11 April 2010

The Truth about that Pin-Striped Team from New York

The New York Yankees would have you believe that they are as widely reviled as they are supported because they are just that good at winning. This could only be true if we broaden the concept of 'winning' in that sentence to encompass a range of organization actions taken off the field and off of any sensible person's moral compass. Dear Yankees fans, this is your life!

Now let us go ahead and draw a distinction between the historic Yankees and the Steinbrenner Yankees. The historic Yankees existed before free agency and steroids. George Steinbrenner became owner of the franchise in the 70s, right around when free agency was first instituted. Free agency caused player salaries to skyrocket, and it did not take many years for an enormous wealth gap in payroll to emerge. Smaller market teams could not keep pace with the ballooning costs of players. It is widely known today that the Yankees' $200 million+ payroll far exceeds the next highest, and the next two teams, the Mets and Red Sox, themselves far eclipse the middle market teams.

Steinbrenner is unique as a baseball owner. He owns the team with the largest potential market - New York being a uniquely enormous city in the USA. More than that, he has been willing to jack up his payroll to a point where the disparity between the Yankees payroll and those of competitors is greater than the difference in market size. Whereas most pro sports leagues seek to equalize competition by reigning in the payrolls of large market teams (via salary cap), baseball has allowed the Yankees to exacerbate its natural advantage.

Because of this practice on the part of the Yankees organization, MLB has instituted a luxury tax. The Yankees end up making massive payments every year for their continually growing payroll costs. The problem is that this tax has done very little to help the smaller market teams, and it has done absolutely nothing to prevent the Bronx Bombers from ransacking every free agent class.

Steinbrenner's Yankees are thus not so much the seminal franchise of a sacred national pastime. They are instead more comparable to Wal-Mart, a vacuous entity that has self-engineered to 'succeed' at all costs. Success for Wal-Mart is to increase profit margins no matter how damaging its actions are to humanity. The Yankees try to win and make money no matter the cost to the game of baseball itself.

I would ask any Yankees fan what he or she is even rooting for. They are not a sports team in the traditional sense. The Yankees still exude American culture in a significant way, precisely because the transformation of the franchise has mirrored the transformation of the American sociocultural context. Durable goods and nostalgic cultural practices have been replaced by cheap commodities engineered to enable a wealthy elite. The Yankees are, morally, a cheap commodity. It's the easiest thing in the world to do what Steinbrenner does with his team - throw money at it and expect it to work. Every year, mere mortals are lured from across the league to join one fat cat's harem of elite, culturally bankrupt spoiled children, who consistently fail to see that they owe every penny of their absurd wealth to consumers who are duped into thinking they're participating in sacred tradition.

The Yankees are also the most significant team to examine when considering the mass effect of the other great transformation in baseball over the past few decades - the emergence of performance-enhancing drugs. Sure, it is common knowledge know that most any baseball team has had a user of steroids on its roster at some point. But no other team is so littered with big name cases, and these big names were a major reason why the Yankees have won 5 championships over the past 15 years. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez, are all big names. Even the little guys, like lovably inept Chuck Knoblauch, have been outed as drug abusers.

What all of this points to is a deeply cynical, morally bankrupt organization. The Yankees as a team operate without any sort of understanding of all the intangible things that make baseball an important fixture in American life. National traditions are supposed to be quazi-religious endeavors, and are supposed to exist at a remove from the basic economic functions of that society. The Yankees are like a congregation run by an abusive, sociopathic priest, and Bud Selig is like the German pope who turns a blind eye, appeasing a horribly destructive wing of the institution he is in charge of running.

The house that Ruth built is gone. As Joe Torre said, all the ghosts have been carted over to the new $2 billion joint in a limo, reassigned in the afterlife. Iconic cultural figures like DiMaggio, Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig, have been plasticized. The maintenance of the pin stripe aesthetic must now be considered a marketing strategy, destined to be re-branded the next time a $200 million monster fails to make the playoffs. The mirth created for the rest of us on such occasions should provide Yankees fans an essential clue - that the joke's on them.