Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Top 5 Reasons To Appreciate George Steinbrenner (and 3 Reasons Not To)

Today marks the publication of 2 biographies of Yankee legends: Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball, by Bill Madden, Hall of Fame writer for the New York Daily News; and Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball's Mr. October, by Dayn Perry of Fox Sports.

Along with on-again, off-again manager Billy Martin and broadcaster Phil Rizzuto, they were the men who marked the fandom of my youth. From October 1976, when the Yankees won their first Pennant of my lifetime (with Reggie in the press box as part of ABC's broadcast team), and the following month when George signed Reggie, to 1988, when I was finally old enough to go to games on my own, with Billy fired for the 5th and last time and Reggie newly retired as a player, they were always there -- as were such stars of other teams like Tom Seaver, Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Carlton Fisk, George Brett.

A weird thing happened yesterday: I was reading Madden's book Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, while listening to Mike Francesca on WFAN, and Madden came on to be interviewed to plug his book about George. That's a weird thing, to be reading someone's book and then to hear their voice -- and no, I'm not talking about audiobooks, either. In such an eventuality, you expect to hear the voice of the author. (Assuming the recording was made while the author was still alive.)

Madden gave some hints as to George's health, which has been a topic of speculation ever since his public appearances and statements became less frequent. He says George has suffered a series of strokes which have resulted in brain damage, giving him dementia similar to Alzheimer's disease.


I have had my problems with George Michael Steinbrenner III. Contrary to the words of Paul Anka (who wrote "My Way" for Frank Sinatra, and of course it was masterfully done by Elvis Presley as well)... Regrets? I've had a few, and they're not too few to mention. Let me mention three:

1. He's often treated his employees very badly. He's said that he never asks anyone to work any harder than he does, and, to his credit, while he was working, he did work hard. Call him any name in the book, as long as it's not a variation on "lazy." Fine, ask people to work hard. But don't lose your cool when things aren't precisely to your specifications. Such an occasion is a time to speak calmly. To guide. To teach, in effect.

This is one of the things George and I actually have in common. I have also been known to lose my temper over little things. One of the easiest ways to get me to flip out when I was young was to say, "It's only a game." Right, something that's "only a game" turns into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Something that's "only a game" results in some of the finest writing in the English language and some terrific films, fictional, based-on-true-stories, and documentary.

We fans all think we could run our teams, whatever the sport, better than the owner(s). But would we? Surely, we would all flip our lids at the least little thing. Check out WFAN, particularly the Met fans calling in: One week, the manager is a bum, he has to be fired; the next, he's a genius; the next, he's a bum again and they gotta get him outta there. And that's when the manager has not been changed. The difference between ordinary fans thinking this way and George Steinbrenner thinking this way is that George had the power to make it happen.

2. The Howie Spira situation. George and Dave Winfield had a contract dispute. Dave was brave enough to stand up to George over it, and smart enough to find out how, in a way that drove George bananas. Bananas enough to appeal (sorry for the atrocious pun) to Spira, a private detective and compulsive gambler, and pay him $40,000 for damaging information on Dave. Apparently, Spira never found it, but the result was that George traded Dave, Spira talked, and Commissioner Fay Vincent suspended George.

I wonder what would have happened if Spira had not also been a gambler. Sports, and particularly baseball, have been nutso about gambling from the beginning, well before the 1919-21 Black Sox Scandal.

3. The loss of the original Yankee Stadium. Forgotten now are George's constant threats to move the Yankees to New Jersey, mainly because, as usual, the State Legislature was really screwed up at the time, and couldn't find a way to build a ballpark at the Meadowlands Sports Complex or anywhere else. George worked with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to build a superstadium atop the West Side Rail Yards, across 33rd Street from the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center and a short stroll from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. The stadium would have been home to the Yankees, the Jets, and the 2012 Olympics. When Giuliani left office without getting it approved, new Mayor Michael Bloomberg took up the idea.

But negotiations fell through, and George made a new deal, to build a new stadium across 161st Street from Yankee Stadium. Once New York was rejected as the site of the 2012 Olympics (they'll be in London), the Jets backed out of the stadium deal, and got together with the Giants, and made a deal with the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority to build a new stadium next to Giants Stadium.

That stadium is now nearly complete, and already hosting events (international soccer, college lacrosse and, in the coming days, its first concert, by Bon Jovi), and will take up football in the fall. The new Yankee Stadium is in its second season. So is Citi Field. The Prudential Center has completed its third season. Steinbrenner's monument to himself is up. John Mara's monument to his father Wellington/Woody Johnson's monument to himself is up. Fred Wilpon's monument to the Brooklyn Dodgers is up. Sharpe James' coat of paint on his rusted city is up. Bloomberg's monument to himself will have to be not a stadium but his own failed mayoralty.

Still, I never wanted to lose the old Yankee Stadium. As good a job as was done on the new one, it is a terrible thing that the old one is gone. I've said many times that I didn't know who George was really building it for. If it's for the fans, most of us didn't want to lose the old Stadium. If it's for himself, how much longer would George live? How long would he enjoy it? I've said that he will have to answer to God for this. Well, if Bill Madden is correct about George's health, then he has already suffered enough.


But let me give you...

The Top 5 Reasons to Appreciate George Steinbrenner

5. He Brought the Yankees Back. Twice. The second time, it was from his own screwups. But the first time, the Yankees were without question the second team in New York. They had fallen so far off the radar of championship contention, that they might as well have been, if not the Philadelphia Athletics (they didn't move), then certainly what the Toronto Maple Leafs have become, or what the Green Bay Packers were before Mike Holmgren came in.

He made the Yankees matter again, and then he made them Champions again. He, and general manager Gabe Paul, and manager Billy Martin, and the players they brought together. They made the Yankees back into The New York Yankees.

4. Charity. George founded the Silver Shield Foundation, to aid widows and orphans of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. He's given local kids jobs. He saved the careers of several given-up-on players. He's given more than anybody realizes, because, in this regard, he is genuinely humble.

3. George is actually more loyal than people realize. He usually felt guilty about letting people go. He usually offered them other jobs in the organization, and very few ever left him on bad terms. Bob Lemon became a Yankee scout. Lou Piniella became general manger. So did Clyde King. Gene Michael became chief scout and later general manager. Bucky Dent and Stump Merrill, who had both managed Yankee farm clubs before becoming big-league manager, would manage Yankee farm clubs again. And, of course, George could never send Billy Martin away for good.

In early 1999, broadcaster Suzyn Waldman said to him, "I'd like to talk to you about Yogi." And George, thinking of the then-dying Joe DiMaggio, said, "Why? What's wrong?" Suzyn later said she knew instantly that George was open to repairing the rift with Yogi. George went to Yogi's museum at Montclair State University, apologized for sending Clyde King to fire him instead of telling him himself, and Yogi, as only Yogi can do, said, "It's over." They've been okay ever since.

Even Ralph Houk and Buck Showalter later accepted that George wanted to mend fences. I don't think Bill Virdon and Dallas Green, both still alive, hold any grudges with him. As far as I know, the only manager George has ever fired who still held a grudge was Dick Howser; since he's dead now, it's hard to say if they ever patched things up. Joe Torre? I guess only Joe knows for sure, but I can't imagine Joe holding a grudge.

Players? Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield patched things up with him -- although I notice Dave's Number 31 is still in circulation and he doesn't yet have a Monument Park Plaque. Bobby Murcer and Mel Stottlemyre straightened things out with him, although in both of their cases it was likely Gabe Paul who was the guiding force in getting rid of them in the 1974-75 off-season; Mel and George had a later falling-out that's been repaired.

George was a nut. But, as he often said, he was not an ogre.

2. He Loves New York. "They're battlers," he's often said of his Yankees, "and New York is a city of battlers. You battle for everything in this town: For cabs, for tables in a restaurant, for everything." I wonder if he's ever watched people negotiate with ticket scalpers outside The Stadium. If he has, then that'll just back him up more. He never really wanted to go to New Jersey. (Maybe if he'd known in the 1980s that there was a New Jersey native living in Michigan who would be the linchpin of his next dynasty, kid name of Jeter.)

And Reason Number 1 is obvious:

1. He Wants to Win. He loves money, to be sure. He loves power, to be even more sure. But he knows that money comes from winning, every bit as much as the other way around. As I said, he ran the team as if he were a fan. And he has truly appreciated it when they've won. At every victory celebration from 1976 to 2003, he would say what a great thing it was for Yankee Fans and for the City of New York.

George Steinbrenner got it. Would that every owner did. Especially the ones who are even wealthier and choose not to spend that much.

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