Randy Levine: President of the Bronx Bombers, Patron of IDF Soldiers (And Their Dogs)

The head of baseball’s hugely successful N.Y. Yankees – a.k.a “the Evil Empire” – supports Friends of the IDF and loves the elite 'Oketz' canine unit. He talks to Haaretz about Jews, baseball and winning.

Randy Levine, the 58 year old president of the New York Yankees, is a big fan of the IDF’s “super-dog” unit, known as Oketz. His wife, Mindy, is a renowned animal-rescue devotee, and serves as Levine’s liaison to the IDF’s canine reconnaissance unit. Last year, Levine hosted 30 Oketz commanders for dinner at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.

“I really admire them,” Levine says of both the soldiers and their dogs. “They’re very brave. I saw what they were doing, and I wanted to lend a hand.”

Levine, who has headed Yankees’ executive unit for the past 13 years, is volunteering to do some public relations work for Friends of the IDF (FIDF), the New York based fundraising operation that raises over $70 million a year to supports Israeli soldiers’ and their recreational facilities, in advance of their annual gala dinner at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel on Tuesday. Last year, he rented several suites at Yankee Stadium and hosted an FIDF fundraiser, which, he says, was doubly successful” because the Yankees also won.”

Levine receives me amidst the breathtaking views on the 43rd floor of the Bank of America Tower in midtown Manhattan, in the offices of Akin Gump, one of America’s top 20 law firms, in which he serves as senior counsel. Having been carefully coached by my wife’s cousin, Yuval Rosenberg, who, besides his job as Business and Economics editor at the Fiscal Times, is also an avid Yankees’ fan, my first order of business is the recent signing of Kevin Youkilis, the Jewish superstar who played for many years with the Yankee’s great rivals, the Boston Red Sox.
Youkilis’ upcoming Yankee Stadium debut has Jewish baseball fans in New York buzzing, but Levine carefully and diplomatically deflects assertions that this was a major factor in the Yankees’ decision to sign him.

“Youkilis is a great baseball player. He was with the Boston Red Sox and tortured us for many years. If he wasn’t a great player, he wouldn’t be here. We’ve had great Japanese players, like (outfielder) Hideki Matsui and (pitcher) Hiroki Koruda and we have many great Hispanic players. George Steinbrenner, the famous boss (known to most Israelis mostly by his back, as George Constanza’s employer on Seinfeld, CS) used to say – it doesn’t matter what race you are, what religion you are, what your height is – all you have to do is perform. That’s all that counts.”

Historically, the Yankees’ were always considered the “least Jewish” baseball team in New York, and some would even use less generous adjectives to describe the team’s attitude towards Jews and other minorities. In the first half of the 20th century, the New York Giants openly recruited Jewish ballplayers in order to attract Jewish support, while the scrappy Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940’s and 1950’s were the darlings of an up and coming Jewish community, especially after they became the first team to field an African-American player, Jackie Robinson, in the Major Leagues.

The Yankees, I tell Levine, were the uppity establishment types who kept their distance. “That was a long time ago,” he says. “The Dodgers have moved to Los Angeles, and they aren’t here anymore. The feelings are not the same. We’ve had great Jewish players, like slugger Ron Blomberg, who was the American League’s first designated hitter, though none were as great as Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax. There are few, if any, that were as great as Koufax.”

Today, Levine says, the Yankees “have more fans throughout the world than any other sports team, except perhaps for a few soccer teams. We have an eclectic fan base. We are everybody’s team. We have one of the best know brand names in the world.”

When I was in Beijing recently, he adds,” I went down to Tiananmen Square and saw a fan with a Yankees’ cap. When I am in Tel Aviv, I see many fans in Yankee caps. We have fans in Latin America, in Asia, all over the world. The Yankees are about winning, that’s what the appeal is. People just want to see a good product.”

But you’ve been plagued by injuries, I say knowledgeably, perhaps the fans should lower their expectations for this year?

“We never lower expectations. Our mandate is to win the World Series. We’ve had a lot of injuries, but we have great talent and we’re looking for more. That’s a great question for a fan because our fans are used to winning, and those are the standards they hold us to. But no one is more disappointed than us when we fail to win the World Series.”

The Yankees are the most successful team in baseball, I say, but also the most hated. Perhaps it’s the arrogance? “I wouldn’t call it arrogance. Mr Steinbrenner always said: you gotta play to win, and we will do whatever it takes –within the rules – to win the game. Since the early 1900’s, you either love the Yankees or hate the Yankees, but everybody knows about the Yankees.”

Is there still anti-Semitism in baseball today? “I doubt that very much,” Levine says. “The Commissioner (Bud Selig) is Jewish, many significant owners are Jewish, there are Jewish executives, managers and coaches and players, throughout the league. Like in all aspects of life, there are a few idiots here and there, but all in all I think Jews have integrated into the game for many years.”

Q. Have you ever encountered anti-Semitism?

A. In life, yes, but not as a baseball person.

Q. Don’t you get hate mail?

A. I get a lot of hate mail, but not because I’m Jewish. It’s because they think I’m stupid.

Levine is most identified with overseeing the construction of the new and often controversial, $1.5 billion Yankee stadium, which opened in 2009, as well as with the ensuing spike in Yankees’ attendance figures, with the establishment of the successful Yankees-centered YES television network and with the “globalization” of the Yankees brand name, especially in China and Japan. In a 2009 New York Times profile he was described as the “strongest voice of baseball’s wealthiest team”, which has recently been estimated to be worth $1.7 billion. “He is their executive-as-prosecutor, a tough, short-tempered and smart protector of the Steinbrenner family and the Yankees brand,” the Times said.

Levine does not dispute the assessment. “To build a project like Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, well, this is New York, and everybody has an opinion. Now it’s one of the most magnificent parts of the city.

Patience is a very important part of negotiations, and of my job, but if someone distorts the facts or does something that I believe is out of bounds, then yes, I am quick of temper.”

An attorney by profession, the Brooklyn-born Levine served in the U.S. Department of Justice during the Reagan Administration. After a few years in private practice, he was baseball’s chief labor negotiator. In 1997, he was appointed as Deputy Mayor of New York for Economic Development, during Rudi Giuliani’s term in office. In 2000, one year before 9/11, he left Giuliani and became president of the Yankees.

“I’m worried for Israel,” he says somberly at the end of our talk, “because of Iran. I worry that we’re not addressing the situation as well as it needs to be addressed. I’ve been a New Yorker for a long time. I lived through 9/11. I lost friends in 9/11. I was at the Justice Department, I know extremism, and I worry that people aren’t taking it seriously enough. I’ve seen it happen here, and if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”