George? Yes, God? You’re fired! Hey — that’s my line! (George Steinbrenner, 1930-2010)

The man just had to go and steal the headlines one last time, didn't he? Photo: AP

The guy always had to be on the back pages of the tabloids, y’know? He just couldn’t help himself! George Steinbrenner always had to command all the attention.

Why is this so appropriate? Two days after the passing of one of the classiest and longest-serving of Yankees, 99-year-old Bob Sheppard — and on the morning of the All-Star Game! — George had to go and grab all the headlines one last time.

This time, it was God doing the firing and George, for once, on the receiving end. It’s just funny. Whoever says God doesn’t have a sense of humor doesn’t appreciate the cosmic comic timing behind this.

(And, in a case of morbid symmetry: My previous two posts were tributes to a longtime Yankee and a man from Cleveland. Steinbrenner was a longtime Yankee from Cleveland.)

George Michael Steinbrenner III, born on the Fourth of July 1930, was a one-of-a-kind Yankee Doodle Dandy. Thank God.

He was a twisted variation of the American Dream: bratty scion turns his silver spoon into an entire platinum, diamond-encrusted dinner set. The son of the owner of a shipbuilding company, he turned a less-than-$1 million stake in a baseball team into a billion-dollar empire. When he led the group that bought the Yankees from CBS in January 1973, the purchase price was $8.8 million. The team is worth $1.6 billion in the latest Forbes rankings.

That’s how the economics of sports have changed, for better and much worse,  in part because of Steinbrenner — but only in part, because to a huge extent, he was only reacting to the emerging realities of the sports market. He saw the coming of free agency and had the money and the market to sign the best players money could buy. (And some of the worst, too.) Sure, he helped create the monster by ratcheting up the prices of signing athletes, but had he not done it, no doubt someone else would have.

But of course, economics were only part of the equation. He blustered, he yelled, he tried to make his team the best by sheer will. (And he flat-out lied; the day he took over the club, he told the media he wouldn’t be involved in the day-to-day affairs.)

But I’d like to think he could have done it without so much human wreckage. And besides, it didn’t always work. The Yanks might have won four pennants and two World Series in his first decade as owner, but the team went 15 years between pennants and 18 years between Series titles, and the 1990 club (67-95) was the worst in team history since the 1912 Highlanders.

I heard the guy had a good side, doing things quietly for people and not letting one hand know what the other was doing. And believe it or not, despite drawing his first suspension from baseball for illegal campaign contributions to the 1972 Nixon campaign, he more often than not supported Democrats (there was an interesting article in Salon about it).

But this was also the guy who famously fired a secretary in the Bronx Zoo days for ordering the wrong sandwich. Who fired or forced out more managers and coaches than any owner in any sport — 20 skippers in his first 23 years, including, of course, Billy Martin five times. Who traded away promising young talent like Willie McGee, Fred McGriff, Doug Drabek and Jay Buhner for inferior veterans. Who constantly threatened to move the team to the West Side of Manhattan or to Jersey in order to get a new Stadium, and thus started the repulsive trend of owners in several sports holding cities hostage to force them to build new arenas with public funds.

And at a certain point, the ego couldn’t help but trip over itself, it had gotten so Jabba-the-Hutt big. Because of his hirings and firings and other many assorted meddlings, and because he was successful early on, it was only inevitable that Steinbrenner began to think of himself as bigger than the team — larger than the product he was selling, larger than the city he adopted, larger than the game itself. By the early ’80s, it was clear that he was  more interested in doing something outrageous to get on the back page of the Daily News or the Post than trying to settle the strike.

And the fans knew the deal. Their relationship with George, like most of his relationships, was never warm and fuzzy, but two incidents really stand out in their venom toward the Boss. One was the night of Reggie Jackson’s return to the Stadium with the Angels in 1982 after Steinbrenner pushed him out of the Bronx. Jackson homered off Ron Guidry, which was followed by a relentless torrent of “STEINBRENNER SUCKS!” from the fans.

The other was the night in 1990 when the word got around on the radio during a game at the Stadium that Commissioner Fay Vincent banned Steinbrenner for life for hiring a weasel gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. The standing ovation from the fed-up fans was long, loud and vindictive.

“For life” was actually only two years, but it allowed the team to be free of his meddling at long last, after which general manager Gene Michael began building what would become a new Yankee dynasty — and keep players Steinbrenner might have traded away. Like Bernie Williams. Or Derek Jeter.

To pull back the tangent, Steinbrenner’s massive ego trip was why I stopped being a Yankee fan for 18 years.

It started with the 1981 strike. Actually, it probably started with the way he mistreated Dick Howser, a very good manager and by all accounts I read a very good man, and forced him to resign after the team won 103 games in ’80 but finally lost to the Royals in the ALCS. (Dave Anderson did a legendary column about that day in The New York Times.) This wasn’t “The George and Billy Show”; this was a class act treated with little class.

But then came the lengthy strike. And one day in the midst of that, I saw one of the tabloids; the back page was George blustering about some insignificant bullshit. And I just had enough. Here we had the first extended strike in baseball history, one that jeopardized the season, and here Steinbrenner was, just hogging the back page for the sake of hogging the back page. I didn’t see him working too hard to help settle the strike. It was all about him once again.

Well, fuck him. I decided that day I wasn’t going to go back to the Yankees until he died or sold the team. And when they lost to the Dodgers in the Series that fall, I couldn’t have watched any less of the Series. I had totally turned off the team of my childhood.

And what really cemented it for me was the way he screwed Yogi Berra in ’85. Yogi, of course, is a beloved American icon, not to mention a New York sports legend. Fourteen games into the season, after promising that Yogi would keep his job through the season, Steinbrenner fired him — and on top of that, he didn’t have the balls to do it himself; he sent one of his front-office guys to do it. Yogi vowed never to return to the Stadium, and if Yogi, who truly had a reason to disavow the Yankees, then so did I.

I actually followed the Cleveland Indians for the next nine years. I had covered their Eastern League farm team the last two years Waterbury had Double-A ball (1985-86), and I saw a bunch of players that were a lot better than you’d expect from the perennially losing parent club.They piqued my interest.

Several future big-leaguers came through there: Doug Jones, one of the best closers of the late ’80s/early ’90s; Jay Bell, who capped his career by scoring the winning run for the Diamondbacks against the Yankees in the 2001 Series; Johnny Farrell, who threw a no-hitter for the Angels and is now the Red Sox’ pitching coach; Dave Clark, a longtime National League infielder, mostly with the Cubs, and most recently a coach and interim manager for the Astros; Cory Snyder, the golden-boy slugger (and ’85 EL MVP) whose career in the majors was shortened by his inability to hit the curveball; and Andy Allanson, who ended up catching for the Tigers in the early ’90s.

I followed the Tribe until the 1994 strike, when the Jacobs family decided to align themselves with hardline owners such as Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox during the labor dispute; in my mind, the Indians’ owners forgot where they came from pretty quickly, so I ditched them — and all of baseball, for that matter — when the season was canceled.

Three things eventually, finally brought me back to the Yankee fold. Two of them were Joe Torre and his managerial style; and Jeter and his day-in, day-out excellence. I enjoyed that the Yankees won the series in ’96, but that didn’t bring me back. And neither did the greatest team of all, the ’98 squad that won 125 games. I did appreciate them greatly, though — I often told friends that if I were coaching a Little League team and wanted to teach kids the importance of teamwork, then I’d have them watch the ’98 Yankees.

What finally brought me back was an event in early 1999 — Steinbrenner visiting the Yogi Berra Museum to apologize to Yogi personally, publicly, for mistreating him. That’s when I finally felt comfortable going back to the fold. But I’m nowhere near the fan I was as a kid.

Anyway, I don’t wish long declines on anyone.

I once knew someone who would occasionally put down money on games with guys with colorful nicknames who know more about sports than you or I, and one of these guys who know more than you or I told my friend in the early 2000s that Steinbrenner had Alzheimer’s. That, of course, has never been substantiated, but it was quite evident by mid-decade that something was amiss.

George retreated to his Tampa home, his public appearances further and further apart. He fainted at the funeral of his good friend, legendary Browns quarterback Otto Graham. On those occasions where he had to be in the public eye, like the groundbreaking for the new Stadium, he had great difficulty with interviews. And more and more, his pronouncements were polished statements from his personal flack, Howard Rubenstein. That includes the one attributed to him upon the death of Mr. Sheppard on Sunday.

Again, I wouldn’t wish that long trudge toward darkness on anyone, no matter how I feel about them.

But put me in the long line of people who won’t be attending his wake. He returned the Yankees to prominence, but in the process he stripped me of the joy of being a Yankee fan and upended a lot of people’s lives for no reason. He did his share to usher along a new economic sports model that shunted the middle-class fan in favor of the ultra-wealthy, using our public funds to subsidize what has become a playground for the rich. And when he was healthy, he annoyed and infuriated us with his overgrown twin senses of self and entitlement.

There will never be another George Steinbrenner, even if for the fact that few people have a spare $1.6 billion to throw around to buy a ballclub. That’s fine — one of him per lifetime was enough. I’ll settle for the silence of his son Hal for a while.


6 Responses to “George? Yes, God? You’re fired! Hey — that’s my line! (George Steinbrenner, 1930-2010)”

  1. jmucci Says:

    I wrote my own blog about him. I had conflicting feelings about him myself. I tried to keep the blog mostly positive, but I do understand why you have felt the way you did. I certainly have felt that way many times myself.

  2. Meghan Says:

    I think your post has definitely echoed the varying thoughts surrounding Steinbrenner. Bill Madden and Dave Anderson (who you mentioned above) are actually going to be discussing Steinbrenner’s career during the last segment of Charlie Rose on Bloomberg Television tonight. There’s a preview of the clip up on Facebook, and if you feel inclined, share your “favorite” Steinbrenner moments.

  3. jonalynn Says:

    Really great commentary, Frannie! I have never been a Yankees fan, but I do love baseball. And what that man helped usher in has hurt us all. You found a nice balance between telling his story and holding him accountable.

    • franoramaworld Says:

      Congratulations, Jonalynn! You’re my 100th comment! Hope all’s well down there … mwah!

      • jonalynn Says:

        I’m completely honored to be part of this milestone! Congrats on 100 comments. I can only hope my blog reaches that number someday. Things in the AZ are good. I’m enjoying writing again and teaching myself graphic/web design.

  4. The Giants in the Series: They’re ours (well, some of them) « Franorama World Says:

    […] a Yankee fan for most of my life — save for that period from 1981-98 when I was pissed at Steinbrenner – and besides, it’s really not a Series without the Yankees, is […]

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