Commentary

Cashman to be last Yankee standing

When Jeter hangs up his cleats, longtime GM will be there to pick his replacement

Updated: February 20, 2014, 10:42 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Joe Girardi asked his boss, Brian Cashman, if he wanted to address the New York Yankees before their first full-squad workout of the spring, and the general manager took the pitch for a ball. Cashman liked what he saw on his roster and in his clubhouse and felt no urge to alter or reinforce the Day 1 vibe.

"I only say something when I feel it needs to be said," Cashman said Thursday.

So he quietly let his reconfigured Yanks take the field and begin attacking a season the GM hopes is ultimately remembered like this: No Alex Rodriguez, no Robinson Cano, no problem. Cashman sat next to Girardi on an elevated and padded perch behind the batting cage and watched the outgoing captain, Derek Jeter, take the first cuts of his final camp.

Having dropped six pounds, Jeter seemed more athletic than he's appeared in recent years, and Girardi said it looked like his shortstop had never broken his ankle or tweaked any muscles in his legs. But Jeter is most certainly retiring this fall, summertime resurgence or no summertime resurgence, meaning that Cashman will outlast him, too.

[+] EnlargeBrian Cashman
AP Photo/Kathy WillensBrian Cashman -- pictured here way back in 1999 -- has been a Yankees employee for 28 years.

The GM is a free agent at season's end, and when asked by ESPNNewYork.com if he wants to return for a 17th season in the big job, Cashman said, "Yes, I'd love to." Assuming Jeter's farewell tour isn't derailed by a season from hell sabotaged by free-agent flops named Tanaka, Ellsbury, McCann and Beltran, Hal Steinbrenner will surely give his man a new deal and extend one of the most unlikely and successful front-office runs in New York sports history.

Cashman owns five World Series rings, four as GM, but his teams have claimed but one championship over the past 13 seasons, with some heartbreaking near-misses (2001, 2003, 2004) along the way. No executive was ever supposed to survive this long in the Steinbrenner family business, especially when Boss George's draconian terms of engagement had broken some tough men in half, including Cashman's predecessor, Bob Watson.

When Watson could no longer weather Steinbrenner's storms, he recommended that the Boss hire his 30-year-old aide. Cashman spent an hour trying to talk Watson out of quitting, trying to remind him about the charmed '96 title and the '97 playoff appearance earned on his watch, but Watson wouldn't hear it. Steinbrenner called Cashman and told him to meet him at the restaurant inside the Regency hotel.

"You've got a lot to think about, buddy," Watson told Cashman.

At the restaurant, Steinbrenner's presentation was simple. "I can go out and get someone who's done this before, someone recycled," the Boss told Cashman, "but I've been told by Bob and Gene Michael and a lot of other people that you're ready to do this. What do you think?"

Cashman knew he had to accept the offer but wasn't sure if he was capable of doing the job. He'd started in the organization as a college intern in 1986, as a kid who ran errands and helped security guards pull drunks out of the stands. In later years, he served as an administrator, not a personnel guy, and here he was being asked to determine who was skilled enough to play for the New York Yankees and who was not.

"I never aspired to be the GM of the Yankees, ever," Cashman said. He told Steinbrenner that he wanted only a one-year commitment to prove himself, and that a he would consider a handshake the equivalent of a signed contract. The Boss didn't need to hear that offer twice.

On the drive back to the Bronx, Cashman called the team's public relations chief, Rick Cerrone, and had him copy every news clipping he could find from Watson's own introduction as GM. Cashman had never before held a news conference, and he wanted to study the questions and answers. The homework didn't help him prepare for one question he didn't anticipate.

On the spot in his first public hour as GM, in February 1998, Cashman was asked if he would give Bernie Williams the $77 million over seven years he was seeking. And instead of giving a response out of a front-office manual and stating that he would not discuss contract terms with the media, Cashman looked into the big cameras and the bright lights and said no, his center fielder wasn't worth that kind of money.

In retrospect, that answer revealed how Cashman planned to manage and confront the big stars on the big club.

"I recall fielding that question, and I recall answering it," the GM said Thursday, "and I just remember seeing the buzz of the media's reaction. I wasn't looking for that response, but I remember witnessing it."

What did it look and sound like?

"Like I'd just made news," Cashman said.

And, yes, he's made news across 16 turbulent and triumphant seasons. George Steinbrenner put him to the test in the middle of that first season, pushing for a Randy Johnson deal with Seattle near the trade deadline that his rookie GM did not want to make.

Steinbrenner was terrified that the Mariners would send Johnson to the Boss' hometown Cleveland Indians, the team that had eliminated the Yanks the year before. "You'd better be right," Steinbrenner warned Cashman.

The GM was right. The Mariners sent Johnson to Houston, and the Yankees won 125 games, including a four-game sweep of San Diego in the World Series.

Steinbrenner, and then his sons, Hal and Hank, usually listened to Cashman over the years, but not always. The GM was against bringing back Rodriguez after his famous 2007 opt-out, and he was against acquiring Rafael and Alfonso Soriano, too. But he was allowed to hire Joe Girardi over franchise icon Don Mattingly and to spend lavishly on free-agent pitchers who worked out (Mike Mussina, CC Sabathia) and those who did not (Carl Pavano, Kei Igawa).

If Cashman has had his share of hits and misses, his smashmouth approach to the job, and the crises forever revolving around it, define him more than anything else. He once demanded (and received) from Steinbrenner more power over a more streamlined organizational flow chart, and he once told the news media he was staying put in the Bronx merely to prove his critics wrong.

Cashman survived the ugly endgame dance with Joe Torre, the A-Rod nastiness, some bloody contract talks with Jeter and the uneasy departures of the ever-popular likes of Williams and Jorge Posada. After Jeter's news conference Wednesday, the GM reminded everyone of his management style when asked if the 39-year-old captain had made life easier for the team by announcing he would retire after 2014 rather than play deeper into a likely decline.

"Maybe," Cashman said. "But I don't think any of us are afraid of those circumstances if they come our way, because it's part of the job description just to do what's best for the team."

Enough said.

"I don't like bulls---," Cashman added Thursday, "and so I'm more prone to react in a direct way, and cut to the chase, because there's only so much time in the day that you can try to be part of something special. ... So over time, with experience, I've developed an intolerance for stuff that would interfere with that. I can be cool, calm and collected, but I can get emotional if something starts blowing in the wind that runs interference with the way things should be."

Way back when, on the day Cashman was hired to take Watson's place, his father, John, said he'd been assured by family friend Whitey Ford that Cashman had the perfect temperament to deal with the Boss.

"But, obviously, things have changed," John Cashman said then. "Brian is on the firing line now."

Only Brian hasn't been fired in his 28 years in the Yankees' employ, by George or Hal or Hank. He's outlasted everyone from Torre to Mariano Rivera, with Jeter on deck. He's got a fighting chance to pass Ed Barrow (23 years) as the longest-tenured general manager in franchise history.

This kind of run isn't supposed to happen in this city, with that team, with that owning family. How long can Cashman last?

"I don't daydream about those things," he said, "because I'm too focused on the present."

The GM thinks he's got a team good enough to reach the playoffs. Win, lose or draw, this much is fairly certain:

Brian Cashman will be around to pick Jeter's replacement at short.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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