Commentary

House divided? Doesn't add up to much

Yanks have survived far worse problems than their current front office, ahem, 'rift'

Updated: February 2, 2011, 2:42 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

If you believe everything you read, a couple of weeks ago the New York Yankees front office was on the verge of being torn asunder.

On one side, general manager Brian Cashman, the ostensible head of all baseball operations and a man who since 2005 has operated under that greatest of sports misnomers, "full autonomy," was entrenched in his position. He did not want to give a three-year, $35 million contract to Rafael Soriano.

On the other side, just as firmly entrenched, was team president Randy Levine, who was busy hashing out a contract that not only would pay Soriano closer money to do a set-up man's work, but would allow him to step out after either of the first two years to negotiate a better deal.

[+] EnlargeRandy Levine and Brian Cashman
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesRandy Levine and Brian Cashman didn't agree on the details of the deal, yet there they were together at the Rafael Soriano news conference.

Hal Steinbrenner, the ultimate decider, came down on the side of his team president. Soriano would be with the Yankees. Cashman would have to take it and like it. Or take it and not like it. Or just take a walk.

Then they held a news conference to roll out the newest Yankees pitcher, the one who now shortens their games from eight innings to seven, and on a good night maybe even six. And all anyone wanted to know was how deep does the rift in the Yankees hierarchy really go?

Deep enough to swallow the longest-tenured GM of the Steinbrenner Era, and with him, the team's chances to compete for a 28th championship this season?

There are a sackful of questions confronting the Yankees as we head into Spring Training 2011, now less than two weeks away.

There is, first and foremost, the starting pitching situation. With five spots to be filled, that is an assignment not even a pitcher as huge as CC Sabathia can handle on his own.

There is the A.J. Burnett question and the Joba Chamberlain question and the Derek Jeter question(s) and the Jorge Posada question, as well as a half-dozen others not nearly so urgent but potentially just as serious.

This, however, is not one of them.

If an in-house disagreement that results in the Yankees adding arguably the second-best closer in baseball to their roster -- no question about who is the best, is there? -- constitutes a "front office rift," well, most teams should be lucky enough to have such turmoil.

Back around the turn of the millennium, Cashman and Joe Torre labored under the misconception that they were running the Yankees when, in fact, a cabal of Tampa cronies of George Steinbrenner, led by the Boss himself, was really running the club as a sort of shadow government.

That, ladies and gentleman, was a rift.

This is hardly even a crack.

What it is is an office, a workplace, with everything that word implies both positive and negative.

Yes, Brian Cashman is the general manager of the New York Yankees. And yes, he is in charge of all baseball operations -- as far as that goes.

But to believe for a moment that any GM in baseball has "full autonomy" -- i.e. the authority to spend or not spend the owner's money as the GM sees fit on any player or players he desires -- is to live in a fantasy land that exists nowhere in baseball now and probably and never did.

And to think that the offices of the New York Yankees are any different from yours or mine -- in other words, infested with petty jealousies, disagreements large and small, in-house rivalries and the occasional backstabbing -- well, then you're just not really thinking at all, are you?

The Yankees operate like any other team and any other business. Not everyone gets along all the time. Not everyone is entirely complimentary about everyone else's job performance. They bicker and feud sometimes, disagree often, and sometimes, just like in the good old days, the boss overrules the minions.

But at the end of the day, the whole thing works pretty damn well.

Under Cashman, the Yankees have won four World Series in 13 years, the most recent just two years ago. Over the same time period, they went to and lost two others. Last year, they came within two victories of going to yet another. And pitching problems, etc., notwithstanding, they will be right in the thick of this year's race.

Obviously, nothing is all that wrong in the House of Steinbrenner, even if Cashman didn't like the Soriano deal -- and even if he would have liked to take an even harder line in the Jeter negotiations, another stance that was apparently overruled, as was his decree in 2007 that he absolutely, positively would not negotiate with Alex Rodriguez if he chose to opt-out of his contract.

Of course he did anyway, and of course, "the boys" -- as a former Yankees great refers to Hal Steinbrenner and his impulsive big brother, Hank -- threw money at A-Rod, who will be with the Yankees until 2017.

Don't be so sure Cashman won't, too.

For the GM of the most successful baseball team -- and, in fact, of any professional sports franchise -- of the past 15 years, there are a lot of people who detest the job Cashman has done and just as many who seem to shrug off his part in that success, as if the New York Yankees were some kind of self-sustaining organism that needs just to be watered daily and left alone.

True, some of his pitching decisions have been open to question -- Burnett, Carl Pavano and Kei Igawa immediately leap to mind -- but nobody was complaining when Kerry Wood, a trade deadline acquisition picked up for the equivalent of a sack of baseballs, came in and locked down the eighth inning, or when Marcus Thames, a retread brought in on the cheap, turned out to be one of the most clutch hitters on the team last year.

Same goes for the gold rush of winter '09, when Cashman pulled the trigger on Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, two of the main reasons the Yankees won it all that fall.

Sure, there are disputes within the Yankees' house from time to time, and what occasionally appears to be a "rivalry" of sorts between Cashman and Levine is nominally his boss and a man whose duties often seem to cross over from the business end of things onto the field.

But this is nothing compared to what Cashman went through when the Boss was alive and dealing, bringing him little surprises like David Wells, Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright and Gary Sheffield.

And it is not like what is going on in Flushing, where they are paying four GMs and a fifth, Omar Minaya, not to be a GM, while not knowing if their owners are going to wind up in the poorhouse or in jail. And slashing payroll, besides.

So Cashman didn't want Soriano. He had good, sound reasons, not all of which had to do with the amount of money the Yankees will be paying him to do a job that usually comes much cheaper.

At the end of the day, Cashman got to tell his story his way and got to leave the room with his dignity and his job intact. And in the meantime, the Yankees got a pitcher who could loom very large for them this season, especially if they have to go with a patchwork rotation at least until the trading deadline.

So even if nobody appeared to be really happy on that Tuesday morning in the Bronx, the bottom line was everyone got what he wanted.

Like the old line about not wanting to see how they make the sausage, this one wasn't smooth and it wasn't pretty.

But the deal got done and everyone left the room on speaking terms.

In baseball as in life, that's really about as much as anyone can ask.

If the so-called "fractured front office" is one of the problems that could kill the Yankees this season, I can think of, oh, maybe 29 other teams that would kill to have it.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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