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April 20, 2004

He Yam What He Yam

The Joe Torre Deal

by Andrew Baharlias

I'll have the chicken cacciatore, hold the yams.
You should really have the yams.
But Joe, I don't really like yams.
But they're really nutritious and they taste just like sweet potatoes.
But I don't like sweet potatoes either, Joe.
Well, you should really have the yams.
Do you want my yams, Joe?
No...I'll get my own yams.

My one and only conversation with Joe Torre took place during a lunch break about two weeks after the Yankees were eliminated by the Cleveland Indians in the 1997 Division Series.

My impressions at the time were clouded by the kind of star-struck feelings that a little boy might have upon meeting with his hero. Yet, Joe Torre was not my hero so I cannot explain my nervousness. I don't think it was merely shyness around a celebrity, because I think I would be in perfect control of myself if Burt Reynolds or Gavin McLeod appeared out of nowhere and criticized my lifelong policy of yam avoidance. In any case, weeks later my nervousness would be forgotten, and I would remember only his poise and how smooth, persuasive and in-control he was during our brief yam encounter.

I don't want to make too much of this, but clearly this was a man whose courage had been tested under fire. A different man might have been more timorous when it came to mocking another man's side dish. Torre handled the whole encounter with aplomb, genial, yet forceful, like Gary Cooper. Shockingly, he seemed not at all intimidated by the inequality that existed between us--he being only the manager of the New York Yankees while I was the proud owner of a juris doctorate--and you can bet that if I had been Ken Kaiser, the Wookie from "Star Wars," or GMS III himself, he would have forthrightly made the case for yams as if he cared nothing at all for his own job security and everything for the nutritional lives of his co-workers. All business, Torre said his piece and ended the encounter, leaving me with the distinct impression that somehow I had missed out on something by leaving behind a sloppy mess of overcooked tubers. We never spoke again.

This level-headed, persuasive, "make you think" approach is a rare product in the helter-skelter world of New York baseball, so it came as no surprise when the Yankees announced April 9 that Torre, 63, had agreed to a contract extension to manage the team through the 2007 season and possibly beyond. When and if Torre tires of the day-to-day struggles of managing, he'll enter into a personal services contract with the Yankees that could keep him in pinstripes until 2013. Senior last hurrahs for Casey Stengel and Jack McKeon aside, it is highly unlikely that Torre will seek to manage another team at the conclusion of this contract.

The retention of Torre's services by the organization even after his days of on-field utility will have passed is consistent with something the Yankees have been doing since since George Steinbrenner returned from exile in March of 1993, something we'll call a "Defensive Employee Retention Program" ("DERP").

Oddly enough, though the Yankees have never articulated the thinking behind DERP, or even discussed, circulated or advocated such a program, there is evidence to support the notion that the Yankees make use of DERP. Briefly defined, the DERP is allegedly implemented with respect to an individual who: (i) at some point in time held a prominent position in the Yankees' organization (i.e., VP, GM, Field Manager, etc.); (ii) is currently on the team's payroll; (iii) has had his/her job title redefined on at least one occasion (for worse or better is not relevant); (iv) has elected to stay with the team rather than allow his contract to expire; and (v) may have been sought out by other teams for advancement but has been either denied permission to speak with said team, or had his contract renegotiated/extended at that point in time. Its purpose is to prevent prominent Yankees staff from working anywhere else, ever again, for the rest of their professional lives.

Potential DERPees over the years include Billy Connors (13 consecutive seasons) and Carl "Stump" Merrill (28 consecutive seasons). However, the one who got away may be the person essentially responsible for the aggressive DERP policy of the second Steinbrenner regime (i.e., March 1, 1993 - present).

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU'RE NOT COMING BACK?!?"

Brian Sabean was the Yankees' Vice President of Scouting and Player Development in the fall of 1992 and widely speculated to be the front runner for the Yankees' General Manager position when incumbent Stick Michael either chose to step aside or was replaced by Steinbrenner when he returned to active management of the Yankees, which was something everyone assumed would happen at some point even though the owner was supposed to have been banned for life. In December of 1992, the San Francisco Giants negotiated with then Managing General Partner Joe Molloy (who was running the Yankees in Steinbrenner's forced absence) for a release from Sabean's final contract year so the Giants could hire him as their Assistant GM under GM Bob Quinn, himself a former Yankee.

Rod Beaton, writing for USA Today on March 18, 1993, astutely observed that, "teams rarely stand in the way of a front-office employee if he can move up elsewhere, but the Yankees are no ordinary organization." Instead of just letting Sabean go, the Yankees, having already allowed Sabean to accept the Giants' offer, demanded compensation in the form of the Giants' top two pitching prospects, Salomon Torres and Joe Rosselli. The Giants refused. The Yankees lodged an official protest with the commissioner's office. In the end, the Yankees received nothing for the loss of Sabean despite the fact that Molloy took (and passed) an FBI-administered polygraph in order to prove that Quinn had in fact promised Torres and Rosselli in exchange for Sabean's release. An exaggerated version of the story that circulated in the New York media said that Sabean went to the 1992 Winter Meetings and never came back.

Since the loss of Sabean in 1992, virtually every executive to hold a position in Baseball Operations with the Yankees is still under contract with the team. The three standout DERPees are: (i) Gene "Stick" Michael (15 consecutive seasons and 34 of the past 36 as either a player, scout, coach, manager or GM); (ii) Mark Newman (17 consecutive seasons); and (iii) Gordon Blakely (nine consecutive seasons). You can now add Joe Torre to this list.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (A DERPEE)

One of the essential elements of the DERP involves limiting personal choice. The three gentlemen listed above have all been invited to audition for roles in other organizations but the Yankees have held them to the letter of their contracts. Later, their options foreclosed or at least no longer timely, they have chosen to re-up with the Yankees. In June of 2003, John Shea of The San Francisco Chronicle speculated that the Yankees gave Michael a six-year, $4 million extension just so he wouldn't become a candidate to be the Mets' GM. In 2002, the Yankees denied the Red Sox permission to speak with Michael when they were seeking a GM as well.

When the Toronto Blue Jays went searching for a GM at the end of the 2001 season, Mark Newman was widely reported as a top candidate and permission was sought to interview him. The Yankees balked. They had similarly refused the Rockies and Brewers just prior to the 2000 season. The increased interest in Newman in 1999 led Steinbrenner to promote him and extend his contract by an additional five years.

In 1999, Blakely, then VP of International and Professional Scouting, was sought by the Orioles, who were promptly rebuffed. Blakely and Newman were both mentioned again this past off-season with Seattle. Blakely had recently replaced Newman as VP of Baseball Operations (while Newman has been reassigned as VP of Player Development) and there was speculation that Steinbrenner was going to clean house after the Marlins knocked out the Yankees in the World Series.

While all three men have been prominently mentioned for a host of positions, strangely, all still remain with the team, giving the Yankees arguably the best baseball operations staff in all of baseball, albeit one with many, many cooks.

CRITICISM OF THE DERP

It is hard to find fault with DERP. The speculated purpose of this alleged program is to keep the talent away from the enemy for as long as possible while at the same time, enrich the organization with the fruits of a multi-talented and substantial staff. Also, the old cliche, that "too many cooks spoil the broth," has long been ignored by most multi-million dollar corporations, with their plethora of MBAs-without-portfolios; thus why shouldn't that thinking be applicable in the running of a baseball team? As the A's have demonstrated, information is a key asset in running a baseball team.

With that in mind, Moneyball enthusiasts could complain that this is simply the Yankees exercising their fiscal muscle in order to corner the market on talented baseball executives, and their arguments have merit. However if Billy Beane had virtually unlimited resources to spend on administration, one might think that Paul DePodesta might still be employed by the A's along with an army of Ivy League statisticians. Considering the man that Beane evolved into, the answer to that question is, "no," which is interesting in itself because Beane leads a new generation of baseball thinkers with respect to the evaluation of talent; but in terms of executive personnel, he's probably playing under the old rules of baseball. Being a former big-league player, it isn't much of a surprise.

In 2002, Brian Cashman (not a former big-league player), commented on these old rules when he denied the Red Sox permission to speak with Michael. "The industry practice is against it (i.e., denying permission to speak with interested teams about openings), but that's obviously not the case because people are [not granting permission], and we have just done it. If people want to throw slings and arrows at us, so be it. But it's our right. That was the organization's decision on Gene Michael, who we consider a very valuable member of this organization."

Some might contend that by denying these men permission to speak with other teams about potential advancement, the Yankees are doing a disservice to their careers. While there is some validity to this point, it must be pointed out that an element of being a DERPee involves personal choice. If a DERPee wanted to move on, he could simply allow his contract to expire and quit. A recent example of this is former VP/Assistant GM Kim Ng, who chose to leave the organization. Those that chose to remain are amply rewarded for making that choice.

DERP Makes Sense

The decision to "implement" the DERP with Joe Torre is a fantastic move and a clear public relations bonanza. The Joe Torre era has been marked with incredible success both on the field and in the business office. While Torre has been given ample credit for the field dominance of the Yankees, he also deserves credit on the business side for stabilizing the manager's office at Yankee Stadium for the first time in Steinbrenner's regime. Winning and positive public perception are keys to economic success in baseball and Torre deserves to be acknowledged and rewarded for his achievement.

Additionally, by securing Torre's rights after his managerial career is over, the Yankees avoid the embarrassment that haunted the team after they summarily dismissed Casey Stengel after the 1960 season. Stengel had only managed the team to 1,149 wins (.623 winning percentage), 10 post-season appearances (in an age when only two teams made the playoffs) and seven World Championships. This embarrassment was later compounded when Stengel emerged as the manager of the expansion New York Mets in 1962. Despite the fact that the Mets were perennial losers in their infancy, the Yankees came off as heartless and uncaring corporate snobs for jettisoning the team's most colorful and successful manager in the twilight of his life.

Finally, by holding onto Torre's rights, the Yankees can extract a heavy price for Torre's services if another team decides that it must have him as manager and the Yankees are willing to allow Torre to manage said team, much in the same way the Mariners acquired Randy Winn in exchange for the rights to Lou Piniella (an escaped DERPee) after the 2002 season. A viable major league regular is worth more than a soft-bodied, semi-retired coach any day of the week.

Joe Torre has reached the promised land. He is one of the most respected men in baseball, his ticket to Cooperstown has been punched and now he essentially has a lucrative lifetime contract with the most recognizable team in professional sports. I'm sure that on the evening of April 9, 2004, Stick Michael, Gordon Blakely and Mark Newman gave him a call to welcome him to the club. For his part, Torre probably smiled and passed the yams.

Andrew Baharlias was Staff Counsel to the New York Yankees between 1997 and 2002. He can be reached at abaharlias@wholesomereading.com

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