Q&A: Levine addresses several issues facing Yanks
NEW YORK -- There are 15 games to go in another season for the New York Yankees, and questions abound as they look to win their 28th World Series.In the post-George Steinbrenner era, there's tranquility around a franchise that wasn't evident when "The Boss" roamed the premises across 161st Street at the old Yankee Stadium. One can only imagine the reaction from Steinbrenner if he was still alive to watch his Yankees lose a 10-game lead as they did this season. But those days are long gone. The club is run by Hal Steinbrenner, the younger son, who is the principal owner. Randy Levine is the club president who oversees operations on a day-to-day basis. Levine was Major League Baseball's last head of the Player Relations Committee and helped the sport emerge from the 1994 strike. As a Deputy Mayor in the Rudy Giuliani administration, Levine built a strong political power base in New York City. In 2000, Levine took that knowledge to the Bronx and was instrumental in the funding and construction of the new Yankee Stadium. He has been there ever since. On Sunday, as the Yankees were defeating the Rays, 6-4, Levine sat down with MLB.com to discuss a wide range of issues involving the franchise. MLB.com: What's your assessment of the club as we head into the final weeks of the season? Levine: As we stand today, we're in first place. So that's very positive. It's exciting that we'll have Andy Pettitte coming back on Tuesday. That [Ivan] Nova came back and pitched so well. Hopefully Mark Teixeira will come back soon. There's the prospect of us getting healthy and at full strength. I feel good that we have a chance to control our own destiny and win. MLB.com: Is it better to have to play tough games down the stretch to win a playoff spot rather than skate in? Levine: There's something to that. I think it's a very good thing to get accustomed to the grind that you need in the playoffs. It's hard when you come gliding in. It's happened to us sometimes. It has been hard to turn it back up a notch. If there's an upside to losing a big lead, then that's it. MLB.com: Do you like this new Wild Card set-up? Levine: I think it's real exciting. I think the Commissioner, the union and all the clubs deserve a lot of credit. We're into mid-September, and there are so many teams and so many cities where hope is alive. It's been great. MLB.com: You alluded to the big lead. The Yankees had a 10-game lead on July 18. Is it disappointing to have watched it disappear? Or was it illusionary anyway? Levine: Well, it was a 10-game lead, so it was real. And it's always nice to have a big lead, but if you would've said to me before the season started that we could just wind to Sept. 16 without playing any games and we'd be in first place with a one-game lead, I think I would have taken that. So we are where we are. We have a lot of confidence in this team to finish strong and win the American League East. And I believe in these guys. MLB.com: Considering all the injuries that you've had, how do you think the team has performed under those circumstances? Levine: A lot of teams have had an incredible amount of injuries. We've had an enormous amount of injuries. For them to maintain remaining in first place, they all deserve a lot of credit. These guys have dug deep. It just seems that the level of injuries throughout baseball and to really good players this year is extraordinarily high. These guys have fought through it. Now they have another couple of weeks to bring it home. MLB.com: Are the injuries something you're globally concerned about? Levine: Yes. It's unbelievable. At the Owners' Meetings, we get a presentation about the number of players on the disabled list and how much that costs in days and dollars. I mean, it's troubling. These guys are in shape. It's their sport. But hopefully we can find a way to limit these injuries. MLB.com: Is there anything that can be done on a team level to limit them? Levine: You've just got to put your faith in your training staff and your medical staff. With players who have a little age on them, you have to be cautious. MLB.com: This ballclub is older. Do you think that's something you need to correct as you move forward? Levine: That's what Hal and Brian Cashman have always said: we have to get younger. As players age and get toward the end of their careers, you need to find that real balance of exciting young players and veterans. I think we have some great young players. Nova. David Phelps has been terrific; unfortunately, he's been hurt this year. But Brett Gardner has been really good. Eduardo Nunez. We have a lot of good young players. We just have to develop more of them. All those players we have produced out of our Minor League system. As the game goes forward, some of the changes that have been made in the new Basic Agreement affecting the Draft and free agency are going to put more and more onus on developing your own players. I think you're going to see a very different free-agent market. MLB.com: There's been some talk about the Yankees trying to duck under the competitive balance tax threshold rather than continue to pay a 40 percent tax on every dollar spent over that threshold. Next year, it's $178 million again. In 2014, it jumps to $189 million. How realistic is that? Levine: We're going to try and get under the $189 million threshold. We think we can have a great team and do it. The reason it makes sense is that under the new Basic Agreement, there are tremendous financial incentives to do it. In addition to not paying the tax, there are tens of millions of dollars in revenue sharing rebates that will come back to teams like the Yankees if they stay under the threshold. I'm talking about 2014 when the threshold goes to $189 million. Next year's threshold, we don't have a chance of achieving. MLB.com: So what do you think of the job manager Joe Girardi and his staff have done this year? Levine: They have us in first place on Sept. 16. That means they're doing a good job. MLB.com: It's hard to project, but how long would you like to have Girardi in place as the manager? You had Joe Torre here for 12 years before him. Levine: Right now, Joe Girardi is under contract. He's our manager. This is no good or bad inference. That's a hypothetical. Right now, he's our manager, and that's something that Hal and Cash and everybody will weigh in on a year from now at the appropriate time. But right now, he's doing a good job. MLB.com: And your front-office staff -- Cashman -- you're happy with the direction the organization is taking? Levine: I think everybody is great. Hal has done a phenomenal job leading this organization. He's been great. The organization, from a business side, is doing very, very well. From the baseball side, we continue to win. I think everybody has done a really good job. MLB.com: It's hard to believe that it's four years in the new Yankee Stadium already. How do you access the impact it has had on the financial success of the franchise and the branding of the Yankees? Levine: First off, I think it's lived up to all the expectations as a great place to play baseball. We've fulfilled what our goal was, and that was to maintain this building in the great tradition of Yankee Stadium. I think that's happened. Second, we've continued the winning Yankee tradition. We've won the  World Series. In the first three years, we went to the AL Championship Series twice and to the playoffs all three times. The fans have come out. As of today, the last I looked, we were leading the AL in attendance. That's all been great. Third, we've also wanted to build this ballpark to stage other events besides baseball. It's such a beautiful ballpark, it should be used all year. We've had college football games. We've had the Pinstripe Bowl, which people think has become a great success. We've had world class soccer here. We've had great concerts: Paul McCartney, Madonna. So we've managed to use the ballpark. And fourth, we promised that it would help change the community, and it has. You look outside at the parks, the ball fields where the old stadium stood, how kids are using the facilities. It's totally re-energized this entire area. So I think it's met all our needs. MLB.com: Do you place a value on the Yankees these days? Levine: It's hard to place a value on what we're worth, but the fact that the Dodgers went for $2.1 billion gives us something to smile about. MLB.com: How much higher do you value the Yankees? Does it double? Where does it go? Levine: I'm not going to speculate. There's absolutely no intention of the Steinbrenner family to sell the club, so it doesn't really matter. MLB.com: Since you brought it up, a story was floated in the wake of the Dodgers sale that the Steinbrenners were exploring selling the franchise. Where did that come from? Levine: It was a fictional story. The people who wrote it were told it was fictional. We know where it came from. It came from a sleazy investment banker who was trying to gin up business for himself. We let him know that we were not happy about it. MLB.com: Hal has said in the past in no uncertain terms that the team is not for sale. Now you've said it again. How many times do you have to say it before people believe you? Levine: It's like a lot of things in this town. People say a lot of things, they have other agendas like selling newspapers or trying to create controversy for their own benefit. That happens all the time. But there's no truth to that story. You just saw another fictional story the other day that the Red Sox are for sale. This stuff happens. MLB.com: Getting down to what you guys are going to do in the offseason, there's been talk about Mariano Rivera coming back. Where does that stand? Levine: Well, Mariano Rivera is one of the greatest Yankees of all time. He said he'd like to come back. Obviously, we'd love to have him come back. All those offseason discussions and specifics will wait until the offseason. But if he wants to come back, we'll welcome him back. MLB.com: And you'll work out some sort of financial terms that he'll be comfortable with? Levine: Yes. MLB.com: And what happens to Rafael Soriano in that picture after the job he has done filling in? Levine: Rafi has done a great job. I personally have a very good relationship with him. These are all issues to be discussed. We think he's done a tremendous job. We want him to be here. MLB.com: Similarly, Pettitte said that he is considering coming back after missing two months with a broken left ankle. Where do you stand on him? Levine: It's like Mariano Rivera. Let him get healthy. Let him pitch. And then we'll sit down and talk to him in the offseason. But Andy Pettitte is a great Yankee. As you saw earlier this year, when he said he wanted to come back, now he's back. MLB.com: What do think of the job Derek Jeter has done this year? Levine: Unbelievable. He is clearly one of the greatest Yankees of all time. He is remarkable every single day. He does something that impresses you even more than the day before. He's the captain of the Yankees and he plays like it every day. He toughs it out and plays hurt, as he's doing right now. He just exemplifies the Yankee spirit. He exemplifies being a great player and being a winner in everything he does. MLB.com: Finally, Ichiro Suzuki. Does he fit in next year? Levine: I think Ichiro has done a good job over here. It's quite a credit to him the way he's fit in over here. It's quite a different situation than it was for him in Seattle. He was the guy in Seattle. Here he's one of 25 guys. He's filled that role. He's been wonderful. No complaints. Again, all of these issues as to what happens next year ... right now, we're only focused on this year.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.