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The Yankees' Most Valuable Player

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Brian Cashman loved playing the game, and in his junior year at Catholic University he hit .348. But pro baseball’s demand for nearsighted Division III second basemen is limited. A summer job driving a UPS truck had Cashman figuring he’d join the delivery company after graduation. His father had a better idea. John Cashman was a horse trader, the manager of Kentucky’s Castleton Farms, and he’d become friendly with racehorse owner George Steinbrenner. A résumé was passed, and Brian Cashman spent three summers working for the Yankees.

Hired full-time in 1989, he was promoted to assistant general manager in 1992, working first under Gene Michael and then Bob Watson. He kept finding little projects. Why did night games start at 7:30? “There was always this prevailing thought that people wanted to go home and eat dinner first, and then come to the game,” Cashman says. “But no one had tested the data.” By moving some games to 7 p.m., Cashman discovered that the concession stands made more money on both ends—from fans arriving hungry and staying through the ninth inning.

At five-foot-seven and a taut 160 pounds, with receding brown hair, close-set blue eyes, and a soft speaking voice, Cashman is often the smallest person in a room. And he invites underestimation. “Brian has this intellectual Columbo routine,” says Oakland’s Billy Beane, one of Cashman’s close friends. “At no point is he ever dumb, but there’s this little dorsal fin underneath the surface.”

So it was a shock in February 1998 when Watson—burned out from Steinbrenner’s rants—announced he was quitting and recommended the 30-year-old Cashman as his successor. “He’s smart about baseball, but he didn’t pretend he knew it all, and he made it clear he was gonna lean on [manager] Joe Torre and Stick Michael [team executive Gene Michael],” Watson says. “And Brian knew how the Yankee organization worked. He knew how Mr. Steinbrenner, uh, was and is and always will be.”

In his six-plus seasons as general manager, Cashman has been subjected to an array of creative punishments. Once Steinbrenner banned Cashman from walking on the grass behind home plate at Yankee Stadium—presumably so he couldn’t talk to reporters milling around before games. Last December, the Yankees were the only team unrepresented at meetings in New Orleans; Cashman and his staff had been grounded.

“What’s more common is that George will torture Cash by consuming his time,” another Yankees executive says. “I remember we were on a conference call; Brian and George kinda got into it, arguing. It was a late Friday afternoon, and it was in the off-season, and George says, ‘You know what, Brian? I need you down here. We’re gonna meet tomorrow. You fly down here tonight.’ So he made him spend the weekend down in Tampa.”

In June 2003, Cashman and his wife, Mary, scheduled a Cesarean section for a date that coincided with a long Yankees road trip; they picked a Thursday for the delivery so Brian could stay home for the weekend. “Steinbrenner wanted him in the office the next day!” Mary says. “Brian was off the phone during the actual surgery, but he was on pretty quickly after. He took the weekend. But it wasn’t easy.”

Then there are the verbal assaults. “It’s embarrassing,” one Yankees executive says. “George says stuff where you go, ‘Oh, my God, my 5-year-old wouldn’t say that!’ George’s classic line to Brian is, ‘They’re pulling your pants down! Just pulling your pants down! You’re too young to be GM!’ ” Last October, the Yankees dropped the first game in the playoffs against the Minnesota Twins. Then, in the fifth inning of the second game, the Twins tied it 1-1, and suddenly the Yankees’ missed chances to score runs were all Cashman’s fault. Steinbrenner erupted in front of other executives at Yankee Stadium. “You’re horseshit, and you’re overpaid!” he yelled. “No one will take your contract off my hands. Maybe the Mets will take you. You have permission to talk to the Mets!”

Friends say Cashman maintains his sanity by occasionally yelling back. Publicly, though, he won’t challenge the Boss. “I felt good after that game,” he says evenly. “We won. Employees shouldn’t be judging their employers. Unless they don’t want to be employed anymore. I feel loyal to the man who gave me the opportunities. Is he a tough boss? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, he’s made me professionally who I am today. It’s all I’ve ever known.”

“Brian takes a lot of whacks so I don’t have to,” Joe Torre says, gratefully. To blow off steam, Cashman sometimes slips out of his office for an hour of pickup basketball across the street from Yankee Stadium. And he admits to enjoying a good Australian red wine now and then. When he’s asleep, though, the stress still churns. Cashman grinds his teeth so loudly it scares his wife. “That sound,” she says, “is so creepy.”

After the Yankees were upset by the Florida Marlins in the 2003 World Series, Steinbrenner froze out Cashman, ignoring the GM’s opinion that the team needed to get younger and focus on strengthening its pitching staff. The Marlins had a speedy young leadoff man, Juan Pierre, who made the Yankees’ offense look ponderous. So Steinbrenner went about getting his own fast leadoff hitter, signing free agent Kenny Lofton—even though, at 37, Lofton was slowing and the Yankees had nowhere to play him in the outfield. Cashman was kept in the dark. In fact, Towers, the Padres general manager, knew more about the Yankees’ interest in Lofton than Cashman did. “I asked him, ‘Cash, are you guys on Lofton?’ He said, ‘Shit, I don’t know. I guess. I haven’t heard,’ ” Towers says. “That makes it tough as a GM—not knowing who your team is after.”

By December, Cashman’s unhappiness was such an open secret that the Post quoted friends saying the GM wanted out. Steinbrenner responded the next day—by exercising an option to extend Cashman’s contract for another year, without saying a word to Cashman about it.

“If you take the most confident person in the world, and you whisper in their ear long enough, You can’t, you can’t, you can’t, then even the most confident person in the world will eventually walk around and say, ‘Well, maybe I can’t,’ ” says a friend of Cashman’s. “That’s what happened with Brian.”

To Steinbrenner, anything short of a championship is a tragedy. But Cashman tries not to buy into the suffocating joylessness. “I didn’t learn any lessons from the way we lost to the Marlins,” he says. “What I did learn, walking around afterward and having people say to me ‘Tough year,’ is that people treated it like a failure. I’d say, ‘Dude, we won 100 games! We beat the Red Sox in a great series! We won the American League championship. It was an awesome experience.’ I didn’t look at it as a ‘tough season.’ I guess I learned how spoiled our fans became winning all those years.”

The Steinbrenner storm passed, and in mid-December, Cashman pounced on Javier Vazquez, landing the 27-year-old pitcher from the Montreal Expos in exchange for three spare parts. Other Yankees executives preferred the more experienced Curt Schilling. “There’s a ten-year age difference, and Vazquez is a little cheaper,” Cashman says. “We had our choice, and the truth of the matter is that Boston wanted Vazquez ahead of Schilling.”

He turned hapless Jeff Weaver, the pitcher who’d coughed up a pivotal, game-losing home-run ball to the Marlins, into all-star Kevin Brown—“as great a magic act as you can possibly find in this game,” says a baseball agent. Cashman grabbed two top-quality free-agent relief pitchers, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, to lighten the load on closer Mariano Rivera. And, oh yeah, he reeled in perhaps the best position player in the game, Alex Rodriguez—a victory sweetened by the fact that Cashman and the Yankees succeeded where the arch-rival Boston Red Sox had failed.


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