On his 80th birthday, the Boss and CooperstownBy
George Steinbrenner turned 80 this past Sunday, and the New York media took the time to fete the Boss. Harvey Araton talked with current Yankees who remembered the fiercely competitive owner. Filip Bondy found fans players alike who were thanks for the Boss’ World Series obsession. MLB.com’s Barry Bloom waxed poetic, and ESPN’s Wallace Matthews calls for enshrinement. What a lovefest.
For Yankee fans of any age, it’s hard to distill Steinbrenner’s reign as Yankee owner into anything resembling a narrative. A carpetbagger from Cleveland, he purchased the team at its darkest moment after CBS ownership had decimated the once-proud franchise. With a newly renovated stadium as a backdrop, George built up a championship team and a reputation for micromanaging. “We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned,” the Boss infamously said upon purchasing the team. “We’re not going to pretend we’re something we aren’t. I’ll stick to building ships.”
Yet, building ships was not in the cards for the Yankees. Steinbrenner wanted to win, and he wanted to win on his own terms. He hired, fired, rehired and refired Billy Martin more times than anyone could count. He threw money at problems, landing Reggie Jackson amidst clubhouse dissent and then signing Goose Gossage with Sparky Lyle already around to close. Winning once wasn’t good enough, and he put more and more pressure on the team to win and win at all costs.
After success in the late 1970s, George became too much for the team in the 1980s. He ordered trades that left the farm system barren, paid more than top dollar for free agents who weren’t worth the money they earned and obsessed over the drive and devotion of stars such as Dave Winfield. He pushed away Yogi Berra and Lou Piniella, and he continued to run through managers as though they were tissues.
In the 1990s, the Boss finally seemed to realize that the Yanks weren’t going to win 162 games a year. He allowed the farm to grow, and he sat back satisfied as the Yanks won four World Series in five years and spent the 2000s raking in the dough. Still, he meddled when he shouldn’t have, acquiring Randy Johnson years too late, establishing a Tampa faction to challenge Brian Cashman needlessly. The Yanks racked up the wins, but the team was flawed.
When George’s health started to slip away, the tributes came out in full. Matthews, who doesn’t want to limit the Hall of Fame to only those who were “exemplary human beings,” says Steinbrenner should be in Cooperstown because of his contributions to the game. The Yankees, through their spending, have radically changed baseball economics, and even when the game off the field shakes down to 29 clubs facing off against George’s dollars, Steinbrenner’s clubs have kept on winning. TV deals are more lucrative because of him, and record-breaking crowds flock to see the Yanks both at home and on the road. What’s good for baseball is, after all, good for baseball.
But George isn’t an easy man to pigeonhole. He violated campaign finance laws and was suspended after he sent a private investigatory to spy on Winfield. He was a cranky and temperamental owner whose need to have his finger stirring the pot probably cost the Yankees more championships during his reign than they won. Some would say he ruined the game with his spending.
So George the octogenarian trudges forward. His sons run the team, and he serves as the aging patriarch. The media loves him because he made for great headlines. Wallace Matthews and Filip Bondy are fond fans of the boss because he made their jobs easier. With an eruption from Mount George or a firing, the daily articles practically wrote themselves. Whether he belongs in the Hall though, enshrined forever in Cooperstown, is open-ended indeed.