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BALTIMORE – Long ago, back when disco and punk pounded from the Yankee Stadium speakers, no one much worried about becoming a Yankee for life. There were no $15 million entitlements for broken down superstars clogging rosters and basepaths. Nobody survived the wrath of George Steinbrenner long enough to linger on the payroll.
The Reggie Jacksons, Dave Winfields, Goose Gossages and Rickey Hendersons sizzled, brawled, bickered and moved on.
And so in a perverse way the controversy that now envelops the franchise in this post-Steinbrenner world, ripe with huge subsidies for superstars-emeritus like Derek Jeter(notes) and Jorge Posada(notes), are a direct result of the stability that was the team's salvation in the mid 1990s. Funny, the very philosophy that brought the winning might snuff it out now.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi (left) talks with captain Derek Jeter during bating practice at Camden Yards on Wednesday.
There is a problem with these Yankees. It's a problem that has been lingering for some time as the years have slowly stripped speed from Jeter's swing and inches from his range at shortstop. It's a problem that has been obvious as Posada's arm has grown weaker and his once-feared power shrivels. Once, Jeter and Posada were everything that was finally right with Steinbrenner's Yankees: home-grown players who helped form the core of a Yankee dynasty in the late 1990s that flourished into the last decade. Now they are mediocre talents making a combined $28 million this year.
The fraying has already started, manifesting itself as a controversy over the weekend when New York manager Joe Girardi dropped Posada (he of the .179 batting average) to ninth in the batting order. This resulted in Posada refusing to play and reportedly even asking to leave the Yankees altogether – never mind the team's $13.1 million act of charity that kept him on the roster in the first place. That Jeter (earning $15 million for his .253 batting average) seemed to endorse Posada's outburst only vexed management further, if for no other reason than Jeter is the team's captain, the franchise's face and thus supposedly above such petulance.
But the Yankees are heading into a place they've never known. They've never been confronted with lifelong members of the organization demanding to be paid like All-Stars just because, well, they once were All-Stars. Nor have the Yankees ever been confronted with having to give out more than $50 million over the four years just to ensure a legend like Jeter will get his 3,000th hit in a Yankee uniform.
New York is stuck with Jeter for at least three more seasons which will undoubtedly lead to more awkward moments, like the day he loses his job at shortstop or is dropped to ninth in the order himself. Almost as if jump-starting the process, Girardi started Jeter at designated hitter for Wednesday's game against the Orioles, although the move is one he has occasionally employed to give Jeter a break during a particularly busy stretch in the schedule.
Lingering too are seven more years of Alex Rodriguez(notes) at salaries between $20 million and $31 million, even as Rodriguez revealed on Wednesday that he is going to have his hip examined by a specialist. He swears there is nothing wrong with the hip but the team thinks it's worth being looked at.
This is all the price of a different era, a time of Howie Spira when Steinbrenner regularly rolled players and managers through Yankee Stadium's doors only to drive them out when they came to displease him. After the team collapsed in the early 1990s, the result of so much turmoil, Steinbrenner changed. He built a roster around young burgeoning prospects like Jeter, Posada, Mariano Rivera(notes) and Andy Pettitte(notes) – the kinds of players he previously would have traded away for something shinier. He hired Joe Torre to manage his team and then let Torre stay for the next decade.
Jorge Posada (center) picked up two hits in his return to the lineup Tuesday, but his average remains well below .200.
The Yankees won four World Series this way and another with the core players in 2009. Building the franchise around them was the right thing to do, of course. But now the bill is due. The price of relative stability, of naming cornerstones and leaving them in place, is the inability to get rid of them. They stay because they have to stay, because they are worthless to anyone else in their current condition and yet entitled to tens of millions from the Yankees because they are Yankees for life.
Sure New York still has its typical allotment of expensive stars in their prime. First baseman Mark Teixeira(notes) has nine home runs. Rodriguez has eight. Pitcher CC Sabathia(notes) is having a decent season. Rivera is still the best closer in the American League. But this is also a team haunted by the living ghosts of its recent past, a team burdened by the $28 million it is paying old legends to wear the pinstripes, pop up three times and trundle back to the dugout.
It's an average team now, one barely above .500. On Wednesday the Yankees arrived a step ahead of an early season tempest, and everyone was suddenly doing his best to tamp it out. The clubhouse was its usual quiet, businesslike place that it has become in recent years. Everybody seemed to ignore the truth that has been looming for some time – the divide of fresh vs. worn, new vs. old.
The clock on the wall read 5:10. Time for batting practice. Jeter grabbed his glove and headed toward the dugout.
"Let's go!" cried the captain.
For a moment nobody moved, and Jeter was left to run out alone. Then, slowly, the others pulled themselves off stools, tied their shoelaces and followed along, still deferential to a glorious past.
Even as it fades quickly into the night.
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