Thursday, December 03, 2009

A sad duty

Boy, this is a painful essay to write. I have come to praise the New York Yankees.

Sort of.

In our Sunday's sports section at The News, we have a letters to the sports editor section. When the Yankees won the World Series, we got a couple of letters saying that it was another case of New York buying a championship. The authors pointed out that the team had promised more than $400 million dollars for three players -- CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Texeira. That was about the same as what the government spent on the last stimulus package, although a bit more concentrated.

The Yankee fans came roaring back; apparently the letters struck a nerve. They pointed out that the Yankees haven't bought all of their best players -- just some of them. They actually developed Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada and Phil Hughes from the farm system, and made trades to acquire other players such as Nick Swisher (the Alex Rodriguez acquisition was a trade, but more of a contract dump to a willing partner than player-for-player).

One fan even whined that the Yankees don't get their fair share of postseason awards ... as if Joe Mauer's fabulous season at a crucial defensive position didn't make him the most valuable bit of talent in the American League right now. You'd think a championship would be enough to make the guy happy. (ESPN's Bill Simmons once said that Yankee fans get too much self-esteem from how their favorite team does. He could be right, at least in this case.)

The authors ignore the fact that many teams often develop plenty of talent -- there is a common amateur draft, after all -- but only the rich teams can afford to keep most of it. If Jeter had been drafted by the Pirates, he might have joined the Yankees some time ago because he probably wouldn't have stayed put for economic reasons.

Still, we have to give the Yankees credit for two critical points.

1. They have plenty of resources, and they spend them on the team.

It would be very easy to sit back and count the money acquired through ticket sales and through the YES Network. The Yankees have plowed a lot of money back into the team. Not only is it a good business move (keeps the brand strong and the television ratings up), but it does reward the fans for loyalty.

In other words, the Yankees could spend $150 million a year on payroll instead of $200 million, and save several more millions because of decreased luxury tax payments -- and even the biggest fan wouldn't complain that the franchise wasn't committed to winning.

2. When it comes to spending money, they are pretty good at it.

The Yankees have only missed the playoffs once in the last decade. That's a pretty good record. Sure, they have guessed wrong on a number of players -- thank you Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, etc. -- but overall the record is good.

This is not an unimportant fact. Compare it to other teams in other sports.

The New York Rangers traditionally spent more money than any other team in the NHL, at least until the salary cap era started. They haven't won a Cup since 1994, when they collected ex-Edmonton Oilers and got over the hump. Since then, nothing but mediocrity. (This doesn't apply to just New York teams. The Maple Leafs and Flyers have spent lot of money over the years, and there aren't any banners flying there from recent years either.)

Then there are the New York Knicks, the NBA's poster boy for bad spending. The Knicks always seem to shell out money for a luxury tax for no apparent advantage. Team executive Donnie Walsh has been busy trying to install some sort of financial discipline to the team, if only to put the Knicks in position to get someone from the free agent class of 2010 (hello, LeBron).

In fact, the best comparison to the Yankees is probably the Lakers. Los Angeles has never let money get the way of going after top talent, spending more than $100 million this year on payroll. As a result, the Lakers usually seem to be in the argument at the end of the season.

With the Yankees' resources and approach, they always should be close to the top of the standings under the present rules -- and that means they almost have to win once in a while. Yes, they can be beaten -- witness the the 2001 to 2008 period. But the Yankees are always around.

I never bought the argument that it's good for a league to have one team dominate year after year. For every fan that watches the Yankees, there are probably three in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, etc. who have lost interest in the game because their favorite team isn't competitive any more. But I can't be too critical of a team that plays the game under the rules that are written.

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