- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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It's funny given how important he now is, but the man who is the fulcrum of the new-look Yankees went far too forgotten this week amid the surprise timing of Derek Jeter's retirement announcement Wednesday, and all the in-house nostalgia that was invoked Monday about how the Yankees' victory in the bidding war for Masahiro Tanaka was "Steinbrenner big."
What went overlooked was how the real guiding principle of the Yankees now is not the great hovering spirit of The Boss himself, and how much his personality still affects everything the franchise does even years after his death. It has become What Will Hal Do? -- as in Hal Steinbrenner. And Jeter underscored the fact that the Yankees are a storied franchise at a crossroads when he picked up the telephone Wednesday and confided the news that he was going to retire after the 2014 season to Hal, and only Hal, before posting it on Facebook.
What has been interesting to watch this offseason is how much Hal Steinbrenner continues to reveal himself as his own guy rather than some carbon copy of his old man.
With Jeter -- the last of the Core Four -- going, going, gone, the Yanks are on the precipice of having to forge a new identity.
And while Yankees general manager Brian Cashman's reminiscing about George Steinbrenner's freewheeling ways as the Yankees introduced Tanaka was sincere and fond, the truth is Hal was still being truer to himself and his own management principles when he greenlighted the winter spending spree that's helped the Yankees reload on the fly for 2014 -- the same as his father approved a similar outlay when the team also missed the postseason in '08. The Yanks won the World Series the very next year.
Hal made it clear Monday that his goal for 2014 is the same.
"I think we have a championship-caliber team," he said.
It was a rare foray into the sort of bold thing his dad would say. Hal is still more the "math geek" -- his self-deprecating term Monday for himself -- who saw how the Yanks' TV ratings and other financial figures were dipping, and realized that his previously stated hope of getting under Major League Baseball's luxury tax was not as important anymore.
The more vital goal is keeping the gold-plated sheen on the Yankees' brand and making sure the team's reach and cachet continues to extend worldwide.
And losing Jeter a little earlier than expected is yet another challenge to keeping the mystique vibrant, especially coming right on the heels of losing Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. Even the mothballing of the A-Rod soap opera, for now, is a good news/bad news thing for the Yanks that will mean less time on the tabloid back pages. But at least the sight of archrival Boston celebrating another World Series win and even Red Sox B-listers such as Jonny Gomes taking potshots at the Yankees' rebuilt roster has added a little juice.
Gomes did the Yanks a small favor because the Sox-Yanks rivalry needs some fluffing up.
The Yankees absolutely, positively had to keep going and get Tanaka to make all those other expensive moves while letting Robinson Cano walk to Seattle all look worth it.
Tanaka is the sort of boldface name the Yanks are used to having, not just a rotation-cementing pitcher. It was no accident both Cashman and Yankees media director Jason Zillo made a point of saying hello to people looking in "from around the world" as Tanaka was formally introduced. No other franchise does that.
The Yankees are an idea as much as a business entity. Suddenly, they also are a team that has to reappraise itself now that Jeter, the last holdover from their latest dynasty, is going and Hal Steinbrenner has ascended into his father's seat.
All the other power brokers who were seated on the dais with Steinbrenner at Tanaka's introductory news conference Monday -- Lonn Trost, Randy Levine, Cashman and manager Joe Girardi -- understand how vital maintaining the Yankees' prestige is.
For now, it's still there, all right.
It showed in the fealty that Tanaka -- the new guy -- expressed toward the organization's reputation with his charming determination to say in halting English that, "I am happy to be a Yankee."
Tanaka sees the Yankees as something special as much as they feel that way about him.
So with spring training set to start Friday in Tampa, say hello to the Yanks' hoped-for new ace. Try to savor this last season of Jeter and wish him good health, at long last. And give thanks, if you're a Yanks fan, to The Boss' son Hal being flexible enough to change his mind about the payroll.
The Steinbrenners have never had a problem spending money when the only thing standing between them and acquiring another star is a little word like Y-E-S. George more often took the fire hose approach -- full blast all the time. Hal seems to channel his father's passion more strategically, not indiscriminately.
The Yanks decided they'll benefit more by paying $175 million to get an unproven but young player like Tanaka, who is just 25, rather than pay to keep Cano. Now it will be fun to see if Hal the Math Geek can approach The Boss when it comes to gambling big and gambling right.
Can Hal approach The Boss when it comes to gambling big?