12:28 pm Jul. 13, 2010
News of George Steinbrenner’s death comes with more than a bit of awkwardness. The tributes, many of them heartfelt, have already begun, celebrating his passion, boldness, and success at rescuing what, at the time of his purchase of the club in 1972, had become a moribund Yankee franchise.
The Yankees won seven World Series and 11 pennants on Steinbrenner’s long watch.
And yet it never felt like enough.
Steinbrenner came to New York from Cleveland, having been spurned in his attempt to buy a share of the Indians. The era of free agency was dawning and Steinbrenner wasted little time in spending. Nor, did it take long for him to establish himself as the face, voice and master of his club.
This bordered on hubris. Steinbrenner was not a baseball man. He had run track at Williams and coached football as an assistant at Northwestern. As it happened, his arrival came shortly after the Miami Dolphins completed the rarest of sporting feats: an undefeated season. And though the Dolphins had only to play roughly a tenth as many games—17—as did his Yankees, it was as if their capacity to win without defeat set a standard to which he wanted his club to aspire.
That the Yankees won more often than they lost seemed beside the point. Steinbrenner wanted championships and spent for championships and when he did not get them he was capable of behaving quite badly.
He bullied his players, fired his managers—Billy Martin did five angst-plagued tours—humiliated his subordinates, and, when the Yankees lost the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers, felt it necessary to apologize to the city for their defeat.
He needn’t have bothered.
Steinbrenner placed a premium on power, at bat or on the mound. He lauded those players he dubbed “warriors,” as if a hard slide were equivalent to facing live ammunition. These were the men who, in his view of the universe, had fulfilled their part of bargain: they had given him his money’s worth. Those who did not were subject to public rebuke: most famously, his ridiculing of Dave Winfield as “Mr. May.”
But all the taunts, threats and none-too-subtly placed items in the sports pages did not make the Yankees winners. In fact, the periods of their greatest success followed his two suspensions from the game—the first for illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, the second for hiring a gambler to search for dirt on the fallen-from-grace Winfield.
Freed from his daily hectoring and second-guessing his general managers—his “baseball people” as he called them—were free to begin assembling teams, not collections of stars, but teams. And when the best of those clubs—the Yankees of the late 1990s lost a heartbreaker of a seventh game in the 2001 World Series, Steinbrenner’s reaction was to declare that changes would be made. He was back and the Yankees would not win another World Series until age and infirmity had all but removed him from his accustomed place in the middle of things.
There was always the sense that Steinbrenner regarded defeat as a moral failure. Which meant that victory would belong to a tougher club, a band of “warriors,” a team that reflected the image he tried so hard to project—bold, brash, hard. Such a team, the reasoning seemed to go, could overcome the one element of baseball that he appeared incapable of tolerating, or understanding: the inevitability of failure.
George Steinbrenner wanted nothing less than a World Championship every year. A worthy aspiration, and hardly unique. But a team doesn’t have to win every year to be liked. In fact, it is the team that competes, that wins and sometimes loses, that can establish and, through the rough times, sustain a rapport with its fans that transcends admiration and comes close to approaching love.
If Steinbrenner, the son of a bully, thought that victory would translate into love, from his players, his employees and his adopted city, he was wrong.
Sometimes it is enough just to say "good try, fellas." A lesson, sadly, that eluded “the Boss.”