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To Bury the Boss, Not to Praise Him

Jul. 21, 2010
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In the end, the tributes rolled in for George Steinbrenner. From Bud Selig, who as Brewers owner decried big-market advantages and as baseball commissioner wrung some revenue-sharing out of Steinbrenner’s empire. From former New York Yankees players and managers, many of whom The Boss ridiculed and/or fired. And from the New York tabloids, now all sentimental about the guy they used to denounce as “King George” and mock in cartoons as “General Von Steingrabber.”

Steinbrenner died last week after almost four decades of running the Yankees—minus a few years in two suspensions, in the ’70s for illegal campaign donations to Richard Nixon and the ’90s for hiring a private eye to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. In the ’90s “Big Stein” was depicted on “Seinfeld” as more daffy than domineering, and in recent years he faded into poor health as two sons took over the team. But his death returned him to his favorite place—the center of attention—and revived the essential Steinbrenner debate: Villain, hero, or what proportions of each? The Observers, with Frank getting a firsthand view in New York, chime in.

Frank: Shades of Charles Foster Kane! This was the tabloids’ version of Orson Welles’ fictional newsreel that solemnly intoned the passing of a giant.

Artie: Except that instead of “Rosebud,” Steinbrenner’s last word evoking a painful loss might have been “Buhner.”

Frank: That would be fictionally fitting, since the trading of future All-Star Jay Buhner in 1998 spurred Frank Costanza to browbeat Steinbrenner on “Seinfeld.”

Artie: These days a lot of people hate the Yankees and their money, but I can honestly say I liked their teams from 1982 through ’94.

Frank: Gee, the 13 straight seasons when the Yankees couldn’t even reach the playoffs. I view that era a bit differently, but you raise an interesting point. A Newsday headline proclaimed, “Boss’ Legacy: He Won,” but by his own standard he didn’t win all that much.

Artie: Buying… um, winning seven World Series ain’t chopped liver; the next-closest team during his reign was Oakland with three.

Frank: Yeah, but that’s over 37 years. By The Boss’ blustery credo that the Yanks’ only goal was total supremacy, he batted under .200. He bought the team in ’73 and the winning came in two spurts—four World Series (two wins) from ’76 through ’81 and seven Series (five wins) since ’95. But in between he presided over those 13 years of nothing—the longest Yankee drought since before Babe Ruth arrived in 1920.

Artie: Maybe if The Boss hadn’t been such an egotistical knob, if he’d shown some common sense and people skills toward managers, he’d have gotten above the Mendoza line.

Frank: It’s often said here that a “new” Steinbrenner came back from his second suspension in ’93. He was willing to give his “baseball people” more leeway to build the team from within. The “Core Four” who are still playing—Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada—began to rise through the minors during Steinbrenner’s penance.

Artie: The “old” Steinbrenner might have traded a couple of those guys for one of his high-priced “names,” ain’a?

Frank: Not that there weren’t boondoggles all along—like signing pitchers Kevin Brown, Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano. But the Yankees’ piles of money—which really grew in this decade when Steinbrenner created YES, his own cable network—financed 13 straight playoff appearances from ’95 through ’07.

Artie: The key for any club is making good moves. But if you’ve got the dough you can make more moves and figure that enough will work...

Frank: Besides that, through luck or shrewdness, Steinbrenner found in Joe Torre a manager who’d stand up to him while keeping the clubhouse steady. Torre had nice things to say last week, but also this: “He had no regard for anyone else's life. But those were the ground rules."

Artie: Sounds like bosses we’ve all had.

Frank: Here’s another question. A New York Times business column had the headline, “Was Steinbrenner Just Lucky?” Might anyone be able to win with the same pile of money?

Artie: It’s possible to win in pro sports without being a blowhard. Take the Rooneys in the NFL or our own former Packers president, Bob Harlan.

Frank: Here’s another Steinbrenner issue. Around here everyone’s been saying, “Well, George just wanted to win so much” to explain why he acted like a jerk. But did Bud Selig want to win any less, or does Mark Attanasio now? Does the desire to win cover a multitude of sins? In other words, does the end justify the means, no matter how mean?

Artie: To a team’s fans, absolutely. To quote another world-class jerk, Al Davis, “Just win, baby.”

Frank: I held my nose about Steinbrenner’s bullying, sore-loser antics, but I didn’t stop smiling whenever the Yankees won.

Artie: And I didn’t notice anyone booing the noted steroid user and liar Alex Rodriguez last fall when he helped the Yankees go all the way.

Frank: In the World Cup soccer final, most analysts ripped Holland’s team for super-aggressive tactics to disrupt the favored Spaniards. But if Holland had won, would the title have been tainted?

Artie: Not to Dutch fans!

Frank: The tabloids painted Steinbrenner as a lovable rogue. But he wasn’t so lovable, to the press or the fans, when the team was lousy. If he’d died two years ago, when the Yankees missed the playoffs, the tone might have differed. As it was, he had the great timing to depart as a defending champ.

Artie: Here’s another case. Red Auerbach was an arrogant jerk, but he coached the Celtics to nine NBA titles in 10 years. But several of those finals in the ’50s and ’60s came down to a seventh game against the Lakers. If a few shots go the other way, maybe Auerbach isn’t quite the legend we think of.

Frank: How about Vince Lombardi? Remember the famous quote: “He treated us all the same—like dogs.” If Bart Starr doesn’t make it to the end zone in the Ice Bowl and something goes wrong in another title game, does Vince become less of a legend?

Artie: Now you’re on dangerous ground! I think Lombardi wasn’t out to aggrandize himself the way Steinbrenner or Auerbach was. With Lombardi the team was everything...

Frank: I thought the best Steinbrenner summary came from Times columnist Jim Dwyer: "He raged. He wept. He won. … He broke laws, promises, lives. He did charity. He grafted his ego onto the back pages of newspapers. He championed ordinary New Yorkers, then took them for every last penny."

Artie: A big shot sticking it to the little guy. Shocking!

Frank: Now the Yankees have a terrific new stadium, heavily subsidized by public financing. How did Steinbrenner get it? He trashed the Bronx as too dangerous and tried to move to Manhattan, even threatening to go to New Jersey otherwise. But Yankee fans called his bluff, packing the old Yankee Stadium. So how did The Boss repay Joe Fan? The new ballpark has far fewer seats in the upper deck, affordable for the average guy.

Artie: Some friend of the ordinary New Yorker.

Frank: To me, the far deeper loss was Bob Sheppard, the classy voice of Yankee Stadium for almost 60 years, who died two days before Steinbrenner. Remembering him announce the starting lineups—“And for the Yankees…”—evokes sunny days at the Stadium with my dad and brother, in good times and bad. Steinbrenner only evokes New York pomposity. Or as another Times headline said, “A Windbag, But He Was Our Windbag.”

Artie: Now there’s a legacy!

Frank: The odes last week emphasized that The Boss did a lot of charitable giving and mended many of his broken relationships. We all carry a balance sheet of good and bad when we make our exit, but Steinbrenner’s real legacy might be to remind us that in sports, good behavior isn’t what matters. Winning is.

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