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Monday, November 26, 2007
Hank Steinbrenner eclipsing GM Cashman

By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com

In the not so distant past, the New York Yankees' information flow was about as tight as the Soviet-era Kremlin's, which was to say, good luck trying to get a front-office response to the most benign questions. News blackouts from Tampa, Fla., were the default policy, especially in the offseason.

But all that's changed since George Steinbrenner's sons, Hank and Hal, became the franchise's new heads of state. Need to take the temperature on the Yankees' November strategies? Call Hank. There's a high probability he'll get back to you within the hour with an unfiltered response.

It's now a media nirvana, covering a Yankees team that operates with such transparency. Indeed, Hank Steinbrenner has become one of baseball's most accessible owners, because, as he says, "I believe it's the right thing to do. The fans want to know what's going on."

But Steinbrenner's daily updates about Alex Rodriguez's return to pinstripes, the recently completed negotiations with Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada and even his desire to see Joba Chamberlain join the starting rotation in 2008 set the 50-year-old owner on a different course than his father's.

Look, you can't hide in a room counting beans. If you're a leader you have to step up regardless if things are going positive or negative. Brian [Cashman] is the GM, but the owners have the final decision, because we're the only ones with a financial stake in the team.

--Hank Steinbrenner

While George would lord over the Yankees, threatening Joe Torre and the players like a guillotine waiting to be loosed, Hank acts and sounds more like a general manager than an owner. And that begs the obvious question: Is GM Brian Cashman being marginalized as he enters the final year of his contract?

Both parties insist that's not the case.

Hank Steinbrenner on Cashman: "Brian's been with us for, what, 16 or 17 years? I can't make any guarantees, but considering he's been a lifelong Yankee, I don't see any reason to make a change."

Cashman says, simply, "My job has not changed at all" since Steinbrenner began eclipsing him. In fact, Yankees insiders say Cashman is still running the day-to-day operations, answering to Hank and Hal as he once did to George. The only difference is in visibility -- or in Cashman's case, his invisibility. The GM is rarely returning phone calls these days, deferring instead to Hank.

The focus on the new administration brings an interesting, albeit early scouting report. Hank isn't just easier to reach than George, he appears to be more patient and benevolent, as well, promising the days of back-page threats and insults are over.

"We're paying these guys a lot of money and we expect performance. I don't expect their demeanor to be one of entitlement. But destroying a player in the press, it doesn't help," Steinbrenner said.

Of course, the Gandhi-speak comes easily before Opening Day. The real Steinbrenner-meter won't drop until the Yankees' first losing streak, when the enormous investments the family has made -- A-Rod's $27 million per, Rivera's $15 million, Posada's $13 million -- might feel like a greater burden.

Steinbrenner obviously doesn't mind writing big checks; he and his brother have that much in common with their father. But the Yankees still haven't bridged the gap that separates them from the Red Sox, and they still don't have anyone to match Josh Beckett in a Game 7 setting -- and that's even if Andy Pettitte returns.

The answer, of course, is Johan Santana. The Bombers are convinced they have the resources to win the sweepstakes when and if the Twins decide to trade their left-handed ace. It won't even cost them Chamberlain, they say. But if the Yankees are nosed out, they'll start the season as underdogs in the AL East, officially caught and passed by the Red Sox since 2004.

What if the Yankees are a mere 90-92 win team in '08?

"That's when we'll see what [Hank] is really like," said one member of the organization. "He's definitely not [Madison Square Garden president and CEO Jim Dolan], but we'll find out."

The possibility of struggle doesn't seem to faze Steinbrenner, not while the Yankees are on an offseason roll. But that still leaves Cashman in a gray area, since he's the one who'll be without job security in 2008. And make no mistake, the GM's neck is already on the line with his choice of Joe Girardi over Don Mattingly as Torre's replacement.

If the experiment fails, it won't be Girardi who'll be the casualty, not with a three-year deal as his buffer. It's Cashman who'll suffer the consequences. His profile has been reduced, in fact, even when Hank hasn't been on center stage.

It was team president Randy Levine, not Cashman, who conducted the press conference to announce the end of the Torre era last month. Levine insisted, "It was the responsibility of a president of an organization" to explain the details of the contract Torre rejected.

Cashman may have appeared out of the loop, but insiders say Levine volunteered to take the hit for the GM and all three Steinbrenners, knowing the fallout from Torre's departure would be immediate and savage. But ever since then, Cashman has remained in the background while Hank has become the face and the voice of the Yankees.

For now, it's a coming-out rite Steinbrenner seems to enjoy.

"Look, you can't hide in a room counting beans. If you're a leader you have to step up regardless if things are going positive or negative," Hank said. "Brian is the GM, but the owners have the final decision, because we're the only ones with a financial stake in the team.

"Corporations run better when the guy running the company has a big financial stake. Outsiders are the ones who don't do much, bail out and then take the golden parachute."

Hands-on. That's how Hank Steinbrenner appears to be defining his leadership style.

Any questions? Just call.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.