Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Remembrances of Steinbrenner

  George Steinbrenner passed away at the age of 80 yesterday. He bought the Yankees when I was 13 and was a central figure in my teenage years. There will be a lot of talk about how George was a visionary and that is true. He wasn’t the first owner to buy players (the Yankees bought Joe DiMaggio from the San Francisco Seals for $100,000 in 1936, and the Boston Red Sox paid $100,000 for Jimmy Foxx a few years before that), but he was one of the first owners to ransom a city for stadium improvements when he threatened to move the team to New Jersey in 1973 and he was the first baseball owner to put the majority of his team’s games on cable when he agreed to sell 12 years of Yankee games to the Madison Square Garden network for $500 million over 12 years. Even though that was an unheard of amount at the time, by the end of the contract it turned out that Madison Square Garden had made a great deal because everyone wants to watch the Yankees and companies would pay top dollar to advertise on the games. After the contract expired, Steinbrenner was able to start his own cable network (another first) and keep all the profits.

  I wasn’t as upset by Steinbrenner’s passing as I was when the great Yankee player and manager Billy Martin died in a 1989 car accident. Maybe it was because I was younger or maybe it was because Billy’s death was unexpected. I think it was because when George would fire and rehire Billy in the 70’s and 80’s the crowd of Yankee fans I hung with in New Jersey identified with Billy as the former Yankee player, World Series MVP, hard living, hard drinking, fight at the drop of a hat winner we all wish we could be. We all saw Steinbrenner as the silver spoon rich shipbuilder son of a rich shipbuilder jock-sniffing wannabe athlete. (None of us had dad’s who were shipbuilders or even rich).

  It’s easy to think Steinbrenner was a much beloved figure during his whole ownership reign from listening to all the tributes this week, but he was referred to by his employees of the 70’s and 80’s as ‘The Fat Man’, ‘Manager George’, ‘Georgie Porgie’, among others. In 1982, Steinbrenner let Reggie Jackson sign with the Angels and decided to remake the Yankees into a ‘speed team’. He bragged about plan, but the team was awful and on a Sunday afternoon game against the Angels, Jackson hit a long home run in blowout game and 40,000 people chanted “Steinbrenner Sucks!” for the rest of the game. The chant was again heard in the early nineties when the Yankees were the worst team in baseball and fans wore paper bags on their head. And of course there was Billy Martin’s famous reference to his felony conviction for illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, “The two of them deserve each other. One’s a born liar (Reggie Jackson), the other’s convicted.” Billy was drunk at the time, but he lost his job just like the famous secretary who brought Steinbrenner a tuna fish sandwich instead of roast beef.

  Steinbrenner bought the Yankees near the end of a 12 year drought of World Series appearances, but the arrow was already pointing up and many of the key components of the great teams of the late 70’s were already in place. Steinbrenner benefitted by the onset of baseball free agency because he now could just get players by paying them directly instead of giving money and good young players in trade to other teams for the same players. This meant that it only cost money for Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, and Catfish Hunter and the team didn’t have to trade top prospects like Ron Guidry for them. Since no other team was willing to spend for free agents, George had the field to himself and could get any player he wanted.

  Rooting for a championship contender every year is great and Steinbrenner deserves a lot of the credit for pushing the team over the top, but the constant hiring and firing of managers and the strategy of trading top prospects in favor of accumulating all-star caliber players to be backups started to backfire in the early 80’s. The top-line free agent players could get almost the same money the Yankees would pay from teams like Gene Autry’s Angels and Ted Turner’s Braves and would use the Yankees high bids to sign with other clubs for almost the same money and the security of not being lambasted by the New York media, embarrassed publicly by the owner, or just losing their playing time because the owner could decide to buy a different all-star player. After the embarrassment of losing the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers after winning the first 2 games, (George broke his hand after what he said was a fight with some Dodger fans on an elevator and he never forgave his expensive free agent Dave Winfield for going 1 for 22 in the series), George ended up overpaying for mediocre talent and having to trade top prospects for real star players. The teams of the middle 80’s had an awesome offense led by Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly, and Dave Winfield, but never even won a division, always being undone by well-paid but underperforming players like Ed Whitson, Ken Phelps, Pascual Perez, and Steve Kemp who were superstars only in their paychecks. What few prospects came up through the farm system were traded for either has-beens or someone who just had the best year of their career before resuming their mediocre ways. Steinbrenner was thought of as a laughing stock by Yankee fans and most of the baseball writers I read and there were many calls for him to sell the team.

  In the late 80’s the team became undone by Mattingly’s back injury, Henderson wanting a new contract and forcing a trade, aging pitching, and no prospects in the farm system. The Yankees were a last place team into the early nineties. Steinbrenner was on the US Olympic Committee and when he was caught paying a known gambler for information that may have proved Dave Winfield threw the 1981 World Series, he accepted a voluntary lifetime ban from baseball rather a suspension which may have gotten him thrown off the Olympic Committee. I think Winfield was paid for his poor performance and George got a raw deal, but so soon after the Pete Rose scandal, baseball decided to sweep the affair under the run and punish Steinbrenner for consorting with gamblers. With no expectation of winning and without the pressure from the owner, the Yankees rebuilt their farm system, made some smart trades to get players like Paul O’Neill, and were ready to contend when Steinbrenner’s ban was lifted. The 90’s Steinbrenner was much smarter than the 80’s version. He stopped ranting and railing against the players and managers and let his front office use the Yankee money to get the missing pieces of the puzzle instead of getting every available player who ever made an All-Star team. The result of this was the dynasty of the late 90’s. After the aging of that group, Steinbrenner went back to his old ways of overpaying for the biggest names available (Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, Bobby Abreu) and while making the playoffs every year, the team did not have the cohesion needed to win a championship.

  Steinbrenner was mostly concerned over his last years of owning the team with getting the new Yankee Stadium built. He tried to get it put in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but even threatening to move to New Jersey could not get him such prime real estate. He arranged to build the stadium across the street from the old one and turned the team over to his sons in 2007. I thought had a stroke based on how suddenly he disappeared from the public eye, or maybe I just didn’t notice a larger than life figure turn old and frail until he was. In any event, I give Steinbrenner a lot of credit for bringing championships to New York, and I’m glad he lived long enough to see the Yankees win a World Championship in the stadium he built. Rest in Peace, George.