Even though Francis Fukuyama insists that history is still indeed over, one can only imagine that the Yankees were left behind in that prediction. Sitting at the peak of American civilization in 2000 (for those fortunate enough to soak up some of that largesse), the Yankees were the shining beacon on a hill of baseball history, capping off one final dynasty on top of the four other ones they put together over the century. The music, we all knew, was going to come to an end.
The league certainly attempted to institute changes that would end the Yankees’ grip on the trophy. From the luxury tax to international amateur rules to draft changes to draft pick compensation, all of these measures were intended to aim straight for George Steinbrenner. The problem is that those measures don’t really work and baseball remains as unequal as ever, despite the NLCS aberration.
What actually has occurred is not some shift in the rules of financial play, but really a realignment in the financial incentives of the game itself towards fixed revenue streams. New stadiums consistently have fewer seats in favor of more luxury suites. Teams, on average, receive $100 million in guaranteed TV revenue. A recent report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found that the Pirates, for example, covered their entire payroll with ticket and food sales alone from 2013-15. For the most part, the economic engine runs on its own.
The changes that the league desired really had to do with overall player payout and not competitive balance, and it happened without a single gun fired. Hal Steinbrenner grew up in the shadow of his father’s controversies, and when he thinks of those controversies it’s not necessarily the hiring of Howard Spira that’s the sin, but more so the fact that his father didn’t realize that a cost-of-living adjustment was in the Dave Winfield contract. Everything from there until Carl Pavano still rings like a bell in his head. In his mind, in my view, the Yankees as an organization lacked stability, and the solution to that was giving the children their medicine. His father was the good dad who always gave his child candy until they got sick, and the new father would be the one who gave you dessert after your vegetables.
When economic theorists discuss austerity, this does not necessarily mean a nominal cut in something. If I promise to provide you with $100 per month with compounding growth each year, and then I decide that I’m actually going to give you that same $100 in a smaller compounding interest rate, I haven’t actually cut anything. You still receive your $100, but in year two, you may only receive $105 instead of $110, and then in year three you may only receive $112.50 instead of $125. Brian Cashman said in the spring that “We’re going to run out the highest payroll we’ve ever had,” which is sort of like saying that that $105 is the highest amount I ever gave to you. While the statement is technically true, the second highest payroll amount was in 2007, when the team’s revenue was $327 million. The team’s revenue is currently double that, and the team’s valuation has increased by $5 billion.
This brings us to today, a year in which the Yankees have attained permanent younger brother status to their rival Houston Astros, losing their third ALCS to the team since 2017, this latest edition in humiliating sweep fashion. A lot of the Yankees’ long arc and trajectory can be attributed to bad luck, yes. Andrew Benintendi, DJ LeMahieu, and Michael King, to name a few, were missing from parts of the regular season and the entire postseason. Aaron Judge went cold at the wrong moment. Don’t get me wrong—it was very possible to beat the Astros in their current form. Even the worst team in baseball would have an under-10-percent chance at beating them in a seven-game series, so this isn’t meant to ring fatalistic.
It is the case, though, that they built a team, even in its first-half instantiation, that was worse than the Astros. We all know the story by now. The team chose to hand the shortstop job to Isiah Kiner-Falefa instead of the big free agent class, and they totally whiffed on making Josh Donaldson their big payroll addition after his bat immediately deflated. They continued to ride with Aaron Hicks despite a total depletion in his power. They got incredibly lucky that Jose Trevino’s bat was what it was in the first half, and they also happened to get one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time out of Judge, a value-add that required no acquisition at all.
These were weaknesses that visibly manifested themselves time and time again throughout the postseason. Kiner-Falefa fails to make a routine play forcing his benching, only for the team to ride him out in the end with few alternatives. Donaldson’s bat was forced into the lineup because of his glove, and it turned into a waiting game of trying to get the baton back to the top of the order and rolling the dice. That can absolutely work if we ran back the simulation a million times, but not in this one. It only ended up being a good narrative because this went exactly as planned: the Yankees successfully built a team that could be good enough to draw in important postseason gate sales, but not expensive enough to cut into their desired margins.
No other fan in any other geographic region is going to care about these problems—I get it. The team did just appear in a three-peat rematch in the ALCS, after all, and the incentives are aligned enough that they did have the pieces in place to get them to that point. Yes, but the arrows are pointing in the same direction for all teams, and all fans. As I said, this system of austerity is not even breeding competitive balance because it is done almost uniformly. This has affected the Red Sox in their offloading of Mookie Betts, and it has affected to an even greater degree teams like the Reds, where the owner was as frank as you can put it: “Well, where are you going to go?”
The reality is that we aren’t going to go anywhere, and we are, in fact, going to keep drinking that garbage. We can, and we will, argue about whether Hal Steinbrenner should go all-out for Judge, Shohei Ohtani, and Trea Turner. Yet even if he decided to, it would not change the underlying relation, and that the game will continue to tend towards more accessible postseason berths, more fixed revenue, and frankly, fewer eyes on baseball in general. If the Yankees could, there would be a single fan who pays $700 million to watch all the games alone.
The only avenue out of this, a path towards reorienting the league around a desire to win is to alter the incentive structure itself. This spring’s CBA was the first salvo in a battle on this very topic, where the players extracted pretty meager concessions regarding service time manipulation, CBT thresholds, and pre-arbitration pay. This was also as the league negotiated those now-infamous Apple TV and Peacock deals that only cast the fixed revenue net even further. The unbelievable Minor League Baseball unionization is a brighter light, but its effect on the league at large is in its most nascent form.
The Yankees are not going to change, nor is the Steinbrenner family. Aaron Boone’s fate has yet to be determined, but I can say with decent enough confidence that the team will continue under Cashman’s tutelage. In the realpolitik sense as a fan, the world of a bad Donaldson trade coupled with acquisitions like Matt Carpenter, Clay Holmes, and similar diamonds in the rough is still likely a better reality than most GMs, especially within the Steinbrenner confines. We are all on this ride together, and I’ll be waving my good-enough-for-the-playoffs pennant right by your side for years to come.