Hair-gate: Yankees' follicle fiasco with Clint Frazier latest sign they just don't get it
- New York's front office is picking the wrong battles for the wrong reasons, and it may be contributing to the declining ticket sales just at a time when the franchise should be embracing changes.
Along with Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres and Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier is one of the key pieces of the Yankees' future. Acquired from the Indians in last July's Andrew Miller trade, the 22-year-old outfielder isn't just one of the top prospects in the game—Baseball Prospectus ranked him No. 16 this spring—but also one of the most instantly recognizable thanks to his long red hair. Or he was, at least. On Friday morning, his flowing locks were sheared because his hair had become "a distraction," according to Frazier, in light of the Yankees' archaic but longstanding policy against long hair and beards.
Frazier's follicles weren't even the first to make headlines among Yankees this week. On Tuesday, CC Sabathia started an exhibition game with a nascent beard; the team rules in question allow for neatly trimmed mustaches that aren't supposed to go below the lip (apparently Goose Gossage and Thurman Munson didn't get the memo back in the day). Manager Joe Girardi claimed not to have noticed, telling reporters, "I don't stare at him that close.... If I see it as a problem or someone calls me and says that it's a problem, I'll let him know." The veteran Sabathia has more leeway than the rookie Frazier, who's almost certainly ticketed for Triple A anyway to start the year, but there's no relationship between a player's hair length and his performance. Bryce Harper and Clayton Kershaw are among those who have won major awards while sporting beards that would run afoul of the Yankees' dumb and outdated policy, and Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom pitched the Mets into the World Series in 2015 without being hindered by their long, flowing manes.
The larger point is the heavy-handedness and tone-deafness of the Yankees' brass, particularly at a time when the team is in transition and decidedly short on star power. New York hasn't won a postseason game since 2012, and every roster link to that team is gone save for Sabathia, outfielder Brett Gardner and pitcher Adam Warren, the latter of whom appeared in just one game that year. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have retired, and the team is currently in rebuilding mode. Having traded away Miller and Carlos Beltran at last year's deadline, the Yankees' lone remaining 2016 All-Star is reliever Dellin Betances, who became another target in the front office's ongoing nonsense. After losing his arbitration case last month, Betances was subjected to a blistering media attack by club president Randy Levine (a man whose hairstyle, incidentally, is apparently modeled on The Simpsons' "Mattingly! Shave those sideburns!" joke from 25 years ago). Levine not only ripped Betances and his agent for "over-reaching" financially (the 28-year-old got a $3 million salary instead of a $5 million one) but also blamed him for the team's attendance decline in 2016. Yes, really.
Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, meanwhile, put his foot in his mouth in early February when he suggested that fans "forget" Aroldis Chapman's domestic violence case, which resulted in a 30-game suspension to start the 2016 season. Steinbrenner quickly backtracked to claim that he meant "forgive" instead of "forget," but even there he's missed the point: At a time when baseball has rightly become increasingly sensitive to the issue of domestic abuse, a significant segment of the team's fan base will never embrace Chapman. His behavior aside, Steinbrenner lavished a record-setting five-year, $85 million contract on the hard-throwing closer this past off-season, a curious move given the club's retooling; overpaying a closer is something no rebuilding or cost-cutting team—the Yankees are both—needs to do, particularly one with an inexpensive in-house alternative (Betances) at the ready. Closers aren’t gate attractions; you can’t buy a ticket just for the ninth inning.
Steinbrenner isn't entirely clueless about fan sentiment when it comes to the Yankees; he admitted last August that the team's decision to sell at the trade deadline—something the franchise hadn't done in almost three decades—was cued in part by the pulse of social media, where fans expressed a greater eagerness to see what the next generation of prospects could do rather than watch another mediocre team chase the long odds of a playoff spot. As it was, New York drew raves for its haul in prospects (including Torres, acquired from the Cubs for Chapman, and Frazier) and still managed to stick around the fringes of the AL wild-card race until mid-September.
The Yankees would do well to keep their finger on that fan pulse. The franchise may be the sport's most valuable, but attendance has fallen in five of the past six seasons and is down 23% since 2010, when in the afterglow of their most recent championship, they drew 3,765,807 fans. Last year, the Yankees drew 3,063,405 fans, which was good for second in the AL and about 274,000 more than the crosstown Mets, but still a significant decline. The attendance issues have as much to do with the charmlessness of the new Yankee Stadium and the overall fan experience there; in the past two years, the team has been ranked among the majors' bottom half in that category, according to Buzzfeed (19th), CSN Mid-Atlantic (20th), Stadium Journey (29th), Thrillist (29th) and USA Today (25th), with the Chicago Tribune (10th) the only known outlier. But it's not just the cost of tickets and amenities, though Fortune placed the cost of attending a game at Yankee Stadium as the third-most expensive in the majors in 2016; it's the quality. Things have improved a bit since the Washington Post ranked the team's craft beer selection dead last in 2014, but Yankee Stadium's catering to the corporate class—in those largely empty Legends Seats which are separated from the rest of the ballpark by an unmistakable concrete moat—is all too obvious.
Consider last year's flap regarding the secondary ticket market. In February, the Yankees prohibited print-at-home tickets and went to war against StubHub, where tickets can be sold for as much or as little as the seller asks, instead of their own Ticketmaster-driven Yankees Ticket Exchange. The situation was eventually resolved in June, but not before chief operating officer Lonn Trost explained that fans purchasing premium tickets at face value were "frustrated" by sitting next to those who had scooped them up at a discount.
The Yankees clearly don’t need any advice about to how to make money, and they’re not too far off from fielding a contending team. But it’s already clear that their dollars don’t guarantee championships—quite the opposite, when the team loses draft picks and ties up its roster in aging, expensive and increasingly ineffective players. At a time when the entire industry is fretting over its inability to market its biggest stars at a level comparable to the NBA and the NFL, forward thinking is welcome. Its highest-profile franchise shouldn’t be cultivating Jeter’s blandness or Mickey Mantle’s crew cut as a template for the future, and it shouldn’t be going to war with its own players or its fan base. Treat the players like adults and respect the paying customer. It’s not too much to ask—most of the other 29 teams can do it.