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What happened to Yankees excellence?

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A petulant move from an organization that claims to be exceptional.

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins

I couldn’t let this week go by without writing some kind of eulogy for departing Yankee legend Jacoby Ellsbury. The onetime baseball player was released by the Yankees ahead of the Rule 5 draft deadline, and the team will eat the remaining $26 million owed, bringing an end to one of the most melancholy chapters in Yankee history. Or will they?

The Yankees are planning to straight-up refuse to pay Ellsbury, claiming he used outside rehab when recovering from his laundry list of injuries. I’ll admit, when I first heard the story, I had a rather Sandor Clegane response to the whole organization. We’ve had a couple days for more information to come out and my reaction has changed as appropriate.

More than just an Ellsbury play here, I think it opens up a more important conversation about the gap between what the Yankees are and what they like to pretend they are. There are a lot of links here to a piece I wrote earlier this week, about the new corporate attitudes filling front offices. Legalese maneuvers to get out of paying your contracted workforce is a tale as old as time, but it highlights an inherent contradiction at the heart of what the New York Yankees are in 2019.

No team loves itself more than the Yankees, no team worships its own history or demands a certain level of “excellence” from their players - no facial hair, media accountability, buy-in to particular managerial strategies. They charge a premium for their seats, pack the YES Network with as much sentimental content as possible, and have made the interlocking NY a fashion symbol as much as a team logo.

I don’t really take issue with any of this, in fact these are all reasons why people become and stay Yankee fans. Where I take issue is when the Yankees project an image of exceptionalism, and charge a premium for it, and then behave in ways antithetical to that projection. If a player deviates from the model of what The Exceptional Yankee is, they’re usually slapped down; see Frazier, Clint. Yet the club operates in a two-faced way and there seem to be few consequences if any.

The Yankees have done things like this before, namely any time Randy Levine or Lonn Trost are allowed to speak in public. Brian Cashman has been chesty with reporters this very offseason, in a manner that would be inappropriate for a member of the 25-man roster. The much-maligned and much-discussed “playoffs are a crapshoot” attitude also runs counter to the idea of Yankee Exceptionalism, and Ellsbury’s current conundrum is just another example.

Even if you buy that the Yankees are in the clear because Ellsbury wasn’t to use outside rehab, it’s fascinating to me that the team only worried about this case once the insurance they had on the contract ran out. There’s so much disingenuity in this situation that it has actually turned me off my fandom a little bit - for a four billion dollar team to nickel and dime a player who hasn’t been on the field in two years puts a gross feeling in my stomach.

The entire relationship with Ellsbury has been a stink. On the same day the contract news came out, Lindsey Adler talked on Effectively Wild about how laissez-faire the Yankees were about his rehab in Arizona, and Brian Cashman even cited the fact the team wouldn’t have to pay him his spring training per diem. Even this refusal of payment isn’t actually trying to void the contract; the Yankees are using this as leverage to negotiate a settlement that will pay Ellsbury, though less than the contract was signed for.

All of this is without even discussing the impact that something like this has on current free agents. We know the Yankees are rarely the top bidders for anyone anymore, but even if you are the kind of player to take a “discount,” or have a competitive Yankee and competitive Other Team offer, why on earth would you play for a team believes they can withhold payment at the end of your career? If you’re a current Yankee headed into arbitration, having seen the way Dellin Betances and others have been treated at the front end of their careers, and now the way Ellsbury has been treated on the back, why would you commit to a franchise that behaves that way?

I know that Yankee Exceptionalism is a branding move, and I know that few entities ever live up to the way they market themselves. But if the beautiful thing about baseball is that it presents a few hours of distraction, the Yankee brand matters. Between the team’s increasing similarity to a consulting firm and this small, petulant fight against a player that probably just wants a fresh start, it’s been a pretty ugly offseason.