April 11, 2006
Brian Cashman ﬁddled with his World Series ring. Twisted it, turned it, slid it off his ring ﬁnger, and put it back on. It was a glorious spring day in New York City, and the Yankees were about ninety minutes from their home opener against Kansas City, which, for millions of fans who live and die with the team, meant renewed hope and anxious expectation.
As Cashman stood on the lush grass just wide of the ﬁrst–base line at Yankee Stadium, he intermittently (and subconsciously) toyed with the bauble while discussing, among other things, how badly he wanted to win another. And how immense the challenge would be. And how lucky the Yankees were to have the ones they owned. The diamond–encrusted ring was, obviously, gorgeous; it was a talisman that signiﬁed the triumphant moment men spend their lives toiling to attain. Having been in the Yankees organization since he was an intern in 1986—and having been the GM since 1998—Cashman had his pick of rings.
But he always gravitated toward the one from 2000.
“It was the toughest one to get,” he said.
It was also the twenty–sixth, and last, the Yankees had earned.
Just a few moments earlier, Cashman had shared a moment with Johnny Damon, the newest hired gun in the Yankees’ mercenary arsenal. The two joked around and gave each other gentle pats on the back after batting practice, and then Damon went into the clubhouse to prepare for the game. Damon’s improbable, clandestine departure from Boston over the winter was the stuff of legend, a late–night coup that enraged Boston fans. Even some Yankees fans had a tough time initially swallowing the move, which once and for all bumped the beloved Bernie Williams out of a position he had owned since 1993. In essence, it was a real–life defection with as much suspense as a Tom Clancy novel. Damon was the Yankees’ Red October.
So when Cashman was asked whether it would take time for Damon to completely win over Yankee Stadium, the GM paused for four seconds. The answer was one he would rather not acknowledge.
“Probably,” he ﬁnally responded. “Some people are already on board, some people are die–hard Red Sox haters. Roger Clemens took a while for people to adjust [to] when he got here. And I’m sure for some people it took a while for Wade Boggs to adjust to when he got here. So some people are going to embrace it right off the bat. Some people are still going to have some of those memories of the damage that Johnny did against us over the years.”
Cashman was right on target, judging from the boos Damon received that day. But it was nothing like the nasty reception the Yankee center ﬁelder would receive when he returned to Boston in early May.
Not only was it bizarre that the Yankees had an “idiot” Boston immigrant patrolling center ﬁeld, but Cashman’s return in 2006 was something that was far less than a certainty. When the Yankees lost to the Angels in Game 5 of the ALDS in October 2005, he cried in the bowels of Angel Stadium. His contract was up, and many baseball observers thought the episode was proof he was mentally and emotionally moving on. (Coincidentally, it was only a few days earlier that Damon had broken down in the Fenway clubhouse, mourning a season and his own potential exodus.) For years, Cashman had uncomfortably wiggled under The Boss’ thumb, honored to be in such a lofty position at such a young age but constantly thwarted by the backstabbing and machinations of others in the Yankee Fishbowl.
The rogue Tampa faction was especially insidious, since it operated where Steinbrenner, looking feebler every year, now made his home year–round. In the end, Cashman knew his best chance of winning came in New York. And he couldn’t cut the cord to a team he himself had built.
“The challenges would’ve been anywhere,” Cashman said. “If I went somewhere else, I would’ve been in the same mind–set. But I have a lot invested. It’s not just as simple as you sit down at a table in the winter with an agent, or you sit across the table from a player.”
Cashman felt the obligation to players such as Alex Rodriguez, who had agitated for a trade from Texas after the 2003 season even though he had just won the MVP there and was the game’s highest–paid player, with a $252 million contract. When a deal with Boston fell through before the 2004 season, Rodriguez offered to change positions and become a third baseman. Jason Giambi was another established All–Star who had followed to the place where Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, and other Steinbrenner “warriors” had once beaten all comers. Giambi exited Oakland after the 2001 season, even though the California native was a frat–house king with the A’s. Of course, the money was way better in New York (seven years, $120 million), but Giambi toned down his personality and polished his image in order to conform to what he hoped were world–championship standards.
“I mean, there’s so many examples,” Cashman said. “And it’s not BS. These guys are sincere.”
Cashman cited another: Mike Mussina, who prior to the 2001 season had left the Baltimore organization he grew up in, alienating a fan base with which he had an excellent relationship, to sign with a hated division rival. Back on November 30, 2000, the day Mussina signed a six–year contract, you never in your life would’ve guessed that he wouldn’t win at least one World Series with the Yankees—who had won four of the previous ﬁve at that time. Mussina, who was now thirty–seven, was in his ﬁnal season with the Yankees unless the team exercised a club option. Late in 2005, his pitching elbow began bothering him for the ﬁrst time, and he missed twenty–one games.
“Who knows how much longer he’s pitching?” Cashman said. “He’s been great for us so far, and he’s been a great free–agent sign. In his ﬁrst year, we got to the World Series. And in his third year, we got to the World Series. But we didn’t complete it. You don’t want to be that close.”
Essentially, Cashman conceded that the pressure to win a title had grown greater. The Yankee Fishbowl had grown smaller, and every year there were bigger ﬁsh swimming in it. Whereas the Yankees had once relied on a mixture of homegrown talent and veterans such as Scott Brosius, Martinez, and O’Neill, who seemed to be better than their stats when crunch time came, they had now accumulated immense talent and big personalities—some would say at the expense of chemistry. And yet the GM chose not to think of the title drought in terms of pressure.
Instead, Cashman took a proactive approach, trying to cultivate a culture where being a Yankee meant being accountable to the exacting standards of perfection. That’s why he insisted, when he signed his new contract with Steinbrenner, on a separate agreement acknowledging that he’d have full authority over the personnel of the club. (Whether the famously impatient and temperamental Steinbrenner would adhere to such a guarantee was another story.)
When the dust settled on the 2006 season, Cashman said, he wanted to be able to look in the mirror and know he had done everything he could to try to attain a championship. He believed in setting a goal, and establishing a plan to achieve the goal. But at the same time, he understood that it was a sport played by fallible people. He recognized that there were other teams in other cities trying to accomplish the same goal.
“If somebody’s better than you, you can live with it,” he said. “You just don’t want to miss opportunities, you don’t want to look back and say, ‘I wish I did it differently,’ or ‘I wish I would’ve worked a little harder,’ or ‘I wish I would’ve planned a little bit better.’ You just don’t want any of those. Because I can live with doing everything possible, checking off everything and tip your hat if someone was better. But you don’t want to look back and say, ‘That should’ve been ours.’”
The Yankees hadn’t even returned to the Fall Classic since 2003, where they lost to an upstart Florida bunch after holding a two–games–to–one lead in the series.
“I know people are worried about how we haven’t won a World Series in ﬁve years,” Cashman said. “It’s supposed to be some sort of insult, I guess. But it’s not. I recognized even when we were winning how difﬁcult [it was]. You can look in the archives and pull it out. We said at that time, ‘People better pay attention to what they’re witnessing right now, because this stuff doesn’t happen like this very often.’ And it doesn’t, runs like that.
“And obviously we’re operating in the shadows of the ’96, ’98, ’99, 2000 championship clubs. And people keep saying, because we haven’t done that, we’re failures. That is so special. It’s hard to win one, let alone [four out of ﬁve] and being in the World Series two years after that. It was such a great, successful run. We still feel like we’re capable. But we’ve got to prove it. I know how difﬁcult it is, I know how hard our guys try. And it’s all I can ask of anybody, and all that these guys ask of themselves.”
Once again, the Yankees outspent the competition. Their Opening Day payroll was about $194 million, which was actually down $14 million from the year before. But the former boy–wonder GM knows that everybody from The Boss, George Steinbrenner, on down is restless. The fact that the team opened 2–4 on the road did nothing but raise the alert level a notch.
“There’s deﬁnitely an urgency here,” Cashman said.
For Cashman, the human toll of wins and losses is all too real. It really bothered him, for instance, that Tom Gordon came to New York for the 2004 season and left without winning a world championship. Gordon, an accomplished former starter who’d switched to being a closer in the latter stages of his career, had his choice of Boston, Oakland, and Tampa Bay that particular winter. He probably would’ve closed with either the Devil Rays or A’s, as it turned out, but he instead became Mariano Rivera’s eighth–inning setup guy.
“And he came here–because he wanted the ring,” the GM said. “And it bothers…” Cashman’s voice trailed off. “It’s just kind of a wake–up call for the rest of us here, that you know what, we’re on the clock,” he said.
In the midst of this discussion, Cashman began ﬁddling with the 2000 World Series ring again. He’d transported himself back to a February day in Tampa when Joe Torre gave perhaps his best speech as a Yankee manager and Cashman followed with a soliloquy about missed opportunities. Torre, who considers himself an introvert, has never been totally comfortable addressing groups, but his impassioned speech about the unacceptability of anything less than a world championship was punctuated with a determination that left even the veteran players impressed and inspired. Cashman, in his turn, challenged the clubhouse full of superstars, appealing to them at their most human level.
The message Cashman was describing during this April conversation was the exact message he had given the players a few weeks earlier.
“I’m here to try to win,” Cashman had told the players that day. “I’ve won before, but it’s not like that’s satisfying. You’re here to try to do something together here now.”
Cashman, whose slight, balding exterior is juxtaposed with the tenacity of a junkyard dog and the deal-making skills of a Beltway lobbyist, actually began singling players out. He wasn’t calling them out, but rather bringing attention to their status. By pointing ﬁngers, Cashman was hoping he’d unite the team. It was a calculated attempt to foster chemistry, and Cashman hammered his message home.
“Guys, Moose [Mussina] is at the end of his contract,” Cashman began. Then he turned to Jason Giambi and Gary Shefﬁeld. “Giambi, you’ve got two years left. Sheff, you’ve got this year and most likely next year.
“Johnny Damon, all right, you’ve just signed on for four years. And A-Rod, you’ve been here for two. But we’re all on the clock: to try to win.
“I don’t want to feel like I did this winter, when Tommy left us to join the Phillies. You know what? He had a great time. But all he has is memories. We’re here to try to do more than just that.”
A-Rod, for one, took the message to heart and parroted Cashman’s phrase that “we’re all on the clock” during the spring.
“We’ve got guys who came here for a reason that haven’t been able to complete that purpose yet,” Cashman said. “And you focus on those things.”
In the home opener against Kansas City, Williams, the longest–tenured Yankee, received the warmest ovation of anyone. But he made a baserunning gaffe in the fourth inning that killed momentum, and the Yanks lost an early lead and trailed 7–4 heading into the eighth.
Damon heard boos in his ﬁrst at–bat and whiffed feebly on three pitches in the eighth in a potential go–ahead situation, and the disappointed crowd collectively groaned. But Derek Jeter followed with a go–ahead three–run homer that saved Damon’s bacon, helped the Yanks to a 9-7 victory, and served as the ﬁrst hint that it might be a particularly special year for the team’s captain. Damon was relieved that he wasn’t the goat in a loss. Cash-man, ultimately, felt the fans would rally behind his biggest acquisition in the off-season.
“Johnny? They’re going to like him,” Cashman had said conﬁdently hours earlier. “They will.”
That wouldn’t be an issue in 2006. Damon’s return to Boston was a much bigger story. And as it turned out, Boston fans weren’t ever going to feel the same way about him again.
From the Hardcover edition.