Are verbal incontinence, smug self-satisfaction, and thin-skinned pettiness contagious? In Yankee Land, these are traits we come to expect of the Steinbrenners.
However, Brian Cashman's behavior of late raises the question whether he's contracted the Steinbrenners' character flaws.
Last week, Cashman made some rather tactless and disparaging comments about his former manager and center-fielder. This week, Cashman gambled the house to protect the farm, rebuffing the Twins' eleventh-hour offer, according to The Bergen Record, of Johan Santana for Ian Kennedy, Melky Cabrera, and a prospect.
Are these isolated lapses or symptoms of a more fundamental shortcoming, of the vanity and hubris that often come to afflict men who wield power?
Let's analyze each in its turn.
STEINIS-ITUS: DISHONORING THE OLD GUARDNow, Brian Cashman, it's true, has never exactly been the most magnetic or charismatic personality: the guarded, saturnine demeanor; the un-inflected monotone; the prolix and ponderous responses to the most basic question.
(The "Sports Pope" and "The Idio-Savant" had some juvenile fun at Cashman's expense during Joe Girardi's press conference. They turned their mike off at varying intervals only to discover Cashman effusing ad nauseum about the managerial search "process," in response to a single question, a discourse about as intriguing as a Ben Stein lecture on the "process" by which the Agricultural Dept. calculates corn subsidies.)
But if his public comments are hardly models of charm, wit, and eloquence, they usually betray the saving grace of discretion.
That is, until recently, when Cashman appeared with his new friend and counterpart, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, at William Patterson University. Listed below I excerpta few of the more incendiary remarks Cashman offered about his former manager, centerfielder, and some of his current players' and team's "mental toughness" and "physical conditioning"
- About why the GM declined to offer Bernie Williams a contract for the '07 season, "Williams had become more involved in his music 'and that took away from his play' and that Williams had a 'terrible season' in 2005." -- NY Times, "A Bitter Rivalry Finds a Little Common Ground," January 26, 2008)
- About Joe Torre's role: "Torre had played Williams 'ahead of guys who could help us win' in 2006, a reference to Melky Cabrera" -- Id.
- About Joba's performance during the midge infestation, "'I thought our guys weren't mentally tough enough to get through it."
- About Damon and Abreu's off-season conditioning, "Cashman said Damon struggled last season because he reported to spring training out of shape, adding that Bobby Abreu was also out of shape."
"51"*?: THE BERNIE VENDETTA
The first problem with criticizing Bernie and Torre is that it doesn't serve what should be Cashman's primary responsibility-- assembling the best talent available and winning ball games.
Sure, rebuking Damon and Abreu for their commitment and work ethic may spur them to work harder in the off-season. However, disparaging the performance and diligence of a former player (one effectively retired) and impugning his former manager's judgment won't improve the 2008 Yankees any.
Then again, it might avail Cashman himself: by implying his manager's favoritsm and his player's neglect accounted for his team's failures he retrospectively acquits himself of responsibilty. He also depletes the good will of two Yankees infinitely more popular than him. After all, diminishing one's predecessors and blaming one's subordinates is a long, ignoble tradition men in power employ to safeguard their legacies and to burnish their reputation.
Which makes one wonder whether diminishing their popularity was precisely Cashman's motive, or at the very least, his unconscious wish, because of the indignation directed at him in the wake of their departures. The uproar Torre's ouster provoked occurred recently enough for most of us still to recall it. But Cashman's passive-aggressive minor-league invitation to Bernie in late January of 2007-- an offer he made reluctantly and designed to be refused, besides, much like Torre's-- fomented a backlash every bit as furious, especially after the roster Cashman assembled consisting of four first-baseman and no fifth outfielder started 22-29. (In retrospect, the rebuff to Bernie foreshadowed the Torre fiasco nine months later.)
So it raises the question: did Cashman resent the public outcry their departures generated? Did Cashman resent having even to offer Bernie a minor league invite because of public pressure and Torre an offer they knew he'd refuse? Did Cashman especially resent their decisions to spurn the offer and then to shun the organization? It wouldn't be the first time the front-office denigrated an ex-Yankee to deflect the outrage his ouster provoked.
But worse than gratuitous, Cashman's characterization of Bernie's 2005 season as "terrible" is also unjust. And more egregious still is Cashman's insinuation that it resulted from two factors the precise effect of which we can only speculate -- (1) his physical conditioning and (2) his musical career. Finally, there's the added irony that Cashman would choose to reproach a player for his off-season, extra-curricular activities during a public appearance having nothing to do with his duties as GM.
Now, in fairness, Bernie's offensive production in 2005 did represent the nadir in a decline that actually began back in 2003. However, he hardly had a "terrible" season. If he did, what do we make of the 2007 season of the center-fielder that Cashman considered so indispensable that he spurned a deal for Johan Santana, in part, because he feared, at this late date, he couldn't replace.
Compare Bernie's 2005 offensive statistics with Melky Cabrera's last year.
- Bernie Williams-- 2005-- .249/.321/.367/.288 RISP-- 12 HRs-- 64 RBIs (485 ABs), RC/G= 3.8
- Melky Cabrera-- 2007-- .273/.327/.391/.272 RISP-- 8 HRs-- 73 RBIs (545 ABs), RC/G=4.3
Perhaps, Cashman would have preferred Bernie emulate Roger Clemens' off-season work-out regimen. How else does a player arrest the physical decline the body undergoes around 35, whether he plays classical guitar or no? Players, it seems, are damned if they use performance-enhancing drugs and damned if they refuse them.
On the defensive side, Bernie's waning speed, it's true, also curtailed his range in center-field, but evidently, not enough to convince the Yankees to sign Carlos Beltran at a $20 million dollar discount the winter before. Anyway, until someone shows me a proven metric to quantify precisely how many runs Bernie's diminished range yielded, I remain dubious to Cashman Apologists' unsubstantiated assertions that Bernie's defense handicapped his team.
In 2005, the Yankees won 95 games and their pitching staff surrendered 789 runs. How many of those 789 runs did Bernie's defense cost them? How many more wins would Bubba Crosby's defense, say, have garnered them. In 2001, the Oakland A's won 102 games with Johhny Damon in CF. In 2002, they won 103 with Terence Long in the position.
And really, if Bernie had such a "terrible" season, why did Cashman reward him for it in the off-season with a guaranteed major league contract for 2006.
But Cashman seems determined to rewrite history. Indeed his assertion that "Torre played Williams 'ahead of guys who could help us win' in 2006" represents an even greater distortion than his musings on William's 2005 season.
Of course the reproach of his ex-manager did warm the hearts of Torre-haters everywhere, awakening a few them from their two month larval dormancy to vent their hatred and malice. I quote one below.
- "joe torre who didn’t want to be woken up to go out and speak to his ROOKIE pitcher in a palyoff game who was being attacked by bugs! was there ever a worse manager than joe torre the last 7 years, can any true yankee fan not be ecstatic this bum will not be here next year? anyone is better than torre. sorry, but this defense of bernie is for the birds..recall how he was such a team player that he didnt even show up for spring training last year?"-- Anonymous poster, Lohud blog
The tenor, I think, speaks for itself.
In any case, Cashman, it seems, rather conveniently, has forgotten the circumstances of the 2006 season. Torre didn't start Bernie in the outfield, on a regular basis, until Sheffield and Matsui suffered season-ending injuries in April and May respectively. In the 23 games, the Yankees played in April 2006, Bernie started in only 15, 9 of them as the DH. So in the mere 6 games Torre started Bernie in the outfield, what player did Torre bench "that could have helped the Yankees win?" Andy Phillips? The Yankees, after all, didn't promote Melky Cabrera until May 9, 2006, the day after a broken wrist landed Matsui on the DL for almost the entirety of the regular season.
And with both Matsui and Sheffield sidelined, Torre had no choice but to start Bernie in the outfield, a decision, quite frankly, for which, the Yankees GM should be grateful. Because were it not for Bernie rising to the occasion, increasing his batting average by 30 points and his slugging percentage by 70 points over 2005, the Yankees might not have qualified for the playoffs
Is Cashman, perhaps, thinking of the period after he acquired Abreu on July 31st? Well, if so, he's mistaken here as well. Because if anything, Torre played Bernie, NOT Melky, less after Abreu arrived. Bernie's Plate Appearance dropped from highs of 103, 89, and 78 in May June, and July to 66 and 61 in August and September. Melky's Plate Appearance remained constant throughout: 112 (June), 106 (July), 122 (August), 108 (September)
What about the playoffs? Well, thereto Cashman would be mistaken. Torre ddn't play Bernie Williams, let alone start him, in any game of the 2006 ALDS, except as DH in Game 3 against Kenny Rogers. In a game incidentally during which Bernie Williams came about 6 inches from a 2-run home-run in the 5th inning that would have narrowed the Tigers' lead to 3-2.
THEO-ENVY: THE ATHLETE v. THE INTELLECTUAL
All of which raises the question why? Upraiding players and maligning ex-managers in public is, of course, a Steinbrenner hallmark, or a George Steinbrenner one, anyway. But why would a GM ordinarily so guarded and evasive that he regularly bores his audience by repeating the same hackneyed cliches over and over again to avoid offense or indiscretion take the occasion of an appearance, with of all people, Theo Epstein, GM of the Yankees' arch rival, to denigrate his former manager and center-fielder?
Here's one theory that amused me greatly.
- "Where does that little peanut-head Cash get his balls, throwing dirt on Bernie out of the blue? This is the second time in a month that this bug-eyed little squirt has embarrassed our team while playing kissyface with his new drinking buddy, Epstein. Anyone who thinks that’s accidental isn’t paying attention." -- Anonymous Blogger, Lohud Blogs
Now, I can't condone the attacks on Cashman's physical appearance. After all, the toll working for Steinbrenners exacts is probably enough to make anyone look "bug-eyed" from stress and sleep-deprivation after 2o years.
However, in his suspicion that it wasn't "accidental" that Cashman criticized Bernie and Torre while playing "kissyface" with Epstein, the blogger may be on to something. The theory calls to mind something Tom Verducci wrote back in October about Cashman in his superb article about the Torre debacle, "Blood On Their Hands"
"It's apparent now that in his heart Cashman didn't really want Torre back... Cashman has fancied himself a Billy Beane-Theo Epstein wanna-be, an intellectual GM known for running an efficient system, especially when it comes to player development, rather than just a guy who writes checks. He has traded veterans for prospects, embraced sabermetrics and surrounded himself with young number-crunchers who get jazzed about PlayStation tournaments. The more he has put his self-worth in the image of cutting-edge GM the less Torre and his old-school ways became relevant."For if Verducci is right and Cashman envies Epstein's public image as a "baseball intellectual" and wants to remake his own in Theo's likeness, it's not suprising he'd become a little too expansive, a little too earnest, a little too eager to impress in his company.
In fact, what better time for Cashman, the ex-athlete, the former Cathlolic University 2nd baseman, to signal he's every bit the Ivy League Epstein's intellectual equal, to signal that he too has embraced baseball's new sabermetrical vanguard, than a joint appearance with Epstein to depreciate the two most prominent symbols of the Yankees' old, antiquated regime, Torre and Bernie, his figurative Son and to elevate the most prominent embodiments of the new one, his young pitchers. Witness the other much reported statement Cashman issued that night: "My strong recommendation," Cashman also said, "is that we stick with our young pitching and keep it in-house."
And that's exactly what Cashman did four days later, by forgoing the opportunity to acquire the best pitcher in baseball. I only wish I endorsed his decision. In part II of this post, I will explain why I do not.
 Because to Cashman's credit, he recognized that in the new marketplace wrought by expansion and revenue-sharing, championship-caliber pitching had become too scarce and too costly a commodity to purchase via free-agency. The Yankees had to cultivate it on the farm. For this reason, Cashman shrewdly augumented the sums spent on the draft-- from $3.8 million in '03 to $7.4 million in '07