TAMPA — Brian Cashman was leaning against the wall of the very room where, 27 years ago, he attended a March meeting that changed the course of Yankees history. George Steinbrenner had called for the summit in Joe Torre’s office to protest the plan to make struggling rookie Derek Jeter the starting shortstop.
Steinbrenner had one of his lieutenants, Clyde King, in the room to declare that Jeter wasn’t ready for the gig, effectively notarizing a potential trade with Seattle for journeyman Felix Fermin in exchange for either Mariano Rivera or fellow reliever Bob Wickman. King failed to make his case in a spirited back-and-forth highlighted by longtime executive Gene Michael’s reminder to the Boss that they’d already agreed to give Jeter until midsummer before passing any judgment.
“It felt like such a pressurized situation,” Cashman recalled Sunday, rewinding the memories as he rapped his knuckles against the wall of the meeting site. “You had a very unhappy owner challenging our game plan. We had to stand strong and push back, and the rest is history.”
History for Jeter, who would lead the 1996 Yankees to his first of five World Series titles before becoming a near-unanimous Hall of Famer.
Yankees GM Brian CashmanCharles Wenzelberg / New York Post
History for Rivera, who would become the only unanimous Hall of Famer.
And history for the 28-year-old assistant GM Cashman, who earned enough of Steinbrenner’s respect with his opinions — and his fearlessness in expressing them — to land the top job 25 years ago last month, at age 30. Cashman told the Boss he was ready to replace the departed Bob Watson, and asked for a one-year handshake deal.
Fittingly enough, Cashman is now starting his second quarter century on the job with one of those meetings that could be a franchise-shaper. Anthony Volpe versus Oswald Peraza for the varsity shortstop job has the feel of one of those old-school New York quarterback controversies — Simms versus Hostetler, anyone? — and that contest will be the main event when Yankee decisionmakers gather in the next couple of days to begin making a series of tough calls.
And the only figure scheduled to be in the room who was also there for the last great shortstop debate is the longest-tenured GM in Yankees history, Cashman, who wants people to express their true feelings on Volpe-Peraza, the bullpen, left field and center field.
“We’ve already started the process with an email blast to individuals,” Cashman told The Post, “to get their feedback so no one gets biased by some stronger, higher-level, very-respected person giving an opinion [in the meeting] which could affect somebody else’s opinion. …So I’ve got all those collected and then we’ll be able to talk as a group.”
That’s a smart move by a man who has made enough of them to possibly land someday in the Hall of Fame. Cashman has won five rings, four as GM, and has put 21 of his 25 teams in the postseason, a hell of a résumé for an executive who has faced relentless criticism over a championship “drought” that stands at 13 seasons and counting.
Cashman said he’s figured out how to handle the social media heat. “I don’t look at it,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of time and discipline [to stop looking at it], so now I don’t. It’s gotten so toxic.”
The GM does concede that he deserves some of the criticism, as in the case of the disastrous Frankie Montas deal. “You can’t sugarcoat it —the Montas trade didn’t work out,” he said. “We didn’t get a healthy pitcher, and that’s ultimately my responsibility.”
But for every bad move Cashman has made, he’s countered with multiple decisions that have kept the Yankees a playoff team virtually every year. During the nerve-racking offseason pursuit of Aaron Judge, Cashman was the one who compelled Hal Steinbrenner to become more engaged than he’s ever been in free agency, an essential piece of the Yankees’ successful strategy.
Oswald PerazaUSA TODAY Sports
“I knew Judge was going to be recruited by our counterpart owners,” Cashman said. “I didn’t want to make a strategic mistake if he went elsewhere and have him say, ‘I never even talked to our owner.’ So I told Hal, ‘We’re going to have to cover all our bases here. You’re going to have to be heavily involved with this and have direct conversations with the player.’”
Judge will have plenty of chances to win it all during his nine-year term. At 55, Cashman wasn’t ready to say that such a drought-busting title would move him any closer to retirement or to thinking about becoming the fifth GM ever inducted in Cooperstown.
“It’s all about the present now,” Cashman said. “Those past rings aren’t going to help me win a new ring. What’s going to help me win a new ring is who I’m working with and the players we’ve got now.”
Two of those players, Peraza and Volpe, are vying for one very high-profile job. Cashman maintained that the pending ruling at shortstop might not be permanent, but then again, Jeter barely won the job as a rookie and kept it for two decades.
Either way, as the meetings commence, it’s a good thing for the New York Yankees that Brian Cashman will be back in the room.