On July 30, 1990, I was watching the Yankees on TV when it was announced that George Steinbrenner had been banned for life from participating in day-to-day baseball operations. That season, the Yanks were on their way to a last-place finish and the worst win-lost record in the history of the franchise. Steinbrenner's antics, which more closely resembled a petulant six-year-old's than the owner of a professional sports franchise, had lost their novelty years before. The hirings and firings and re-hirings and re-firings, the lousy free agent signings, the depletion of the farm system, the tirades and the "Columbus Shuttle," made it all but impossible to be a Yankees fan during the '80s -- the first decade in which the Bronx Bombers failed to win a World Series since the '10s. Yankees games back then seem, in memory, to have been joyless affairs, played to swaths of empty seats and mass indifference.
Steinbrenner's tawdry $40,000 payoff to Howard Spira to dig up dirt on long-suffering Yankee Dave Winfield was, for Major League Baseball, when he stepped over the line of propriety. But for we fans, it was merely the latest in a long line of indignities we'd had to suffer through for years. When the news was announced, mid-game, of The Boss' banishment, the crowd stood and cheered. The Wicked Witch was dead! We were free at last! One of the most reviled people in New York was at last rendered powerless to meddle with our Bronx Bombers.
Twenty years ago, as I rejoiced at home with the crowd at the Stadium, I couldn't have imagined the outpouring of genuine sadness -- grief, even -- for the man who himself caused New York sports fans such grief for so long. (I'll admit that I'm grieving a bit myself.) How did he manage to so thoroughly rehabilitate himself in the public eye? He did it three ways, a method which I would recommend to any former dictators, mass murderers, or George W. Bush.
First, he was willing (and able) to play the clown. For me, it all started a mere three months after his suspension, when he hosted Saturday Night Live in the fall of 1990. For an hour and a half, he showed a willingness to make fun of himself -- and be made fun of by others -- which went way further than the lightly self-mocking exchanges he'd shared with Billy Martin in beer commercials and press conferences. It made me realize there was more to the guy than what got printed on the back pages of the New York tabloids. Later on, of course, he allowed himself to be portrayed as a bumbling blowhard on Seinfeld (and even appeared in one episode himself), reaping a hell of a lot of good will even from his detractors.
Second, he (more or less) shut the hell up. Big Stein was reinstated as the Yanks' day-to-day self-styled General Patton wannabe in 1993. In the two and a half year interim, his baseball brain trust, free from his meddling, had drafted what almost two decades later would be known as "The Core Four" -- Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte. When Steinbrenner came back, he kept his bluster and desire to tinker much more in check than before. For once he didn't trade his hot young prospects away for overpriced veterans, and the Core Four have led the Yankees to seven AL pennants and five World Championships since then. And of course, if you had told me in 1990 that a manager in the Steinbrenner regime would last 12 seasons in pinstripes, I'd have asked you what you were smoking.
His fingerprints were all over the bad trades and signings of ill-fitting marquee names in the last decade (Kevin Brown, Raul Mondesi, Randy Johnson, to name just a few), and he could still be counted on to call a player in his employ a "fat pussy toad" every now and then. But to a large extent, after 1993, Steinbrenner left the wheeling and dealing to his execs (and what brilliant execs they were, notably Gene Michael and Brian Cashman), which led the Yanks back to baseball Valhalla in 1996 and into the ranks of the elite teams in the sport ever since.
And third, he showed his human side. Watching the man break down crying during those latter-day World Series victory celebrations, and seeing him show his emotions more and more frequently in recent years, revealed just how much the team - and its fans - meant to him. As his health failed and his appearances at The Stadium became more rare, any time the fans showed him some love, the waterworks would start. How could you hate a guy like that? Not that he planned it that way, of course, but I think seeing an enfeebled, emotional Steinbrenner helped a lot of the haters to wipe the slate clean and remember the positive aspects of his ownership.
In the end, while we may have hated his methods, we always respected his ambition and ultimate goal, which was to put the best team he possibly could on the field, cost be damned. If he sometimes screwed up and traded away a Jay Buhner for a Ken Phelps, at least we knew it wasn't a money-saving grab so he could line his pockets at the expense of the team. As his extraordinary track record proves, he may have been wrong a lot. But today, who remembers the bad old days of 1990? It's those seven World Championships, eleven pennants and the lasting legacy of winning that we'll remember when King George springs to mind. Which is why, today, New York and the world of sports feels his loss more profoundly than anyone would have predicted two decades ago.
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