It was a long and excruciating wait for the Yankees and their fans. Since Babe Ruth joined the team in 1920, the Yankees had never gone more than three years without a World Series appearance — and that only occurred twice. But after a third-place finish in 1975, the streak of October-less baseball in the Bronx reached 11 seasons, and the Yankees faithful were once again stuck watching the rival Red Sox play in the Fall Classic.
The following season, first-year manager Billy Martin guided the Bombers back to the World Series — finally. Unfortunately, they were promptly swept in humiliating fashion by the defending champion Big Red Machine. Principal owner George Steinbrenner publicly apologized to fans for his club’s failure, and promised he’d do everything possible to make it better.
Steinbrenner did just that. Against the advice of his “baseball people”, he prioritized signing former World Series and American League MVP Reggie Jackson. In a throwback to the days where player-managers owned the teams and were personally involved in every decision, Steinbrenner made it his mission to land Jackson. George invited him to New York, picked him up at the airport, and took him to lunch at his favorite restaurant. Amidst strong offers from other clubs, Steinbrenner then flew to Chicago, where he famously reached terms with the slugger on the back of a cocktail napkin in a hotel bar. It was the richest free agent contract ever.
What happened next is the stuff of legends. The Yankees made it back to the World Series, with Jackson clubbing three home runs in the clinching game on the night he became Mr. October.
That wasn’t the first time Steinbrenner’s Yankees signed a free agent to a record contract. They inked former Cy Young Award winner Catfish Hunter two years prior, and the future Hall of Famer was also key to getting the Yankees back to playing October baseball. The acquisitions of Hunter and Jackson marked the beginning of a nearly annual ritual that saw the Yankees pursue impact players over the offseason in the hopes that they would provide immediate results.
Not every player acquired was destined for Cooperstown, and not every signing resulted in a championship being won. But the Yankees relentlessly pursued this strategy and won titles as a result.
After breaking a 13-year postseason drought in 1995 (and subsequently getting bounced in the ALDS), the Yankees went on a far-reaching player-acquisition spree. They traded for Tino Martinez to replace the retiring Don Mattingly, re-signed free agent and former Cy Young Award winner David Cone, signed former Cy Young Award winner Doc Gooden and future Hall of Famer Tim Raines, and acquired standout reliever Jeff Nelson in the same deal that brought Tino over from Seattle. During the season, they added eight-time All-Star Darryl Strawberry, two-time home run champion Cecil Fielder, and relievers David Weathers and Graeme Lloyd. That season ended with the storied franchise’s 23rd championship.
Following their Division Series elimination by Cleveland in 1997, the Yankees traded for Scott Brosius and Chuck Knoblauch, signed three-time All-Star Chili Davis, re-signed Strawberry and Raines, and inked amateur free agent Orlando Hernández one week before Opening Day. Hernández had just escaped communist Cuba on a raft, and went on to have arguably the biggest impact of that group on Yankees history.
With New York down two games to one in the ALCS, “El Duque” hurled seven shutout innings against the Indians at Jacobs Field, turning the tide of the series. The Yankees did not lose another game for the rest of the year, and finished with an overall record of 125-50 as they claimed their 24th title. If not for El Duque, we might be referring to Cleveland as the team of the 90s.
Steinbrenner insisted on trading for Roger Clemens after the 1998 championship, and the Yankees made the World Series during four of his first five years in pinstripes, winning it twice. After a disappointing defeat in the 2002 ALDS at the hands of the upstart Angels, the Yankees inked Hideki Matsui, one of the most prolific players in NPB history. Following their loss in the 2003 Fall Classic, they acquired Alex Rodriguez right from under the rival Red Sox.
After three straight Division Series eliminations and a down 2008 campaign that saw the team miss the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, more impact players were needed. General Manager Brian Cashman took a page from Steinbrenner’s playbook, secretly ducking out of the Winter Meetings to fly to California to meet with coveted free agent CC Sabathia and his wife in their home. He subsequently hosted the couple in New York, personally giving them a tour of the area, and finally inked the former Cy Young Award winner to a then-record contract for a pitcher.
Cashman didn’t stop there. He also signed the second-most coveted pitcher (A.J. Burnett), and the biggest bat (Mark Teixeira). All three provided crucial contributions to the club’s 27th title, as did Andy Pettitte, who returned to the fold after three years in Houston to win the clinching game in each round of the postseason. They also wouldn’t have won it without A-Rod or Matsui, who claimed World Series MVP honors.
The winter before the 2009 season marks the last time the Yankees inked the top player of a free agent class, and they haven’t been back to the Fall Classic since that run. It’s time that they reverted back to that winning strategy.
The Yankees have a chance to acquire two generational players this winter, in Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Although there are other teams in competition, both players are reported to prefer the Yankees pinstripes over other options. So what is Cashman waiting for?
Imagine for a minute a Yankees lineup that includes two former MVPs (Harper and Giancarlo Stanton), two top finishers (Machado and Aaron Judge), and three recent Rookie of the Year Award finalists (Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, and Miguel Andujar). A batting order with so many impact players puts the Yankees in a prime position to win it all — and for many years to come. Just think: Most of them haven’t even reached their prime years of production yet.
Unfortunately, the Yankees have taken an altogether different approach to the hot stove this winter. Top free agent target Patrick Corbin was predicted to get a six-year contract, but the Yankees were unwilling to go beyond five — and reportedly didn’t even make him a formal offer. Most of the top relievers are expected to get three-year deals, but the Yankees reportedly don’t want to commit to more than two. It’s a disturbing pattern, and a completely fruitless one.
Could you imagine if Steinbrenner had refused to give Jackson a guaranteed fifth year? Or if Cashman refused to give CC his opt-out clause? The course of Yankees history would have been altered to the point of being unrecognizable. Imagine if either (or both) of those players had signed with Boston instead.
You don’t acquire impact players for fear of what might happen during an off year, or what they might do in the final year of their contract. No one produces at Hall of Fame levels every single year — not even Hall of Famers. You acquire impact players for what they will do during their monster years, and also what they could do at critical moments in postseason games. Do any Yankees fans really think that A-Rod’s off years somehow erase his two monster MVP seasons in pinstripes or his vital role in the club’s 2009 championship?
It’s time for the most iconic franchise in professional sports to get back to its winning strategy. The Yankees have the money and they have the opportunity. It’s time for them to go after impact players, without worrying about what they might do in year nine.