Steven Goldman is a Baseball Prospectus writer whose Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel should be required reading for anyone clinging to the myth that anyone short of a trained seal could have just wandered in and managed the 1949-60 Yankees to greatness. (Ten pennants, seven World Series rings.)
Goldman also thinks Yankee fans today need to get over the “What would George have done?” syndrome like five minutes ago.
Yes, the Yankees are 5-7 in their last twelve games and dropped two out of three to the Mets in holiday weekend interplay. Yes, they often seem like fish flopping on the dock or the boat deck, after being reeled in following an arduous battle.
And, yes, principal owner Hal Steinbrenner isn’t exactly his father’s son. Not if you consider a hair trigger pro-active leadership. Prince Hal would never have dismissed a promising but struggling prospect as the horse that spit the bit. It’s almost (underline that) to wonder how Prince Hal was a Steinbrenner in the first place.
On Sunday, the Mets nuked Yankee reliever Aroldis Chapman in the seventh of game one of a doubleheader made necessary by a Friday night rainout. Handed a 5-4 lead to protect, Chapman threw a 1-2 pitch to Pete Alonso that got sent over the left center field fence to tie. Oops.
He hit Michael Conforto with an 0-2 pitch, he walked Jeff McNeil on a full count, then watched his relief Lucas Luetge surrender a bases-loading single (Kevin Pillar), get the first Met out of the inning (James McCann, swinging strikeout), but then . . . two-run double (pinch hitter Jose Peraza), two-run single (Brandon Nimmo), RBI single (Francisco Lindor), before Luetge finally escaped the fire with Mets reliever Seth Lugo dispatching the Yankees too quietly in the bottom to end it.
Any team doing that to the Yankees that late in the game would have had The Boss going rogue. The Mets doing it would have had him going so far beyond that “rogue” would have seemed a relief.
“[B]oth social media and the Yankees broadcasters wondered how ‘George’ would have reacted had he been alive to see the resultant defeat. He would have reacted poorly,” Goldman writes.
During his lifetime, which ended 11 years ago, long after he had subsided into senescence, [The Boss] had placed a disproportionate emphasis on beating the Mets during meetings that, prior to the advent of interleague play in 1997, were restricted to meaningless exhibition games.
“He goes crazy if we lose to the Mets, even if it’s spring training,” said five-time Steinbrenner manager Billy Martin in his 1980 memoir Number 1. “He feels we’re going to lose fans to them if they beat us. It’s ridiculous, and it makes the players laugh at him.” Sometimes their reaction was a bit harsher than laughter. “The more we lose, the more he’ll fly in here,” third baseman Graig Nettles said in the last 1970s, “and the more he flies in, the better chance there’ll be a plane crash.”
George Steinbrenner was an awful lot more than just the man who threw out the first manager of the year, before his 1990 banishment over engaging a street hustler to help him soil the reputation of his Hall of Fame right fielder Dave Winfield. When things got a little dicey before then, The Boss left you surprised only that he hadn’t traded his entire organisation for that of the Mariners.
“[W]e know what George would have done were he alive today,” Goldman writes:
He would have flailed spasmodically, he would have made a lot of people unhappy to be Yankees employees, and he would have ordered Jasson Dominquez traded to the Tigers for Matthew Boyd, had Gleyber Torres and Anthony Volpe sent to the Rangers for Kyle Gibson and David Dahl, and taken whatever was left over and given it to the Royals for Mike Minor. And nothing would have changed except that in the short term the team’s record might have gotten even worse and in the longer term it definitely would have gotten worse. Anyone old enough to remember Steinbrenner’s immortal words of July 13, 1987 can tell you how that worked, words that should be emblazoned on Steinbrenner’s grave and the monument to him at Yankee Stadium in burning letters 15 stories high: “Lou, I just won you the pennant. I got you Steve Trout.”
Maybe today’s Yankee fan is typically someone who wasn’t alive when the depth of George Steinbrenner’s act hit depths possibly unseen among baseball owners—whose penchant for hitting depths is only slightly younger than the nation that loves the game to its soul—since the day William B. Cox was forced to sell the Phillies when manager Bucky Harris discovered Cox was betting on his own team.
“Here is a pretty judicial pickle,” wrote George F. Will, on the threshold of Steinbrenner’s suspension, in Newsweek. (The essay was called, “A One-Man Error Machine.”) “Imagine trying to assemble an impartial jury of New Yorkers to hear Steinbrenner’s case. ‘Tell the court, Mr. Prospective Juror, do you have any strong opinions about the owner who masterminded the trade of Fred McGriff from the Yankees to the Blue Jays in exchange for a couple of no-names? Stop snarling, Prospective Juror’.”
Maybe today’s Yankee fan forgets, if he or she really knew, what happened the night the news broke of Steinbrenner’s suspension over l’affaire Winfield: The Yankees hosted the Tigers. Yankee Stadium fans clung to portable radios. The news broke as the Tigers came up to bat. Cheering began at one end of the ballpark and swelled to cover the entire stands. The Tigers had no idea why they were coming up to hit to a loud standing ovation.
Goldman knows the what-would-George-have-done faction among Yankee fans (and broadcasters) either forget or ignore that Steinbrenner’s wholly-earned suspension did what more people than you might think thought would have been impossible during the 1980s. It kept The Boss from continuing his King of Hearts act (Don’t be nervous or I’ll have you executed on the spot!) and enabled general manager Gene Michael to rebuild the Yankees back to greatness.
Michael’s salient quality was the diametric opposite of Steinbrenner’s. Michael knew what he was doing. Michael would never have thought he could make Tommy John or Hall of Famer Phil Niekro into young sprouts again. He never would have traded McGriff. He never would have tried to make Ozzie Smith out of Bobby Meacham. He never would have had twelve managers and seventeen pitching coaches in two decades.
The what-would-George-have-done contingent would have unloaded Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams at the drop of a four-game losing streak. To err is human; to forgive is not Yankee policy. Goldman knows that, too.
To ask what he would have done now or to wish that he were still around to do it is a fundamentally masochistic wish that suggests just how many toxic fathers have damaged their kids along with passing on their baseball fandom. How else to you explain this perverse prayer for an abusive, incompetent papa who, because we grew up to the sounds of his yelling and breaking the furniture, left us longing to experience the same chaos again? It’s the same wish that brought us Donald Trump (he and George were patrons of “Bully/Coward/Victim” Roy Cohn). Please, dear dead daddy, claw your way out of whatever Hell you reside in and show us your impotent love by saying something crude about a player who’s trying his best and then trading a top prospect for Merrill Kelly. You so crippled us that this is the only kind of love we can understand.
Who was Merrill Kelly? Don’t ask. Just thank God and His servant Stengel that Michael’s cooler head prevailed and The Mariano wasn’t traded for Felix Fermin—by a hair.
Did analytics turn this year’s Yankees into an inconsistent mess? Not quite, Goldman says. Analytics, sabermetrics, whatever you wish to call it, is nothing more and nothing less than objective information. “Facts themselves are not slanted; it’s what decision-makers do with them that leads to good or bad outcomes,” he writes.
If analytics exists to supply team leadership with a set of facts, then the opposite of being “weighted 90-10” towards analytics would mean a 90-10 bias in favor of—what? Just going with your gut regardless of what the facts might direct you to do? Well, that’s what George Steinbrenner did. If that’s what Yankees fans are asking for then they deserve what they’re going to get—a whole lotta nothing, just as was the case from 1979 through 1995. Better to shout, “Down beast! Down!” and drive the creature back to the place from whence it came.
“Some kids want to join the circus when they grow up,” said Graig Nettles, who often fenced with The Boss himself over trivialities great, small, and surreal. “Others want to be big league baseball players. I feel lucky. When I came to the Yankees, I got to do both.”
There was no better epitaph for the depths of The Boss’s reign than the late-80s Banner Day winner dressed as a monk, holding a scythe from which hung the sign, “Forgive him, Father, for he knows not what he does.” (The poor fellow got his prize—and was ejected from the ballpark on The Boss’s orders.)
Letting the kids play is one thing. Yankee fans demanding their team be allowed to party like it’s 1980-90 all over again are something else entirely. Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they really want.