October 09, 2007

O Howard Rubenstein, where art thou? On Joe Torre and George Steinbrenner

New York Yankees manager Joe Torre awoke Sunday morning to find that the The Times-Herald Record of New Jersey had quoted Yankees owner George Steinbrenner as saying, “I don't think we'd take him back if we don't win this series.”

The Yankees trailed Cleveland two games to zero in the best of five-game Division Championship Series. The Yankees were to host Cleveland Sunday night at home at Yankee Stadium and the message seemed to be clear: Win three straight games and the Series to save your job!

I am not so sure that the message was so clear and I have doubts that the Yankees will in fact follow through and dismiss Torre as manager.

I am thinking about the context in which Steinbrenner made these comments and how messages from his have made their way to the media in recent years.

These comments about Torre’s job-status were made directly by Steinbrenner to The Record. This in itself is peculiar in so far as Steinbrenner rarely makes Yankees-comments directly to the press anymore, let alone ones that would carry as much gravitas as Torre’s job status.

It is rare these days that any word comes out of Steinbrenner’s office that is nnot publicized by public-relations guru and official Steinbrenner-spokesperson Howard Rubenstein. The New Yorker published a profile of Rubenstein called, “The Fixer” on February 12 of this year. Any fan of baseball who has followed the Yankees in the Steinbrenner-era needs to read this piece to appreciate the communications coming from Yankees upper management.

Rubenstein himself has a profile on his own website by Michael Geffner in the Times-Herald Record on May 20, 2007. Geffner asks Rubenstein about how he works with Steinbrenner. Rubenstein describes the process as, “"If a p.r. issue of any sort comes up, we'll talk as a little group — George, myself, (Yankee president) Randy Levine, (team COO and General Counsel) Lonn Trost and sometimes (GM) Brian Cashman. After that, I'll chat privately with George and ask him what he wants to say. Then I'll write something and read it to him over the phone or I'll e-mail or fax it to him. Then he’ll edit it – he considers himself a very good editor.”

An ultimatum from Steinbrenner, issued to the field manager less than 24-hours prior to a decisive game, seems to me to fall under Rubenstein’s notion of, “a p.r. issue of any sort.”

I would put money that the reporter for The Record made it to Steinbrenner, or vice-versa, before Rubenstein could run interference, or at least, filter the quote for mass-publication.

With the shadow of Steinbrenner’s ultimatum towering over Torre and his loyal players on Sunday night, the Yankees beat Cleveland 8 to 4 to stave off elimination. It was almost fitting that they did so despite Steinbrenner’s $18-million-for-the year-Roger Clemens-rental going only 2 1/3-innings, before leaving with a 3 to 1 deficit and strained hamstring.

Torre was safe to manage another day in the Yankees’ dugout.

Monday night, the Yankees were unable to take a second win and fell to starting pitcher Paul Byrd and Cleveland 6 to 3. After the game, Torre sounded like a deposed elder reflecting upon a previous life as Ronald Blum quoted him in the Associated Press, "This has been a great 12 years. Whatever the hell happens from here on out, I'll look back on these 12 years with great, great pleasure."

The ostensible reason for Torre’s would-be dismissal would be the failure of his teams to make the World Series, let alone win the championship, since 2001.

Six seasons without a World Series appearance is a long time when the Yankees have the highest payroll in baseball. Their 2007 payroll was $195 million. This was over $50 million higher than the second-highest payroll, the Boston Red Sox’ $143 million. They were beaten by a Cleveland team with a payroll of $61 million, more than 1/3 the size of their own. For paying this kind of premium, I would also expect my players to deliver me a World Championship.

Steinbrenner’s comments to on Saturday night reminded us of the old-Steinbrenner, vintage 1980s. This was the Steinbrenner about whom we have forgotten as the man fades from public view in increasingly poor health, hidden behind Rubenstein’s statements and Yankees management. This was the shoot-from-the-hip Steinbrenner who made 20 – yes, 20! – managerial changes between 1974 and 1992 and went through an even greater number of pitching coaches.

That Torre’s 2007 Yankees won even 94 games is impressive and worthy of praise. Yes, he had Alex Rodriquez and his 54 homeruns and 156 RBIs. Derek Jeter hit .314 and catcher Jorge Posada had a career year hitting .338 with 20 homeruns.

But the pitching? Torre would have had killer top-three starters for 1997 with Roger Clemens, Andy Petite, and Mike Mussina. But in 2007, Pettitte is 35-years old, Mussina is 38, and Clemens is 44. Pettitte had the best year of the three winning 15 games with a 4.05 ERA. I love seeing Pettitte back in pinstripes but he is not the late-1990s workhorse that he once was. Mussina pitched so poorly that the Yanks removed him from the rotation late in the season. Clemens went 6 and 6 in 17 starts which works out to $3 million per-victory.

The Yankees used 15 different starting pitchers this season. The Yankees signed former Japanese-league star Kei Igawa in the offseason after losing the Daisuke Matsuzaka sweepstakes to the rival Red Sox. Igawa started 12 games, had an era of 6.25 and spent part of the season pitching for AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Phil Hughes showed promise but at age 21, was good only 5 wins and a 4.46 ERA. Perhaps current Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry could have turned back his own clock to 1978 and pitched a few innings for the club. At age 57, Guidry is closer in age to Clemens than Clemens is to Hughes.

The Sporting News’ Gerry Fraley suggests today that this offseason may be a natural turning-over point for the franchise. Clemens will not return next year. Posada and closer-supreme Mariano Rivera are free-agents. Posada is 36 and Rivera is 38. Rodriguez could walk and the Yankees could apply this money to free-agent starting pitching, a new catcher, and make Joba Chamberlain the new closer.

Maybe they should and maybe they should not. I am not sure Posada is done and even playing a fewer games, he is a team leader. Rivera at age 39 will still be a superior closer than most of the league’s relievers at age 29. And, come on, has the word “spending-budget” ever had meaning for the organization?

Current Yankees bench coach Don Mattingly, and former coach and catcher Joe Girardi have been discussed as Torre-successors. Both would make fine managers of the Yankees. Or I should write, “will” make fine managers, because at age 67, Torre will not manage forever.

I am just not convinced that this is the end of Torre’s managerial career with the Yankees. My money is that Rubenstein issues a statement allowing Steinbrenner to save face, and allowing Torre to keep his job.


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