The flags in the house that George built will fly at half-mast. The patriarch of the largest sports franchise in the world has passed. George Michael Steinbrenner was a simple man who saved a giant in the Yankees and changed the world of sports. Through it all, he was questioned, vilified, satirized, feared, and even banned. Over those years we saw him furious, victorious, elated, and reinvented. From this day on, all of this will be celebrated.
I wasn't alive when George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees. In fact, I became a fan just around the time George was banned from baseball. Gene Michael was in the process of building a dynasty that rebuilt, George the icon. By the time I was 11 the Yanks captured the 1996 World Series and George was a hero. To me he seemed like a good guy. But according to my parents, he was "very different back in the 70's," and I shouldn't be "surprised if he fires Torre by mid-season next year."
At the time I had no knowledge of Mr. Steinbrenner hiring gambler Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, so he could welsh on Winfield's contract. The move led to his ban from the game for the second time in 1990. The first ban came in 1974 for illegal contributions to Nixon's re-election campaign. I had heard that he fired Billy Martin every other season, sometimes twice in a season. I didn't know he had 20 managers in the first 23 years. I didn't know he ousted Yogi Berra and created a rift that lasted for decades.
"The Boss" that my generation grew up with was pretty docile and seemed like he wanted to win, that's all. Sure he called Hideki Irabu, "a fat toad," wanted to trade Andy Pettitte, questioned Derek Jeter's night life, and took shots at the manager here and there. But he also resurrected the careers of Joe Torre, Doc Gooden, and Daryl Strawberry to name a few.
He never received the proper credit he deserved for helping those in need. All the credit and criticism revolved around the Baseball man -- not the man who built children's wings in hospitals, gave money to organizations, paid for people to go to college, and put people on the Yankees' payroll as "scouts" if they were in need. My favorite story is of a kid he caught spraying graffiti on Yankee Stadium. He grabbed the kid and instead of calling the cops made him a bat-boy. The kid, now a man, Ray Negron, worked up and through the Yankees organization.
His biggest fix, however, was that of the Yankees. He purchased a second rate team once steeped in history, for 10 million dollars, from CBS on January 3rd in 1973. 53 years earlier to the day George Herman Ruth became a Yankee. The Yankees with Ruth and the greats who followed won 20 Championships by 1962. However, by 1973 The Yankees' glory days were long gone. New York was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the city was falling apart. Mr. Steinbrenner brought back the glory to a city and the team by any means necessary.
He told his players they must wear the Pinstripes with pride, must be in shape, must look, and act like Yankees. He linked Yankee greats of the past to the franchise he was running. He brought back the pride, and the professionalism. He didn't always lead by example, but it was what he expected. That is what he paid for. When he took over as owner, the Oakland Athletics had a higher payroll than the Yankees. George went after players, and brought them to the Yankees. He created free agency as we know it. He was the first to use free agency as a market to get big name talent. He never hesitated to go out and buy the best talent, and for a while he traded away most of his prospects to get it. Every athlete who plays a professional sport owes a "thank you" to George Steinbrenner and what he did for player contracts and free agency.
He knew how to work the media as a vehicle to ride his players and coaches. He called people out, and expected perfection from every one of his employees, from All-Star to parking attendant. If you were not a Yankee fan you most likely hated him. If you were a Yankee fan you most likely hated him at some point too. At times people loved him, at times people hated him. Overtime the perception of who he was, and the legacy he would leave, changed. Upon his return to baseball he was on the cover of a Sports Illustrated issue, dated March, 1, 1993. He wore a Napoleon costume, sat atop a white horse with the caption, "George II: George Steinbrenner rides back into Baseball." It was the start of a new era for Steinbrenner in the eyes of the media, Baseball, and its fans.
Mr. Steinbrenner, for my generation, was an owner who year in and year out tried to put the best team on the field. The icon and lore of George was told to us by our parents, the news, and Seinfeld. Larry David's portrayal enhanced his image while making fun of his brooding past. He was already a character by the time we got to know "The Boss" as fans. He still made decisions, continued to sign big money contracts, and was a fixture in the media. But by then, he was sought after for a sound-clip that was not to be taken too seriously, but rather chalked up to George being George.
My generation watched him redefine the legacy he would leave behind. We even saw him cry after the Subway Series in 2000 when Bud Selig handed him the Championship Trophy. Over the last 20 years we have been Yankees Fans, George became a good guy of the game, or at least a villain you love to hate. He wasn't the same figure that received a standing ovation in Yankee Stadium for being banned the second time in 1990. In his declining years we knew his time was coming. We missed him and his press releases. We missed him at the Stadium. We appreciated him more and more season by season.
He put every cent he made back into the franchise to build a better team for the next season. As a fan I am thankful for all he did as an owner. For fans of every other team, I truly hope you get an owner who is willing to do as much as Mr. Steinbrenner did for the Yankees. Do not hate the man for the way he ran the team, but, ask your owners to be more like "The Boss." Implore them to put the best product out on the field everyday.
George Steinbrenner had the heart of lion, and expected his players to embody it. Finally a heart that gave so much to his fans, to his team, to a City, to a sport and to so many others who needed help, gave out. The man was born on the 4th of July in 1930, and passed 80 years later on July 13, 2010. The day of the 2010 All-Star game, the one day in the season the entire baseball community comes together. The biggest story in sports that day was the celebration of his life. George Steinbrenner went out with his team in first place, and as the reigning World Champions. In a game surrounded by history and folklore, Mr. Steinbrenner wrote his own.