Yanking up the spending spree
Why the New York Yankees are being attacked for flashing the cash during a recession.
New York Yankees fans like me had a lot to be grateful for this Christmas. It’s not unusual for a baseball club to obtain a free-agent star in the off-season, but this year the Yankees signed not one but three top players: pitchers CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, and slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira. The total cost for the players came to $423.5 million. Thank you, Santa.
Not everyone reacted with as great enthusiasm as myself. In fact, the Yankees’ spending spree has been met with a barrage of criticism, with certain detractors’ comments being particularly over-the-top. Phil Sheridan, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, went as far as saying that the Yankees ‘represent the very worst of America’ (1).
The most common objection to the Yankee spending spree has been that the team bosses had the chutzpah to make their big purchases in the midst of a recession. According to the Associated Press, the Yankees, unlike other teams, ‘remain in a Gilded Age’, undertaking ‘dazzling deals during a time of retrenchment’ (2).
Wallace Matthews commented in Newsday: ‘No one could have imagined the kind of shameless shopping spree the Yankees have been on…at a time when more than 10 million Americans are out of work and another four million might join them in 2009.’ (3) In a piece on the UK Guardian’s ‘Comment Is Free’ entitled ‘Is baseball ruining America?’, Robert Weintraub says the Yankees’ ‘guilt-free lavish spending’ is ‘sickening’. He believes the team ‘owes it to New York to spend responsibly in such a dire economic climate’ (4).
In a sense the Yankees’ lavish spending is hardly news. It’s just the Yankees being the Yankees; they have always been big spenders. The team has baseball’s highest annual payroll at about $230 million, which is more than double last year’s $96 million average for Major League Baseball and eight times more than the lowest-paying Florida Marlins’ $27 million. Their wallet-flexing is so well-known that many thought the headline of satirical newspaper the Onion, ‘Yankees Ensure 2003 Pennant By Signing Every Player In Baseball’, was not far from the truth (5).
The Yankees are the most successful baseball team, having won 26 of the World Series championships since 1923. The next best team, the St Louis Cardinals, have won 10 championships and their recent rivals, the Boston Red Sox, have won a mere two.
Matthews is wrong to say that ‘no one could have imagined’ the Yankees’ latest spending spree. Signing all three players may not have been entirely foreseen, but it’s easily understandable why it happened. A number of high-paid players came off the team’s payroll this year, and even with their new signings, the Yankees are on target to have about the same payroll in 2009 as in 2008. The Yankees also thought about these moves carefully: for example, last year they could have traded young talent for another high-priced top pitcher, Johan Santana, but they held off and waited for Sabathia this year instead.
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Critics like to portray the Yankees’ spending as extravagant. But in fact it is an investment in their business. The Yankees will be opening a new stadium in April 2009 and, particularly in this dire economic environment, they need to put a competitive team on the field if they are to fill all 50,000 seats. The new players can help the Yankees reach that objective; Sabathia and Teixeira are relatively young and among the best at their respective positions. (Burnett, however, is more questionable; he is clearly talented but has a history of being injury-prone.) From the fans’ point of view, you want your team to do everything they can to win, and the Yankees do that more than any other baseball team.
You could, like Yankees’ team president Randy Levine, conclude that the over-the-top criticism is just a case of ‘sour grapes’ (6). But there’s more to it than that. In fact, the reactions express a more and more common sentiment that, in the midst of today’s recession, we must be, or appear to be, miserable - anything else is bad form. Many seem to believe that we all have a moral duty to cut back and not enjoy life too much. And if we are fortunate enough still to have money, we shouldn’t flash it.
That is why this story crossed over from the sports pages to the op-ed columns and became such a hot talking point. The Yankees have come to serve as a general symbol of bad behaviour. The moralism around the recession is affecting other sports, too. For example, there’s a debate going on about whether expenditure on American football’s Super Bowl is too glitzy and wasteful.
While other baseball teams also spend millions of dollars, the Yankees have been the target of opprobrium because they are seen as flashing the cash with no sense of shame or guilt. Indeed, the attacks on the Yankees are very similar to the etiquette of inconspicuous consumption emerging today. For example, it was recently reported that many wealthy consumers of luxury brands are now asking for unmarked bags to disguise their expensive purchases (7). Many seem to believe that the recession gives us a moral obligation to feel and look grim and glum. As one commentator put it: ‘Bleak is chic. Hopeless is hot.’ (8)
Sure, the economy is in bad straits, but wallowing in misery is worse than useless – especially when it’s usually the reasonably well-off who are doing the moaning, and their complaints will do nothing for those who are at the sharp end of the downturn.
The Yankees don’t ‘owe it to New York to spend responsibly’. They owe New York a winning team! And the Yankees are hardly guaranteed to win. The team still has significant weaknesses: there is no one of worth in centerfield, the defence is suspect and the pitching staff has question marks. Last year the Tampa Bay Rays won the division with a bunch of young, no-name, exciting players and it’s theirs until the Yankees take it from them. And, personally, I wish the Yankees spent more money, not less – specifically on developing younger talent.
Yes, professional sports are intimately bound up with money. But that doesn’t mean sports can be discussed as on par with the economy, or that we should tone down our exuberance for sports, as the sanctimonious doom-and-gloom merchants would recommend. We should lighten up and stop trying to endow professional sports with more than what they are – a form of entertainment.
Given how hard it will be to deal with the current economic environment, we shouldn’t be denying ourselves some fun at the ballgames or other enjoyable things. In my case, the year will be more enjoyable the more I get to hear Yankees announcer John Sterling say ‘Ballgame over! Yankees win! Theeeeeee Yankees win!’
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.
(1) Yankes do harm to sports, Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 December 2008
(2) Recession-proof Yankees keep on spending millions, Associated Press, 23 December 2008
(3) Yankees treat themselves to another big present, Newsday, 24 December 2008
(4) Is baseball ruining America?, Guardian, 4 January 2008
(5) Yankees ensure 2003 pennant by signing every player in baseball the Onion, 5 February 2003
(6) Hal Steinbrenner: mind your own business, New York Daily News, 7 January 2008
(7) What rich people don’t want you to know about their spending, Daily Beast, 15 December 2008
(8) No country for upbeat films, Washington Post, 30 November 2008