Game Time: George Steinbrenner, 1930-2010
Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?
I hated the Yankees growing up. No...I mean it, I HATED them. I hate them still now, but it's sort of a numb, latent, "I'm hating them because I'm just supposed to" kind of hate.
When I was a teenager growing up in Connecticut worshiping Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, and Yaz, and I didn't really understand free agency, collective bargaining, and the fact that many players (even the ones I loved..maybe even especially the ones I loved) didn't really give a rat's ass about the fans, I hated the Yankees with the white hot passion of 1,000 suns.
So when the patriarch of the Evil Empire, George "Palpatine" Steinbrenner, passed away this morning, the "teenage Red Sox fan" thing to do would have been to post a top ten of Steinbrenner moments -- and I don't mean the actual Steinbrenner, I mean Larry David's version that stumbled and bumbled through Seinfeld as if he were running the Michael Scott Paper Company.
Then you realize something -- the villains make your life just as exciting as your heroes do. Maybe even more exciting. You realize the main reason your heroes are your heroes is because of the villains. And you have to respect that.
I use the word "villain" with nary an ounce of disrespect toward George Steinbrenner. In fact, if he knew the context in which I were using it, he'd probably thank me. LeBron James will be a villain this season because he opted to ask Dwyane Wade to do some of his heavy lifting, he crushed the hopes and dreams of his hometown on national television (ironically, in George Steinbrenner's home state), and he even managed to get his name mentioned in my space on this blog for like the 23rd consecutive day (infiltrating my Steinbrenner obit in the process!).
Steinbrenner was the opposite -- he was a villain because he had balls. Within the specter of business, he was decisive, swift, and ruthless, all in the name of making his team the very best that it could be. All in the name of winning. There's a saying in business that more is lost by indecision than by wrong decision -- oftentimes, Steinbrenner would make five wrong decisions before he made the right one, and in the end it all worked out pretty well.
Sure, there were bad times. Emptying the minor league farm system throughout the `80's just to have Steve Kemp and Ken Phelps (and a million other semi-big, washed up 1980's and early `90's names) dotting his lineup during a slew of non-descript seasons was the blueprint for how NOT to build a champion in the free-agency era (or the blueprint for how the Baltimore Orioles decided to try to do it under Peter Angelos, take your pick).
If Steinbrenner could have back the decision to pay a small-time gambler by the name of Howie Spira $40,000 to follow Dave Winfield around so that The Boss would have some dirt on him, he'd probably like a re-do on that one. It resulted in Steinbrenner's being banned from baseball by commissioner Fay Vincent for three years back in the early `90's. Or maybe he wouldn't want a re-do.
The fact of the matter is, besides being a guy who was firm in his decisions and belief system, Steinbrenner came back from his hiatus somewhat of a changed man, less meddlesome and more willing to delegate. In a sense, he kind of "found baseball religion." He would still spend whatever money was necessary to ensure that the Yankees remained the preeminent brand in all of sports, but there was a balance after he came back in 1993. The Bernie Williams and Derek Jeters of the minor league system were allowed to grow, flourish and become Yankees. They weren't being shipped off to Toronto to try and suck one more year out of Jesse Barfield.
The end result was four titles in five years at the end of the 1990's, probably the last era where we saw Steinbrenner as a really vibrant, emotional owner. As the 2000's set in, so did his 70's, and he was all the way in the background, amidst rumors that he was suffering from Alzheimer's. By 2006, he had handed control of the team over to his sons, and unwittingly gave us the next gift that keeps on giving -- his son, Hank, who if he weren't helping run the team would probably be starting fights in the stands.
Because winning and losing are polar opposites, you would think that "loving to win" and "hating to lose" are synonymous, but they're not. Inherent in "hating to lose" is a fight and stubbornness and, at times, a ruthlessness that is clarifying and rare. Few have it. George Steinbrenner did. And you have to respect that. Because ultimately when you're able to beat someone that is that driven and single-minded, it just means a lot more.
Rest in peace, Boss. The world just got a little more boring today. And St. Peter might have gotten fired.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show" and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.