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The Yankees' Most Valuable Player

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“The A-Rod deal was brilliant,” Billy Beane says. “And it wasn’t just about having the money, because the Red Sox had the money, too. The Yankees can be in the game for someone like A-Rod because they have the resources. But the art of the deal in that one was the way Brian went about it. He has incredible intelligence, but he’s got these Machiavellian skills as well, which you need in that town. I always tell him he’s slumming it in baseball. He should be running some big television network or some corporation.”

Cashman appears only briefly in Moneyball. Which is peculiar, in some ways, because Cashman and Beane normally talk at least four times a week. The book made Beane a cult hero, describing how he’s busting hoary baseball paradigms with computer analysis, and how Beane dictates that the A’s never bunt, never swing at bad pitches, and draft primarily college players. “The Moneyball label is an inaccurate depiction of Billy,” Cashman says. “He’s got Eric Chavez—a No. 1 draft pick, a high-school player. Last year, Billy traded for Jose Guillen, who is a very talented player, but he’s a free swinger and he doesn’t take a walk,” says Cashman. “There are too many straight edges in that book.”

In one respect, though, Cashman’s absence from Moneyball is exactly right, because he avoids the spotlight and always emphasizes that the Yankees are a collaborative effort. It was team president Randy Levine, a former deputy mayor to Rudy Giuliani, who suggested pursuing Alex Rodriguez as a third baseman. Assistant GM Jean Afterman was crucial to signing Hideki Matsui. Scouts, from talent-evaluation guru Gene Michael on down, provide Cashman invaluable counsel. Billy Connors fixes broken pitchers, and Joe Torre is a dugout master. And Steinbrenner injects not just money but a key sense of urgency, and remains the final authority on all decisions.

The Yankees have been searching out hitters with high on-base percentages for a decade, long before Beane and Moneyball popularized the tactic. But having the money to bury mistakes frees the Yankees from needing to adopt any particular efficiency formula. “Each team is a jigsaw puzzle that tells you what your weaknesses are,” Cashman says, “and then you concentrate on those weaknesses.”

It’s here, at the margins, that Cashman has repeatedly shown his deftness. In June 2000, he swung a deal for designated hitter David Justice, who could easily have been voted MVP in the Yankees’ drive to that season’s World Series. This year, the team’s shaky starting rotation has been propped up by Cashman’s foresight: He signed Orlando Hernandez when El Duque was beginning an unpredictable recovery from arm injuries.

The 2004 Yankees, despite spending $180 million on players, look to be the best case for Cashman-as-unheralded-genius. After stumbling through April, the team soared to the best record in the major leagues and a fat divisional lead over the Red Sox. A-Rod and Jeter began hitting according to form, and Gary Sheffield—a Steinbrenner signing—bashed violent home runs. Quantrill, Gordon, and Rivera formed a suffocating trio out of the bullpen, just as planned.

Not that Cashman ever rested. He talked Steinbrenner out of trading for Kansas City center-fielder Carlos Beltran, preferring to save his chips for a starting pitcher. In June, he unloaded floundering reliever Gabe White for a fringe minor leaguer. “I talked to clubs from April on. All 30 clubs were aware I’d be open to moving him, a headache-for-headache-type transaction,” he says. “There was another deal I could have done, where I was gonna take back a major-league contract, a guy making similar money. We saved $400,000 by doing it this way.”

In May, Cashman’s relentless networking paid different dividends. “What Brian does is talk to people,” says an agent. “Simple conversations: ‘Who have you seen? Have you seen anybody throwing well? Anybody who looks a lot better than he had been? Anybody who looks a lot worse than he had been?’ ” One agent passed along the tidbit that a journeyman pitcher named Tanyon Sturtze—a player the agent doesn’t represent—was throwing heat for minor-league Las Vegas. Cashman followed up with a deal that made no headlines.

Then Mike Mussina went down with a stiff right elbow. And intestinal parasites, of all things, knocked out Kevin Brown and, it seemed, first baseman Jason Giambi. Suddenly the roster was being patched together with rookies and journeymen—like Sturtze, who’s won three games. Yet as the July 31 trading deadline loomed, Steinbrenner, a man of action, grew tired of Cashman’s pleas for patience. The owner could see that his team’s record was soft—the Yankees have beaten up on bad teams but are barely above .500 against good ones. The Boss pressed Cashman to acquire Randy Johnson. Even if Arizona was underwhelmed by the minor leaguers the Yankees offered, the team brain trust was confident that the Diamondbacks couldn’t resist unloading Johnson’s $24 million contract.

“You know what?” Cashman says in July, with nine days to go before the trading deadline. “The rules don’t say you’re supposed to compete to a degree. This is a cage match. You’ve got 30 clubs, and it’s a fight to the finish. I’m not complaining that the Milwaukee Brewers have Ben Sheets, because they had the No. 1 draft pick in the country. That’s how the rules are set up. Other teams shouldn’t complain that we have a bottomless pit of revenue.” And if dipping ever deeper into that pit to acquire Johnson costs Cashman a shinier reputation? “I’ve got to get the job done and win games,” he says quietly. “That’s all this is about.”

“Brian would like to go to Boston and win the World Series as general manager of the Red Sox,” says his wife. “That would be any man’s dream, to go up there and become the god of Boston. But I don’t think that will happen.”

Cashman has allies in his effort to smarten up the organization. The head of baseball operations, Mark Newman, recently came across a Financial Times story about the cutting-edge University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt. “We e-mailed about some issues of mutual interest. As Steven explains it to me, game theory is about the interaction of competitors, whether in the marketplace or politically or on the athletic field,” Newman says. “We want to take advantage of a 200 IQ that happens to enjoy sports. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we need to ask questions. And Cash’s brain works that way, too.” The notion is a long way from being implemented, but the Yankees want to see if Levitt’s thinking can help steel its young, developing players against the pressures of performing in New York.

Newman, in the Yankees’ Tampa office, is downloading some digital video from Venezuela. On his computer screen, a 15-year-old scorches batting-practice line drives. “We’ve got scouts all over the world, and some of them will want to see this, so we’re loading it onto our server.” Newman won’t reveal the kid’s name.

Technological progress is one thing. Because of the tempestuous Steinbrenner, though, the Yankees hierarchy remains messy. Last summer, Newman was out of favor; last winter, he was back in. Then there are the stray characters Steinbrenner collects as advisers, from Jerry Krause, the former Chicago Bulls general manager, to Frank Dolson, a dyspeptic former sportswriter who roams the Yankee Stadium tunnels loudly grousing, “This is the worst pitching staff we’ve ever had!”

Cashman, unlike every other GM, has no influence on whom the Yankees draft. “The best political answer would be, it’s not part of the job description,” he says slowly. “That’s just how George has his business set up. He wants separation between the Tampa office and the New York office. I don’t think the Tampa office and the New York office particularly like the separation, but it’s there. There’s times we’re pit against each other. That’s the way he wants it. He thinks it promotes independent thought. At times it can promote us all not being on the same page.”

July is ticking away. Cashman concocts six different three-way trades with other teams, trying to keep alive the chances of acquiring Randy Johnson. But the Diamondbacks shrug off each one. On the Thursday before the trade deadline, they tell Cashman to forget it.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other issues. Cashman huddles with doctors diagnosing Giambi’s mysterious illness. He also fields complaints from players’ wives upset with their seat location. Another afternoon, Kevin Brown is insisting that a groundskeeper travel from the Bronx to Staten Island to manicure the pitching mound for Brown’s rehab stint. (“Man, Brown is a perfectionist,” says the groundskeeper. “No, he’s a prick, is what he is,” snaps a Yankees coach.) And, always, Steinbrenner is demanding briefings, sometimes three or four times a day. “Every day, I lay out plans A, B, C, and D,” Cashman says. “He might tell me, ‘I’ll let you do A and B, but not C, and you’ll do this instead.’ I never make promises talking with George. Especially when you’re at the mercy of other teams.”

His own future is equally hard to predict. Cashman’s contract, paying him slightly more than $1 million annually, expires after the 2005 season. “Our daughter, Grace, has told Brian we’re running over the cell phone as soon as he loses his job,” Mary Cashman says. “She wants to crush it with the car. She’s not joking.” Mary would like the family to stay in the Northeast, which suggests one intriguing, if unholy, change-of-address. “Brian would like to go to Boston and win the World Series,” she says. “That would be any man’s dream, to go up there and become the god of Boston. But I don’t think that will happen.”

“I’m just concentrating on trying to win a championship here,” Cashman says. “If I have to try to win championships elsewhere, I’ll worry about that at another time.”

But Cashman sounds wistful when he brings up the Cleveland Indians, who three years ago tore apart a good-but- aging team, sinking to last place in order to rebuild from scratch. “To be the guy who everyone else is calling, trying to trade for your one star, and having a choice of prospects to put a new team together . . . ,” Cashman says, stretching his hands out toward the Yankee Stadium infield, as if trying to hug a dream. “Yeah, I’d like to try that. But the pain of losing you’d have to go through to get there—that would be tough.”

He shudders. What Cashman does next makes an even more emphatic statement about how difficult it would be for him to tolerate losing. Down below his private box, the Yankees, in first place with a sturdy seven-and-a-half game lead, are toying with the awful Toronto Blue Jays in a meaningless game. And then the home-plate umpire calls a dubious ball four against Yankees pitcher Javy Vazquez.

“Fuck me, hard!” Brian Cashman yells. “We gotta have that strike!”


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