Clock ticking for old-time New York Yankees

Baseball's great club enters a new season on Sunday with doubts over its creaking superstars and a new emphasis on cutting costs

How old is too old in baseball? Or to put the question another way, is the game finally up for the elderly and ailing New York Yankees?

Sunday is Opening Day, that most evocative and promise-laden date in America's sporting calendar, but the Yankees' spring training headquarters in Tampa, Florida last week resembled an infirmary for veteran superstars.

Derek Jeter, leader of the team, owner of five World Series rings and a sports marketers' dream, is pushing 39 and coming off major ankle surgery. Mariano Rivera, fellow member of the Yankee dynasty that won four championships between 1996 and 2000 alone, and arguably the most dominant relief pitcher in history, is 43 and embarking on his 19th and final year in pinstripes. Alex Rodriguez – A-Rod – as controversial as he is talented, will be 38 this summer and is set to miss the first half of the season at least after hip surgery.

And the list goes on. Pitcher Andy Pettitte, the third survivor from the glory days, is 40, while fellow starter Hiroki Kuroda is 38. Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is 39. Making matters worse, slugger Mark Teixeira, a mere stripling at 32, is probably out until June with a wrist injury, while Curtis Granderson, also 32, baseball's top home run hitter over the last two seasons, has broken his arm.

Now baseball does not put the premium on youth as some other sports; very rarely does a teenager break into the majors, and most players peak around 30 (unless you're Jamie Moyer, who last year won a couple of games for the Colorado Rockies as a starter, at the record-setting age of 49.) But the 2013 Yankees are pushing the envelope.

There is of course a sympathy case for letting the Yankee old-timers soldier on. With 3,304 hits, Jeter is already 10th on the all-time list and poised to move higher still. Rivera has a chance to extend his lead as baseball's all-time saves leader, and Rodriguez needs just 99 hits to become only the third player in baseball history with 600 homers and 3,000 hits.

But the cracks were already evident last season, even as New York were winning the American League East for the 12th time in 15 seasons. In the 2012 AL championship series they were swept 4-0 by the Detroit Tigers, as Jeter broke his left ankle and Rodriguez suffered the humiliation of being benched.

Yet little was done in the off-season. Under their former owner George Steinbrenner, the Yankees would have scooped the cream of the free agent market, buying half a team if neccessary. This time there were a few minor additions, but none of the marquee signings that have been an annual trademark for the team and which New York fans expect almost as a birthright.

That formula has kept the Yankees winners. Success may not have brought the team universal affection: for every Yankee lover there is a Yankee loather: "Rooting for the Yankees is like owning a yacht," the late sports writer Jimmy Cannon once wrote. But that's the way it's always been.

Rich and entitled, the Yankees sit on baseball's pinnacle, a blend of the two footballing halves of Manchester: with United's record and history (27 World Series wins, more than double their closest rival), and the limitless resources of City.

These latter, incidentally, stem not from an Abu Dhabi sheikh or Russian oligarch, but sitting astride the biggest media market in the country, exemplified by the YES television network, broadcaster of Yankee games that is valued at $3bn (£1.97m) and part owned by the franchise, which alone brings in $85m a year.

However the bombastic, tempestuous George, who lusted for success and terrorised managers with the ruthlessness of an Abramovich, died three years ago. The Yankees' managing partner now is his son Hal Steinbrenner, a cooler, more cerebral customer, and a good deal thriftier.

"You don't have to have a $200m payroll to be world champions," he told The New York Times last week, and it's hard to argue. San Francisco and St Louis, between them winners of four of the last seven World Series, got by on roughly half what the Yankees currently spend on players.

Given the aches and pains, it would be a miracle if the Yankees won it all in 2013. But the payroll is still $203m, weighed down by massive contracts for the elders – none more massive or disastrous than the $275m, 10-year deal, the richest in American team sports history, signed with Rodriguez in 2007 when he was already 32. Unless some bombshell new drug allegation against A-Rod sticks, the Yankees are on the hook for $114m for five more years – which, if the player's recent rate of decline continues, looks like money down the drain.

Such excesses, moreover, have made the Yankees liable to baseball's so-called "luxury tax", whereby teams pay a 50 per cent levy to Major League Baseball for every payroll dollar over a certain limit, currently $178m. In practice the tax – part of baseball's revenue sharing to reduce disparities between rich and poor teams – has applied almost exclusively to the Yankees, but Steinbrenner Snr flicked such inconveniences away much as a cow's tail despatches a a tiresome fly. Hal sees matters differently, and the economy drive is kicking in.

The Yankees will still have the highest payroll on Opening Day for the 15th straight year, but they only just climbed above the Los Angeles Dodgers with this week's acquisition of Vernon Wells. The Dodgers have closed the gap and have money to burn under a new ownership syndicate armed with a huge new TV deal. Hal has made it clear that in 2014, the Yankee payroll will come in under the new ceiling of $189m.

Of course, the Yankees, like Manchester United, are written off at one's peril. "Have faith in the Yankees, my son. Think of the great DiMaggio," the old fisherman and baseball devotee tells his apprentice in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. And maybe, somewhere in the Yankee universe, lurks a new young Joe D Failing that, however, this 2013 incarnation of the Bronx Bombers, creaking at the knees, could prove to be the Bronx bombs.

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