For two minutes.
Granted it was a Monday night game in the South Bronx where the last-place Yankees, on their way to 97 losses, had Steve Balboni batting cleanup and Dave LaPoint on the mound, so there weren’t too many people in the old stadium. Granted, these were the days before there was cachet about going to a ballgame, especially ones where Stump Merrill is the manager of the Yankees, and Starbucks and gentrification hadn’t overwhelmed New York City. These were the rough days before the proliferation of political correctness and mass marketing where a man’s words, faults and deeds were never spun or the public wasn’t so easily duped.
The fact remains, two minutes to cheer for anything is a big deal.
Winning the World Series a bunch of times, coupled with turning a $10 million investment into billions has a way of changing a few minds here and there. Plus, with the passage of time memories get softer and the bad times lose an edge. The good ol’ days, they’re called. Or maybe the term revisionist history applies.
They old saying goes that it’s nice to speak ill of the dead, and since George M. Steinbrenner III died this morning in Tampa, Fla. of a heart attack at age 80, there’s no need to say mean things. That’s not cool. Besides, Big Stein was never anything more than a caricature to me. I’d been to his ballparks, wrote about his teams and handed him over my money and I was always happy to do so. In some weird sense, a signature franchise is kind of fun. Operations like the Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Manchester United, etc. serve a purpose even for the detractors. After all, what fun is drama without villains?
We can’t excuse treating history like a press release, though. History cannot be whitewashed as if it were a ride in an amusement park. Sure, in recent years Steinbrenner was looked at as some sort of beloved elder statesman who spent lavishly and celebrated championships. To watch one of the talking heads get all weepy on ESPN this morning is to believe that the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s never happened.
Yes, Steinbrenner was a philanthropist. Locally, he donated millions to the Penn Relays and had awards named after his father, Henry, as a result. But what rich guy — one with inherited wealth at that — did not give to charity. Tax deductions and public relations don’t grow on trees, you know.
The subtitle of an autobiography about Steinbrenner is apt: Poor Little Rich Boy. In fact, Steinbrenner’s relationship with his father Henry very well could have been the point of reference for all his behavior. He was charitable and a deadbeat; kind and a bully. Henry Steinbrenner would pull strings for his son and give him companies to run, but then browbeat him afterwards for not being the quintessential self-made man.
That’s what the Yankees were for Steinbrenner — they were a way to prove to his dad that he could do something by himself. So focused on making the Yankees the most famous and best franchise in sports and showing his father he could accomplish something on his own that Steinbrenner nearly destroyed it. The facts are undeniable.
* In his first 23 years with the Yankees, Steinbrenner had 14 different men as manager. Billy Martin was hired and fired four times, while Lou Piniella and Bob Lemon held the reins on two different occasions. Before the 1981 season, Steinbrenner announced that Dick Howser was stepping down to take advantage of real estate opportunities in Florida. In actuality, the real estate deal was Steinbrenner paying off Howser’s mortgage because he couldn’t figure out how to fire a manager who had won 103 games the season before.
* Steinbrenner was banned for life from running the Yankees because he paid a small-time gambler $40,000 to dig up “dirt” on star outfielder Dave Winfield. As part of his contract, Winfield was guaranteed $300,000 from Steinbrenner for his charity foundation. When Steinbrenner never paid up, Winfield sued. This lifetime ban came months after Pete Rose was banned for life from baseball for gambling activities, however, Steinbrenner was reinstated three years later by acting commissioner Bud Selig.
* Steinbrenner was indicted on 14 criminal counts on April 5, 1974, then pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's presidential re-election campaign. He also pleaded guilty to a felony charge of obstruction of justice on Aug. 23, 1974. He was fined $15,000, and his firm was assessed $20,000 for the offense. On Nov. 27, 1974, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for two years, but later reduced that amount to fifteen months, with Steinbrenner returning to the Yankees in 1976. Some published accounts say he continued to run the show on the sly.
Steinbrenner never served a day in prison after U.S. President Ronald Reagan pardoned him on Jan. 19, 1989, in one of the final acts of his presidency.
*Before the 1985 season, Steinbrenner stated about manager Yogi Berra: “Yogi will be the manager the entire season, win or lose.” But after a 6-10 start to the season, Yogi was fired and refused to step into Yankee Stadium for 14 years until he received an apology.
* Ken Griffey Jr. was stated to never play for the Yankees, despite chances to do so, presumably because he was upset with the way his father was treated by Steinbrenner when the elder Griffey played for the team.
* Steinbrenner forced grown men to shave and wear their hair a certain length and even suspended star Don Mattingly because he deemed his hair too long.
* Steinbrenner says he got into a fight with Dodgers fans in an elevator after Game 3 of the 1981 World Series, though no one stepped forward nor was there evidence that the owner was in a scrap. Nevertheless, Steinbrenner held a press conference in his hotel room in Los Angeles to show off the cast around his arm, while whispers circulated that the owner allegedly staged the fight in order to fire up his team.
* After losing to the Dodgers in six games in the 1981 World Series, Steinbrenner offered an apology to the city of New York for the defeat. It took the Yankees 15 years to reach another World Series.
* Billy Martin on Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner during the height of the Bronx Zoo Era: “The two were meant for each other. One's a born liar, and the other's convicted.”
These events were all part of the life of George M. Steinbrenner III and to be sure there was never another owner like him. For good or worse, the sports landscape with its outrageous salaries, high ticket prices, regional team/cable partnerships, lucrative sponsorship deals, and overall distancing between sports figures and the public was spearheaded by Steinbrenner.
Want to know why the average salary in baseball is more than $2 million or why it costs so much to park and buy food at the ballpark? Big Stein is the man. Indeed, Major League Baseball went from a mom and pop operation to a billion dollar industry thanks largely to Steinbrenner.
Along the way, he was parodied on Seinfeld, hosted Saturday Night Live, was a fixture at Elaine’s and made it so nearly every single baseball game played every year was televised. He was both the fan’s greatest friend and enemy. He was the villain and the hero as well as the protector and the bully.
Steinbrenner was every bit a contradiction and the modern idea of what a sports owner should be like, and it will be a lot more boring without him. Nope, Steinbrenner was never boring, which is probably the greatest compliment anyone could ever receive.