Okay, the Yanks are champs. Let’s stoke up the hot stove

On the morning of the day the Yankees would win yet another baseball championship, the New York Daily News ran a poll on the question: “Should Manager Joe Girardi be fired if the Yankees lose the World Series?”

Subsequent events rendered the matter moot. But action on the poll – a daily feature of that irascible newspaper – is believed to have been heavy. You want to know how tough a town New York is? Try that one on for size.

It’s supposed to be easier to win in New York because that’s where the money flows and the Conventional Wisdom holds that it’s all about the money, and only the money. But the CW specializes in being too simplistic and once again it gets it only half right. Because while money talks in any business, it can also confuse most any issue.
The Yankees had been a monument to that fundamental and rather timeless contradiction for most of the last decade. It was the stress of unreasonable demands and irrational expectations that frustrated their epic grasping as much as failed pitching, too much of it purchased, and lean pickings down on the farm.

It should not have been a surprise. In the Big City, so very American to the core, the burdens of wealth often outweigh the blessings and more folks get crushed than triumph, no matter the enterprise. There’s merit in New York’s so-prized thesis that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere; more merit than we here in our town with our own set of pretty presumptions so devoutly held can even begin to admit.

And so now it is over, and Joe Girardi will not be fired and the Yankees have re-established themselves as the bête noire of the business, giving every tinhorn moralist with minimal access to a word processor the opportunity to rant about the unfairness of it all until the cows come home. They are never happier than at such moments as this, so I say to them, “Enjoy!”

Meanwhile, we brace for another epic off-season. In the brave new world of big money baseball, the games may be played from April through October, but they are decided in November and December. The machinations of the off-season, which were so masterfully managed last year by the Yankees, are about to resume. They may not be quite as fascinating this time because the talent that’s about to be shuffled isn’t as deep or as rich. But the machinations will probably again be quite decisive. And once again the blood feud between Boston and New York should boil.

A conflict looming brightly centers on a tall, skinny, 20-year-old Cuban man-child who is left-handed and allegedly can throw a baseball 100 miles per hour, and do so rather routinely. A certain quality of myth already envelopes Aroldis Chapman. Tales of his invincibility abound, although no more than a dozen people in this country have ever seen him pitch.

The last time things got this nutty the object of the hysteria was Jose Contreras. It was when the Red Sox lost Contreras, literally at the last second after some fierce intrigues, that Larry Lucchino, their blustering CEO, branded the Yankees “The Evil Empire.” It was a cutting rebuke that overjoyed the Nation while enraging the Bronx, elevating the feud to new levels of nastiness. Oddly, Lucchino neglected to thank the Yankees when Contreras subsequently bombed in New York, proving to have been hardly worth all the ballyhoo, let alone the money.

Chapman, who, like Contreras, fled his native land for the promise of gringo riches, is younger and even less proven, yet there’s talk of him seeking upwards to a $60 million deal. Only the Yankees, Red Sox, and maybe the Mets have the wherewithal and are crazy enough to spring. He could be a bust or he could be grist for another epic chapter in the feud. Keep in mind his outrageous demands are only roughly half of what the Town Team gleefully showered on the whimsical Daisuke Matsuzaka.

If it is not as ominous as what Brian Cashman faced in New York a year ago, the pressure is no less on Theo Epstein to work some magic this
off-season. He may not be facing the plank should he fail, but at a minimum his lofty stature as the resident Whiz Kid is at risk. The Nation bristles at the de facto insult a Yankee championship represents. While Boston is hardly an amiable and pastoral Peoria, it will never be gripped by the vaguely cynical “what have you done for me lately” mentality that makes subsisting in New York such a joy for the Cashmans of the world. After ’04 & ’07, Epstein’s cachet will hold up at least a generation, but one suspects that precious Whiz Kid thing is to him even more important.

He has huge decisions to make beginning with the vexing matter of how to deal with his fast declining stable of ex-stars, including Messrs. Ortiz, Varitek, Lowell, and Wakefield. He needs no one to tell him they are all on borrowed time. On the other hand, these guys are chief among the chaps who made him what he is today. He has not seemed a sentimental lad. How he deals with this dilemma will reveal much about Theo Epstein, who has always been most careful about how much he reveals. His pal in New York will have it no easier.

In the afterglow of a splendid season and a post-season that was very smartly played, Brian Cashman gets no chance to rest on his laurels. In New York, they do not yearn for repeats, they demand them. The clamor already rises and it’s fairly outrageous. Invariably civil and unassuming but no less driven than his buddy in Boston, Cashman accepts all that. He is making it even tougher on himself by striving to get better while spending less, a formula that has never worked in New York.

With the tumult and shouting of an epic season still echoing, he immediately faces tough, even painful, choices. How much, after all, does Cashman owe his veteran worthies, Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon? The argument can be reasonably made the Yanks don’t beat the Phils in the World Series without them. Damon’s valor and daring saved them in Game 4. No World Series has more decisively turned on astonishing base-running feats since Pepper Martin ran wild, leading the St. Louis Cardinals over Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1931. Damon had an inspired series, as did Matsui, whose prodigious works in the final game were dramatically underscored by his customary graceful bearing and dignity.

Damon and Matsui not only performed heroically, capping fine runs with the Pinstripes, but they did so with class. That’s a combination the Yankees purport to prize most and presume to feature boldly. Damon and Matsui have been a credit to the tradition and now yearn to stay. But both now turn 36 and both made $13 million this season. Prodding them to walk this winter by effectively squeezing them out with contract offers too insulting for them to accept will not be an easy thing for Cashman to do let alone square with his conscience.

One suspects that at heart he is not a “what have you done for me lately” kind of guy. But he may decide he has no choice. The goal of all the teams is to get younger, more athletic and– above all, cheaper.

That’s the mantra that will reverberate throughout this winter; “Younger, more athletic, cheaper.”

Mostly, of course, “cheaper,” at all costs. The 2009 off-season wars grow both in terms of stakes and intensity. Among its victims is sentiment. It can be too costly. Stay tuned. That is if you yearn to know who wins in 2010.