I was just seven years old when, in January 1973, George Steinbrenner led a group that purchased the Yankees. Baseball had barely pricked my consciousness. My father, who died six days after Steinbrenner bought the team, was a lifelong Yankee fan, back to the days of Gehrig and Ruth. His passion for the Bombers passed through to me and my sister -- our mother took us to our first Yankee games in 1973. It was a forgettable year in a growing string of forgettable years for the Yanks -- the team finished 80-82 and the most memorable aspect of that season was that the Yankees had to move out of their stadium at the end of the campaign, so that it could be re-modeled. But 1973, the year that the Boss bought the team and the year that my dad died, was the year that I became a die-hard Yankee fan for life. I followed the team avidly, read box scores and game summaries every day, rooted for the likes of Bobby Murcer, Pat Dobson and Fred Stanley. And as it happens, it was the beginning of an epochal tenure in the history of sports ownership.
The first time I remember being aware of the Yankees' owner was in 1974. Steinbrenner was suspended that year by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign. I grew up in a virulently anti-Nixon household, so this particular transgression didn't go over very well with us.
In 1976, the Yankees began their first great run under Steinbrenner. I was fortunate enough to be at the fifth and deciding game of the American League Championship series that year (with my mom and sister) against the Kansas City Royals, which Chris Chambliss ended with a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning (this was long before the phrase "walk-off" had entered baseball's lexicon, and it wouldn't have fit the circumstances very well that night in any event - Chambliss ran, dodged, and bowled his way around, over and through thousands of fans who'd rushed the field).
In the six years between 1976 and 1981, the Yankees won five division titles, four American league pennants and two world series titles. By the end of the World Series in 1981, a crushing 4-2 loss to the Dodgers, I can sum up my feelings about my team's owner pretty succinctly -- I thought he was a "jerk." He'd already been suspended from baseball, dumped good managers, Billy Martin most famously, but also the excellent Dick Howser, who had the nerve to win a mere 103 games in his single season as skipper, in 1980, only to be canned because the Yankees were swept by the Royals in the league championship series that year. He'd insulted players, had fights in elevators, ranted and raved hither and yon. The guy was a clown.
But I had no reason to question the organization -- his organization -- at this point. The Yankees of those years were very well-run; they made astute trades, generally spent money aggressively and wisely on free agents like Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, cultivated homegrown talent (Ron Guidry being a good example of a player with whom they showed a good deal of patience before he emerged as an elite starter in those years). And it was, of course, hard to quibble given their success during the previous six seasons. Like many Yankee fans with an annoying but inescapable sense of entitlement, I expected to win, and I expected my owner to do everything in his power to ensure that that continued. In exchange, I'd tolerate the bluster (yes, I know that was big of me). Up to that point, the arrangement had worked out pretty well, I thought.
Then came the 1980s, which for Yankee fans really runs from 1982-1992. In the first year of that long and surreal decade, the Pinstripers finished under .500 for the first time since Steinbrenner's first year of ownership. The Yankees were actually quite good for a few years after 1982, but in his 1988 Baseball Abstract, Bill James foretold impending disaster (via Scott Lemieux):
The New York Yankees are trapped on a treadmill. Although they have not won anything since 1981 the Yankees have the best winning percentage of any team during the 80s...They are acutely aware of this, and so the winter of 1987-8 was spent in frantic preparation to make the 1988 season the season in which the great nucleus of this team is surrounded by a cast good enough to life the Yankees off that 85-to-92 win treadmill, and onto the championship rung. There is an irony in this, for it is exactly this philosophy that creates the treadmill from which the Yankees are so anxious to escape...
The problem with the Yankees is that they never want to pay the real price of success. The real price of success in baseball is not the dollars that you come up with for a Jack Clark or a Dave Winfield or an Ed Whitson or a Goose Gossage. It is the patience to work with young players and help them develop. So long as the Yankees are unwilling to pay that price, don't bet on them to win anything.
James predicted then that the Yankees would lose their battle with that treadmill, and so they did, ushering in the worst four-season stretch in Yankee history -- 1989-1992 -- since before the Babe Ruth-era began.
By the end of the 1980s, Steinbrenner seemed to many Yankee fans, including this one, to be a truly malign force, an angel of death sent to this earth to deliver torment to the faithful. When Steinbrenner was suspended in 1990 for resorting to illegal means to nurse a truly petty grudge against Dave Winfield, I was exultant to a degree I usually only experience when one of my team's wins a championship. The summer of 1990 had been an awful one. The team was in the midst of its worst season in a quarter of a century. It would finish in last place -- the first time that had happened since 1966 -- and, along with the Braves, sport the worst record in baseball. The major league roster was woeful. There were no promising young players on it, just a collection of mediocre veterans and minor-league re-treads. When, in July of that year, Commissioner Fay Vincent suspended Steinbrenner for life (a suspension later reduced to two years), I had no idea, what this would mean for the future of the Yankees - that the suspension would coincide with a process of re-building the organization, premised on a commitment to cultivating a home-grown nucleus. It was in the darkest years of the Steinbrenner era - from 1989 to 1992 - that the so-called core four of the future dynasty entered the organization -- Jeter, Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada. But all I knew was that, in July 1990, a man I detested was finally getting his just reward for his bullying, his bluster, his irrationality and, above all, his incompetence as an owner, for overseeing the trading away of future stars like McGriff, McGee, Drabek and Buhner ("the list" that any Yankee -- and Seinfeld fan -- knows all too well).
In retrospect, Vincent probably did Steinbrenner a personal favor. The man was out of control, as the Winfield mess made abundantly clear. He needed a time out and so did the team he owned.
By the time Steinbrenner was allowed to return in 1993, the Yankees were a different organization -- better run, more patient and now better-positioned to press their increasing financial advantages. In 1995, they made their first post-season in fourteen seasons (the 1994 players' strike short-circuited what surely would have been a post-season bid the previous year). It was also in 1995 that Steinbrenner was on the receiving end of among the most famous telling-offs in TV history. George Costanza spoke for many when, during his job interview with the Yankees, he delivered to Steinbrenner the following lecture, after Steinbrenner extended a hand to greet Costanza and to tell him it was a pleasure to meet him:
"Well, I wish I could say the same, but I must say, with all due respect, I find it very hard to see the logic behind some of the moves you have made with this fine organization. In the past twenty years, you have caused myself, and the city of New York, a good deal of distress as we have watched you take our beloved Yankees and reduced them to a laughing stock, all for the glorification of your massive ego."
An irony of that Costanza rant was that the Steinbrenner, to whom it was delivered, was, to a significant degree, a thing of the past. The worst of the Steinbrenner years was already over. By then, I no longer hated the Boss. It was obvious how different things were, even before the Yankees, in 1996, won their first World Series title in 18 years (full disclosure: I was very displeased when the Yankees hired Joe Torre before the 1996 season. Obviously that worked out OK). After all, it had to say something for the man that he able to accept change, to listen to his baseball people, to refrain from firing managers and GMs at the drop of a hat, "to pay the real price of success." The extraordinary run of the late 1990s was the icing on the cake of a truly gratifying transformation in the franchise's approach.
Lots of folks, since the Boss' passing yesterday, have reflected on his complex nature. His pettiness and his generosity. His need for the spotlight and his insistence on anonymity when carrying out his most admirable deeds. His petulance and his loyalty. His vindictiveness and compassion. I didn't know Steinbrenner and can't speak, in a personal way, to any of that. But George Steinbrenner's tenure as Yankee owner is the story of my life as a Yankee fan. Overall, one can't really argue with the team's success on his watch. He oversaw the restoration of the Yankee empire (or "evil empire," depending on your point of view). But even during the (relatively brief) dark times, there was rarely a dull moment. It's hard, in fact, to imagine how a sports fan could have experienced a more crazy, raucous and compelling four decades. And whatever future success the Yankees have, it's hard to imagine that they will ever be that interesting again.