Monday, September 7, 2009

THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST?

“And in the lighted palace near, died the sound of royal cheer; And they cross'd themselves for fear, all the knights at Camelot..." T he Lady of Shalott, Tennyson

Oh for the symmetries of history: meaningless September games closed Ruth's House and meaningless September games opens Jeter's. But praise be the difference. Last autumn rang the death knell and dimmed the Stadium lights. This year, the trumpet calls and the drums of October rumble early.

So with the Yankees' return to the post-season growing daily more inevitable, a momentary lull occasions an instant's reflection before October's passion and pleasures, torments and griefs begin.

Reader, please bear with me then. My larger point about the Yankees emerges slowly and warrants a digression through America's other signal calling. If baseball is the national pastime, then politics is its national vocation.

You see, in the decades before crowds thronged ballparks to gawk and to marvel at player's prodigious physical talent and skill, thousand flocked to auditoriums to be spellbound by edifying oratory. Before Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio, there was Webster, Clay, and Bryan. Before the epic battle the audience eagerly anticipated opposed the Yankees and Red Sox across a diamond, it pitted Lincoln against Douglas behind the lectern.

Perhaps, this explains why the two arenas so often borrow from and supply each other's repository of myths, idioms, symbols, and imagery. The media now covers election campaigns, for instance, as journalists might a baseball season. Instead of analyzing policy or investigating facts, the narrative consists instead of a facile, arcane, and largely trivial discussion of tactics and strategies, of turnouts and poll numbers, of the week's winner and losers-- befitting what Joan Didion once mordantly called Washington “Inside Baseball.” Conversely, baseball, over the years, has adopted all the patriotic trappings, civic pomp, and national rites we normally associate with the political arena. Anthems, flag-waving, military pageantry, honored guests and ceremonial pitches. Could you imagine a play, movie, concert, or opera, by contrast, opening with any of these obligatory patriotic rituals?

I mention this because in the exhaustive media coverage about the Brothers Kennedys that has accompanied the Massachusetts Senator's recent death I couldn't help but see in the indirect light it reflects on baseball, in general, and in particular, the Yankees. No, I don't refer to the photographs depicting an already wan Teddy outfitted in Red Sox regalia with a smiling John Henry beside him or for that matter, to the little known friendship between the Kennedys and Steinbrenners and the homage George paid, via his press agent, in the wake of his friend's passing. The connection is more oblique but not necesarily less telling.

As Michael Lewis' Moneyball potrayed it, Baseball-- that is, both the body that governs the league (headed by the Commissioner) and the the individual teams that comprise it: Baseball, despite an identity that today owes as much today to the Money as to the Ball, in attitude, outlook, financial practices and personnel management evokes far less a competitive modern corporation or profitable niche industry than a smug, hidebound country club. It's a Club where insularity, clannishness, exclusivity, solipsism dominate marketplace shibboleths like innovation, adapatability, and efficiency and where a Club member's greatest sin "is not ineptitude but disolyalty." An institution, in other words, not so unlike the local party clubs that together constituted the urban political machines that controlled the country's municipal government from the Republic's founding until well after World War II and that in the late 1940s just so happened to launch the Congressional career of a young, pasty-faced Irish-American war hero from Boston who later ascended to the Presidency.

Only as the Boston Congressman, and later, Massaschusetts Senator's career blossomed and he fixed his ambitions on the Presidency, he abandoned the ways and habits of the machine. His campaigns depended less and less upon the party to marshall votes and to bind allegiance because his family's wealth granted him the luxury of bypass its patronage apparatus and electoral organization. Instead, Jack, and his campaign manager, brother Bobby, tapping Poppa Joe's limitless financial resources, capitalized on the new media, computer technology, and advanced statistical applications the corporate world already used to pioneer the modern campaign-- polling voters, canvassing preferences, testing campaign themes, targetting equivocal audiences, lavishing huge sums on advertising, promoting a personality cult and forging loyalties independent of party.

Consequently, Kennedy, owing no debt to the bosses for his election, once in office, needn't repay it by hiring their cronies. In the Oval Office, Kennedy then could transform the Office of Chief Executive and Presidential cabinet from a spoils system for career bureaucrats and party functionaries into an managerial Elect of the "Best and Brightest" called to higher service. Like the poll, focus group, and televison spot, merit-based Presidential appointment is now such a commonplace, we often fail to appreciate fully just how profound a reform, in this regard, Kennedy initiated.

To quote Gore Vidal, writing in 1961,

"I had not been to the White House since 1957... The corridors were empty. In the various offices of the Executive, quiet gray men in waistcoats talked to one another in low-pitched voices. Last month, I returned to find the twentieth century [] installed. The corridors are filled with eager youthful men... Kennedy is unique among recent Presidents in many ways. For one thing, he had ended the idea that the Presidency is a form of brevet rank to be give a man whose career has been distinguished in some profession other than politics or if to a politician, one whose good years are past, the White House being merely a place to provide some old pol with a golden Indian summer."

THE BRONX BRAIN DRAIN AND BOSTON BRAIN TRUST
How does all of this relate to baseball, you ask; and more importantly to the Yankees?

Well, despite the seeming paradox-- that is, notwithstanding the Kennedy family's deep roots in New England; and notwithstanding the recently departed's allegiance to Fenway, I can't help see nonetheless in the Camelot Presidency, in its rise and in its reign, a parallel to Steinbrenner's Yankees. A story about related ascents that nonetheless arrive at different destinations, a parable about roads not taken and opportunities lost.

Like Jack Kennedy, George Steinbrenner inherited the wealth and status of a prominent, hard-driving, autocratic father and like the President, the Boss, in turn, parlayed this considerable patrimony to win a birthright all his own, achieving success and renown that exceeded his family's expecations and the endowments given him. Likewise, the Ambassador's son and the shipbuilder's heir, once reaching the top, had to weather the persistent, vitriolic attacks of an establishment determined to discredit them as arrivistes and to reduce the value of what they'd achieved to their money. Ill-gotten plunder bought Kennedy his Presidency, they said; filthy lucre, Steinbrenner his Championships.

It is however in how these two embattled men governed once they acceded to the throne however that they parted company. If Kennedy surrounded himself with the Best and Brightest with the uncharacteristic concession here and there to nepotism and loyalists, Steinbrenner governed in the opposite manner.

At first, the owner may have planned otherwise, hiring in Gabe Paul and Al Rosen shrewd and savvy executives to compensate for the baseball acumen he lacked. The policy didn't last. Soon enough the Boss either antagonized or fired his most able personnel, and the best and brightest, with offers elsewhere, shunned the Bronx. Instead of an organization distinguished by the Game's Best and Brightest, it harbored the Obsequious and the Obtuse. (The exception of Gene Michael's tenure during George's expulsion, of course, is the exception that only underscores the rule.)

In fact, the moniker "The Boss" fit so well precisely because Steinbrenner conjured Boss Tweed, New York's infamous party boss. Meanwhile, the Yankees' organization the Boss' tyranny had wrought recalled the machine's waste, incompetence, and mismanagement (and pace, Howard Spira), its corruption. It ran sure enough. Then again, so did Tammany Hall, as long as no one expected efficiency, competitive advantage, or good government, and money continued to grease its wheels. So much, in fact, did the Yankees depart from the Kennedy standard of merit and professionalism that in the Boss' final years the courtiers, opportunists, flunkeys and fools that dominated his Tampa Kitchen Cabinet were probably more qualified to cook (and to drive) than to advise him about baseball.

In the meantime, the baseball front-office that came to exemplify the Best and the Brightest ideal; that prized merit, that valued credentials, and rewarded critical thinking; that adapted the private sector's latest information technology, statistical tools, computer modeling, and advanced media to assembling a winning baseball team just as the Kennedys once did to assembling a winning political campaign wasn't the Yankees at all. It was their arch rival, the Regents of Ressentiment, otherwise known as the Boston Red Sox.

To quote Tom Verducci in The Yankee Years,

"[John] Henry believed in numbers. They made him a rich man. Henry established an alternative money management firm that proudly took human emotion and subjective analysis out of play. It made trading decisions based on a proprietary, objective systems that analyzed trends in each market... Henry saw no reason why data-based analysis should not work in baseball, too... and about 20 years earlier had discovered the work of statstical analyst Bill James and other so-called sabermetricians."

It was the Yankees' former limited partner, Henry, then, who took up the Kennedy mantle and adopting the marketplace's empirical methods, technological tools, and merit system to modernize the GM's office as the Kennedy's once did the political campaign.

True, as Lewis' Moneyball tells the story, Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics pioneered the reform but economic necessity animated them as much as it constained them. Henry's team, on the other hand, had the finanical wherewithal and the intellectual will to realize it in its all manifold applications.

First, the Red Sox set about accumulating as much brain power as possible for his baseball operations, from hiring the Great Bill James himself and courting his many disciples to hiring as many experienced GMs as the sport had to offer. Conflicting titles, overlapping hierarchies, elders answering to their youngers-- none of this mattered.

Nor did Henry apply the hiring criteria the Club (Lewis' invidious term for the baseball establishment) tends to favor. For example, lifelong citizenship in Red Sox nation, friendship with the Henry family, connections to the Mayor, and an aptitude for mollifying tyrants and retaining one's job, say, didn't qualify one for an office. To the contrary, Henry's front-office personnel had to fulfill the same qualifications as the players who fill his team roster-- merit and merit alone.

Then, once Henry installed his brain trust, he encouraged and subsidized them in discovering for the Jamesian empirical method new and innovative metrics and for the latest medical and media technology new and innovative application. According to Verducci, the Red Sox front-office, for example, went about collecting the statistics of every college player in the last decade and then tracking their production through the minors and majors to devise models on how amateur and professional performance correlated. They also numbered one of two teams to send ALL their pitchers to Dr. James Andrews' Institute for biomechanical imaging to identify mechancial flaws and to forestall arm injuries. No doubt, someone in the Red Sox front-office is pouring over the latest Pitch f/x data baseball now collects to explain such anecdotal and physical imponderables as late break, speed, and movement. And in all likelihood, the Red Sox continue to tap Japan for pitching because unlike the rest of baseball, they've probably formulated a metric that predicts how a pitcher there will fare here.

No, the Red Sox GM's office isn't infallible. (As the Kennedy administration's overtures in Vietnam, and John McNamara himself, illustrate, the Best and Brightest err often.) No, they're not immune to personnel mistakes; no they haven't assembled a flawless roster; no, haven't and won't win every year. However, the Red Sox already have built one if not the deepest farm system in the majors despite drafting near the back of the line each season.

To appreciate fully what Henry has accomplished, consider for a moment a parallel world in which the Red Sox possessed the Yankees revenue stream and the Yankees, the Red Sox, but without altering the composition of their respective front-offices. Do you doubt how the two rivals would finish this season or for the forseeable future?

THE CASH-MAN'S YANKEES
With the Yankees the proud owners of the league's best record, it no doubt will seem churlish to criticize the GM's office, petty to disparage it, and willfully blind to ignore the considerable improvement its personnel decisions have registered since 2005.

This year alone the farm system yielded fruits, replenishing and stabilizing the major league roster when criticial injuries claimed A-Rod and Posada, and bolstering the bullpen. Meanwhile, George retreated years ago and mercifully, taken the Tampa HillBillies and Fool's Court with him. And if the Brothers Steinbrenner, in stature, charisma, courage or cleverness won't earn many comparison to Ted and Bobby, the George' sucessors don't appear to meddle with the baseball operations department or to tyrannize its employees.

But then again who knows? Among other frailties, the Boss' legacy of paranoia has survived him. The Yankees endeavor to conceal as much of their inner workings under a veil of secrecy now as ever. "Plans" supposedly exist for everything from Joba Chamberlain's innings count to restoring Chien-Ming Wang' velocity to guaranteeing Alex Rodriguez his hiatuses. "There's a process in place," the GM assures his skeptics. Only no one but the GM is privy to it. Neither the end results nor his faltering explanations, in the meantime, flatter him however. To the contrary, Cashman's "secret plans" for Joba and Wang recall Nixon's "secret plan to end the War," and his mangling of the English language, upon communicating them, bespeaks Dubya. Behind secret veils and contorted syntax typically lies rank duplicity and/or bungling incompetence.

Why did it require three outings in April, for example, before the Yankees suddenly realized the precipitous fall in Wang's velocity betrayed the lasting effects of his lis franc injury? And why did they continue to pitch him and ignore the injury to his arm they risked by allowing him to overthrow to compensate? Why did they promote him if after Wang's third minor league start his velocity still hadn't recovered? Why, finally, did it require Wang's agent to demand a second opinion before Dr. Andrews diagnosed the tear to his labrum? And why did they let him throw on flat ground twice in the interim?

Questions about the GM's management of Joba's innings total abound as well. If the Yankees intended to pitch Chamberlain in the post-season while honoring his innings limit, why didn't they simply defer his first outing until May 1st or May 15 to avoid a hiatus during the season? Back in April, the Yankees could have used Hughes, Kennedy, Aceves for the season's first month or acquired a career AAAA pitcher to use as their fifth starter.

Perhaps, we shouldn't diminsh though what "Cash-Money," as his acolytes like to call him, does well. Cash-Money excels at writing checks. By this, I don't intend sarcasm or a backhanded compliment. I mean it, quite sincerely. As the Red Sox have shown again and again cultivating player's loyalty, earning their good will, and recruiting them to sign isn't easy or evidently, a task at which the Red Sox office excels. Manny, Minky, Pedro, Damon and Lowe: the Red Sox managed to antagonize or to alienate all of them. By contrast, Cashman successfully recruited Sabathia, allaying his misgivings about New York with an escape clause, and seduced Teixiera just as the Red Sox were doing their best to offend him.

Perhaps, the Best and the Brightest necessarily excludes the Obsequious and the Ingratiating.

If so, Cash-Money's Yankees will go only so far as competitive zeal travels between generations; stars gravitate to and shine in the Bronx; and $50 million dollars of payroll separates New York from Boston.

1 comment:

Ticketwood said...

The Yankees have achieved a level of success in the world of baseball that is so gaudy, so well known, and so storied picking a handful of players to call their all time best is no easy task. They should be always competitive enough to keep pace with the others. I used to attend their games even their tickets get sold out. Luckily I found Ticketwood.com, now I’ll before compare prices before getting tickets. Go Yankees!!
http://www.ticketwood.com/mlb/NewYork-Yankees-Tickets/index.php