The Yankees, unlike the Dodgers, who won it all last season, haven’t sniffed a World Series game since 2009. They’ve reached the American League Championship series twice since 2017, only to be gatekept from the big stage by the Houston Astros. 

So if the Dodgers are still urgently adding top talent after winning a championship, why are the Yankees content with making minor moves when they haven’t had even half as much success in recent years?

Because of the MLB’s Competitive Balance Tax (the league’s luxury tax — thanks, George!), teams who exceed a $210 million payroll must pay hefty fines that are adjusted according to how far over they are. The longer you’re over the figure, the more you pay. 

In a poetic turn of events that likely has George looking down from the clouds, eyes ablaze, with steam blowing out of his ears, Hal is now a slave to the consequences that his own father’s profligacy brought on the league. The Yankees, in the midst of a window with a ton of good young players on affordable contracts, paid nothing in luxury taxes in 2018 and just $5 million in 2019. In 2020 they jumped up to over $20 million, but in 2021 the team is once again on pace to pay nothing.

So while Hal has made some big splashes in recent years, such as Cole’s nine-year, $324 million deal, and trading for Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million contract, he’s also made cost-cutting moves that have neutralized those big additions. Reliever Adam Ottavino was dealt to the Boston Red Sox last season as a pure salary dump — he’s now posting a healthy 2.67 ERA in 27 innings, including two scoreless against the Yanks. D.J. LeMahieu was re-signed to a long-term deal that will pay him until he’s 37 in exchange for a lighter hit on the luxury tax. Don’t forget the list of bargain-bin and perpetually injured starters that currently comprise their makeshift rotation.

Those transactions are in no way George-like. Hal knows that. It’s just that his desire to maximize profits is greater than his drive to win. And his refusal to step in and make a change with manager Aaron Boone unable to clean up one of the sloppiest, yet talented, teams in the league just screams indifference. But then again, screaming requires some sort of passion — ask George. And we all know the only thing that gets Hal screaming is when Brian Cashman gets a buck too close to that $210 million mark.

This isn’t even a demand for Hal to start signing every superstar out there. It’s a request that he looks like he cares about anything other than his wallet. Shaking up an ineffective coaching staff or filling out some glaring roster holes by the upcoming July 30 trade deadline could go a long way. The prestige and tradition of Yankees baseball requires an owner whose actions reflect the franchise’s values, not one who delivers a depressing exit interview every season and cuts costs. 

It’s perfectly fitting that the last time Hal showed a sense of urgency to win was among the last months of his father’s life. He and his brother knew how much winning meant to George. The Boss’s passion for the team’s success, for better or worse, was never in question.

Unfortunately, that passion, the urgency to win, and the willingness to do whatever it takes, seems to have died with him in 2010.  ❖

Highlights