To Bury the Boss, Not to Praise Him
Steinbrenner died last
week after almost four decades of running the Yankees—minus a few years in two
suspensions, in the ’70s for illegal campaign donations to Richard Nixon and
the ’90s for hiring a private eye to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. In the ’90s
“Big Stein” was depicted on “Seinfeld” as more daffy than domineering, and in
recent years he faded into poor health as two sons took over the team. But his
death returned him to his favorite place—the center of attention—and revived
the essential Steinbrenner debate: Villain, hero, or what proportions of each?
The Observers, with Frank getting a firsthand view in New York, chime in.
Frank: Shades of Charles
Foster Kane! This was the tabloids’ version of Orson Welles’ fictional newsreel
that solemnly intoned the passing of a giant.
Artie: Except that instead of
“Rosebud,” Steinbrenner’s last word evoking a painful loss might have been
Frank: That would be
fictionally fitting, since the trading of future All-Star Jay Buhner in 1998
spurred Frank Costanza to browbeat Steinbrenner on “Seinfeld.”
Artie: These days a lot of
people hate the Yankees and their money, but I can honestly say I liked their
teams from 1982 through ’94.
Frank: Gee, the 13 straight
seasons when the Yankees couldn’t even reach the playoffs. I view that era a
bit differently, but you raise an interesting point. A Newsday headline proclaimed, “Boss’ Legacy: He Won,” but by his own
standard he didn’t win all that much.
Artie: Buying… um, winning
seven World Series ain’t chopped liver; the next-closest team during his reign
Frank: Yeah, but that’s over
37 years. By The Boss’ blustery credo that the Yanks’ only goal was total
supremacy, he batted under .200. He bought the team in ’73 and the winning came
in two spurts—four World Series (two wins) from ’76 through ’81 and seven
Series (five wins) since ’95. But in between he presided over those 13 years of
nothing—the longest Yankee drought since before Babe Ruth arrived in 1920.
Artie: Maybe if The Boss
hadn’t been such an egotistical knob, if he’d shown some common sense and
people skills toward managers, he’d have gotten above the Mendoza line.
Frank: It’s often said here
that a “new” Steinbrenner came back from his second suspension in ’93. He was
willing to give his “baseball people” more leeway to build the team from
within. The “Core Four” who are still playing—Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte,
Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada—began to rise through the minors during
Artie: The “old” Steinbrenner
might have traded a couple of those guys for one of his high-priced “names,”
Frank: Not that there weren’t
boondoggles all along—like signing pitchers Kevin Brown, Jaret Wright and Carl
Pavano. But the Yankees’ piles of money—which really grew in this decade when
Steinbrenner created YES, his own cable network—financed 13 straight playoff
appearances from ’95 through ’07.
Artie: The key for any club is
making good moves. But if you’ve got the dough you can make more moves and
figure that enough will work...
Frank: Besides that, through
luck or shrewdness, Steinbrenner found in Joe Torre a manager who’d stand up to
him while keeping the clubhouse steady. Torre had nice things to say last week,
but also this: “He had no regard for anyone else's life. But those were the
Artie: Sounds like bosses
we’ve all had.
Frank: Here’s another
question. A New York Times business
column had the headline, “Was Steinbrenner Just Lucky?” Might anyone be able to
win with the same pile of money?
Artie: It’s possible to win in
pro sports without being a blowhard. Take the Rooneys in the NFL or our own
former Packers president, Bob Harlan.
Frank: Here’s another
Steinbrenner issue. Around here everyone’s been saying, “Well, George just
wanted to win so much” to explain why he acted like a jerk. But did Bud Selig
want to win any less, or does Mark Attanasio now? Does the desire to win cover
a multitude of sins? In other words, does the end justify the means, no matter
Artie: To a team’s fans,
absolutely. To quote another world-class jerk, Al Davis, “Just win, baby.”
Frank: I held my nose about
Steinbrenner’s bullying, sore-loser antics, but I didn’t stop smiling whenever
the Yankees won.
Artie: And I didn’t notice
anyone booing the noted steroid user and liar Alex Rodriguez last fall when he
helped the Yankees go all the way.
Frank: In the World Cup soccer
final, most analysts ripped Holland’s
team for super-aggressive tactics to disrupt the favored Spaniards. But if Holland had won, would
the title have been tainted?
Artie: Not to Dutch fans!
Frank: The tabloids painted
Steinbrenner as a lovable rogue. But he wasn’t so lovable, to the press or the
fans, when the team was lousy. If he’d died two years ago, when the Yankees
missed the playoffs, the tone might have differed. As it was, he had the great
timing to depart as a defending champ.
Artie: Here’s another case.
Red Auerbach was an arrogant jerk, but he coached the Celtics to nine NBA
titles in 10 years. But several of those finals in the ’50s and ’60s came down
to a seventh game against the Lakers. If a few shots go the other way, maybe
Auerbach isn’t quite the legend we think of.
Frank: How about Vince
Lombardi? Remember the famous quote: “He treated us all the same—like dogs.” If
Bart Starr doesn’t make it to the end zone in the Ice Bowl and something goes
wrong in another title game, does Vince become less of a legend?
Artie: Now you’re on dangerous
ground! I think Lombardi wasn’t out to aggrandize himself the way Steinbrenner
or Auerbach was. With Lombardi the team was everything...
Frank: I thought the best
Steinbrenner summary came from Times
columnist Jim Dwyer: "He raged. He wept. He won. … He broke laws,
promises, lives. He did charity. He grafted his ego onto the back pages of
newspapers. He championed ordinary New Yorkers, then took them for every last
Artie: A big shot sticking it
to the little guy. Shocking!
Frank: Now the Yankees have a
terrific new stadium, heavily subsidized by public financing. How did Steinbrenner
get it? He trashed the Bronx as too dangerous and tried to move to Manhattan, even threatening to go to New Jersey otherwise. But Yankee fans called
his bluff, packing the old Yankee Stadium. So how did The Boss repay Joe Fan?
The new ballpark has far fewer seats in the upper deck, affordable for the
Artie: Some friend of the
ordinary New Yorker.
Frank: To me, the far deeper
loss was Bob Sheppard, the classy voice of Yankee Stadium for almost 60 years,
who died two days before Steinbrenner. Remembering him announce the starting
lineups—“And for the Yankees…”—evokes sunny days at the Stadium with my dad and
brother, in good times and bad. Steinbrenner only evokes New York pomposity. Or as another Times headline said, “A Windbag, But He
Was Our Windbag.”
Artie: Now there’s a legacy!
Frank: The odes last week emphasized that The Boss did a lot of charitable giving and mended many of his broken relationships. We all carry a balance sheet of good and bad when we make our exit, but Steinbrenner’s real legacy might be to remind us that in sports, good behavior isn’t what matters. Winning is.