Do Yankees Still Want to be THE Yankees?

Was I the only one who laughed when the New York Yankees — they of the pinstripes, the mystique, the legends, the monuments, the 27 World Series championships, the $1,300 ticket price behind home plate — gave away 18,000 Charlie Brown bobblehead dolls last week?

Charlie Brown is a loser. And the Yankees, unworthy of the postseason for only the second time in 19 years, now are losers. If it was an attempt at comic relief, all I know is that this franchise has been compared to the longest-running plays on Broadway, as well as the greatest museums and iconic restaurants in New York, and that any acknowledgment of failure should be followed quickly by a mission statement.

But we’ve yet to hear one from Son of George, principal owner and managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner. The only stated goal is a budgetary item that Hal’s father would have mocked and ridiculed: getting under Major League Baseball’s $189-million payroll ceiling that will allow the Yankees to avoid large luxury tax payments, such as the record $29.1 million they’ll pay this season. Before George Steinbrenner’s death, the Yankee Way was to spend limitless amounts for any available star player or pitcher the franchise wanted, regardless of age or wear and tear. But the continuing high-efficiency, low-expenditure success of the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s — both reaching the final five of the American League playoffs with payrolls less than one-third of the Yankees’ all-for-naught $236.1 million — have Son of George thinking his father’s way no longer makes business sense.

Roll over, Boss.

Of course, management has said nothing about reducing enormous ticket prices in the hulking, luxurious Yankee Stadium, where marquee attractions are needed to fill seats that have gone increasingly empty in the four seasons since the team last won a World Series. And when you do the tally, that’s the only championship the Yankees have won since 2000, when they were completing a four-titles-in-five-years dynasty that now is ancient history. By their standards, they’re potentially in a rut similar to that of the 18 years between 1996 and their 1977-78 back-to-back titles, and the 15 years before that dating to their 1961-62 back-to-backs. Are we being too demanding? No, we’re just reflecting their self-expectations.

So, if the Yankees still want to be THE Yankees, they’ll need a very effective master plan in what represents their most important and defining offseason in eons. Mariano Rivera is gone, off to immortality. Andy Pettitte is gone, short of the Hall of Fame only because of a steroids blip. Derek Jeter remains only because of pride and stubborness. Alex Rodriguez, a creaky and sad shadow of his former self, is at war with the front office and Major League Baseball over his 211-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, an appeal that is being heard starting this week. C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira are breaking down. Hiroki Kuroda and Curtis Granderson seem destined for elsewhere. Several of their younger pitchers flat out stink. And their best player, Robinson Cano, wants by far the richest contract in U.S. sports history — $305 million — as the first high-profile client of the fledgling agent, Jay-Z, who announced his arrival in the sports industry with this recent rap lyric: “Scott Boras, you over baby/Robinson Cano, you coming with me.” Seems he wrote it without knowing baseball’s winter meetings are set for Dec. 9-12 in Florida, the same week Jay-Z has California tour dates in Los Angeles, Fresno and San Jose.

There is a fair chance the Yankees won’t meet Cano’s asking price, knowing $305 million is an absurd price for a quality hitter who doesn’t have the accompanying charisma to sell tickets and turns 31 this month. Signing Cano without a second thought is something The Old Boss would have done. The New Boss? “Nobody is a re-sign at any cost,” Yankees president Randy Levine told Bloomberg News, inviting the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers and other suitors to take a crack at the leading free-agent-to-be.

Cano doesn’t sound anxious to leave. But with Jay-Z as his agent, he’ll have to take the best financial deal. And he doesn’t sound certain that management will pull out all the usual stops to win. “This is a team that has always had a lot of superstars, future Hall of Famers, guys like Jeter and A-Rod,” he told the media. “They always find a way to get guys to get this team to win. They know what it takes and they always get the right pieces to make this team win … I haven’t sat down to ask what’s going to happen here, what’s not going to happen here, because I just want to wait for the time to come and think about it.”

If the Yankees lose Cano, their starpower dims to its lowest wattage in memory. Even if Jeter returns at his $9.5-million player option, he’ll be 40 next June and coming off a broken-down season when he looked close to retirement. The players who remain with 2014 guaranteed contracts are Teixeira, Sabathia, Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells. If they were forming an old-timers’ softball team, the Yankees would be OK next season. Otherwise, things look bleak at the moment.

Here is where Brian Cashman, the world-weary general manager, has to work with his bosses and try to recreate a contending product. Notice how the rival Boston Red Sox have returned to World Series contention by dividing their free-agent pie into several smart acquisitions — including Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew and the biggest steal, lockdown closer Koji Uehara — and then adding Jake Peavy in a trade-deadline deal. Thinking this way might cause the Yankees to break out in hives, but they’ll have no choice if the front-office mandate is to emphasize cost-efficiency over outbidding the competition. There are free agents out there — Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Brian McCann, Matt Garza and Tim Lincecum among them — but few are monumental difference-makers. With the sport overflowing with money these days, more teams are signing their best players to long-term deals. And the other tried-and-true route — player development — is not an organizational strength these days. Cano’s people have the leverage here.

If he leaves, what name sells the product moving forward?

The club can do itself a big public-relations and feel-goof favor by at least re-signing the manager. Joe Girardi, too, can leave if he likes. And there happens to be an opening with a team near to his heart and Illinois hometown. The Chicago Cubs, who fired manager Dale Sveum, would love to have Girardi and appease disgruntled fans tired of Theo Epstein’s youth movement after 105 years without a World Series title. The Washington Nationals also would pursue Girardi, with the promise of young stars such as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.

But Girardi has been dropping hints that he doesn’t want to leave. Most important to him and his wife and his children — ages 14, 11 and 7 — who are happy growing up in Westchester County. “Our home has been here,” Girardi told the media. “My kids are engrossed in schools here. We haven’t (lived in) Chicago since 2006. The only person who’s really there, my brother’s still there, a couple brothers are there, (but) my father’s gone, my mother’s gone. There’s not as much there as there used to be.”

It’s possible Girardi either will stay with the Yankees or not manage any team, perhaps taking a breather as a team broadcaster. He’ll make the decision with his family. “I’m not gone as much (as a broadcaster), that’s for sure,” he said. “It comes down to family. They are first. Whatever is best for the group of us, not one individual, not me or just my wife or one of our children. Whatever is best for us as a group is what we’ll decide to do. I have a wonderful wife who’s been supportive since day one, since we met in college and was my biggest fan then and still is my biggest fan. I have three kids whose lives are precious and extremely important to me and I gotta make sure that everyone’s taken care of.

“You’re away a lot and miss a lot of things. But there are a lot of good things that go into it, too. They understand that and I understand that, but there’s things that you miss that you kinda wish you could be there at times. I know my daughter is excited for me to see her cheer, and I’m excited to see that. She’s talked about that, and that’s important. My youngest has talked about me coming to watch a soccer game. They all want me around. I’ll start helping coach my son’s football team, and I’m involved. It’s obviously hard, but they also, during this six-year time period, have liked what I do. So they understand that there’s a tradeoff. It depends what everyone wants. If I wasn’t to manage next year, I don’t think that would be the last time I would manage.”

Cashman says he wants his manager back, but Girardi wants to make sure the ballclub will remain championship-competitive. The last thing anyone wants to do is manage the New York Yankees if they’re losing. That would be daily torture. “I think the primary goal us to win,” Girardi said. “I think the competitiveness is here on a daily basis and a yearly basis. There’s expectations no matter what, which I’ve always had, too. There’s definitely a match there.

“There’s no challenge that really scares me, that I would ever shy away from.”

The Yankees as anything but the Yankees, as we’ve known them, would not be good for baseball or sport. Signing Cano for $305 million is not sensible, but given the demands of their tradition and pedigree, they may have no choice. For now, they need to re-up Girardi and spend, spend, spend on players. Somewhere, a man with a loud, gruff voice is barking at his sons that the New York Yankees are not the Tampa Bay Rays.