Cashman’s skin toughened by New York

Here’s the first thing you need to know about whether Brian Cashman is sick of being Yankees general manager: The Giants’ Brian Sabean and A’s Billy Beane are the only GMs who have been with their clubs longer than Cashman has been with the Yankees.

Cashman, who started with the Yankees as an intern in 1986 and took over as GM in ’98, is a product of perhaps the most volatile work environment in American sports.

He is an operator, a fighter, a survivor.

Cashman didn’t leave after the 2005 season, when the dissent from the Yankees’ Tampa faction was at its peak; he persuaded the late George Steinbrenner to give him more power, full authority over baseball operations.

Cashman also didn’t leave after the ’08 season, amid mounting criticism when the Yankees failed to make the playoffs. “The story that’s going to be written, if I left, I didn’t agree with,” he said defiantly. “I wasn’t going to let that story be written.”

And now?

Does anyone seriously think that Cashman, whose contract expires at season’s end, intends to back down and bolt the only franchise he has ever known?

Cashman, in a 20-minute phone interview Thursday, said any differences with ownership are “not even close” to the difficulties he experienced during the bad old days of New York vs. Tampa.

Yes, he knows how good he has it running the world’s most famous franchise in the nation’s largest market with the game’s biggest payroll.

“This is a great place. This is perfect,” Cashman said. “Ownership is awesome. The fan base is dedicated. We’re sold out all the time. I’m not looking to do anything but be a part of something that gives us a chance to be successful not individually, but collectively.”

And yet, Cashman keeps making news.

He cannot be blamed for failing to land his No. 1 offseason target, free-agent lefty Cliff Lee; the Yankees offered Lee the most money, but the pitcher wanted to return to the Phillies.

Ownership, though, reacted by overruling Cashman on the signing of free-agent reliever Rafael Soriano — and the GM responded by publicly acknowledging his dissent. Cashman then triggered another media firestorm with a comment about Derek Jeter that was innocuous — and truthful — but unnecessary.

Even Cashman’s friends in the industry are wondering about his state of mind — “something is going on; he is not the same,” one said this week. But Cashman spoke to the big picture Thursday, not the recent media noise.

“The bottom line is, I’m charged with putting together a championship-caliber club,” Cashman said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got something pretty good here. We won the World Series in 2009. We missed by two games in 2010. (Outside publications) rank our farm system as one of the best in baseball.

“Tell me where we are screwing up on the baseball operations side. I need a starting pitcher, but is the future strong because we have a farm system acknowledged in the industry to be one of the best? Check. Am I getting our payroll down, as charged by ownership? Check. Do we have success on the field? Check.

“What’s the problem? Why are people bitching so much? That’s my question. That’s my frustration. The problem is people having patience with the process.”

Cashman, 43, is forever in a no-win position, even after winning four World Series as a GM. If the Yankees win, it’s because they spent the most money. If they lose, it’s because Cashman failed to spend the money wisely.

The perception extends even to his peers, who respect Cashman greatly, but never have voted him Executive of the Year. “The problem with that job,” one GM says, “is that winning isn’t an accomplishment, it’s a relief.”

And sometimes, not even that.

Cashman, standing on the field with his daughter, Grace, after the ’09 World Series, did not seem relieved. The look on his face was more like, “Oh my gosh, tomorrow I have to wake up and try to do this again.”

Yes, he plays with the most money. The flip side is, he also deals with the most media, the most attention, the most aggravation.

Why did Cashman confirm at Soriano’s introductory news conference that he did not recommend the signing? Because he had been on record saying that he would not forfeit a first-round pick for Soriano, and because others in the industry were saying privately that the move was not his idea.

What was he supposed to do, lie?

“There is no rift,” Cashman repeated Thursday. “Things happen in every company. People can agree to disagree.”

Cashman then used a telling analogy, explaining that co-owner Hal Steinbrenner is “flying at 10,000 feet,” mindful of every business and baseball aspect of the Yankees’ operation. Cashman, on the other hand, is at 3,500 feet, focused only on baseball.

In New York, where memories of “The Boss” remain vivid, the division between Cashman and ownership — even if it was over only one decision — generated plenty of tabloid and talk-show fodder. Ditto for Cashman’s remarks on Jeter, which came not at a news conference, but at a breakfast appearance with fans hosted by WFAN.

Cashman said that if Jeter doesn’t remain at shortstop for his entire four-year deal, he could see Jeter moving to center field, as opposed to a corner-infield position. Most GMs, including Cashman, usually refrain from answering hypothetical questions. Cashman answered one about the ultimate hot-button topic — Jeter’s future position.

Context often is lost in the age of Twitter, and when a fan in attendance, Amanda Rykoff, tweeted Cashman’s remarks, the outcry was predictable. Cashman did not say the team planned to move Jeter or was even considering it. But the damage was done.

When Cashman reconstructed the conversation again Thursday, he said, “That was not controversial. It was not Cashman saying, ‘Jeter won’t finish the contract at short. He has to move to center field.’ None of that.”

Those in the audience seemed to understand.

A blogger at theyankeeu.com who attended the breakfast took exception to the “utter garbage being spread around the MSM (mainstream media) about what (Cashman) did say and didn’t say.”

And Cashman said Rykoff, the original tweeter, approached him Wednesday night while he tended bar at Foley’s New York to help raise money for prostate cancer research.

“She couldn’t believe how they took what I said. She apologized to me,” Cashman said.

Cashman also said that reports that he called Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, to explain his comments were untrue; Close actually called him.

The point isn’t that Cashman should have known better than to address such a delicate topic in a public forum. No, the point is that his words are more closely parsed than those of most U.S. Senators. This uproar will fade, to be replaced by another and then another.

Cashman has dealt with it all for more than a dozen years now. Little of it fazes him. He developed thick skin growing up in the Yankees’ jungle. Thick skin and brass knuckles.

Leave? Someone will need to drag him out.