Over the past two decades, Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner has ceded more and more of his role as team spokesman to his PR consigliere Howard Rubenstein. More recently, as speculation on his deteriorating health has mounted, the Boss is rarely quoted directly, only occasionally exhibiting flashes of the confrontational, meddling owner that the rest of the league has long loved to loathe.
But a funny thing has happened over the past few months: George’s eldest son, Hank, the team’s senior vice president, has stepped forward as the new mouthpiece for the team — which, I think,could have a profound effect on how the organization conducts business going forward and even a greater impact on the business, period.
Beginning with his George-esque New York Post rant about ex-manager Joe Torre following their messy breakup (“‘Where was Joe’s career in ’95 when my dad hired him? My dad was crucified for hiring him.”), you’d be hard-pressed to come across consecutive days in which Hank’s name doesn’t appear in one of the Tri-state area daily newspapers. Most recently, it’s been the ongoing will-they, won’t-they discourse concerning a possible blockbuster trade for Minnesota Twins star pitcher Johan Santana — a deal that could considerably shape the team’s future for the next seven or eight years.
When the Yankees set a deadline in December for the Twins to decide on a Yankees trade proposal, Steinbrenner told The New York Times, ”I don’t want to continue this dog-and-pony show, playing us against the Red Sox. I’m not going to participate in that. This is our best offer. Minnesota knows it’s our best offer. Everybody knows it is.”
And, then, last week, he stated to The Times‘ Murray Chass on the likelihood of the trade, “I’m starting to wonder myself. I’m starting to waver. Would we want him? Of course. But it would be a tall order.”
Which leads me to a bunch of questions I’ve been thinking about more and more recently:
Is this any way to run a business?
Commenting to the media on every twist and turn of negotiations for a major acquisition that will greatly affect the product on the field — the product that is directly correlated to the team’s billion-dollar valuation?
The business of sports, in many ways, is unlike any other sector of the business world. But, at the same, time, could you imagine a big-time financial or tech CEO holding court for the press every time there is a development in talks for a takeover of a large competitor? Maybe it wouldn’t crush the negotiations, but couldn’t it make them unnecessarily more difficult?
“I think the Twins were puzzled early on,” The New York Times Yankees beat writer Tyler Kepner wrote to me in an e-mail.
“I don’t get any sense that it’s part of a business strategy,” he added, speaking of Hank’s general vocal approach, “other than the basic fact that when he talks, people pay attention and the Yankees get free publicity in the media.”
For journalists and fans, this kind of access is great. But my guess is that there are some high-ranking Yankees officials wishing that Hank would sometimes just say no.
“I think on one hand it’s good for George Steinbrenner to have his son take the spotlight as the go-to person for comments and opinions on the team,” Kepner wrote. [At the same time] “It complicates the job of the baseball operations staff, but all general managers would rather keep almost everything secret.”
The new Boss hasn’t yet shown he knows how to keep a secret. I think this approach could backfire in the future. Am I wrong?