The New York Yankees like to talk about pinstripe pride. The aura, the team incessantly reminds us, envelops all who don the no-names-on-the-back uniform once worn by Ruth and Reggie, Gehrig and Munson, Mantle, Maris and DiMaggio, who thanked the good Lord for making him a Yankee.
The message, of course, is that Yankee pride -- unlike, say, Royals pride or Brewers pride -- represents something special.
Well, baseball fans, as Alex Rodriguez climbs Major League Baseball’s career home run list we’ll find out if pinstripe pride has morphed into a marketing ploy, something you have to wonder about in these days of stadium debt. Do the Yankees value rich history more than getting rich?
For there can be no pride in hyping and hawking A-Rod’s pursuit of, in order, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and, ultimately, Barry Bonds. No commemorative T-shirts, hats or key chains. No holograms on the baseballs, either, because, unlike sports memorabilia, the homer-happy players long ago abandoned authenticity with pills and needle pricks.
Certainly that’s the case for the 35-year-old A-Rod, who entered last night’s game against Cleveland one home run shy of becoming just the seventh player with 600. Sosa’s up next, at 609.
This is the same A-Rod who last year offered a clunky and cockamamie explanation when he copped to using performance- enhancing drugs. His numbers and accomplishments are tainted, just like those of Mark McGwire, Sosa and, well, you know the laundry list by now.
Fittingly, it was Yankees hall-of-famer Yogi Berra, a master of malapropism, who uttered something about deja vu all over again, born of his seeing the M&M Boys, Mantle and Maris, hit back-to-back home runs on so many occasions.
It was just three years ago that Bonds passed Aaron, who had toppled Ruth’s 714 en route to his resting place at 755.
Along came Bonds and his biceps, getting bigger and better with age, defying the effects of time while launching moon shots at the kayaks in McCovey Cove. Were Hal and Hank Steinbrenner watching? If so, which images stuck?
Sure, they hooted and hollered in San Francisco. They stood and cheered, no matter how much circumstantial evidence exists that Bonds took shortcuts.
The 2007 Giants were a last-place team. So they sold whatever they could, which was Bonds, who has maintained that he never knowingly took steroids. The turnstiles whirled. On the road, however, there was no celebration. Only derision, asterisks and inflatable syringes.
There was no joy on the face of Commissioner Bud Selig, who followed Bonds, game-by-game-by-game, as he approached the record.
It will be the same for A-Rod, the highest-paid player in the game. There’s still a ways to go, yes, but pinstripes must plan ahead when who knows how many marketing millions are on the line.
It was Buffett who suggested to A-Rod that he attach incremental bonuses to his climb up the list. The Yankees typically eschew individual performance bonuses, but they gave in, figuring the interest generated by his chase would enrich the team, too.
So A-Rod, who has a $275 million contract, will reap another $30 million in bonuses on the way to 763. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
At some point, the Yankees will have a choice to make. Do they embrace A-Rod’s chase, promote it, trumpet it, or do they take a muted approach?
It’s unlikely the free-spending Yankees will become a last- place team like the 2007 Giants, who had Bonds and little else to entice fans into the ballpark.
New York relies on winning to sell tickets, hot dogs, game programs and luxury suites, which is why they spend what they spend on payroll. Everything with the Yankees is predicated on their ability to field a winning team, which management uses to justify its ticket prices, which are the highest in baseball.
That’s why the Yankees got A-Rod, who, pre-admission, fit perfectly with the franchise’s brand. Nothing but the best.
Only now A-Rod and his home-run numbers are tainted, which means, like Bonds, the accomplishment won’t be embraced by most baseball fans. Inflatable syringes might even reappear.
The Yankees should ignore A-Rod’s chase. But they won’t. Only one thing trumps pinstripe pride, and that’s pinstripe profit.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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