Yankees lose their nerve

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

No matter how many times the New York Yankees brain trust babbled on about their "respect" for Joe Torre, their "admiration" for Joe Torre or how Joe Torre is a "great, great person," they sure didn't want him managing their team next season.

They just lacked the stones to say it.

The Yankees have been emasculated.

The franchise whose principal owner, George Steinbrenner, became famous for his dictatorial decisions, iron-fisted leadership and back-page tabloid tantrums was busy Thursday trying to spin stories to win the PR battle against a beloved manager who just told them to take their job and shove it

Why the Yankees decided to offer Torre a contract they knew he'd never accept – a base pay cut and the inclusion of performance-based incentive clauses – is the question, and no matter the answer it doesn't bode well for the franchise.

They claimed it was an effort to "motivate" him, which would be insulting if you actually believed anything that was said during a Thursday afternoon conference call.

The question of why begins with the question of who, as in which Steinbrenner ultimately made this decision. Was it George, or the sons he has supposedly ceded daily authority to, Hal and Hank?

At this point, we don't know for sure, but we'll start with The Boss. Perhaps this is the last hurrah for the aging King George, 77. He built his reputation on decisive decision-making, a man of complete autonomy and no patience and no care for outside opinion.

He famously axed 13 different managers 20 different times (Billy Martin was hired and fired five times all by himself) in his first 23 years of ownership. He also pursued players like no one else, sparing no expense to assemble the greatest collection of talent he could.

If he wanted someone, he got him. If he didn't, he got rid of him. That made him the most famous sports owner in the world, parodied on everything from "Seinfeld" to "The Simpsons."

But in 1996, Steinbrenner hired Joe Torre, the thrice-fired veteran who immediately peeled off four World Series in five years and became a New York icon, hailed for a level of class and dignity that matched his skills.

For Steinbrenner this was a mixed blessing. He coveted the titles but privately bristled at Torre's intense popularity. He often reminded reporters that he had taken Torre off the scrap heap, how he wasn't a success until Steinbrenner got him all that talent.

The Boss was good to Torre, no doubt. He paid him more than any other manager and his 12-year run was by far the longest of any under his watch. But Steinbrenner always implied his surprise that when things didn't go well, Torre escaped most of the blame.

Perhaps, Steinbrenner wanted him gone but didn't want to cede Torre the high ground. It was just two weeks ago The Boss was almost universally ripped by fans and media for telling The Bergen Record that Torre's "job is on the line" if the Yankees failed to beat the Cleveland Indians in the American League division series.

The Yankees lost, but Steinbrenner was reminded of public sentiment.

So maybe rather than fire, he decided to try to spin. The $5 million base salary they offered was a $2.5 million pay cut but still made Torre "the highest paid manager in Major League Baseball," team president Randy Levine pointed out. And if incentives were reached he could "make even more money than (his last deal)," Levine claimed, before adding that the performance base clauses were "what many people in the world" deal with. Torre would have gotten $1 million if the Yankees made the playoffs, $1 million if they reached the ALCS and $1 million if they reached the World Series.

"We think this contract was extremely fair," Levine said in between one his numerous praises of Torre.

If they could get the public to buy that then Torre would be the one breaking up with the Yankees, not vice versa. Then they could hire Don Mattingly, the popular ex-player, in his place and win the PR war.

But the public isn't that stupid.

No manager would take a pay cut from a franchise that never previously cared about money. And none would have his job security hinge on making the World Series, a pursuit where outside variables – injuries, luck, opponent, A-Rod's next slump – are such a factor.

What Torre saw is what Yankees fans will see; a contract designed to be turned down.

Of course, there is also the chance that George Steinbrenner had little to do with this, an even more frightening thought for the franchise.

If this was the handiwork of Hank and Hal, then their first big move raises concerns of both indecisiveness and frugality.

The one thing that could never be questioned about their father was his intense desire to win. He didn't just say it, he did it.

If Hank and Hal really believed that Torre had to go, they should have fired him cleanly. If they believed he was the best person for the job, they should have done whatever it took to keep him.

That's the Yankees way.

Instead they danced around a decision, avoided responsibility or, perhaps, just wanted to cut costs starting with the manager's salary. Steinbrenner's investment in the Yankees has been a huge financial success because the value of the franchise has grown exponentially. But in many individual years, he operated it at a loss.

No one knows whether his sons are as committed financially to do that.

If they aren't, if this was, indeed, their decision, then what does that mean for the payroll, for the re-signing of Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and, most notably, Alex Rodriguez? What does it mean for the Yankees old anything-it-takes mind set? Where is the cut-and-dried stance on things?

"The object of the Yankees since the 1920s has been to win the championship every year," Hank Steinbrenner said.

Well, if the object hasn't changed, it's clear on this bumbling, embarrassing day for the Yankees that the way of pursuing it sure has.

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