The Yankees’ YES Man

Four new starters will be in the Yankee lineup for Friday’s home opener. Yet the important change will be above home plate. Michael Kay (pictured) is moving slightly south, from the Yankees’ radio booth to a seat as the team’s TV play-by-play man. Kay’s shift is the most visible symbol of something nearly as enduring as the 90 feet between bases: the ingenuity of George Steinbrenner.

This week marks the real debut of the Yankees Entertainment and Sports network. Oh, YES has been carrying simulcasts of Mike and the Mad Dog and reruns of the 1985 NCAA basketball semis. But YES exists because of the Yankees. At noon on March 19, Steinbrenner sat in a Tampa conference room watching his new $800 million network come to life – and he saw the TV picture break up into pixels. YES and Time Warner executives argued about who was to blame. Worse is YES’s war with Cablevision, threatening the inalienable right of 3 million viewers to basic-cable Yankee games.

The start-up hassles should prove as ephemeral as a Derek Jeter 0-for-4. The risks for YES are that the ad market is permanently recessed (unlikely), that the 2003 season is canceled due to a player lockout (depressingly likely), or that the Yankees stink (keep praying, Mets fans). Otherwise, Steinbrenner doubles his take by dumping the Cablevision-owned MSG network as the TV middleman.

But here’s the craftiest part. “By owning his own network but having it as a separate organization, George can hide some money from Major League Baseball,” says an executive involved in the negotiations that led to YES. “When baseball makes a new labor agreement that increases local revenue sharing, the Yankees are gonna claim that TV money belongs to a separate organization. That’s a big part of this whole deal.” All perfectly legit, says a Steinbrenner spokesman. YES again demonstrates Steinbrenner’s genius at exploiting MLB’s rules.

Kay, the son of an electrician and a school aide, grew up an obsessive Yankee fan on Evergreen Avenue, five minutes from the stadium. Beginning at the age of 10, he’d sit in the $1.50 upper-deck seats doing play-by-play for his pals. He stayed loyal even through the team’s Jerry Kenney era. Kay was a baseball beat writer for the Post and then the Daily News, before spending a decade as John Sterling’s radio partner, and his broadcasting style is refreshingly un-blow-dried.

Energetic and knowledgeable as he is, Kay, 41, was still a bold choice as the face of YES Yankee games (he also hosts an interview show, Center Stage). Until spring training, he’d done no TV play-by-play. Kay has also, occasionally, bitten the pinstriped arms and legs that feed him. Last season, Kay’s online column repeatedly ripped pitcher Mike Mussina.

“I’m not gonna change,” Kay says. “In ten years of doing Yankees games, Mr. Steinbrenner has never once told me he didn’t like something I said or told me to rip somebody. But if I write something for the online column and they spike it, I’d understand. Look, it is the Yankees Entertainment and Sports network. I’m not stupid.” Neither is his boss.

The Yankees’ YES Man