Monday, October 17, 2011

Can the Yankees REALLY buy a championship?

I will concede my bias up-front: I am a die-hard Yankees fan.  I came by it honestly.  I grew up minutes from the George Washington Bridge and cheered for the team long before Moneyball became vogue.  Yet even with this candor, I am certain I will be judged as one sleeping with the enemy and therefore hopelessly non-objective.

But hear me out, if for no other reason than the potential humor value.

Presently I live in Cardinals country, and since the Yankees’ most recent collapse (and the beloved Cardinals resurgence), I have received my fair share of ribbing.  The tweets and texts have poured in about how lower-budget teams are winning the day.  However, in the years when the Yankees did better, these same friends sent other tweets/ texts about how the Bronx Bombers only win because they can attract and keep the best talent (Cliff Lee being the lone anomaly).

Thus, when the Yankees lose, I should feel doubly bad because they “shoulda” won.  But when they win, I ought not celebrate because they “bought” the crown.   In short, my fellow baseball enthusiasts feel obliged to enhance the depth and length of my suffering when the Yankees lose and shame me out of my celebration when they win.  It’s getting old. And maybe that‘s the real reason I am writing this blog; I’ll talk it over with my therapist.

But here is the deal: people can’t have it both ways.  Either money makes all the difference, or it matters very little.  I want to argue that money has less “performance power” once you are making it, and over time it actually becomes a “performance inhibitor.”

The Yankees organization has plenty of money.  However, despite the argument to the contrary, the Yankees do not have an unlimited supply of it – no one does – therefore when any team (even the Yankees) over-pays athletes, they eventually have less resources available to pay others.  Today, the Yankees are already feeling the pinch with A-Rod and Jeter, and it will be interesting to watch what they do with Sabathia (who has an opt-out clause up for negotiation).  Then in two years, Robinson Cano is up for a new contract, and he is going to want his mega-payday too.  They are just not going to be able to do it all. There is a limit -- even for the Yankees -- and I predict that the next few years will be very interesting (and probably not in a pro-Yankees way).

Obviously, more dollars up-front can buy the best talent in any given moment.  But the way contracts work – and the way "great" talent ages (and you are stuck with them) – means that at some point you can no longer afford great new talent.  So over the long haul, the Moneyball option is not a sustainable solution.  Besides this financial reality, I think there is another issue that actually puts well-paid athletes at a disadvantage!

Playing for the pay hike ahead of you is a great human motivator for performance. It is the hope of millions that legitimately motivates people to be at their best every day.  Athletic readiness and effectiveness are all about motivation.  Money motivates.  The hope of big money motivates big time.  Perhaps that is why smaller-market teams might actually want to thank the Yankees for the ways they help their players to be more competitive (while they have them).  Is it possible that their athletes are playing hard NOW for the bigger payoff that the Yankees can provide down the road?

BUT, once they have the money, that motivation no longer exists, and the pressure increases. Now they have to play to earn the salary they are already contracted to receive. I think that transition is hard to make (just ask A.J. Burnett)!  One of the ways the Yankees have been able to do "it" over the years is creating and maintaining the mystique of the pinstripes: it is about the pride of 27 championships and the heritage of the past (blah, blah, blah)...

I think it will be harder and harder for this to be enough in the years ahead.  I don't think the Yankees will be able to compete (financially) in the very environment they themselves helped create. They will at some point no longer be that pride-infused organization. They will be the fools that spent way too much on way too many, sinking the ship and the heritage that was such a cool part of rooting for them.

Then again, if they can pull off winning in spite of all of that, I say hats off to them, because at that point it will no longer be about the money.