Admit it, you look at that Sports Illustrated cover of George Steinbrenner and you really don’t know what to think. It is one of the most famous covers SI’s ever done, Steinbrenner re-creating the famous portrait of Napoleon after Steinbrenner was allowed back into baseball. Maybe the theme fit so well because Steinbrenner, the long-time principle owner of the Yankees who passed away last week at the age of 80 was a confusing person who brought out a lot of different feelings in different people.
Who was the real George Steinbrenner? Well if you read, hear or listen to some of the tributes and reaction to his passing, he ranged to being a patron saint to a vindictive bastard and everything in between. He was a winner, a visionary, a reluctant good guy, an arrogant American pig, a convicted felon and the man who turned the Yankees into the media, marketing and baseball powerhouse they are today. And of course, he was the guy whose baseball people loved Ken Phelps’ bat.
Purely from a sports and baseball standpoint, he was Mark Cuban before Mark Cuban was Mark Cuban. He was brash, outspoken, never afraid to ruffle any feathers to get what he wanted. Our generation remembers somewhat of a kinder, gentler Boss. The one who appeared on Saturday Night Live once upon a time, in a VISA commercial with Derek Jeter, and of course the one who allowed himself to be satirized into one of the more recognizable television characters of our lifetime.
But our lifetime doesn’t remember the laundry list of managers and executives Steinbrenner fired. We don’t remember that one of the times he fired Billy Martin as manager was at his own press conference introducing Martin as manager. We don’t remember that Yogi Berra was so incensed by Steinbrenner lying to him and subsequently sending someone to fire him that Berra feuded with him for 15 years and never appeared at the Stadium. It’s hard to believe those old-timers days, the last ones with DiMaggio and Mantle, that Yogi wasn’t a part of it. Then there was the losing, and in the 1980s and early 90s, there was a lot of losing. Years where Don Mattingly was the only bright spot on a team that underperformed. Hell, most Yankee fans who are in their early-20s know probably remember Steinbrenner the most for calling Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu a “fat toad” because Irabu didn’t run to cover first base.
There was the ban from baseball (both of them), there were the bad trades he made (the aforementioned Ken Phelps for Jay Buhner, who became a cult hero on the Mariners’ teams of the 90’s) and the bad trades he almost made (he also almost traded away Bernie Williams in the early ’90s). I always remember specifically every July during the Yankees’ late-’90s dynasty, whether this year would be the year either Bob Watson or Brian Cashman traded Andy Pettitte at the deadline. Every year, there were rumors about him moving, but every year July 31 came and went and Pettitte was still a Yankee. And while the loss of Pettitte wouldn’t have been as big as Williams or Rivera, it’s interesting to think about how different those teams had been without Pettitte, who has made a career out of a pick-off move and pitching down and away.
Yet it was odd to turn on the television last week, and see glowing tribute after glowing tribute to Steinbrenner (Spaceman Lee not included). It wasn’t that it was happening at all, but how positive the coverage was to such a polarizing figure. I wondered how it could be, and then I remembered back to that night in July 2008. The night of the All-Star Game, the last one in the last season of Old Yankee Stadium. I’ll always remember that night because I’ll always remember where I was when I wasn’t watching it, on a cross-country flight from Newark to San Francisco. I’ll always remember it vividly because FOX was signing on with their coverage when I took off from Newark, and six hours later I watched FOX sign off from the Bronx in a passing glance from an airport bar in San Francisco. Suffice it to say I was a little puzzled when I saw that, noting the time difference. It wasn’t until I made it to the hotel an hour later that I learned the last All-Star Game at the Stadium would forever be remembered as the All-Star Game that wouldn’t end, but it was also then that I saw it with my own eyes.
There were rumors for weeks on whether he would be there. There was speculation on whether he was ill or not (albeit it was from my own household), since he had turned things over to Hank and Hal, and their COO Lonn Trost was apparently busy figuring out how to re-create the Caste system in the new Yankee Stadium. But before the game, there he was.
He was on a cart, being driven around the field the same way Ted Williams was at the All-Star Game in Boston in 1999. He was a shell of himself, hidden in sunglasses, trying to hide it but obviously moved by the moment. Looking back now it was probably then that the public sentiment changed about Steinbrenner. And as you saw less and less of him, it was more and more apparent that his time was coming. Williams died three years after he made his victory lap at the All-Star Game, Steinbrenner went two years later.
We’ll all remember different things about him. Sports fans will hate the way he bought talent in hopes for a championship while secretly wishing they had an owner that wanted to win that badly. Yankee fans will remember that he brought the team out of the dark ages of the franchise. Baseball players will thank him, because without him recognizing the importance of free-agency and signing Reggie Jackson in 1976, Albert Pujols wouldn’t be able to break the bank when he becomes available soon. Owners will rue him and wish for a salary cap, but thank him when the Yankees and guaranteed sell-out games come to their respective cities. We all will take a different part of him. Hell, part of us will probably remember that he was hooked on calzones from Pisano’s, loved body-suit man, gave in to the request of fitted caps on cap day, and was confused as ever why George would steal from the Yankees. But he brought out something different in all of us.
And wherever he’s going, he’ll probably bring that famous placard with him, the one that seemed to sum him and his philosophy up so well.
“Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.”