For Yankees, an Apprentice Has Become a Survivor
Published: March 19, 2011
TAMPA, Fla. — The book on Brian Cashman was that he was a small but scrappy second baseman, excellent speed, active bat, good glove, average arm and stubborn as a Steinbrenner in his approach to the game.
Barton Silverman/The New York Times
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Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times
As a four-year starter and leadoff hitter at Catholic University in Washington in the mid-to-late 1980s, Cashman was known for refusing to look down the third-base line at his coach for fear of seeing the take sign.
“I had trouble with secondary pitches,” he said. “If the first pitch of the game was a fastball, I would jump on it and hammer it, opposite of the approach I have as a general manager. I like guys with high on-base percentages.”
Ask Cashman a question, almost any question, and invariably the answer rambles around to what’s best for the Yankees.
One of these years, this admitted workaholic promises to change the subject, take the exotic vacation that somehow eluded him through college and beyond. He will go to Europe, a continent he has yet to set foot on. He will finally make time to explore his religious and ancestral roots.
“My name is Brian McGuire Cashman, Irish Roman Catholic, but I have never been to the Vatican and I have not been to County Cork,” he said, in his peppy monotone and with what sounded like a 50-50 mix of personal regret and professional pride.
Wherever Cashman has traveled abroad — China, Japan, Latin America — his sight was set on the business of summers in the South Bronx. At 43 but in his 25th year of working for the Yankees, he acknowledged that he probably needs to get out more.
“Let’s do it over here — I could use some sun,” he said to a recent interview request, choosing a shadeless corner of the team’s spring training complex. Committed as he is to the Yankees’ cause, the blue-eyed, fair-skinned Cashman has apparently not given up on a state of being — tanned and rested — that has proved more challenging than his unlikely rise from Yankees summer intern to general manager to quarter-century organizational fixture.
Thirteen years, six pennants and four World Series titles after Bob Watson resigned in February 1998 and recommended his 30-year-old assistant as his replacement, Cashman is baseball’s third-longest-tenured G.M., the Little Intern That Could. What a long, strange road he has walked, never quite certain of which direction he was going.
“If you asked me now, it would be the same answer as 10 years ago — I still don’t know what’s next for me,” he said, squinting at the bright Florida sky. “I’ve always been a here-and-now guy, but I didn’t aspire to do this and I still don’t know if this is my lifetime career.”
‘Don’t Be Comfortable’
Here and now, Cashman and his wife, Mary, have two children, Grace, 12, and Teddy, 8, and a home in Darien, Conn. For Cashman, who has been employed full time by the Yankees since 1992, the baseball life has been rewarding but consuming. In the final year of his latest contract, his attitudinal approach was probably the healthiest for a position that before Cashman had all the security of a bowling pin on a busy day at the alley.
So unsure was he that the general manager’s job was the right one for him, or he for it, that Cashman worked the 1998 season on a handshake agreement with George Steinbrenner, the principal owner. Visited by conviction after the Yankees recorded the final four of their 125 victories in the World Series, Cashman asked for and received a contract.
Still, he treated his Yankee Stadium office like a hotel room, and that has not changed.
“I don’t have anything personal up on my walls,” he said. “Don’t be comfortable here; it was almost like it was built inside of me.”
Could it be that perspective was shaped more by the workplace environment, booby-trapped as it was for managers and general managers during his early years with the franchise?
In the summer of 1987, then 19 turning 20, Cashman watched Steinbrenner’s G.M., Woody Woodward, suffer to the extent that his office nickname was the Pharmacist, because of all the stress medication he stockpiled to deal with the Boss.
Woodward left after one season, leaving Cashman to wonder who would want such a job. Not he; by then, he was a history major considering law school.
As an intern, he helped out in the minor league scouting department by day, making a few extra dollars working stadium security at night. He got the position through a friend of Steinbrenner’s who worked at a Florida racetrack that was affiliated with the Kentucky standardbred farm managed by Cashman’s father, John.
“Maybe they win while I’m there and I’ll have stories to tell for the rest of my life,” he thought, not yet realizing that win or lose, he would be armed and hilarious at parties forever.
Dodgers Bat Boy
The young Cashman had one thing in common with Steinbrenner. He loved baseball, though not the same team. The middle of five children in a family of Yankees fans that had relocated from Washingtonville, N.Y., to Lexington, Ky., Cashman rooted for the Dodgers. Visiting his grandmother on Florida’s east coast, he was once a spring training bat boy for Tommy Lasorda’s team, courtesy of another family friend, the former pitcher Ralph Branca.
“Now you talk to Tommy and he says, ‘My bat boy’s the G.M. of the Yankees,’ ” Cashman said.
Playing for Ross Natoli at Catholic, he made better use of a bat, setting a single-season team record for hits (that has since been broken). Natoli, who still coaches the Division III team, said in a telephone interview that the 5-foot-7 Cashman was very fast and surprisingly athletic.
“When we worked out in the gym,” he said, “I saw him jump up and touch the rim many times.”
Natoli said Cashman and his double-play partner for most of the four years, Matt Seiler, were “as good as anybody I’ve had since.”
Seiler batted second and paid the price for Cashman’s refusal to take a first-pitch fastball.
“I was under orders to take because Brian was either on base or out after the first pitch and we might wind up with two outs on two pitches,” Seiler, now an education administrator in the Washington area, said in a telephone interview. “But that was Brian, aggressive in everything he did.”
Like Natoli, Seiler said it was impossible to imagine that Cashman’s summer flings with the Yankees would land him where it did. But in retrospect, there were clues.
“Even as a college student,” he said, “Brian was able to size people up very quickly in a personal sense.”
They did not room together, but Seiler has one distinct memory of a book he noticed on Cashman’s desk during sophomore year. It was “Trump: The Art of the Deal.”
The ‘Cash Man’
Apprentice turned survivor, Cashman does not have full autonomy of a Yankees’ payroll that has been in the $200 million range in recent years, evidenced when the team signed reliever Rafael Soriano against Cashman’s better judgment this winter.
And no matter how many championships Cashman’s Yankees win, he will never be a bronzed icon, like Boston’s homegrown Theo Epstein, hailed across New England as the architect who rescued the Red Sox from 86 years of championship drought.
Cashman accepts these terms and the turns of phrases they evoke.
“I get it; I have the perfect name for the Yankee G.M.: cash man,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s going to change that perception.”
But he would argue that the Yankees also had the game’s highest payroll for much of their championship drought from 1979 through 1995. During Cashman’s run, the team has made the playoffs 12 of 13 seasons. To those who contend he inherited the core of his championship teams, he would say that he was assistant farm director when the system began churning out Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.
“Most people would agree that we still have a good farm system,” he said. “So I do feel I was part of the building of this franchise and, yes, I do resent it when people say that I inherited a lot of this stuff.”
In the early years, he almost left the Yankees to attend business or law school but was talked out of it by in-house supporters like Gene Michael, a longtime team executive. When Steinbrenner’s health failed and organizational uncertainty threatened Cashman’s authority, jobs as general manager were available to him in Seattle and Washington.
“I could never leave George,” Cashman said. “Difficult as this place can be, everything I have become professionally was because of him.”
The deal has changed, of course, with Steinbenner’s death last July and his sons, Hal and Hank, in charge. Dedicated Yankee watchers reckoned that so did Cashman’s public approach to the job this past off-season, when he rappelled down the side of a building, was a celebrity bartender and served red meat to the city’s tabloid headline writers with critical thoughts on Jeter, among others.
Cashman said that while he has a natural aversion to attention, he is proud that Grace and Teddy have in recent years developed an appreciation for what he does. He explained the Batman act as the result of a dare by his children and said it was no more related to a middle-age crisis than it was to raising his profile for an anticipated career move next season.
And if Cashman was filling the breach left by the Boss, it was only by default.
“After Joe Torre left us, for once everybody got out of the way and left me to hire the manager,” he said. “Before that, every manager was always hired solely by George. So I think what happened was that people said, ‘How is he going to handle that?’ And now, with an aging team, with real-time celebrity, Hall of Fame all-time status players, people are saying, ’O.K., O.K., let’s see how he handles this.’
“And I’ve tried to handle them all the same way. Tried to be honest to the degree I can with the press. But circumstances have occurred — whether it was the decision to trade or not for Johan Santana or the negotiation for Jeter, where I wasn’t afraid to stand up for a franchise that I have been with for a very long time.”
Cashman acknowledges the contradiction of his tenure, which belies the claim that he does not yet know what he wants to do when he grows up. But maybe that is why a child’s game has held him so long and stiffened his resolve to contend with the perpetual pinstriped storm. Armed with hard Yankee cash, he can go out and take his swings and do his best to ignore the slights, along with the signs.