On Steinbrenner

I don’t know how to react to the news of George Steinbrenner’s death. As a child of the Eighties and a graduate of the Nineties, I remember most that he gave us Don Mattingly, the great 1995 playoff series with Seattle, the worthy 1996 championship, and the perfect year of 1998.

I remember less (because I was so young) the late Seventies’ championship. The 1980 to 1983 teams were the ones I remember most from my formative years — a 103-win season, a trip to the World Series in a strike-shortened year, an entirely lost and misguided campaign, and a third-place finish in a bizarre but impossible-to-look-away season with a July 4 no-hitter by Dave Righetti and the Pine-Tar Game in what was Billy Martin’s last full season as manager (though he came back for partial seasons twice more).

To root for the Yankees in those days was to root for chaos. Steinbrenner made it so, and I learned the worst sin a team could make, perhaps even worse than losing, was to be a boring team to follow.

He coveted certain stars on other teams too much, and was willing to spend to bring them in. Later examples included the execrable duo of Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, perhaps two of the greatest pitchers of all time, and two of the hardest pitchers to root for (to say the least). I couldn’t bring myself to cheer for those guys. The craziness and fun of the earlier Steinbrenner teams was one thing. The abject surliness and joylessness of these two was something else.

He gave us Reggie Jackson, who was not immediately beloved at the time, but then proved himself in his first year with the “Bronx is Burning” Yankees in the 1977 World Series.

He also gave A-Rod to the new breed of Yankee fans, and believe me, they deserve each other, this new breed of fan and the smarmy slugger. A-Rod spent years preening before finally delivering in the 2009 World Series, costing over 45 times more per year than Reggie (in average annual salary), but taking six times longer to deliver in the Series.

Steinbrenner’s is a complicated legacy. He had his own level of dignity, particularly in later years when his health failed him and he seemed more a kindly benevolent uncle than a looming malevolent force. There were dignified players to go with that aspect of his personality, even before it manifested itself in the last few years, players like Mattingly, Bernie Williams, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter. There were class acts who came in who had limited success but limitless grace, and they made the team classier by their presence and occasional deeds, like Catfish Hunter and Jim Abbott. He had his gritty warriors, too, like Lou Piniella, Paul O’Neil, Thurman Munson.

His early years brought out the sarcasm and humor in players like Graig Nettles and Sparky Lyle, two of my favorites. Much as gallows humor can be pervasive among soldiers sharing a foxhole, it seems to me now that wry observers like Nettles and Sparky might have used their world-weary cynicism to shield themselves and allow a level of detachment from the off-field antics created by Steinbrenner’s ownership.

Nettles once famously observed: “Some kids dream of joining the circus, others of becoming a major league baseball player. I have been doubly blessed. As a member of the New York Yankees, I have gotten to do both.”

But soldiers can hold the fort against wave after wave of a persistent force for only so long before being overwhelmed (or in Nettles’ and Lyle’s case, traded).

However, the damage in the Bronx came, after a time, not from the outside, but from within. After years of attention-grabbing headlines and firings and re-hirings of managers — dismissing Dick Howser after that 103-win season in 1980 and, through an emissary, the beloved Yogi Berra after only 16 games in 1985 — and years of bad trades and even worse free-agent signings, by the late Eighties, and perhaps sooner, the Big Top at the circus collapsed from the inside.

In the beginning, Steinbrenner brought us to four World Series in six years, winning two of them, the first in his fourth year of owning the franchise.

Then he brought us Melido Perez, Andy Hawkins, Pascual Perez, and, of course, Ed Whitson. He brought us teams under Dallas Green, Bucky Dent, and Stump Merrill.

He was suspended in the early Nineties, came back and, after firing Buck Showalter after the team lost in the 1995 playoffs, the fans began marching to the bombast he wrought. The fan attitude began to change after a few years of winning championships, especially after 1999 and 2000. To win it All still was the result of hard-earned work, crafting, sweat, dedication, and (in the back office) trading, signing, and scouting. But it also became something else: the expectation of a spoiled, petulant child. Those children became worse when they didn’t get their way, when someone else won the titles they came to expect (and demand) would always be theirs. And if the kid up the block had a bigger pony, then dammit, they wanted an even bigger one. Steinbrenner got what he wanted in more ways than one.

In a way, many of them became mini-Steinbrenners themselves, exaggerated and distorted in his image perhaps, but all because they tuned in so well to Steinbrenner’s message and took it dearly to heart. But the younger ones never went through the down years between 1981 and 1996, and even the older ones forgot. It became less fun to root for the Yankees as Yankee fans themselves embodied Steinbrenner’s Winning is Everything persona.

Incidentally, credit for those four championships during the 1996 to 2000 run often went to Gene Michael and his scouting crew, who, without Steinbrenner’s influence during part of the early Nineties (while he was suspended), were smart enough to hang on to blue-chip prospects that might have been dealt away in trades in the Eighties, guys like Jeter, Bernie, Mariano, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte.

Yes, as Steinbrenner got older, and was clearly ailing in the last few years, his image softened, and perhaps he softened too, even if only a little, as age and forgetfulness and regrets catch up to a man facing the end.

He spent much of the later Eighties and early Nineties disparaging his own stadium, a jewel in my mind but often (it seemed in the papers) just a dump in the Bronx in his. He threatened leaving for Jersey, for Westchester. In the end, the city acquiesced to his blustering bluff, and he got what he wanted — a new Palace to Excess built right across the street. He replaced a venerable jewel in the South Bronx with a Death Star. Ironically, in the end, he was too old to enjoy it.

But I come back to what I alluded to earlier: growing up as a baseball fan of the team owned by George Steinbrenner was unlike rooting for any other team. I came to realize that the joy in devoting yourself to a team, even (and perhaps most innocently) as a child, is not just in the on-field action, but the off-field action, too. Steinbrenner’s teams and the craziness around them, particularly from 1973 to 1998, may not have produced champions every year, but it was never boring following them.

Addendum, July 14, 2010, 1 a.m.:

I think the one thing I should add that I am sad to see him go. George M. Steinbrenner was an owner who courted craziness and the chaos of life, however unintentionally. It seems to me a tragedy that this is largely gone from the corporate sports landscape. The vanilla corpo-speak rose and grew in the 2000s, with its logical destination as that new edifice to excess on 161st Street in the Bronx. Did The Boss really know what he wrought? Did he really know what he was getting? Like a lot of his free agent signings in the Eighties, I think not.

Of course, The Boss signed off on those building plans. While I cannot forgive him for that stadium (and the concurrent destruction of the old, true stadium), I am not sure he was fully aware of what he may have unwittingly contributed to in the continuing dehumanization of the corporate sports landscape. I’m not sure he would truly be in favor of it, either.

I wonder, and if this is just a theory, if there is any ironic connection that as Steinbrenner’s health declined, perhaps for the last 12 years, that the concept of athlete as their own Brand has risen. We just saw a media feeding frenzy less than a week ago over LeBron James, who announced Exclusively on the World Wide Leader just to where he was taking his talents. It must not be lost that Steinbrenner, in his embrace as the first to use free-agency to pursue championships in the mid-1970s, enabled the freakshow we witnessed last week with LeBron in Greenwich. Some thirty-five years later, it might have been its logical outgrowth.

But Steinbrenner was human. He may have loved money, but he was a man, not a corporation, at least not until this decade, when (starting with the YankeeNets joint venture conglomeration) we saw new heights (or, rather, new depths) in corporations overtaking sports franchises and, most gallingly, in the coverage and delivery of sports. Every year, it seems I need to learn the new names of old stadiums, since the naming rights have been re-auctioned off to the highest bidder. A sports event can barely claim to have occurred unless it was broadcast to pompous excess by the World Wide Leader in Bristol. Somehow, I’d like to think that the great Steinbrenner, in his increasingly ill health, was also increasingly powerless to stop that tide; at the very least, he may have had no idea of the monster he unleashed.

We will still have imitators, like Mark Cuban and Jerry Jones. We will still have sideshows, like the McCourts’ divorce and its impact on the Dodgers, or that self-aggrandizing Cleveland Cavaliers owner (I know you’re upset, but c’mon. As one commenter noted on the New York Times, weren’t you born in Detroit? By your own logic, doesn’t your desertion of the Wolverine State count as a “shocking act of disloyalty”?).

With teams becoming as much a corporate holding than anything else, I think we’ll find we may never see the likes of George M. Steinbrenner again. We’re all poorer for it.

(published concurrently at my baseball blog, Clutch Bingles)

3 Comments on “On Steinbrenner”

  1. Slamdunk says:

    Good post. Steinbrenner’s legend is complex–as the man was.

  2. The Icepick says:

    @Slamdunk: Thanks for reading, and completely agree. He certainly gave us a lot to think about. I sat down for about 5 minutes, and then wrote an addendum, because, as you correctly point out, the man and his legend was so complex. Doubt we’ll see another like him.

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