The Yankees’ Most Valuable Player

Brian CashmanPhoto: Carlos Serrao

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.”

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.

“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!”

The Yankees’ Most Valuable Player