Like many Yankee fans, I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of George Steinbrenner today. Though no one can consider the news a surprise, given the reports of his dwindling health during the last few years, it's still a tremendous loss as we say goodbye to one of the most enduring and iconic figures in all of sports. Say what you will about George Steinbrenner, but no one can deny the man thoroughly changed the course of baseball history in one fell swoop upon purchasing the Yankees from CBS in 1973.
As a Yankee fan whose obsession with the team was secured as a youngster growing up with the bad Yankee teams of the late 80s/early 90s, I never fully witnessed firsthand the trials and tribulations of Steinbrenner’s underhandedness. Ironically enough, I’m actually currently in the middle of reading Bill Madden’s biography of the boss, “Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball,” and it would appear that the height of George’s influence was primarily during the first 15 years of his ownership, up until around the time that Fay Vincent banned him for life.
I remember as a nine-year-old that my friend and fellow Yankee fan Dave was ecstatic at the news that Steinbrenner had been banned. How a third grader fully understood the depth of Steinbrenner’s tyranny and subsequently developed a fierce judgmental anger toward a man he’d never met and who was 50 years his senior I’ll never quite understand, but Dave made a convincing enough case that I remember thinking it was a good thing as well.
However, as I grew older and the Yankees became the focal point of my extracurricular interests, I began to appreciate more and more what The Boss had done to restore the Yankees to greatness, and eventually grew to love him. Sure, the credit for the Yankees’ dynasty in the late 90s is often given to Gene Michael for building those teams while George was away, but the one constant throughout his tenure as owner was an open checkbook, which enabled the team to fill any and all of its needs.
This runs counter to how a good majority of baseball owners have historically run their teams. While we’ve seen more of a willingness among owners to expand payrolls during the last few years—primarily a function of realizing the necessity in doing so in order to compete, not to mention ridiculously increased revenues and revenue sharing across the board—many of George’s peers had a tendency to cinch their pursestrings extra tight when it came to putting money back into their franchises.
Yankee haters have long cited that a major problem with the way the team is run is that they always outspend everyone else, but that’s forgetting a major point: the Yankees outspend everyone else because George Steinbrenner was always willing to do whatever it took. It’s not as if other teams in baseball didn’t have the money to spend on free agents (ahem, Carl Pohlad, ahem); but that their billionaire owners were more interested in turning a profit rather than pumping the money back into the team to ensure their hometown fans always had a winning product on the field.
George returned the team to glory in the late 70s, and also arguably ruined any chances the franchise might have had in the lost decade of the 1980s. Stick Michael was the architect for the 90s teams, and by the time George was reinstated, it’s hard to know just how much influence he had on the day-to-day operations. Though George never fired another manager after Stump Merrill, The Boss still called for trades that thankfully were never completed (Andy Pettitte in the late 90s), chased fading superstars (Randy Johnson) and even personally signed players (unfortunately bringing Gary Sheffield aboard despite Brian Cashman’s preference for Vladimir Guerrero). As George’s health deteriorated, so did his involvement in the team, and Brian Cashman announced to the world after the 2005 season that a return to the Yankees as GM was contingent on receiving full autonomy for all decision-making, which he received.
But despite all of George’s meddling, he ran the Yankees like no other owner has run a franchise on the history of sports, for better or for worse. Yankee fans have long had a love-hate relationship with Steinbrenner: He could be the toast of the town and public enemy #1 in the same breath. However, once the team finally started winning again under Joe Torre, the relationship seemed to finally permanently morph from love-hate to love-love.
I was at the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, and the love and adulation being showered upon George Steinbrenner as he was driven around the field with his family on that golf cart was one of the most heartfelt and touching moments I’ve experienced. It was as if all of New York City finally got to tell George in person that yes, they really did love him after all these years, and to thank him for the unforgettable and lifelong memories he was responsible for creating. Additionally, I'm glad he was at least able to see his beloved Yankees win the World Series one last time in their first season in the beautiful new Stadium that he was responsible for building.
To George Steinbrenner, a man who left an undeniable and legendary impact on the most storied franchise in the history of professional sports, The New York Yankees: You’ll be missed, Boss.