When Twitter exploded with the news that the New York Yankees had signed Jacoby Ellsbury, the same old tired refrain resonated: “The Evil Empire is back.” Ugh. While some Yankee fans glory in such a moniker and revel at the anguished teeth gnashing behind it, there is a part of me that wishes the team could be feted instead as a great American success story.
It does not happen just in baseball. Sam Walton built his brand and Wal-Mart became so successful that the story turned to a negative. The funny thing about our people is that we want to believe in the American Dream and that a person can create a successful business out of nothing, just as long as it does not become too successful. In the past half-century there has been Gates of Microsoft and even Bezos of Amazon to carry on the tradition of Carnegie and Rockefeller before them.
George Steinbrenner, along with his initial minority partners: Michael Burke, Lester Crown, John DeLorean and Nelson Bunker Hunt purchased the Yankees from CBS in January of 1973 and it was not as if they started their new venture from scratch. They were the New York Yankees after all and played in the most famous stadium in sports in the biggest city.
But they clearly bought a franchise that featured a lot of chipped paint and crumbling marble. Perhaps CBS is painted unkindly here, but the franchise that network bought in 1965 was in terrible shape. And despite the fame of the team and stadium and location, CBS had to sell the franchise for a loss and netted only $8.8 million on the deal. The team is now worth $3.3 billion!
The Yankees are the quintessential American success story. George Steinbrenner and his minority partners built the brand from that crumbling beginning to a monolithic phenomenon.
To be sure, Steinbrenner shared traits from those business czars of days past. His methods could be brutal. But whether he acted brutish or brilliant, the result was the same. He won the back page of not only the New York newspapers, but every sports page in the country.
And almost immediately, the team started spending big money. There was Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson. In the infancy of free agents, Steinbrenner found a way to out-pay his competitors to get the best talent. The seeds of forty years of teeth gnashing sprouted from the beginning.
Attendance figures showed just how successful Steinbrenner’s activity (antics?) were. From the time CBS purchased the club in 1965 and for the next decade, the attendance seemed stuck around the 1.2 million level. Steinbrenner’s first two years involved the team having to play at Shea Stadium as Yankee Stadium was renovated. That kept the attendance at the same 1.2 million level.
But in 1976, back in their new old home, the team went over two million in attendance for the first time. It went to 2.1 in 1977 and 2.3 in 1978. That figure jumped to 2.5 million in 1979, thanks in part to two straight World Series titles, but did not stop there. 1980 saw a jump to 2.6 million.
The strike in 1981 slowed things down for that year and the next, but in 1983, attendance jumped back up to 2.3 million and stayed there throughout the lean years.
Through the years, the team spent billions in free agent acquisitions. The team started making oodles of money from their YES Network and the brand continued to build.
And every time the Yankees made a splash with free agent signings, the same Evil Empire comments would start and calls for salary caps and the lack of parity would rain down from the disgruntled masses.
Whether it be our Robin Hood fetish or some form of communistic thinking, there is always this desire to take from the richest and distribute to the poorest. In place of a salary cap, baseball instituted a luxury tax where successful teams that could afford a high payroll had to pay a tax on that payroll to teams that were not as successful.
And it does not matter if that lack of success comes in a big market like Houston or a small market like Kansas City (supposedly). There are many reasons why a team does not succeed. Bad management, bad luck and bad plans all play a part as does market size. But it did not matter whether a team failed because of bad management, bad planning and marketing or small markets, successful teams (with the Yankees at the forefront) who have successfully built their brand and cultivated their markets had to pay either reason. Teams could decide to pocket that money or plow it into baseball management and personnel.
And that is fine with most people. We are okay with punishing teams that succeed just for the simple fact that they do and take advantage of that success by plowing that money back into its product. It just seems un-American and unfair.
And then a weird thing happened. Two years ago, we suddenly heard rumblings of an austerity plan coming from the Yankees. There were published reports that ownership demanded the team work down to a $189 million payroll budget by 2014. The off season after the 2012 campaign was quiet except for taking every broken down player the Yankees could get its hands on.
The core talent all got hurt: Jeter, Granderson, Teixeira and on and on it went. The offense the Yankees put on the field in July and August of 2013 would have compared nicely with the the 1968 Yankees.
It seemed the offspring of old George were sick and tired of giving all that money away to the luxury tax and were going to stop the escalating percentage it was paying–even if it meant putting an inferior team on the field for a couple of years. The haters thought it was funny. Fans of the Yankees, used to big signings and all-star lineups were muttering–especially as Stadium seating kept going up in prices.
The haters were mostly quiet except for the occasional joke while watching the Roman Empire fall to the Germanic tribes. The smug satisfaction at the Yankees’ demise and austerity came to a screeching and loud thudding crash. Brian McCann–BOOM. Jacoby Ellsbury–BOOM. In on everybody else? The ears were plugged to the expected sonic booms.
The cries are out again. The Evil Empire! Baseball Needs Parity! We need a salary cap! Look out, the Yankees are spending like crazy again. There is only one problem with all this anguish: The Yankees have earned every penny they spend. And to quote John Mellencamp’s old lyric, “Ain’t that America?”