Posted by: mdegeorge | July 13, 2010

Bidding an indifferent farewell to the head of the Evil Empire

It’s been a rough week in Yankee-land. First, there was the passing of iconic public address announcer Bob Sheppard, who serenaded the Bronx faithful for 56 years until his retirement in 2007. Sheppard had long been in declining health, and his passing at age 99 shocked no one.

But the passing today of the ever vibrant George Steinbrenner, a man so long the public figure of the team in the press box and the media, comes as a sudden shock to the masses of Yankee fans. He’ll be missed for his colorful shenanigans, but don’t expect me to join the throngs of those mourning the loss of a purportedly great baseball mind by crying into their pinstripe pillows.

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Love him or hate him—and I suspect the latter category is the more populous outside of the tri-state area—there’s no denying his impact on the game of baseball. His fiery, cantankerous, borderline explosive presence in the game for the last three decades has forever altered the image of the owner. He’s hardly cut from the same cloth as The Judge, the fictional, mothballed owner in The Natural sitting rather innocuously in his darkened office and running his team through intermediaries and back channels.

Steinbrenner was the exact opposite: the free-wheeling, ultra-involved owner more likely to preach from the balcony (or owner’s box) than lurk in the shadows. His free spending, brash, win-at-all-costs mentality transformed the way in which baseball owners, and sports owners at large, are viewed.To the public, he’ll long be remembered as the egomaniacal free spender, the owner ready to challenge his players and managers publicly and jettison underperformers while handsomely doling out the cash for the best replacements his sizable fortune could buy. His willingness to break the bank and defy the fiscal conventions of the game, from Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson to Alex Rodriguez a quarter century later changed the landscape of the game.

It’s impossible to ignore the success he has enjoyed over the last decade and a half at the helm of the Bronx Bombers. But the younger generation of blissfully ignorant and spoiled fans—those that I happen to be friends with—weren’t privy to the decade-long stint in the second division that for many characterized the Steinbrenner years. From 1982, the season after they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, to 1993, the Yanks averaged a pedestrian 82 wins per season, bottoming out at 67-95 in 1990. The team from the Bronx was in a rut, unable to hold onto what few young talents they managed to cultivate, while the cross town rival Mets sculpted a 1986 World Series title around young talents like Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.

It wasn’t until the early 90s, when commissioner Fay Vincent suspended Steinbrenner for the second time—the first time was for illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon; this ban came for hiring a private investigator to dig up dirt on “Mr. May” David Winfield—that a new ideology, which put a premium on developing young talent like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera for reasons other than trade bait a la Jay Buhner, finally produced results. Taking the man who had been reduced to a Seinfeld caricature out of the equation temporarily gave the Yankees a new outlook and allowed the Evil Empire to flourish. His ability to obliterate the purse strings, time after time epitomizing the worst in baseball ownership and capitalistic excess, perpetuated the dynasty, but it was always formed around the core homegrown talent that may not have flourished under the meddling hand of Steinbrenner.

There’s no doubt the latest generation of Yankee Pride owes itself to the mystique and the ego of George Steinbrenner. But the success it has enjoyed has, to some degree, come in spite of his baseball maneuvers. Nonetheless, his figure in the Bronx, and the game of baseball, will be missed.

(Oh, and P.S.- even in death, there’s only one Boss, and his name is Springsteen.)


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