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More Level Playing Field Bitter Pill for Yankees Fans to Swallow

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The New York Yankees have history. Lots of it, in fact. Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly and Derek Jeter are storied figures. Of course we all know about Babe Ruth. The Yankees have great tradition, there’s no debating that. Yet most Yankees fans are so caught up in that tradition that they feel a sense of entitlement and evoke an aura of elitism, and at the same time wonder why a majority of baseball fans who don’t follow the Yankees despise the franchise.

Most of the distaste for all things NYY has little to do with their success. The Yankees have won 26 World Series titles, most of which occurred before 1963 (they have earned six rings since then). Why do a majority of baseball fans dislike the Yankees? It has to do with the financial advantage that the franchise has long enjoyed over every other team, and the pompous persona exhibited by many Yankees fans who have locked themselves in a time capsule and think it is still 1999.

I can already hear the obscenities uttered from any Yankees fan who sees this, but remain calm before you break a blood vessel, and read on. Fortunately for baseball, the financial landscape is changing. Flush with cash from revenue sharing, even teams like Kansas City and Toronto are spending. Frustrated with a third place finish last season, John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, opened his wallet and increased the Red Sox payroll. Now I know that more money does not translate into a better team and an automatic World Series title. The Red Sox spent $120 million on last year’s team and, mostly due to injuries and a lack of depth, finished behind the Yankees and the Blue Jays. Yankees fans know that money doesn’t buy happiness since their team has not won a World Series since 2000 despite having the game’s highest payroll.

However, playing in a big market like NYC, which is one of the largest cities in the world, gives George Steinbrenner many added revenue opportunities that other MLB franchises lack.

For years, the Yankees have had no excuse for not at least reaching the World Series. Expectations should be higher for a team that has unlimited financial resources, and the ability to outbid any team to fill holes in the off-season and at the trading deadline. The Yankees have won nine consecutive AL East titles, yet with all the money and the roster of all-stars at each position, they have fallen short of a World Series crown since gamers like Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius have left.

Now, the Red Sox Nation knows what it feels like to have an owner who has increased payroll and acquired not just one high-salary player, but several. I applaud Theo Epstein and Henry for bringing in Dice-K, J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo. Kudos to the front office staff for rebuilding the Sox farm system and stocking it with a multitude of talent that will be ready starting in 2008 and beyond so the Sox will not have to spend as much in free agency to fill holes.

Unlike in previous years, it is uncertain who will win the AL and even the AL East. The Red Sox are equal to if not better than the Yankees. The Blue Jays are much improved. Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are also on the same level talent-wise with the Yankees. It still amazes me that, for as much as Steinbrenner spends – and all the financial resources at his feet – that the Yankees only have three starting pitchers they can count on – Wang, Mussina and Pettitte – and a bullpen that is weak beyond Mariano Rivera and Scott Proctor, but I digress. Of course, the Sox bullpen is uncertain as well.

The bottom line is this: we can debate all we want – that is what makes blogging a rapidly emerging forum – but we don’t know what will happen on the field until the regular season begins and progresses. There will be a difference in 2007. At the trading deadline, it won’t be the Yankees alone who are able and willing to deal for high salaried players for the stretch run. Boston will be in the mix, as will the Mets, Cubs, Angels and other unexpected teams. True, the Yankees still have the highest payroll, by millions of dollars. Yet they are no longer the king thanks to revenue sharing and other wealthy owners who want to win. Yankees fans won’t like it, but the fact that more teams are financially able to enhance their rosters is good for baseball.

I reiterate that true “teams” win World Series titles (refer to St. Louis from last year, Chicago from 2005 and Boston from 2004 as prime examples), not collections of all-stars assembled on one roster. It is the team that combines savvy use of free agent dollars and trade acquisitions, coupled with help from a well-stocked farm system that wins championships. It is a team that has bench players who are versatile and accept their roles that wins championships. It is a team that has an ace who can end a losing streak that wins championships. It is the team that has a strong rotation from top to bottom that wins championships.

The lack of a deep rotation will make it difficult for the Yankees to win a World Series title in 2007, and the presence of one will propel Boston, Detroit, Chicago or the Angels to the World Series.

The Yankees are taking a better approach – just as Boston is doing – with placing a greater emphasis on developing players from within. Like Boston, the Yankees have an array of promising prospects in the minors who are starters, relievers and position players. They have to be smarter. The Yankees can no longer buy any player they want. They now have competition. It makes baseball a better game – for MLB itself, and for the fans. Look at the World Series winners since the Yankees dynasty ended in 2000 – Arizona, the Angels, Florida, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis. Though the Red Sox had a lot of success in the 20th century, winning five World Series titles and coming close many other times, the Yankees dwarfed that with 26 rings. It’s a different story in the 21st century, and that is hard for most Yankees fans to swallow.

The Yankees have still tasted success, continuing to win AL East crowns and falling short in the post-season, a la the Atlanta Braves and Buffalo Bills. The Yankees’ tradition is impressive, but their 26 World Series titles do little to help them now, just like the Boston Celtics’ 16 NBA championships have no bearing on what happens today. So Yankees fans whose answer to every debate about the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry stems back to 26-6 should stop living in yesteryear. It is 2007, a new era. It will be increasingly more difficult for the Yankees to win even an AL East title or earn a wild card berth with the rest of the AL getting more powerful. Ditto for the Red Sox. Now that Henry has adopted Steinbrenner’s approach to spending more money, the Sox should be held to the same expectations as the Yankees. Anything short of a World Series appearance for either team will be a disappointment. As for me, I like Boston’s chances.

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  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I had a feeling you were a Red Sox fan while reading the piece, Jeff, and turned out I was right after reading the bio! Great piece.