Yankees invest in future with China forays

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am

'Coming second is like kissing your sister.'

There, in one short sentence, lies the mindset that has driven the New York Yankees to 27 World Series titles and allowed the ball club to lay claim to the title of the planet's most recognised sporting franchise.

The words apparently come, often, from the mouth of the man who owns the Yankees, George Steinbrenner, and when 'The Boss' talks, people tend to listen.

Success in New York isn't hoped for, it's expected. And Randy Levine and Brian Cashman know that only too well.

As, respectively, the Yankees president and general manager, these are the guys who between them have in the past 12 months not only presented Steinbrenner with the sparkling new US$1.5 billion Yankee Stadium, they have delivered him a World Series title - and to the millions of Yankee fans across the globe.

That the Yankees had waited nine years to add that 27th World Series to their collection was for many an abomination, hence the pride - relief even - shines on the faces of Levine and Cashman as they talk about the past 12 months.

'As far as the Yankees go, a season with anything other than a World Series title is considered a failure,' says Cashman.

There is a certain level of performance that is demanded - again, expected - both of the back room and the playing staff in New York.

And it is timely to reflect on just that, given the John Terry affair and the shockwaves it has sent through the English media - and now the English soccer system itself.

'The word comes from the very top,' says Cashman. 'If you become a Yankee you have to act like a Yankee or there is no place for you.

'Having said that, there are certain things that go on in a person's personal life that have no relevance, even though because they are famous and because they are Yankees they are going to get covered and that can sell newspapers. But in reality it's not anybody's business. There has been that controversy over in the [English] soccer league but some of that stuff is really not anyone's business.'

Levine chimes in.

'Unless they get distracted and it hurts their performance,' he says. 'If some of our players want to go out at night and go to parties or do what they have to do, as long as they get to the office in good health and in good shape and they perform, it's OK.

'One of the greatest Yankees of all time, Mickey Mantle, was legendary for his nightlife but you know every time he came to the ball park, he was the most feared player in the league.'

In the end, it is all about the ball club and maintaining the level of achievement the Yankees have that is unequalled in all of professional sports.

Levine and Cashman travelled Asia over the past week - Tokyo, Beijing and then Hong Kong - taking the World Series trophy with them and extending the Yankees goodwill to the region and, of course, into China.

The Yankees have been making forays into the mainland for a number of years now, sending coaches and scouts over, supplying equipment and even signing up two Chinese players - pitcher Liu Kai and catcher Zhang Zhenwang - into their farm system in Florida.

Both those players have since returned home but the Yankees have now joined forces with QSL - the sports marketing company formed by Kenny Huang Jianhua, the Chinese businessman who recently bought into the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Hong Kong's Adrian Cheng Chi-kong of New World Development - in their efforts to promote not only the Yankees brand but the game of baseball itself.

'China will dictate the future of baseball,' says Cashman, simply. 'The development of the game is where our interest lies and QSL will direct how this happens, their main investment is in the youth of China. We will do whatever we can to help with the exposure [of the game], to help with teaching and help push their efforts in the direction that maybe someday a Chinese national will participate in a New York Yankees World Series.

'If we are to make [baseball] a truly world game we have to get China involved as well.'

Considering the public relations - and financial - disasters that have befallen China pro soccer and basketball leagues over the past decade, you might expect these people to be treading carefully - and they are the first to admit that things will take time. 'But what I think makes baseball different is the game of baseball,' says Levine. 'With the help of QSL and the support of the Chinese government, we are saying, hey, help us grow the game. And we are starting from the very bottom, it is long term.'

And of course the game has the Yankees success to build on.

'I walked around Beijing and you see people with Yankees caps on. You walk around Hong Kong and you see people with Yankees caps on,' says Levine. 'Of course the game will take off faster if we can get someone from China or Hong Kong who has got the talent to be in the major leagues. And the answer to why that will happen is simple - it's a great game.''

And the Yankees have been part of it since the very beginning. Cashman - the man responsible for putting the Yankees roster in place and the man whose every movement is dissected by an often-vicious New York media - says even on this trip he has fielded calls from agents hoping to shop their clients to the Yankees. It's all part of the game.

'It really never stops,' he says. 'The exposure on us is a blessing and a curse. People love the Yankees or they want to beat us.

'You understand it, it doesn't make it easy. But there is an old saying that goes, 'If you start listening to the fan you are going to be one real soon'. The best I can do is put the team in a position to win.'

The Yankees are looking to the future - to the 2010 season with a new-look roster that has already lost 2009 World Series MVP Hideki Matsui. A tough call to make considering the deal to bring Matsui to New York in 2003 is the one Cashman says he is most proud of through almost 25 years of wheeling and dealing.

'If you get too attached to players you won't be in a position to win,' he says. 'We have to make very difficult decisions with players who have helped us win championships - but we have to move on. You have to make the transitions to move on.

'Some of those moves will work and some won't but that is the job you have to do. And we have a system in place that I trust - I never act on gut instinct.'

Hence the time the Yankees are spending on building up their influence in China.

'It's my understanding that the people who play baseball in China now are very passionate about it,' says Cashman. 'It might be a very small group but as everybody knows in China a very small group might be 20 million so we have every reason to be excited by things.'