Brian Cashman has always made it easy to underestimate him, if that was your inclination. He has always looked like a history teacher. He has always had a self-deprecating air about him. He has never been about bluster. He has never been about outward self-promotion. He understands where he works, and who he works for.
But he also learned, early, that there is only one way to survive in the corporate jungle of the New York Yankees for 22 minutes, let alone for 22 years. And it boils down to a simple word: power. Without it, good luck to you. Without it, Cashman would have joined the absurd pile of names chewed up by the Yankees conveyor belt.
Cashman already has four World Series to his name. The team is in the midst of another period of prosperity, when at the least it should be in play for titles — for multiple titles — for the next five, seven, 10 years, and it got there by strictly following a blueprint crafted and created by him. He has the power to do that. And it is in establishing that power that Cashman, almost certainly, will take his place alongside two other Yankee GMs, Ed Barrow and George Weiss, in baseball’s Hall of Fame someday.
It was the first man to hold the title under George Steinbrenner who had it figured out best. Gabe Paul was already a baseball lifer by the time Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973, and he’d learned one of the key secrets to surviving as a GM anywhere, but especially under the Boss: If you’re a partner, it makes it harder to fire you.
That’s one of the ways Paul had survived more than a decade in Cleveland, never sniffing a pennant but never much worrying about his job security. Pete Franklin, the old WFAN voice who’d made his bones as a legend in talk-radio Cleveland, railed about that for years.
“The thing about Gabe,” Franklin once said, “was that while he did work for an owner, he always found a way to get a piece of the team himself. Then it became damn near impossible to fire him because he was part-owner. Gabe’s greatest gift was the ability to take care of Gabe.”
When Paul left Cleveland for The Bronx, he did so with a piece of the team. That gave him instant leverage in dealing with Steinbrenner and his whims, and the 16 months he ran the Yankees solo while Steinbrenner served his first suspension in 1974 helped, too. He built the core of the team that won the 1976 AL pennant, and he finally earned a World Series ring in 1977.
But Steinbrenner had started feeling his oats, and wanted to get more involved. He brought in Al Rosen, an old Indians hero of his, to be team president. Paul could read the tea leaves, and he had another offer, to go back to Cleveland. It was hard leaving a champion (who would repeat the year after he left) after waiting 40 years to be part of one.
Forfeiting power, though, was worse.
It helps explain why the roster of Yankees GMs between Paul and Cashman reads like a comical roll call, one that actually once mirrored the revolving-door tenures of Yankees managers, pitching coaches and PR executives.
Murray Cook, Woody Woodward, Lou Piniella and Pete Peterson lasted one year on the job each. Cedric Tallis, Stick Michael (the first time), Bill Bergesch, Clyde King, Bob Quinn and Bob Watson stuck around for two. Michael actually lasted five years the second time around, helped along by another Steinbrenner suspension.
So many of those men were puppets, GM in title only. Steinbrenner ran the team. Steinbrenner approved any and all deals. Michael helped change that out of necessity. Watson seethed at The Boss’ constant carping. None of them had the luxury of answering back because all of them were decidedly subservient.
Fifteen years ago, Cashman did what no GM since Paul managed to do: he fought for, and won, genuine final-say decision-making power, this while The Boss was still alive and still very much in charge. He gambled on himself, parlaying a contract negotiation into a genuine consolidation of authority. He may not have had an actual piece of the team, as Paul had. But he had the next-best thing.
By 2009, it resulted in the Yankees’ most recent championship. It has afforded him ultimate authority not only on personnel but also all macro and micro decisions in the organization. The Yankees are still owned by the Steinbrenner family. There are other people of influence in the corporate flow chart, primarily Randy Levine and Lonn Trost.
But the Yankees are a Cashman operation now, in every way, on every level. With one more year he’ll tie Barrow as longest-tenured Yankees GM ever. He already dwarfs, by service time, the other eight GMs in New York (the Rangers’ Jeff Gorton, five years on the job, is distant No. 2).
It was the noted baseball writer Plato who once wrote: “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” He may or may not have been writing about either Cashman or the Yankees in 375 BC when he typed that into his laptop. But he sure could have been.