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Brand Management, Yankee Style

Because it’s well known that I am a Red Sox fanatic and own not one, but two, Yankee Hater hats (full disclosure of my biases), one of our folks forwarded me David Kiley’s piece in BusinessWeek entitled "Steinbrenner: A study in how Not to Build a Personal Brand."  One of Kiley’s frustrations was Steinbrenner’s refusal to talk directly to the media, preferring instead to go through his publicist with statements.  That didn’t concern me, as it is known he hasn’t been well and he may even be getting medical advice not to engage directly with the media.  But Kiley also referenced Steinbrenner’s statement, through his publicist, that declared manager Joe Torre would be let go if the Yankees didn’t beat the Cleveland Indians in the division series. 

All of us here in Boston know how that one turned out, as we’re now facing the Indians.  Lots of us have been frustrated – more than frustrated – by some of the decisions made by our team’s manager and general manager in the ALCS, where our backs are to the wall for the next two games.  We could not imagine our front office management coming out with a statement like Steinbrenner’s in the middle of this tough series.  It would not be a smart communications move and certainly wouldn’t motivate the team to produce.

The follow-up to all of this is a study in communications blunders, in my humble opinion.    After days of silence regarding Torre’s fate, he was all over the news yesterday.  During a three hour weather delay at an airport, I had plenty of time to watch the news break about Torre turning down the one-year contract he was finally offered, and then swirl out of control.  There were stats about Torre’s success as Yankees manager.  There was video footage of him that demonstrated his great relationship with players whose contracts are now up.  None of the coverage was positive for the Yankees management or the Yankees brand.

Phil Rogers summed it up nicely in Chicagosports.com with his article, “Cold Yankees look bad in Torre fiasco”.  He said the insulting low-ball offer to the respected manager will haunt the team in the long run

Offering the highly respected, highly successful Joe Torre only a one-year contract extension, at a pay cut of almost 30 percent at that, after he took his team to the playoffs for the 12th year in a row was a gutless way to get rid of him.

Yes, Torre turned down a chance to remain with the Yankees for $5 million plus incentives. But leaving him twisting in the wind for 10 days, after stirring the pot with a provocative George Steinbrenner quote that prompted reporters essentially to camp on his lawn, was the passive-aggressive way of making a decision.

Now Torre himself has spoken, in a news conference covered by Bloomberg:

Joe Torre said he was insulted when he rejected a one-year contract offer loaded with performance bonuses to keep managing the New York Yankees.

He said the package, with a base salary of $5 million, would have put too much pressure on himself and his players.

Torre told a news conference today that the offer emphasized future performance after he had led the Yankees to the Major League Baseball playoffs in all 12 years as manager, including four World Series championships.

"I'd been there 12 years and did not feel motivation was needed,'' Torre, 67, said at Rye, New York. "I didn't think it was the right thing for me or the right thing for my players.''

The Yankee organization is looking even worse.  And Brian Cashman had to admit he is now starting to look for a replacement.  I guess there was not a Plan B during that long period of indecision about Torre.  So as they interview people or get turned down, the story will continue to swirl.  And when Torre accepts another assignment, the whole thing will be rehashed again.  And when the players who are becoming free agents refuse to sign up because of his departure, the Yankees brand will take it on the chin again.

Does the Yankee organization really think this was a smart move heading into 2008, the last year of the current Yankee Stadium that will see the Bronx icon hosting the All Star Game?  We Red Sox fans had to deal with the Curse of the Bambino until we finally won the World Series in 2004 (after soundly beating the Yankees in the ALCS, by the way – perhaps the start of management’s disenchantment with Torre).  It seems to me that the ghost of Joe Torre and this very disrespectful way of dealing with a long-time, highly revered (even by some of us in Red Sox Nation) baseball manager and player will haunt the Yankees for many years.  As a Red Sox fan, I love the disruption it may cause our foes, although I'll miss hearing Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" as Torre makes his slow walk to the mound to yank (pun intended) one of his pitchers.  As a communications professional, I can only ask:  "what the heck were they thinking?"

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