Say It Ain’t So, George

Yankees fans and the local media like to see George Steinbrenner not as he is today—an aging emperor ceding control to his heirs—but rather as The Boss of The Bronx Is Burning, a man confidently wearing plaid suits and long sideburns, raging with spittle and brimstone against anyone who dares imply his team should win any fewer than 162 games and drive its opponents from the field in tears. We pretend this because we need to. An omnipotent, hell-raising Boss gives the Yankees monolith a human (if not exactly humanitarian) face; it lets us believe there’s one man in charge. But it’s not true, and it hasn’t been in years.

When the Yankees were quickly eliminated from the postseason at the hands of the Cleveland Indians last week, the expected swift “firing” of Joe Torre, the one Steinbrenner threatened in that Bergen Record interview, didn’t happen. Sure, the decision could come any day, and there’s a good chance the manager won’t be back. But Steinbrenner didn’t immediately drop the dreaded mythical ax. If it were the seventies, Torre wouldn’t have made it to the end of Game 4. Instead, Yankees brass scheduled discussions on the relative merits of re-signing the manager, if he even wants to return. They’ll make a mature, measured, bottom-line decision based on the long-term health of the franchise. Yes, fans: The Yankees are run by grown-ups now.

They’re wealthy grown-ups, of course. The hugely successful YES network (founded in 2002, it’s now a $3 billion business) and the new ballpark set to open after next season have created revenue streams even the richest team in American sports never imagined. If the Yankees want to re-sign Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Alex Rodriguez (plus, for that matter, Torre), they’ll have the resources to do so. But those decisions will be the result of the sober analysis that has been the hallmark of general manager Brian Cashman and team president Randy Levine’s recent régime. The decisions will not be a result of the vaunted “Steinbrenner Doctrine.” Of course the Yankees want to win: Postseason games bring in revenue and boost the brand. But they’re not trying to win to satiate a barking tyrant; they’re trying to win because winning increases profit. This makes the Yankees no different from nearly any other sports franchise in the world.

Whoever leaves, the Yankees dynasty is far from dead. A new stadium, the cable channel, advertisements on the groundskeepers’ uniforms while they dance to “Y.M.C.A.”—the team’s revenue streams are seemingly endless. The Yankees haven’t won a World Series since 2000, which is supposed to be a failure, but the team’s value has more than doubled since then, and it’s still climbing. The Yankees aren’t Joe Torre. The Yankees aren’t Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees aren’t George Steinbrenner. The Yankees are the most successful business in sports, and as long as New Yorkers subscribe to the notion that The Only Thing That Matters in the Bronx Is Winning a World Series, and are willing to pay to support that notion, they’re going to stay that way. George Steinbrenner is a false idol, an effigy filled with fans’ cash. Bow to your fake god, buy the $9 beer, lease a skybox in the new stadium, and of course, go Yankees.

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Say It Ain’t So, George