George Steinbrenner: The Balls of the New York Yankees

(Sports Illustrated, 1993)

So first the Voice of God passes on at 99 years old and now incomparable owner George Steinbrenner dies of a heart attack at 80. Bob Sheppard and George Steinbrenner are no longer here. That feels weird, along with the fact that this is one of the few times in your life that non-Yankee fans will actually feel sympathy and express condolences to Yankee fans. It’s like the Haley’s Comet of baseball.

The two men, who together represent what the New York Yankees are about, are gone in a span of three days. Bob Sheppard, with his mellow voice and perfect diction English, represented the history, stature and grace of the Yankees. One of the things I enjoyed about Yankee Stadium, besides the YMCA grounds crew dance and the chance the Yanks would lose, was hearing him announce a player. That’s the type of timeless aspect that makes you love baseball. He represented their soul.

And the “Big Stein” represented the voracious, abrasive, all-about-me, loud, bull-in-a-china shop, win or else steamroller mentality of the Yankees. People are saying he was the heart, I think he was more of the balls. I mean he was the heart too, as long as it was the heart of a hormonal 16-year old girl on meds. That dude was all over the place.

He lavished his players with salary and benefits, yet sniped at them in the media and once paid thugs to “dig up dirt” on Dave Winfield. He loved New York and advantages and publicity it gave him, yet threatened to move the team to New Jersey for a new stadium. His managerial changes are legendary yet he was there crying, hugging and praising them to the hilt during a trophy ceremony. He berated his staff relentlessly yet was extremely generous and caring in charity work. I worked for an owner very similar to George, right down to the “I don’t have heart attacks, I give them” line. It su-ucked. I can imagine the number of staff that wanted to stab him at his desk with a pen from his “Lead, Follow or Get the Hell out of the Way” executive pen-holder.

Yes, he loved them but George Steinbrenner was the balls of the Yankees. It was all about winning with him (second only to breathing as he once said). The Yankees are where they are today because of the sheer force of his will and ego.

The will and ego caused problems baseball-wise. He blew up baseball’s salary structure for name players who were over-the-hill or not that good. He was capricious, demeaning and meddling in the day-to-day affairs of the team. You read Bronx is Burning or The Last Lion of Baseball and wonder how those late-70’s Yankee teams ever won. The Mets took over the town in the 80’s while George was firing managers left and right. When he was expelled from baseball for a second time in 1990 for the Howard Spira/Dave Winfield saga, the Yankee Stadium crowd gave a standing ovation when they heard the news. They were that thrilled he was gone and believed that the Yankees could finally succeed again.

They weren’t that wrong because the absence of Steinbrenner allowed the team, led by Gene “Stick” Michaels, to finally execute a plan without interference. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite and Jorge Posada were all drafted. And when Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993, everything was in place. George still made noise but he didn’t start forcing moves until after the Yankee run in 1996-2000, when Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson and Jason Giambi starting showing up. His health started failing and control was given to his sons Hal (Jimmy Carter) and Hank (Billy Carter) in 2007. Now the Yankees took the crown again last year and are poised to do again this year.

Business-wise though, George Steinbrenner was the man. He was the anti-Charles Finley in embracing free agency, viewing the players not as commodities but assets to bring fans to the seats, wins to the team and pump up the franchise value. He was the first to sign a lucrative TV contract with a local station, in 1998 with MSG. (Side note: George was in negotiations with Cablevision to sell the team! Can you imagine James Dolan running the Yankees?!? Ah, fate is fickle like that.) He was the first to create a sports network solely for a team in YES. In his final act, he was able to bully New York City to spitting up millions of taxpayer dollars for the new Yankee ($11 dollar beer) Stadium. His work through will and ego made the Yankees into a massive corporate entity as much as a baseball team. They now have a Grand Canyon sized economic advantage over the league which allows them to practically operate like they’re playing Madden with the cheat code on, which pisses everyone else off including me admittedly. That’s all George. That’s all balls.

The lasting legacy he leaves the Yankees is their win-or-else mentality and the economic means to do it. Couple the fact that he’s now officially out of the way in baseball operations and the rest of baseball is fucked. There’s no player they can’t afford and they will now have the farm system to make the trades.

That was my biggest fear with the whole “Mets might get Cliff Lee” rumblings. What if the Steinbrenner boys woke up one morning and said “I know we’re in first place and 20 games over .500, but we are in desperate need of a six starter/long man out of the bullpen. Let’s get Cliff Lee!”. What were the odds of them getting him? 90%? 95%? And if it wasn’t for injury concerns on one of the main pieces they were offering, Cliff Lee would be a Yankee right now (many think he’s going to be anyway this offseason) and we’d all be counting the days until football season. In fact, Cliff Lee being a Texas Ranger might be what caused George Steinbrenner’s heart attack.

This is what we all have to deal with now. And the Mets?

“The Mets were never serious candidates to get Cliff Lee, because while they finally are seeing some fruits of their farm system blossom, they certainly couldn’t afford to trade Ike Davis. The Mets would pay only a rental price for Lee, because they didn’t want to commit huge, long-term dollars to the lefty. Having one over-30 pitcher making over $20 million a year is nerve-wracking enough, as the Mets have seen with Johan Santana. Having two? That’s just stupidity.”

Despite karma, which has been bitch-slapping the Mets the past four years, helping the Mets walk across the tightrope and end up in the thick of a NL East race that could easily be determined by a deadline move, the Mets were never serious about Cliff “Complete Game Machine” Lee. First, the argument above doesn’t even address the fact that Cliff Lee would light a spark under the team and suffering fans, be lights out unless he got hit by a bus, hates the Phillies (your main rival) for trading him away and would be here for at least for the stretch run where he could easily pitch the team into the World Series like he did LAST FUCKING YEAR!! And God forbid you might actually have to pay two over-30 pitchers $20 million a year for the next few seasons. No one can go full out spending Yankee-style, but come on! It’s not like we’re the third most valuable franchise in the league, play in the biggest city in the country or have our own network! That’s silly talk! Instead, we’ll get Ted Lilly or Jake Westbrook, who will join Roberto Hernandez, Jeff Conine and Mike Fucking Bordick in the Hall of Met Go-For-Broke Championship Deadline Moves.

See? Balls. George Steinbrenner had them. And even in death, he has more than the timid, wishy-washy Wilpons will ever show.

RIP Boss. And please don’t try to fire God.

Published in: on July 14, 2010 at 2:01 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Yup…comparing this guy to the Wilpons is like comparing Jenna Jameson to Rosanne Barr. Not even on the same planet.


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