George Steinbrenner was born on the Fourth of July and passed away on the day of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. And if that isn't the measure of his larger than life persona, nothing is.
Steinbrenner passed away Tuesday at the age of 80 in Tampa, just hours before the All-Star Game will be played in Anaheim. The American League team will be managed by Joe Girardi, the manager of the Steinbrenner-owned New York Yankees, but throughout the game Tuesday night there will more than ever be only one Boss.
That was the nickname given to Steinbrenner years ago and it still resonated even into his dotage, although as time softened the edges of his life 'The Boss' became less a pejorative term and more one of wistfulness. Steinbrenner took a $10-million (all currency U.S.) investment and turned the Yankees into, arguably, the greatest sports franchise on the planet. Manchester United and Real Madrid can stake a claim to that because of soccer's popularity, but United is a team financed by debt with a fan base that detests its American-born owners, the Glazer family. Real Madrid players call themselves 'the Galacticos' and they are certainly sexy and everybody wants to play for them but their track record in recent years has made them almost cartoonish.
Steinbrenner, who as his health failed ceded day-to-day operations of the team to his sons Hal and Hank., Jr., passed away with the Yankees defending World Series champions and in first place in the American League East. Last year's World Series title was the Yankees' seventh under his stewardship, to go along with 11 pennants.
To be polite, Steinbrenner lived a textured life: banned from the game at one point, by the mid-Eighties he had racked up almost $700,000 in fines from the commissioner's office for a variety of offences related to the game. He was suspended from the game for two years by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn after pleading guilty to making illegal corporate contributions to President Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election bid and trying to influence employees of his shipping company to lie to a grand jury. But that suspension was commuted to 15 months and he was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan in 1989.
Steinbrenner made his money in shipbuilding - although his company would file for bankruptcy -and horse racing and remained a lasting symbol of the days when pro teams were run by "sportsmen" - people who played to win, took advantage of whatever political and economic clout they had and, if necessary, bullied people. He fired and re-hired managers, feuded with star players, paid outrageous salaries to free agents (sometimes of dubious quality) and railed against revenue sharing. No other sports owner possessed a similar bully pulpit.
But for all the profligate ways and benefits, remember this: it was on Steinbrenner's watch that the core of the Yankees dynasty was drafted and built. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams were signed and retained. Steinbrenner overpaid for free agents - but most importantly, he kept his core happy. He set the tone for a business model that built a huge, new revenue-generating ballpark in the Bronx - not some suburb - and created a sports broadcasting empire that is the envy of most pro teams. The Yankees didn't always win World Series - check the first decade of this century to see that - but they were the measuring stick of every team in every way.
My experiences with Steinbrenner were limited. A few phone interviews when the Montreal Expos seemed to be perpetually up for sale - back then he often answered the phone in his Tampa office - and a favourite rite of spring training: an early-morning trip to Fort Lauderdale and then later Tampa necessitated by some new Yankees drama, always highlighted by the media scramble and stake-out of Steinbrenner, who'd cruise through the concourses in a golf cart wearing a dark windbreaker.
But I remember what happened in 2003 when the Florida Marlins beat the Yankees in the sixth game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium - the Marlins, at the tail end of baseball's payroll structure and owned by a New York art dealer, Jeffrey Loria, who was also a Yankees season-ticket holder. As the Marlins players and executives and their families let the celebration spill out onto the field of the stadium - children gleefully flopping face-first into second base, champagne toasts consummated on the pitchers mound, the stadium lights dimmed. But they were not turned off: The Boss told his groundskeepers and stadium operations people: "They won. They deserve it. Let them alone."
You can debate all day whether baseball is still America's game, but in George Steinbrenner - the man whose order to keep playing God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch in perpetuity after the 9/11 terror attacks was never challenged - the best and worst of America often overlapped. As did the best and worst of the game.
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