So, George Steinbrenner, the volatile and famous owner of Major League Baseball’s premier team, The New York Yankees, died the way he lived, upstaging the game he loved. On the morning before baseball’s annual All Star Game, George Steinbrenner reminded the world that he has done more to transform and promote the game of baseball than any of the sluggers or fireballing pitchers being showcased in Anaheim on Tuesday night. Right until the end, he was George being George.
Every one of these ballplayers have Steinbrenner to thank for their lofty salaries, whether or not they ever played for the Yankees. Steinbrenner acquired the Yankees at a pivotal time in baseball history, when the reserve clause was finally done away with and players got to be free agents, selling their services to the highest bidder. Guess who the highest bidder for the best available players usually was?
He had inherited a once-proud franchise in 1973 that hadn’t won anything since the early 1960s when Mickey Mantle carried an ailing franchise on his ravaged legs into 5 straight World Series, losing 3 of them. By 1968 The Mick was gone and the Yankees stunk and would keep stinking until the fire-breathing George Steinbrenner showed up and refused to accept mediocrity from what used to be the most successful and recognizable team in sporting history.
Only 3 years into his tenure, his aggressive playing of the free agent market brought the Yankees baseball’s best pitcher, Catfish Hunter, and the American League pennant in 1976, their first since 1964, only to see them lose 4 straight to the Big Red Machine of the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Steinbrenner considered the season a failure. Enter Reggie Jackson, Mr. October, Catfish’s old Oakland Athletics teammate, and the Yanks took the next 2 World Series, highlighted by Reggie’s 3 home runs on 3 pitches in the final game of the ’77 Series.
The Yankees were back on the map in a big way, and free agency was embraced by every baseball club owner serious about winning a pennant. The Yankees got another pennant in’81, but lost the Series and would wait another 14 years (the great Don Mattingly’s entire career) to get back to the Series. This personal slump for Steinbrenner taught him that throwing money around didn’t win titles, but throwing money around wisely did, and that team chemistry is as important as RBI records, so he leaned more and more on the advice of the many shrewd baseball lifers in his organization.
The emergence of Derek Jeter as the Yankee Captain personifies this current era. He is not a home run hitter or a flashy personality, but as solid and knowledgeable a baseball player as the game has seen in decades, excelling in every aspect of the game and never taking his eyes off the prize; victory, no matter how it is achieved, in a big splashy way or in the thousand and one small things a player can do to help his team win; proper positioning, astute baserunning and taking immediate advantage of an opponent’s mistakes.
Surrounding Jeter was a core of bonafide stars like the great Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and now Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and C.C.Sabathia, as well as solid journeymen who know how the game of baseball is supposed to be played. Gone were the days of the Manager-Of-The-Month Club and Mount Streinbrenner erupting after a frustrating loss and sticking his foot in his mouth yet again.
For all of today’s Yankees’ astounding individual talents, the quiet professionalism and meticulous preparation of Jeter is the prevailing sensibility of this most recent Yankee dynasty, the same approach that has Jeter closing in on becoming the first Yankee ever to collect 3,000 hits in pinstripes. Guess who gave this non-home run champ and quiet man a 10 year contract at almost 20 million bucks a year, a contract nearly finished and one that paid handsome dividends? George Steinbrenner.
The result? 7 pennants and 5 World Series titles since 1996, the latest one coming last year, the first year at the new Yankee Stadium that George built across the street from the House That Ruth Built. By that time, the old firebreather was old and sickly and his sons were running the day-to-day operations of the club, but George Steinbrenner was sharp enough to follow the action and appreciate the victory that capped his remarkable career.
Every so often he would still issue press releases and remind the world who it was that rebuilt the Yankee franchise, energized the free agent market and introduced the new era of teams having their own cable TV networks and building their own stadiums with their own money. The feeling was that Mount Steinbrenner was laying dormant but could erupt again at a moment’s notice. With his team once again the most successful and recognizable sporting franchise anywhere, Steinbrenner made a dramatic exit.
For someone who never played the game, the man left a mark on baseball as big as Babe Ruth’s. Every ballplayer, coach and fan at Tuesday’s All Star game benefitted from the sometimes crazy and abrasive antics of George Steinbrenner, a born-on-the 4th-of-July American original and a Hall of Famer in his own right, possibly even in his own unique category. Can it really be possible that George Steinbrenner is gone? Doesn’t seem possible.