Remembering George Steinbrenner With Mixed Feelings

He was good for baseball, but not always.

By + More

Leave it to The Boss to dominate sports news on the day of baseball's All Star Game. It is, as the Daily News's Mike Lupica writes, "classic Steinbrenner." The New York Yankees and Major League Baseball are diminished today as a result of King George's passing, and that's not a sentiment that this or many Yankees fans would always have expressed over the course of his ownership.

Steinbrenner's tenure as Yankees owner will rightly be remembered for the seven times his players took champagne showers in late October. The Yankees have been a dominant force in baseball for so long now--15years--it's hard to remember the equally long period preceding it in which being a Yankees fan was an exquisite form of torture inflicted by the blustery Boss.

Keep in mind that the two periods of Yankees' dominance in the Steinbrenner era--the late '70s and the dynastic period which started in the mid-'90s--came immediately after the Boss had been suspended from the sport. I'm reasonably sure that no other owner in the history of major sports has been suspended twice. And during those periods his baseball people (the real ones, not the phantom ones he always seemed to blame after another trade or free agent signing predictably blew up in his face) were allowed to do their work in peace. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte were allowed to blossom because the Boss wasn't there to trade them for an aging star. You could in the 1980s put together an All Star team of former Yankees prospects, from Willie McGhee to Doug Drabek to Fred McGriff to Jay Buhner, all traded away for has beens and never was-es.

That era of Stein-ball gave rise to two of the most memorable moments on Seinfeld: first when George, having resolved to act opposite of all his instincts, berates Steinbrenner upon being introduced to him. "In the past 20 years you have caused myself, and the city of New York, a good deal of distress, as we have watched you take our beloved Yankees and reduce them to a laughing stock, all for the glorification of your massive ego!" Costanza tells an off-screen Steinbrenner. (The Stein-character's reaction: "Hire this man!") In another episode George's father ignores news of his son's apparent death to excoriate Steinbrenner for trading Buhner for aging lefty slugger Ken Phelps. "Well, Buhner was a good prospect, no question about it," the Stein-character says. "But my baseball people loved Ken Phelps' bat. They kept saying 'Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps.'"

I remember watching the Yankees at home in 1990 with my brother when the second Steinbrenner suspension, the one for paying a shady character to dig up dirt on one of his star players, was announced. We high-fived at home and kept watching the game. And then a remarkable thing happened: The crowd at Yankee Stadium started spontaneously applauding as word spread that the Boss was gone. This was before the days before the Internet, E-Mail, and text messages, mind you, and before mobile phones were commonplace. (That celebration must have been nothing in comparison with that of some of his beleaguered employees.)

But winning heals all wounds, and the Boss went out both a winner, and a likable, perhaps even lovable, figure. Months after his second suspension he lampooned himself on Saturday Night Live, in one skit playing a supermarket owner who refused to fire an employee because it would be rash, in another dreaming of a Yankees championship team that had George Steinbrenner playing every position. When he came back he seemed mellower and finally broke his musical managers habit. As the pennants piled up his bluster seemed to diminish.

Then there was his final appearance at the old Yankee Stadium, during the All Star game two years ago. He got a hug from Yogi Berra, who once swore that he would never return to the ballpark while Steinbrenner was in charge (Steinbrenner had promised that Berra would manage the 1985 Yankees for the whole year, win or lose; he canned the Yankee legend 16 games into the 162 game season). If Yogi could forgive him, how could the rest of us not? America, after all, loves to forgive, and Big Stein was literally born on the 4th of July.

The bottom line for the Boss was always the bottom line, and it is this: Steinbrenner left the Yankees and the sport of baseball in far better shape than he found them. He will be missed.

  • Check out this month's best political cartoons.
  • See who is donating to your member of Congress.
  • Read more coverage of the political stories of the year.