There was no grand unveiling, no ceremony to show it off. But when the Mets opened their 2017 season at Citi Field, a new placard was affixed to the overhang down the left-field line. It proclaimed the Mets as winners of a 2016 National League wild card.
As the Yankees prepared for their home opener on Monday, they had nothing comparable to display. We live, for the moment, in that rare baseball weather pattern in which the skies are sunnier over Queens than over the Bronx. The Mets' attendance is rising, and while the Yankees still outdraw them, their attendance is falling.
As they market young players rather than marquee names, and as two teams — the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Detroit Tigers — outspend them on salaries, the Yankees are striving to retain their sense of identity. This was the motivation behind General Manager Brian Cashman's moves last summer, when he steered the franchise on a course he has sought for years.
Cashman wants the Yankees to stand out again. Acting like so many competitors — scheming to beat long odds to grab a wild-card spot, and then trying to get lucky again in October — was not working. It was not them.
"We don't stick up banners for being a wild-card team," Cashman said as he sat on the bench in the Yankees' dugout late in spring training. "We never stuck up banners for American League champions. I'm not saying you're not proud to get into the postseason, whether it's a wild card or division champion, but the ultimate thing is, you want to be remembered. And to be remembered is to win championships."
Bob Watson stepping down as general manager in February 1998. Cashman, seated, took over that year.
Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times
The Yankees have won 27, the last four with Cashman as general manager. His contract expires after this season, but no one in the organization expects him to leave or be fired. Of the top baseball operations officials among the 30 major league teams, none has been with his club as long as Cashman has.
Cashman, 49, started as an intern in the Yankees' minor league and scouting department in 1986, a dozen years before George Steinbrenner named him general manager. Cashman's first three teams won the World Series, his fourth won a pennant, and his next three won at least 101 games. The 2009 team won another championship.
The Yankees have maintained winning records ever since, but have played in just one playoff game in the last four seasons, a wild-card loss to Houston in 2015. Wild-card teams have won the World Series, of course, but to Cashman, true competitiveness had become an illusion.
Late last July, he dealt Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs. Then he dealt Andrew Miller to Cleveland, a watershed decision because Miller — perhaps the best reliever in baseball — was signed through 2018. After that, the moves kept coming: Carlos Beltran to Texas, Ivan Nova to Pittsburgh, Alex Rodriguez to retirement, Brian McCann to Houston.
Now Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Aaron Judge have spots in the lineup, and no retreads were imported to bump young starters from the rotation. With the endorsement of Hal Steinbrenner, the managing general partner, this is Cashman's vision in action, though neither could have predicted the grim health news last week: a biceps injury that sent Sanchez to the disabled list, a foot injury that slowed Bird and a potentially serious elbow injury to the top pitching prospect James Kaprielian.
Cashman with George Steinbrenner during spring training in 2005. Cashman said he turned down several job offers because of his loyalty to Steinbrenner.
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
Even so, the Yankees' farm system — fortified by the additions of Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield and Dillon Tate — now ranks second in overall talent, according to Baseball America. There are no banners for that, either, but the Yankees finally seem committed to cultivating the kind of low-cost, high-impact talent base that will allow them to spend lavishly on free agents again.
"Things had to be turned over, and it took some courage, especially in this town," said Randy Levine, the Yankees' president. "It took some fortitude to go in a new direction. Cash was really the architect. He sold Hal on it, and hopefully it will work."
Hal Steinbrenner has known Cashman since 1991, when Steinbrenner worked for his father's team after college. They have known each other so long, Steinbrenner said, that there is an underpinning of honesty in their relationship, and mutual respect.
"Any time you survive in your job for an extended period, part of it has to be not only your ability, but your ability to communicate with your ownership," said Dave Dombrowski, the president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox. "That has to be an extremely important part of the equation."
As Detroit's general manager in 2015, Dombrowski traded Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets and David Price to Toronto. Both players helped propel their teams deep into October, just as Miller and Chapman did last fall after Cashman traded them.
Cashman flanked by Joe Torre and Ron Guidry during spring training in 2006.
Richard Perry/The New York Times
The difference is that Cashman has stayed on with the Yankees, and Dombrowski was fired soon after his deals. Dombrowski is a highly successful executive, but like most, he has guided multiple teams. Cashman has always survived.
When a team takes a new direction, it often does so with a new general manager; typically, if the incumbent had been doing well, there will be no need to change strategy. But Steinbrenner has the opposite impulses of his father, and Cashman's job status — like that of Manager Joe Girardi, whose contract also expires this season — never seems in jeopardy.
"I try to be a pretty even-keeled thinker," Steinbrenner said. "I'm objective. That's my nature. That's the way I come to decisions."
Steinbrenner said he appreciated how Cashman balanced the analytics and scouting acumen needed to run a modern baseball operations department. Surely, it seems, he also understands that the current state of the Yankees is a group effort. Whatever the Yankees are now — for better or worse — is not all Cashman's doing.
Consider the summer of 2013, when an injury-ravaged roster tried futilely to claw into the playoff race. The Yankees' best player, second baseman Robinson Cano, was facing free agency. Cashman told Steinbrenner what he wanted to do.
The Yankees after winning the 2009 world championship. Cashman watched the celebration from the field with his daughter, just another face in the crowd.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
"We should trade Cano before he's a free agent, because he will not re-sign with us," Cashman said, repeating the recommendation he made at the time. "They're looking at money we won't be willing to commit. They're looking for a 10-year deal."
Cano, who turned 31 just after that season, eventually got a 10-year, $240 million bonanza from the Seattle Mariners. Though the Yankees gave a seven-year, $153 million deal that winter to Jacoby Ellsbury — who has declined sharply — Cashman said the team would benefit in the future from having resisted a 10-year commitment to Cano.
How much could the Yankees have benefited by trading Cano instead of losing him as a free agent? Cashman never found out, because he was told not to put Cano on the market. The 2013 Yankees failed in their push for the playoffs, finishing 85-77, six games out of a wild-card spot.
"It's not easy for ownership," Cashman said. "Hal Steinbrenner is a pilot, and he uses pilot analogies all the time with me. Since I'm director of baseball operations, I get to look at things at 5,000 feet. He's the owner, so he has to look at things at 30,000 feet.
"He has sponsorship commitments; he's got partners," Cashman continued. "He's got a season-ticket holder base, the TV network ratings, even though most of that is now owned by Fox. There's a responsibility he feels and a whole bunch of other things he has to account for that I don't.
The news conference announcing the signing of Jacoby Ellsbury, left. The Yankees did not re-sign Robinson Cano that off-season.
John Minchillo/Associated Press
"I can be a lot more practical because it's pure baseball — what's the best baseball move? And I'm just like, 'The business is baseball, and if this is a good baseball decision, eventually it should be good for all other decisions.' But I don't own a club. I don't have to make those types of decisions, and those responsibilities are much greater."
At various points in the past decade and a half, Cashman said, he resisted job offers from at least five other teams because of loyalty to George Steinbrenner, who died in 2010. Cashman never planned to be a baseball executive, and Steinbrenner had made him one, even if he regretted it at times when Cashman made his debut in 1998.
A few months into that season, said Gene Michael, who had assembled the guts of the Yankees' roster, Steinbrenner was convinced he had made a mistake. "Stick," he told Michael, "you're going to have to come back and do this job." Michael, an adviser, shrugged it off. When Michael was general manager, Steinbrenner had said the same thing about him.
"Brian can do it," Michael said he told Steinbrenner. "Just give him time."
Over time, the rules of team-building have changed. Increased luxury-tax penalties have made it costlier — and more foolish — to sustain lush payrolls, year after year. Spending on the draft and international markets has been heavily regulated, negating another edge the Yankees once had on their rivals.
In Cashman's first several seasons as general manager, baseball did not test for performance-enhancing drugs, making it easier for older players to stay productive well into their free-agent years. Now, by the time they reach free agency, many are clearly past their primes, making it even more important to develop young talent. And because they have compiled 24 winning seasons in a row, the Yankees have not picked higher than 16th in the draft since 1993.
Cashman during spring training in 2016, a season in which an injury-ravaged roster tried futilely to claw into the playoff race.
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press
"It's not a complaint, but we're not ever allowed to drop down, lose 100 on purpose and be rewarded for the quote-unquote 'tanking' that's been in play," Cashman said. "That's not a path we're allowed to do."
To be sure, some of the game's best players are found in the top half of the first round: Kris Bryant, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado, Buster Posey and so on. But while it is true that the Yankees never could have drafted those players, plenty of other stars have gone outside the top 30, like Mookie Betts, Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rizzo and Noah Syndergaard. Besides Dellin Betances (drafted 254th over all in 2006), those kinds of success stories have largely eluded the Yankees.
Then again, Bird (179th over all in 2011) and Judge (32nd over all in 2013) offer hope. And the Yankees did use the pitchers Adam Warren and Shane Greene — both drafted well beyond the 100th overall pick — in trades for the middle-infield duo of Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius.
"You've got to string together as many quality decisions as you can over time — a five-, six-, seven-year period — to put yourself in a championship-caliber conversation," Cashman said. "If you make the wrong decisions, it can really pull you back."
Sometimes, though, past decisions are hard to classify. The Yankees surely could not have won the 2009 World Series without Rodriguez and C. C. Sabathia. But those players, whose contracts were both extended, are still on the payroll for a combined $46 million this season — Sabathia as a roughly league-average starter, and Rodriguez in an advisory role.
A fan's sign in August 2016, after Cashman began overhauling the team.
Kathy Willens/Associated Press
When teams agree to lavish long-term contracts, they typically enjoy the present and say they will worry about the future later. That future is now for the Yankees, but Cashman remembers when times were worse. When you are working in New York — where an everyday problem can seem like a crisis — institutional memory helps.
"Look at TV when Don Mattingly was hitting home runs and there's nobody in the stands in right field — it's empty," Cashman said. Then he cited a string of forgettable names (Chuck Cary, Dave LaPoint), regrettable trades (Rickey Henderson to get Luis Polonia, Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk) and embarrassing moments, like the time Andy Hawkins threw a no-hitter and lost, 4-0.
Cashman saw the empire crumble, saw George Steinbrenner serve a ban of nearly three years as the Yankees rebuilt and saw a dynasty grow from the wreckage. He knows what an organizational reset, even a less drastic one, can do.
"I had a front-row seat for all of that stuff," Cashman said. "That gives me at least a platform to have dialogue with ownership as well as combat the media narrative, which can be false or forgotten. I'm like: 'We've done it. I was there for it; I lived through it. Yes, you can.' As long as you honestly articulate with the fan base what you're doing and why you're doing it, then yes — it's been done, can be done and will be done again."
A dynasty, Cashman acknowledged, is always an outlier, a rare confluence of so many factors, especially luck. This is now the longest period in major league history without a repeat champion, a stretch that began in 2001, when the Arizona Diamondbacks ended the Yankees' three-year reign.
Cashman does not wear his rings and has never lifted a World Series trophy. In 2009, when the players and several executives gathered on a podium behind second base to celebrate the Yankees' return to glory, he watched from the field with his daughter, just another face in a happy crowd.
For those who know Cashman, it was no surprise. Raised in the game under George Steinbrenner's glare, he has always known better than to revel in accomplishment.
"What I really admired about Brian was the fact that it was never about him," said John Coppolella, the Atlanta Braves' general manager, who worked for the Yankees from 2000 to 2006. "He just seemed to care a great deal about the Yankees and getting things right for them."
Things are not right at the moment. For all the encouraging signs around the Yankees, this team still seems destined to not be remembered, at least by their standards. At least a dozen teams, realistically, have a much better chance to win the next World Series.
But Cashman believes in the Yankees' direction. He is keenly aware of the winding road that got them here, and has plotted their path forward.
"We've been brought down — some of it by decisions we've made that haven't worked out, and some of it by market constraints," he said. "Now we're going through that process of cleansing, and we're bringing ourselves back up."
Billy Witz contributed reporting.