In the far-reaching cult of Yankee-haterdom, the main target of the fiercest venom from those who subscribe, the arch villain, and the manifestation of the inequalities that were the sole reason for every Yankee dynasty since 1976 was George Stienbrenner.
Like Nixon to the Yippies, George was gleefully portrayed as a heretic of pure evil, constantly trying to use his massive capital to buy a championship while polluting the game with his wealth. A grotesque monster, lording over the House that Ruth built; ruining baseball with each swift stroke of his pen against the cool, smooth paper of his check book, George was a scourge to all whose teams felt the hammer of the Yankees’ success.
So when the shattering news broke that the Boss would initiate the succession processes many of these Yankee-haters found themselves lost and directionless, recycling old Giambi steroid jokes and using phrases like, “Remember Irabu!”
With no World Series win since 2000 and a horrifying debacle against Boston in 2004, George was the one constant that the anti-Yankee factions could always count on even when victory was fleeting. Win or lose, there would always be another Kevin Brown signing to scoff at, another assault on an ineffective coach, or another threat to clean house — all laced with his signature bombastic absurdity.
Then, out of a messy divorce that displaced then Stienbrenner in-law Steve Swindal as successor and the mystifying speculation that followed, stepping forth from the shadows was he who is known only as Hank.
One could see the figurative “blazing hell torch of evil” that is the Yankee mantle passed down to the next generation. He looks like his dad, he sounds like his dad, and he has the same last name — the proletariat lined up with guns drawn, waiting for the initial outburst by which to draw first blood.
On the surface it would seem that thus far Hank has provided his detractors with ample ammo. Critics have cited Hank’s various commentaries on his players, construction workers, and his own baseball philosophies as evidence that he is merely a replication of his volatile father, another ticking time bomb in the Bronx just waiting to explode and ruin the team.
But if one actually delves past the delivery and packaging, examining the content of Hank’s statements, a startling revelation occurs. You realize that, unlike The Boss taking a hard stance on Don Mattingly’s hair, Hank actually makes sense and demonstrates a reasoning ability and an understanding of the fundamentals of winning that are far more proficient than his father, regardless of his six World Series titles.
The most obvious example of Hank’s baseball sense is Mike Mussina. His horrific start has been well documented. After getting blasted by Boston on April 17, his ERA was 5.75 and he looked as ineffective as Barry Zito. Sporting an 85 mph fastball and constantly pitching from behind in the count, many questioned whether Mussina wasn’t finished as an effective starter in the league.
What was Hank’s take on the situation? After watching the drubbing in Boston, Hank told reporters he thought Mussina should pitch more like Jamie Moyer. That comment, much maligned by the press and the contingent alike, unfortunately for those parties reeks with truth.
Since those comments were made, Mussina has reinvented himself… to look a lot more like Moyer. Realizing he can’t overpower anyone with the permanent loss in velocity behind his fastball, Mussina has refocused on his control and command allowing him to consistently get ahead of hitters — the key element to ensure the effectiveness of his breaking pitches.
By forcing batters into bad counts he is able to once again coax hitters to swing at the knuckle curve in the dirt, allowing expansion of the strike zone and preventing him from being forced to groove pitches over the plate with his fastball.
His improved control, and the effect of that control on his breaking ball has, in turn, “sped up” his fastball in the eyes of the opponents. Now refocused on defending against the offspeed curve ball early in the count for strikes and outside the zone when ahead, Mussina has once again regained an effectiveness that is vital to the success of the pitching-starved Yankees.
This strategy has been the key to success for pitchers from Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine to Robin Roberts and Carl Hubbell. Oh, and Moyer pitches that way too. And while telling a pitcher on your team that he should pitch like another active pitcher on another team doesn’t show very much tact (couldn’t he have picked, say, Warren Spahn?) the premise behind his comments was correct.
While Mussina may not have liked Hank’s commentary — quirking, to paraphrase, that he can’t pitch like Moyer because he can’t throw left handed — he definitely was, at the very least, thinking along the same lines.
Since Hank’s “lashing” of his starter, Mussina has lowered his ERA drastically to 3.99, and his WHIP to a very good 1.18. Over that period he’s won five straight games including two victories against the suddenly hot Cleveland Indians and a 2-1 gem against the first place Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night. The numbers speak volumes about the insight in Hank’s assessment.
Hank’s recent comments about his team’s play, and comparisons to the team in Tampa, have drawn further criticisms and parallels to his father. Focusing on his positive response too the obviously baiting question of whether it’s time for his players to “earn their money,” the press ignored his rational assessment of the team’s injury situation, his praise of Mussina’s turnaround and a number of other players, and his defense of Joba Chamberlain, focusing only on a comment that they could distort for their sensationalist purposes.
That an employer would want his employees to “earn their money” by successfully executing their jobs to the maximum capacity of their skill level, that he would want the employees that represent his company to over 30,000 paying customers nightly, is a dictum that should be more prevalent in baseball period.
One only hears about teams like the Brewers crying “small market” when they don’t have players like Yount, Molitor, Fielder, or Rickie Weeks.
Hank’s assertion that the Yankees need to play with more fire like Tampa Bay and remember the drive felt by kids in their early 20s still fighting for their place in the pantheon, hits directly at the core issue that has arguably plagued the Yankees since 2002.
Passion will never mask a lack of talent, but talent rarely lives up to its potential without passion. The Yankees of the 1990s were talented but one would also be hard pressed to find players who performed with more fire or desire to win than Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, or Tino Martinez.
The 30-plus year successful but tyrannical reign of George Steinbrenner has made it very easy to attack Hank but until the young boss hires a private eye to track Carl Pavano or publicly bashes and threatens to can Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi, he is a far cry from his father.
Hank is simply a businessman with solid reasoning skills and legitimate baseball sense who will continually provide the press with fodder for the 24-hour sports news cycle with his harsh delivery and demonstrative demeanor.
That being said, as long as he continues to operate under the influence of solid baseball insight within his cyclone of obtrusiveness and vulgarity, the sun on the Yankee Empire will once again rise, basking young talent like Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, and Chamberlain in the now unfamiliar rays of ultimate victory.