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Après George le Déluge

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WHO'S THE BOSS? Hank Steinbrenner has his father's bluster—but Hal Steinbrenner is much more hands-on.
Illustrations by Lyndon Hayes  

Cashman was prepared for 2008 to be a rocky transition year, and the team actually stayed in the race longer than many expected. Unfortunately, the youth movement Cashman championed has been a dud so far. Ownership may push him to reload fast: The Yankees could shed $85 million in payroll this winter, as contracts with past-their-prime players like Jason Giambi come to an end.

The first real and messy test of who wears the executive pants in the family won’t come over free-agent sluggers, however; it is already well under way, with a deadline of October 31, when Cashman’s contract expires. During the summer, Hank and Hal issued contradictory statements about their interest in retaining the general manager, with Hank saying he was in favor and Hal wanting to wait and see. Last week they met with Cashman in Tampa, generating a story in the Post that both brothers now favor bringing Cashman back. Even if that’s true, it seems they’re continuing one George Steinbrenner tradition: allowing executives to dangle in the breeze before making a deal.

Hal Steinbrenner appears to have bought into Cashman’s long-term rebuilding program, but his own ambitions aren’t so transparent. For a decade, he was content to live in Florida and oversee the family’s hotel properties, staying out of the way of his domineering dad. As this season began, he seemed most interested in watching over the family’s investment, and in joking to reporters that he wanted them to use a good picture of him to help him get dates. Now, though, Hal has had his first real taste of the joys and pain of a pennant race, and the ego thrill of manipulating a ball club. Though he also lives in Tampa, not far from the three children he shares with his ex-wife, it’s Hal who flies frequently to New York to talk about players with Girardi and Cashman. Hal has slowly become more visible, allowing himself to be caught by reporters for short interviews while exiting Girardi’s office. “Hank doesn’t want to be there, but Hal does,” says a person who’s done business with the family. “And he’s not gonna want to share that limelight.”

Hank, however, remains the wild card. Will he back off and return to the Florida horse business that’s his real love? Or will losing this year—and especially the brutal mocking he’s taken from the New York newspapers—propel Hank to throw his weight around, letting his inner George loose and demanding that the Yankees wave huge contract offers at free agents like C. C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira? After all, wasn’t Hank right, last winter, that the Yankees should have traded Melky Cabrera and a couple of those kid pitchers Cashman loves for Johan Santana? “There’s going to be a lot going on this off-season,” Hank promised after that ugly loss to Boston last month.

Of course, another possibility is more hot air. “Randy and Brian have put together a very functional leadership group,” says one prominent baseball agent. “Hank and Hal are more of an aggravation than anything. I don’t think Brian would be there after all these years if he couldn’t really run the club.” If the brothers decide to bring back Cashman, they will essentially be relegating themselves to figureheads.

In July, when Goose Gossage was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the great old shaggy Yankees relief pitcher couldn’t stop telling George Steinbrenner stories. One of his favorites was about how the Boss would storm in, purple with rage, and scream at the team after losses.

That was a long time ago. A tyrant owner, especially in New York, would probably be a disaster these days. “Baseball is not the same game George bought into in ’73,” says Bill Madden, the longtime Daily News baseball writer who is working on a biography of Steinbrenner. “I don’t see any way he could have possibly operated a team, a business of this magnitude, the way he used to, where nothing got done without his approval. The old George ways, that world doesn’t exist anymore, and not just because George has faded.”

Yet the Yankees remain a family business—a splintered-family business. The fear is gone from the front office, but the tension between Hal and Hank, and their conflicting management styles, may not end up providing anything near the leadership that George did.

Bloodless corporate ownership would be even worse, but that may be where the Yankees are inevitably headed. The gilded new stadium, with its martini bars and seats priced as high as $2,500 per game, is coming online in the middle of an economic downturn. Last year, Goldman Sachs quietly shopped the YES network, one pillar of the team’s financial success. Selling the cable channel, which could bring in as much as $3 billion, might be one strategy for the Steinbrenner family to pump cash into the team and maintain control. Or, more likely, it could have been a test of how much they could cash in by selling the team entirely when George is gone.


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