From his fourth-floor conference room at the Yankees’ spring training stadium, the ballpark that bears his dad’s name, Hal Steinbrenner can look through a wall of windows to the field below and see the beginnings of a new season.
Glance to his left or right, however, and there are dozens of snapshots from the franchise’s glorious past, with photos and portraits of his late father, George, respectfully known as “The Boss.’’ With the Steinbrenner legacy behind him, Hal has spent the past decade plotting his course for the Yankees, and no other team is more faithful to his vision than the one that will carry sky-high expectations to the Bronx in 2018.
With that in mind, Newsday spoke with Steinbrenner this week during a wide-ranging interview that included, among other things, the Giancarlo Stanton trade, the team’s youth movement, his relationship with Brian Cashman, the connection with A-Rod, the outside-the-box hire of Aaron Boone and, finally, “Star Wars.’’
Initially, it seemed like you didn’t start out planning to someday run the Yankees. And now you’re arguably the most powerful team executive in the sport. Have you grown into the position more than you first thought?
Steinbrenner: “This is the job that was given to me. Not a job I earned. So I have a great amount of respect for the job. And an appreciation for the job and the responsibility. Yes, some days are better than others, and in addition to being a baseball team, this is a big company. Headaches don’t have to come from what’s going on on the field. Headaches can come from a variety of other spots — marketing, stadium ops, you name it. Some days are better than others, but overall it’s very satisfying, and we’re all very proud of it. And we all want to do the best we can for him [pointing to the portrait of George on the wall].’’
Do you feel a lot of pressure being in charge of the Yankees?
Steinbrenner: “Honestly, it’s never been pressure for me. I know people may not believe that. All I can do is do the best job that I can do, which is make the best decisions for the sake of the family and all of our partners — we’ve got a lot of them, some of which have been with us since the mid-70s. I can only do the best that I can do. And if I’m confident that I’ve done the best I can. I don’t Monday Morning Quarterback myself. I think it’s unproductive.”
But your dad is probably a little bit happier when you win the World Series, right?
Steinbrenner: “Yeah, I’m sure he is. But I’m me. We’re different, he and I. And I’m just going to do the best that I can. I will never claim to be able to accomplish what he accomplished, because I probably never will. But I’m going to try. Everybody in the family is.”
Do you think people underestimate how hard it is to run a baseball organization? Like Derek Jeter, for example?
Steinbrenner: “He’s got good people around him, the way I do. That has to happen. I saw him in L.A. three weeks ago at the owners’ meetings and he’s doing good. I told him, ‘You’re on the other side of the ledger now. It’s a different deal. Now you’ve got to prove to the fan base that you’re a good guy and you mean to do well. You being a good guy as a player, sometimes that’s an easier sell.’ He’s going to make mistakes along the way. We all do. In a way, you’re a bad guy until you’re proven good.’’
Under the collective-bargaining agreement, there’s a huge financial benefit to staying under $197 million in 2018 to reset the luxury tax. But the Red Sox will be over this season, and with good free agents still available, why are the Yankees so focused on that threshold?
Steinbrenner: “To me, logic dictates that you don’t have to [spend $200 million] to have a championship-caliber team. There isn’t one team that’s won a World Series that’s had a $200-[million]-plus payroll. So it’s just logical. You’re supposed to have a good player development system. You’re supposed to have good young players. We’re a marquee town. We’re always going to have marquee players. If they’re of good character, if they’re good mentors to the younger players, if they can fulfill those roles, we’re always going to have those kind of players, and I’m all for it. But you’ve got to have good young players, too. And if you have that mix, it just isn’t necessary.
“We just traded for Stanton, for goodness sake. That’s a pretty big contract. Look, is it a year-by-year thing? Sure, it’s a year-by-year thing. But again, to me, in my little head, it’s just logical that if I have the right mix of free agent, marquee-type-mentor players, veterans and young players, then the number probably isn’t going to be $250 million.”
The Yankees spend plenty of money, but what do you make of the grievance filed by the MLBPA accusing some teams of not using their competitive-balance revenue to improve their clubs?
Steinbrenner: “First of all, I haven’t looked team by team to count every dollar about what they’re doing with their money. But clearly, from the beginning, revenue sharing, the purpose of it was to promote competitive balance, right? So does that have to be you taking X amount of dollars and signing a free agent? Or can it be you taking X amount of dollars and you’re putting it into your player-development system to improve it so that you produce better players for your fans to be excited about? I think there’s more than one thing you could do with that money and have it still be under the overall realm of improving competitive balance. Are some teams not doing the right thing with it? I’m sure. That’s probably been the case since Day 1. But I’ve never gone team by team to try to count dollars and cents about where it’s going. I’m not a forensic accountant.”
We’re already talking about next year’s monster free-agent class, one that is expected to include Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. But with your team having so many talented young players, should we not jump to conclusions about the Yankees signing the next big thing for 2019?
Steinbrenner: “I don’t think anybody should ever jump to conclusions about us. We look at every option, every year, even during the course of the year, every trade deadline, every offseason. That’s what we do. Cash and his people, they never stop working. Not all of it gets to my desk, but a lot of does. And we either do something or we don’t. That process never stops.
“Look, if you’ve got young players that deserve a chance, then my philosophy is ‘give them a chance and let’s see.’ Now you’re not going to have a great young player for every position, so you’re going to be active in the free-agent market, and we always will be. But if you’ve got players who are ready, keeping them at Triple-A because you’d rather take a more proven option isn’t always necessarily what we’re going to do.
“And the other thing I will say is, our fans are very excited — whether it’s because of the reality show on YES or the ‘Path to Pinstripes’ segments we do during the games, they’re excited about kids that haven’t even set foot in the Bronx yet. I just don’t ever remember it being the case. There’s something to say for them wanting to see these guys promoted instead of going out and getting maybe some other person.”
Can one of those young players, Aaron Judge, be the next Derek Jeter for the Yankees?
Steinbrenner: “I can tell you, like Derek, he comes from a great family. He’s very down to earth. He’s very intelligent. There’s just no glitz or glamour to him. He’s certainly got the makings of being a great Yankee. Hopefully he’s here for a lot of years. But it’s the intelligence and the humbleness that I think is pretty special, because you don’t always see that.”
When Brian Cashman called you up in December and said he had a shot at getting Giancarlo Stanton, what was your reaction?
Steinbrenner: “That’s a big contract, a lot of money, and we already have a few outfielders.’’ [He laughed.] “No, I was very interested in the idea because if you have a chance to get a player like him — the National League MVP and one of the best players in baseball, period — you got to look at it. As usual, it depended on what prospects and what the deal was. I got involved probably a week and a half before it happened and it almost didn’t happen a couple times during that. When you think about it, everybody started [saying] the Yankees are going crazy again. But [Starlin] Castro was in the deal, and then a few days later, we traded Chase [Headley], so essentially it was a wash.”
There are reports that say you’ve already sold 500,000 tickets since trading for Giancarlo Stanton. Have you noticed that boost?
Steinbrenner: “We’re a private partnership, so I’m not going to get into finances. But yes, ticket sales are up significantly. I think part of it has to do with Stanton, but I think it was trending that way anyway. People are just excited about what happened last year. I think we surprised a lot of people. Exceeded a lot of people’s expectations as to what we could accomplish with the team we had. I think a lot of people are excited about a lot of names on this club.’’
What did you think when Aaron Boone was first brought up as a candidate to replace Joe Girardi?
Steinbrenner: “Well, I remember collecting his dad’s baseball cards. I wasn’t surprised, because it’s clear — even listening to him on broadcasts — he knows his stuff. And obviously he had a career. And he just excelled in the interviews. It was the analytic side, and the other side, which has more to do with problems in the clubhouse you might face, character issues, how would you handle your bullpen, how would you do the lineup. He just excelled. When you think about it, his grandfather played, father played, father managed — clearly there was a lot of wisdom imparted to him his whole life. And then he had his career, of course. So I wasn’t shocked or surprised, no.”
What have you seen from Boone so far in spring training?
Steinbrenner: “Very cool, calm and collected. Very intelligent. Never afraid — like we should all be — never afraid to learn new things. I think he’s got a great coaching staff. I was there at the players’ meeting, the first one we had. He’s got a good rapport with the players — as a group, and individually. So I think he’s going to be great. I really do.”
You’ve always been a big supporter of Alex Rodriguez, even through some of his most troubled times in the Bronx. Why is that? And why is it so important for him to continue to be a part of the Yankees’ organization?
Steinbrenner: “He’s got a great baseball mind. He’s got a really good rapport with these younger players. They respect them. They know him. He had a hell of a career. He made mistakes. We all do. So when he retired, before that we had a sitdown. I certainly voiced my displeasure about everything that happened, things that were said, the way it made the organization and my family look. We aired it out, and then as far as I was concerned, we buried the hatchet.
“We all screw up, right? So you screw up, you’re sorry that you screwed up, you try to take that first step or two or three to a better life, right? You deserve a second chance. And I’d say that about anybody. That’s not what really enters my mind with Alex. But you could argue it’s that kind of situation.”
How did A-Rod wind up becoming an adviser again this year?
Steinbrenner: “He wants to be a Yankee. He wanted to come back. He’s got a lot going on, so we’re going to figure out what he wants to do and how much time he wants to spend doing it. And at the end of the year, we’ll just see where we go from there. He may decide it’s too much. That he can’t be involved as much he wants to be. Hopefully that’s not the case.”
What happens when A-Rod is in the booth for Sunday Night Baseball? Can he be objective during the broadcast?
Steinbrenner: “He’s a smart guy. I’m sure he’ll figure it out.”
Are the Yankees now a ‘World Series or Bust’ team for 2018? I know it’s a cliche, but . . .
Steinbrenner: “I don’t like to give you an answer that you probably think is a boilerplate answer, but we’re like that every year. People ask me a lot, if we don’t win the World Series, was the season a failure? Is it disappointing — yes. I just think the reality is you’re not going to win a world championship most years, right? That’s just the reality. So to look at an entire season and say the whole thing was a failure, you’re thinking in a little bit too much of a negative light for my taste. Because any given season, including last season, when we didn’t even win the pennant, great things happened, and there were things to be proud of. But there were things to be worked on, so.”
As for the architect of this 2018 team, what is it about your relationship with Brian Cashman that works so well? With his new five-year extension, he’s had an unprecedented run in what used to be the most fragile front-office job in sports under George.
Steinbrenner: “I’ve known him since ’91. That’s a long time. He and I are similar in some ways, different in others. I am not — for better or worse — I am not my dad. I’m a little less volatile than that. So that probably makes it easier on him, I’m sure. Although he handled my dad pretty well and my dad respected that. I’ve just always had confidence in him, in the up years and the down years. I think he’s very thorough. I think he’s a good leader. His troops respect him and he doesn’t leave a stone unturned. Like me, when it comes to a decision, he’s going to take as much time as he possibly has and analyze it as much as he possibly can before he makes a decision. I’m the same way.”
So people have started referring to the Yankees as the “Evil Empire” again. That didn’t take long. Is it good for the Yankees? Is it good for baseball? How do you feel about that?
Steinbrenner: “Nobody loves ‘Stars Wars’ more than me. I grew up with it. Remember seeing it in ’77 in the theaters. I don’t really ponder that [nickname] too much. But I will tell you one thing — it means you’re relevant again, if people are starting up with that stuff again. That people are concerned about us.”
Still, the Evil Empire thing just seems to fit the Yankees, right?
Steinbrenner: (Smiling) But you know we’re not evil.”