Tuesday, July 13, 2010

George Steinbrenner

George Steinbrenner, the imperious owner of the New York Yankees, passed away yesterday in his home in Tampa, Fla. He was 80. Steinbrenner's death comes less than a week after Bob Shepard, the longtime public address announcer at Yankee Stadium, the so-called "Voice of God," passed away. Unlike Shepard, who was universally remembered as a gentleman, Steinbrenner's name inspires a different set of adjectives.

Depending on your allegiances, Steinbrenner is either the best or worst thing to happen to baseball. Yankee fans grew to love him; others simply loved to hate him. (Red Sox Larry Luchino derided Steinbrenner's Yankees as the Evil Empire, not without cause.) Both camps, though, are in accord about one thing: Steinbrenner was a giant of the game.

After purchasing a moribund Yankees team from CBS in 1973 for a reported $8 million, Steinbrenner, who offered up less than $200,000 of his own money, rebuilt the Yankees into champions, primarily through baseball's new system of free agency. The Boss, as he quickly came to be called, spent big money on Catfish Hunter, his first free agent signing, in 1975. The following year, the Boss signed Reggie Jackson to a five-year, $2.96 million contract, an enormous amount of money for an athlete at the time. The Yankees would go on to win the World Series in 1977 and 1978, the Boss's first taste of baseball success.

All told, the Yankees won 11 American League pennants and seven World Series under Steinbrenner.

At the same time, Steinbrenner, a former shipping magnate, transformed the Yankees into an international brand worth billions of dollars. The team's YES network, the crown jewel of the Yankees empire, is worth an estimated $3 billion. Last year alone, the network raked in $471 million in revenue, the most of any regional sports network in the country, while the team itself generated $441 million in revenue, largely the result of the new stadium, which, true to his reputation, the billionaire Steinbrenner strong-armed the State of New York into subsidizing.

Steinbrenner's reign was not without controversy. His singular motivation was to win--and he would do just about anything in pursuit of this goal. He fired and hired Billy Martin five different times. He exiled fan favorite Yogi Berra from the organization for nearly two decades. He paid a gambler $40,000 to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, whom Steinbrenner thought wasn't living up to his contract or his reputation. He excoriated countless players and managers, both good ones and bad ones, in the press. (It's rumored Ken Griffey Jr. vowed never to play for the Yankees because of the way Steinbrenner treated his father.) He traded away good prospects for over-the-hill stars, which led to 18 years of futility and fan frustration. It wasn't until then Commissioner Fay Vincent banned Steinbrenner from baseball in 1990 following the Winfield episode that the Yankees front office could start building a proper team. Free of Steinbrenner's constant meddling, Yankee executives, led by Gene Michael, were able to replenish the team's farm system with new talent. Michael's efforts eventually produced Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, all of whom still contribute to the team's success.

Yet for all his bullying, Steinbrenner also gave his teams all the resources they needed to compete, which goes right to the heart of why Yankee fans loved him and others reviled him. Between 2000 and 2010, to pick only the most recent era of his 40-year reign, Steinbrenner paid his players a staggering $1.7 billion. Under his watch, the Yankees payroll exceeded $100 million 10 times; it suprassed $200 million six times. Such expenditures afforded Steinbrenner, as far as he was concerned, the unquestionable right to criticize his players, a right that lead to some classic Steinbrenner moments, including my favorite one involving high-price import Hideki Irabu. During a meaningless Spring Training game, Irabu failed to cover first base. After the game, an incensed Steinbrenner labelled his recent acquisition a "fat pussy toad."

That this is my favorite Steinbrenner anecdote is telling. I came of age during the latter incarnation of the Boss, the media-sanctioned caricature of his former tyrannical self. A borderline buffoon. My Steinbrenner, the one whose bombast was neutralized by Joe Torre's preternatural calm and the Yanks' millennial renaissance, starred in Visa commercials and was lampooned, with Steinbrennerian consent, on "Seinfield." He even hosted an episode of "Saturday Night Live." Gone was the Boss who terrorized his employees and emasculated lifelong baseball men like Dick Howser for sport. In his place stood a man who bullied more out of practice than passion. His reputation preceded him, and we as fans simply anticipated his response. Angry missives were dispatched from the offices of Howard Rubenstein, the Boss's longtime PR man, when the Yankees struggled, but they lacked the bite of his previous attacks. No one would be fired. No heads would roll. The organization would continue, business as usual, with or without the old man's Strum und Drang.

This became more apparent in recent years, first as the Boss slowly ceeded control of the organization to his sons, Hank and Hal, and, later, when news of his frail health started to leak, slowly, irrevocably, out of Tampa. Today, the Boss as we knew him is gone, the bully and the buffoon alike. All that remains are his Yankees, the defending World Series champions, and his legacy, as complicated and big as the man himself.

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