As owner of the Yankees, Hal Steinbrenner has a lot to live up to. His father, George - the old boss - was one of the more irrepressible personalities in all of sports. From his tyrannical manager-firing days of the 70's and 80's to his more mellow years in the 90's and early 2000's, he was as much a part of who the Yankees were as Munson, Jackson, Mattingly and Jeter. Though he didn't always know how to go about it, winning was everything to George - he understood that the best way to turn a profit in New York was to put a great product on the field every single season, and to convince fans that World Series victory was the only acceptable outcome.
The new boss? Not as much. Since being elected Chairman of the Board at Yankee Global Enterprises in September 2007, since becoming the principal everyday owner and operator of the Yankee franchise in November 2008 and since his father's passing on All-Star game Tuesday in 2010, Hal Steinbrenner's shown us that his views on how to run things aren't exactly what his old man's were. Committed to organizational stability and more fiscal responsibility, Hal's calm and pragmatism have established him as the lead dog in Yankee-land, relegating his more outspoken brother Hank to carnival barker type duties. But after thirty-five plus years of George, can the Yankees still be the Yankees under Hal's more muted approach?
Family dynasties are a tricky thing as plenty of sports franchises and medieval kingdoms have found out the hard way. Being lucky enough to be born to the right parents doesn't necessarily qualify you to be king or emperor, or to run a billion dollar business. Of the nine pro teams in the New York area, five - the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Knicks and Rangers - are run wholly or in part by the sons of longtime owners. No one seems to have much of a problem with John Mara, but Jeff Wilpon and Jim Dolan are always on the verge of being strung up by fans. Hal falls somewhere in between.
With a couple of exceptions, one area where Hal's bested his father is that he's resisted butting in to baseball decisions on most occasions. Sure, there was the Rafael Soriano incident of 2011, when Hal and his consorts at the top of the organization forced Brian Cashman to cede a draft pick and overpay the then Rays closer to serve as Mariano Rivera's caddie. Hal overruled Cashman again in 2013 when he instructed his GM to make a trade with the Cubs for a 37-year-old Alfonso Soriano, desperate to boost the Yankees' injury-ravaged offense. Neither deal worked out all that badly - Rivera got hurt in 2012 and Rafael filled in well in the ninth while Alfonso raked last August and September and is under contract for another year with Chicago picking up most of the tab.
Sorianos aside, the extent to which Hal gets involved in personnel moves is nowhere near what it was with George. The younger Steinbrenner doesn't seem to have much of a personal affinity for players on other teams the way his father did, for guys like Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield. He doesn't trust different advisers on different days, a quirk of the boss's that led to moves like the ill-fated Jaret Wright signing of 2005. For the most part, he lets Cashman do his job, which is what an owner should do.
Another stark difference between Hal and George is that the former doesn't seem to believe in firing well - anyone. Six years after he took over the team in earnest, the Yankees still have the same club president, the same GM, the same manager, the same directors of scouting and player development and most of the same coaches and scouts. There's nothing wrong with stability. The firestorm that went on in the 80's - seven GM's and nine managers in ten years - certainly wasn't helping anyone succeed. But is it possible we've tilted too far toward the opposite extreme? Though their departments haven't produced at anything close to an acceptable level in years, Mark Newman and Damon Oppenheimer are still hanging in there.
Maybe the most defining aspect of Hal Steinbrenner's ownership has been the infamous plan 189, which has sculpted many of the Yankees' player decisions for the past couple of off-seasons as they've struggled not to guarantee too much money for 2014 and beyond. The quest to get payroll under $189 million to avoid paying MLB's growing luxury taxes has relegated the club to dumpster diving for one-year deals at plenty of positions while eschewing better, younger players who commanded longer commitments. Hal's maintained all along that the Yankees would abandon penny pinching if they felt it would prevent them from winning, and after spending nearly $300 million on free agents this winter they seem poised to do just that if they're fortunate enough to land Masahiro Tanaka. That doesn't exactly let Hal and Randy Levine off the hook. An about face now doesn't erase moves that have already been made - and not made.
To be fair, George never had to worry about harsh luxury taxes the way Hal does. With each new collective bargaining agreement, baseball adds new measures to try and keep the Yankees from throwing their fiscal weight around - measures that the elder Steinbrenner himself made necessary in the eyes of other owners, by outspending the league's next richest haves by $50, $60 and $70 million annually. But knowing what we know about George it's hard to believe he'd have let his rivals stop him from doing things his way. If he was still at the helm, would Robinson Cano be a Yankee today? Would the team have passed on international imports like Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig? Would they have lost out in their pursuit of Cliff Lee or let Nick Swisher go with no replacement in mind?
Just 44 years old, Hal Steinbrenner could own the Yankees for a very long time. All in all I'm OK with that. At a basic level he's is largely what a pro sports owner should be. He's willing to spend a lot of money to succeed, even if his wallet isn't open quite as wide as his father's, and he doesn't get too involved in player decisions. Hal is not George, but then who is? Consider what Mets and Knicks fans have to deal with. Consider the threat of ownership by a faceless corporation, the likes of which would line up to buy the Yankees should the Steinbrenners ever decide to sell. Things could be a whole lot worse.
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