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Sad news today as George Steinbrenner, long time owner of the Yankees, has passed away at the age of 80.
The following is a profile about George Steinbrenner written for Bill James Online in November of 2008, shortly after The Boss relinquished his managing partner duties of the New York Yankees.
The unofficial became official: George Steinbrenner is no longer the managing partner of the New York Yankees. On Thursday, Major League Baseball approved his son, Hal Steinbrenner, as the new managing partner. It is the end of an era, or error depending on your perspective.
Labeling Steinbrenner a controversial figure is a bit simplistic. The Boss practically invented the stereotype of megalomaniac owner. His words were harsh, his actions nonsensical, and his desire to win everything sports or otherwise became his ultimate tragic flaw. Steinbrenner stormed through life on a near constant warpath, the slightest whiff of defeat sending him close to the edge. He brought a football mentality to the front office of baseball, having spent a few years as an assistant football coach. It was that football mentality that seemed to drive George, whether the sport or situation were appropriate or not.
With the torched passed to his sons, it seems an appropriate time to put George Steinbrenner’s impact on the sport of baseball into some kind of perspective. This breaks down into The Tale of Two George’s: George the Fellow Baseball Owner and George the Managing Partner of the New York Yankees.
George the Fellow Baseball Owner opened a lot of financial doors. He was the first owner to fully embrace the free agent market, snapping up Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Goose Gossage to expensive contracts, quickly putting his financial advantage to use. Beyond free agents, Steinbrenner was the first to sell his team’s TV rights to a local cable company, signing a contract with MSG in 1988 that earned the team $40 million a year to broadcast one hundred plus games a season. When the relationship broke down in 2001, Steinbrenner started the YES Network, creating even more television revenue for the team. In 1997, he signed an exclusive 10 year $97 million deal with Adidas for licensed apparel.
The team-owned regional sports network is practically a given in today’s market, especially if you have an chance of competing financially with a team like the Yankees. It was a major step of Steinbrenner’s ultimate goal: making the Yankees the most widely recognized sports brand he possibly could.
As George the Fellow Baseball Owner, it’s hard to find fault in what The Boss has achieved. He changed the financial landscape of the sport by showing other owners where they can make more money. In turn, that increased revenue and created greater financial opportunities for the players, which Steinbrenner was then poised to take advantage.
George the Managing Partner held philosophies that were strikingly similar: put up the money for a high priced asset and reap the financial benefits, or in the baseball sense, World Championships. George the Managing Partner discovered early success with this approach, pulling the team out of the gutter, buying some free agents, and taking home two World Series in 1977 and 1978. Such high rewards only confirmed in George that buying the best meant succeeding the most and the modern Yankee stereotype was born.
The egotistical sense of control filtered down through all the hires and fires of GM’s and managers. In what world does it make sense to hire and fire a manager such as Billy Martin five times? What makes Martin unfit the first or second time, but suddenly the right man the fifth time? George ruled the Yankees with an iron fist, creating a dense fear of what spontaneous lunacy might come from him next.
I personally have many mixed feelings about Steinbrenner. It’s difficult to look at some of the things he has done in his life, outside of spending lots of money on players, and see a good person. He was indicted on 14 criminal charges in 1974 regarding illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon and obstruction of justice. Baseball later suspended him for 15 months and he was reinstated in 1976. In 1990, Fay Vincent banned him for life for paying Howard Spira $40,000 to find incriminating facts against Dave Winfield after Winfield sued George for unpaid charitable contributions. That ban was eventually lifted in 1993.
Neither of these actions are very admirable, but they also highlight a major point of Steinbrenner the Managing Partner: the two major championship eras of Steinbrenner’s tenure were both preceded by Steinbrenner’s absence. The Yankees were a better run team when The Boss wasn’t there.
Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1976, the first year any of his teams reached the World Series. Granted, in the off-season they picked up Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, but that accounted for only three more wins than 1976, their OPS+ going up five points, their ERA+ only 1. The foundation of the team was mostly put together in Steinbrenner’s absence.
Same thing in 1993. By most accounts, Steinbrenner returned to the Yankees but left most of the management to GM Gene Michael and manager Buck Showalter. The team finished in second place in 1993 with the third best record in the league, but then held the best record in the American League when the strike hit in 1994. They then went on a streak of 13 straight postseason appearances.
Is it coincidence that both championship runs during Steinbrenner’s tenure were built in his absence? Probably not. The lack of postseason success despite such a large payroll over the last six seasons may shed some light on the subject. Brian Cashman’s struggles to get control of the team away from Steinbrenner’s Tampa based advisers is also enlightening.
I can’t say I blame the guy, though. Like any fan, I’ve always dreamed what it would be like to own my favorite team. What if one day I got an email from some relative of a deposed Kenyan king who desperately needed an account to put their extra three billion dollars? What if I took that Kenyan money, which in American dollars sadly became only $2 billion, and bought the Yankees? Would I insist they run at a more reasonable payroll? Would I pump as much revenue as I could back into the players? Where would I draw the line on providing for the team that I love?
I would hope I would be somewhere in the middle, trying to build a good farm system while using free agency to fill in the gaps that the minors couldn’t. That’s all wishful thinking. The fact is, I admire Steinbrenner for putting the team before his finances. I admire that he was less concerned with lining his pockets than putting as good a team on the field as he could, however misguided the process may have been. It’s easy to look at his mistakes in life and in baseball and paint him as a selfish man, but that would be misunderstanding his intentions. The only thing Steinbrenner ever seemed to want was success and success in George’s eyes wasn’t measured by the almighty dollar. The dollar was a resource to achieve success, not a measure of happiness.
That doesn’t excuse his mistakes nor should it create any sympathy in the hearts of other baseball fans. But in an economy of car manufacturers with their hands out and the presidents of Enron and Wachovia bilking their employees for all that they’re worth, Steinbrenner took the road less greedy.
Firing a manager didn’t mean that person didn’t have a job if they didn’t want. The Boss rarely kicked people to the curb. He routinely gave second and third chances to players like Dwight Gooden, Steve Howe, and Daryl Strawberry, acknowledging their addictions and lending sympathy to their plights. This is not a man that we can honestly say is not charitable.
Maybe George didn’t always do the smartest things. Maybe his approach to running a team was more pig-headed than logical. One gets the feeling that in George Steinbrenner, there is an unselfish man blinded by his own brash ambition, a man who wanted to be successful no matter what the financial cost to him.
That doesn’t make him a good person, but I think I understand.
This is an article that was originally published on HardRockSports.com.
HardRock Sports columnist Scott A. Ham takes a look at the return to New York of the man who would be King.
Newspapers. We read them every day. Some are tabloid, like the New York Post, and some smell of prestige like the New York Times or the Washington Post. It has been said, and probably accurately, that the standards of journalism decreased as more publications became available, making the all-important “scoop” an even larger financial enterprise. Clever as they are, the media has averted the conflicts that come with printing unproven stories by labeling them “rumors.” How often do you see the words “allegedly,” “ostensibly,” or “possibly” in today’s media when “supposedly” covering a story? It used to be rags like the National Enquirer that stooped to that level, but as this summer proved once again, every paper is susceptible to the rumor at the trade deadline in hopes of being the first to report the big trade.
Unfortunately, trying to predict trades at the end of July is about as easy as tying your shoes with your toes. Practically none of the major rumors that were floating around until the deadline ever turned into reality. The major players available, Chuck Finley, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Fassero, Vinny Castilla, Darryl Kile, Fred McGriff, and Roberto Hernandez all stayed exactly where they were despite weeks of media speculation and debate. The only major names to move were Jose Hernandez and Juan Guzman, and they didn’t even go to their supposed suitors, the Braves and the Rangers.
Where were the Yankees in all of this? Well, the rumor-mill had the Yanks going after the Devil Ray’s Roberto Hernandez, a hard throwing reliever with a huge contract. The Yanks were also supposedly in the hunt for Chuck Finley simply to block the Indians from getting the Yankee killer. As it turned out, their “interest” spawned from a planted story in the New York Post by members of the Angels organization in an attempt to drive up the offer from Cleveland for the pitcher.
The one move the Yankees did make in all this madness was bringing back Jim Leyritz for 22-year-old pitcher Geraldo Padua. Leyritz was a longtime member of the New York Yankees before being traded to the Angels in the winter of ’96. The move, while unexpected, certainly wasn’t surprising as Leyritz was one of owner George Steinbrenner’s favorite players, mostly for his strong post season performance. There aren’t many Yankee fans that will forget Jim’s three-run homer against Mark Wohlers in Game Four of the 1996 World Series, a shot that many regard as the turning point of the series.
The move makes a lot of sense for the Yanks. Leyritz isn’t playing at the level he was when he left, but he is still a legitimate power threat and a versatile infielder. He doesn’t truly excel at any one position, but he is capable of playing first, third, outfield (corners), and catcher. His strong right-handed bat will be a welcome addition to a weak Yankee bench that has carried the likes of Jeff Manto and Clay Bellinger. With the return of Daryl Strawberry later this month and the probably demotion of Ricky Ledee, the Yanks bench will have Luis Sojo and Jim Leyritz covering the infield, Strawberry or Spencer/Curtis for the outfield with one of them starting, and either Girardi or Posada at catcher. Five of those seven players are legitimate power threats and Curtis has been known to hit with some pop as well. This is the kind of depth the Yankees have been lacking most of the season and they have two months of the season to fine-tune it for the playoffs.
The return of Leyritz also spawned another interesting question: would he be able to right the sinking ship that is Andy Pettitte? In case you didn’t know, Leyritz was Pettitte’s personal catcher during the 1996 season when Dandy Andy was runner-up to Pat Hentgen for the AL Cy Young award. Personally, I would be very surprised if the mere presence of Leyritz could help Pettitte mentally. Leyritz won’t be doing much catching with the team, at least not this season, with Girardi and Posada already covering duties and manager Joe Torre not wanting to rock the ship. There is a chance, however, that with Girardi’s option year ending after this season, the Yanks may tie-up Leyritz for a couple seasons and make him the backup catcher behind Posada next season. Further ammunition lies in Pettitte’s performance in 1997 after Leyritz left. Andy’s ERA was a full run less in ’97, giving up 16 less home runs in 19 more innings. Clearly, Leyritz’s departure had little effect on Pettitte’s performance and can’t be expected to improve it now.
In the meantime, Leyritz will have to accept the role of bench player, a position he should be familiar with in a Yankee uniform. During his first tour of duty in pinstripes, Leyritz made waves publicly complaining about his playing-time and driving his managers nuts. The outbursts became such an issue, it lead a member of the squad to post a sign on Leyritz’s locker that said, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” The Yanks weren’t convinced the message was fully received, trading him in ’96 to get him the playing time he felt he deserved.
Torre is obviously concerned about Leyritz taking the same attitude upon his return, but Jimmy has seemed to be more than cooperative. He was happy to tell reporters he had no plans on trying to become a starter on the Yanks and was happy to fill any role Torre felt him suitable for.
Goodbye Rumors, Hello Andy
After weeks and weeks of trade rumors surrounding Andy Pettitte, the Yankees made the right decision and held onto Andy at the deadline. Pettitte’s had a difficult season, but the idea of trading the 27 year-old left-hander was simply ridiculous. Pettitte has shown flashes of his old self throughout the season and clearly hasn’t lost any of the movement on his pitches. He’s won 67 games over the last four years and is the only lefty in the Yanks rotation. If they had traded him, the Yanks would have found themselves looking for a left-handed starter this winter with probably less of a future than Pettitte has.