The thing is, people say, if you were a fan of the New York Yankees and you were a fan of winning, you didn’t necessarily care how George Steinbrenner treated his employees, or how George created a winner.
I’m not sure that’s true.
There was no bigger Yankee fan than me through 2001. We loved the Yankees in spite of George, and sometimes, perversely, because of George. We hated his antics. We loved his antics. I’d say losing played into how much we disliked Steinbrenner back then, but I’m not sure if winning brought us back into his fold in the late Nineties.
George’s rein from 1982 to around 1998 gave Yankee fans the rare chance to root for an underdog. Perhaps that’s why I gravitated to the Mets the last two years — except for around 1984 to 1989 when the Mets were dominant, they’ve been perennial underdogs in this two-team town.
Of course, “underdog” in the Yankees sense didn’t necessarily mean Steinbrenner had the lowest paid team. In fact, quite the opposite. And the Yankees used to be proud of pointing out that they had the highest winning percentage of any team in the Eighties (while also not pointing out that they reached one World Series in that decade, and that was because of a fluke caused by the 1981 strike).
No, my favorite Yankee teams were the ones I grew up with, the Eighties and early Nineties. Winning in 1996, and again in 1998, was like the culmination of those long (for the Yanks) dark years. After ’98, when they traded David Wells for the Texas accused-steroid meat-head, it started to become less fun. My wife and I were engaged at Yankee Stadium in July 2001. I never went to another game again. Though we gave out Yankee souvenirs (among other items) to our families at our wedding in 2002, my interest in baseball waned as my interest (and, eventually, my passion) for the Yankees waned. My interest in baseball was only reborn by two things: my son, who at a very early age, picked up on an intense interest in the sport; and my newfound rooting for the New York Mets.
Yes, George brought the winners back to the Bronx. I loved it at first in 1996 and 1998. I loved it retrospectively from 1977 and 1978. But perhaps I loved the craziness he brought with him even more.
One of my favorite books, which I know I have around the house somewhere but cannot locate, is Bill Madden’s and Moss Klein’s account of the Steinbrenner years up until around 1990 entitled Damned Yankees. It’s a recommended read for anyone who remembered those years, or who cared to remember those years, and how the good, the bad, and the ugly made for roller-coaster seasons as a fan.
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.