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The Yankees' Most Valuable Player

In the big trade that didn't happen and the less-big that did, general manager Brian Cashman not only primed his team for the postseason--he showed he's more than just George Steinbrenner's personal shopper.


Brian Cashman  

After weeks of dead-end trade proposals Brian Cashman finally has a live one. It’s July 31, the last day of Major League Baseball’s midsummer trading period. Cashman was awakened in Darien at six this morning by his 1-year-old son, and watching The Wiggles with Teddy seemed like the only fun Cashman would have all day. What the 37-year-old general manager of the Yankees has to look forward to, mostly, is being quizzed by his boss, George Steinbrenner, as other teams announce deals: Why’d the Marlins get him? Why don’t we want him?

Now, with one hour to go before the trading deadline, in his narrow office above home plate at Yankee Stadium, where the walls are lined with the color-coded names of every big-league player, Cashman finds himself on the verge of moving erratic pitcher Jose Contreras to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for right-hander Esteban Loaiza.

Just before hustling downstairs to the clubhouse to talk to Contreras—whose contract gives him the right to block the deal—Cashman makes another call on his BlackBerry. It’s to one of his best friends in baseball, San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers. “What’s up, dude?” Cashman asks, constantly panning for useful information. “I’m talking to the White Sox,” Towers says, “about getting Loaiza and spinning him off to Boston to get us Derek Lowe.”

Uh-oh. Losing out on Loaiza would be disappointing, but not fatal. Losing him to the Red Sox, on the other hand—in Steinbrenner’s world, that’s a hanging offense. Cashman hangs up, speed-dials Kenny Williams. The White Sox general manager says Contreras remains his first choice. Hmmm.

Contreras signs off on the trade, and with one minute to go before the deadline, Anthony Flynn, a Yankees aide, faxes in the official documents. “Conversation, man, that’s key,” Cashman says. “Just stay communicating; you might get lucky. It’s that old principle: One man’s shit is another man’s ice cream.”

“You’re overpaid!” Steinbrenner erupted at Cashman. “No one will take your contract off my hands. Maybe the Mets will take you. You have permission to talk to the Mets!”

For all the nifty theatrics, Esteban Loaiza is merely a single scoop. Randy Johnson, the hot-fudge sundae the Yankees really wanted, got away. Yet the Johnson-Loaiza maneuvers are evidence of the immense talents that Cashman possesses and the way he is bringing them to bear on solving the team’s long-term dilemmas. Money, in short, is no longer the all-powerful force in putting together a winning baseball team—Billy Beane, architect of the Oakland A’s and hero of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, has shown that smart spending can compete with big spending. And baseball’s revenue-sharing scheme—which forces big spenders like the Yankees to pay a luxury tax and subsidize the payroll of their competitors—is encouraging parity. Cashman recognizes the trends conspiring against the Yankees and sees the need to alter the team’s big-bucks way of doing business. Meanwhile, he hears the clock ticking on the club’s homegrown core of Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Bernie Williams. All season, Cashman has preached pitching and patience, insisting that the Yankees made the proper moves over the winter and simply need to get all their players healthy again to have a legitimate shot at a 2004 ticker-tape parade—while at the same time stockpiling ammunition to reload the 2005 Bombers.

In dealing Contreras, Cashman not only unburdened the Yankees of a pitcher who seemed spooked in big games while picking up an adequate replacement in Loaiza, he also saved the Yankees $12 million in the process. “If we’re smart,” Cashman says, “we’ll spend it wisely.”

The push for a new Yankee Stadium, no matter how much noise the team makes about the decrepitude of its existing 81-year-old ballpark, is really about enlarging the Yankees’ revenue stream for future decades and enabling them to pay ever larger salaries. Which is fine by Cashman: He isn’t about to take a vow of organizational poverty, and he would have loved to acquire Randy Johnson. The Yankees have been to five World Series, winning three, in Cashman’s six years as GM, and that’s how he likes it. He wants to win championship rings, not prove philosophical points.

But Cashman also yearns to show that the franchise doesn’t succeed simply by grossly outspending most of the 29 other big-league teams. Ask him if he’d ever like to win with a modest budget just to show he can and Cashman snaps, “I’ve already been a part of that! My first year, 1998, we were fifth or sixth in payroll.”

Ever since then, however, the Yankees have been the biggest spenders in the game, and the endless recitation of this fact among baseball observers clearly rankles Cashman. “Brian cares more about the club’s money than George does,” a Yankees executive says. “He’s always talking about creating payroll flexibility.”

And for however much longer Cashman chooses to live with Steinbrenner’s tantrums, there are few who doubt he can take it. “Brian comes off as very humble, but he is one street-savvy motherfucker,” says an admiring baseball agent. “Those people who underestimate him in any way—he will cut their throats.”

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