George Steinbrenner died this morning. It’s safe to assume that if he is floating north in the afterlife, there will be a bit of a waiting period.
He was a convicted felon (pleading guilty to making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s campaign and obstruction of justice). He twice was suspended from baseball (once for the aforementioned, the other for paying $40,000 to a convicted gambler for damaging information on player Dave Winfield).
He did more than any sports owner in history to drive up player salaries to mind-dizzying levels.
He was, at times, a slapstick comedy act, changing managers 20 times in his first 23 seasons as New York Yankees owner (Billy Martin passing through that door five times). He once promised Yogi Berra he would keep him as manager the entire season. Turns out that promise had an expiration date: 16 games.
But George Steinbrenner was something else. He was what every sports fan wants. What every player wants. Not the corporate owner who hides behind a desk, sweating over the stock price. Not the private owner, preoccupied with his own personal profit margin. Certainly not the part-owner being sued by a partner.
Steinbrenner had control, wanted control and used that control to achieve his only objective: to win. He would do anything and spend anything. We can debate whether at times he strayed into the area of raving lunatic, but there was no questioning his passion or commitment. His team was his life.
How many owners can we say that about today?
“Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing,” Steinbrenner once said. “Breathing first, winning next.”
Steinbrenner died this morning at the age of 80 following a heart attack. The Yankees won seven World Series and 11 American League pennants during his ownership. Objective achieved.
Depending on your perspective, maybe the ends don’t justify the means. Steinbrenner wasn’t angelic. Neither was he evil incarnate. He floated somewhere in-between. He was baseball’s Gordon Gekko before Gordon Gekko was cool. He was Darth Vader in the executive suite. Would he obliterate Alderaan, a planet of peaceful people with no weapons, if it meant furthering the Empire’s mission? Damn straight.
All he wanted was total domination.
“You can say what you want about George,” said Stan Kasten, the former Atlanta Braves and current Washington Nationals president. “Whether you agree or disagree with what he did, he helped baseball by elevating the attention paid to it and he did it in the center of the biggest market. He was locked in a battle for the back page [of New York tabloids] and it was a battle he always won.”
Alluding to his controversial past, Kasten added: “You can have your opinions on that. But one thing that’s inarguable is the attention he brought to the game. He did an immense service for baseball.”
Story No. 1: When Steinbrenner, who made his fortune as head of an Ohio shipbuilding company, paid only $8.7 million in 1973 to purchase the Yankees with a group, he said he wouldn’t be active in day-to-day operations of the team: “I’ll stick to building ships.” (Today, the Yankees are valued at $1.6 billion.)
Story No. 2: In 1983, the Braves and their own maverick owner, Ted Turner, pursued New York reliever Goose Gossage in free agency, offering a then-unheard of five year, $6.5 million contract. Steinbrenner responded, “This offer can destroy the whole salary structure of the game. It’s shocking.”
Story No. 3, from Kasten: “I think it was in the mid-1990s, we were sitting together in spring training and George said, ‘Stan, how do you manage to rein in your general manager? I’m having trouble keeping expenses down.’ I got quite a chuckle over that.” (The Yankees’ payroll since 2004 totals $1.39 billion; the Braves less than half that, $636 million.)
He once called Winfield, “Mr. May.” He once called pitcher Hideki Irabu a “fat toad.” He once fired manager Dick Howser by announcing Howser was leaving to “pursue an outstanding offer in real estate.”
Berra gets high marks: He actually managed to squeeze an apology out of Steinbrenner 14 years after his firing.
The Martin sagas were great theater. After one firing in 1978, Martin, referring to Steinbrenner and his other personal thorn, Reggie Jackson, said: “The two of them deserve each other. One’s a born liar; the other’s convicted.”
But how much was Steinbrenner’s opinion valued? Even the USOC reached out for help. Steinbrenner was a quiet member until an embarrassing, eight-medal performance by the U.S. in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. “I’m here to find out what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said.
The U.S. winter medal counts since: 11, 13, 13, 34, 25, 37.
“George was a true winner,” said Bobby Cox, who coached for Steinbrenner.
“Ultimately, fans wants success,” Kasten said. “There are different ways to achieve that. Maybe some didn’t like his methods. But at the end of the day, he had an awful lot of success.”
A loss for baseball. A loss for sports. A loss for fans.