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July 14, 2010

You Could Look It Up

Steinbrenner: Baseball Operator

by Steven Goldman

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In last night’s chat, I wrote that George Steinbrenner was a tyrant who could be arbitrarily generous or a generous man who could be arbitrarily tyrannical. Google up all of the thousands of words that have been written about the man since Tuesday morning and you will see variations of that thought, his dual nature referenced again and again. As Charles Dickens might have written, he was the best of guys, he was the worst of guys. When a man’s life is measured, which should count for more, his best moments or his worst? There is no easy way to answer this question, lest we go down some Citizen Kane-like road of exploration of the many facets of the man, and even that, as Orson Welles skillfully showed, is a journey that is inevitably inconclusive. My own personal view of morality is that cruelty is cheap, especially when those who suffer the blows cannot strike back because they are in some way our subordinates. Anonymous charity does not excuse, erase, or offset capricious cruelty. It merely sits alongside it, a parallel column of good behavior that cannot bleach sin. Redemption, reschemnshion—this ain’t football, and the penalties don’t offset.

As I wrote yesterday, Steinbrenner’s legacy as a baseball man is somewhat easier to figure. He had one big idea and he stuck to it, and it was a very good one: If you’re going to compete successfully for the scarce entertainment dollar, particularly in the Big Apple where there are, literally, 501 other things to do on any given night, you’d better give your customers a show. That means hiring the best players, the most colorful managers. It means making big trades and huge free-agent signings and doing everything you can to capture the back pages of the tabloids. Most of all, it meant winning. He understood that attendance, or at a more basic level attention, required putting a good team on the field. Steinbrenner surely reaped a great deal of money from the Yankees operation, but what is not widely understood is that he could have taken more, could have been richer than Croesus if he had chosen to be. Instead, he reinvested, paid for attractions for his team, for a Reggie Jackson or a Dave Winfield, because he knew that that would reward the fans and in return would redound to his own benefit in numbers far greater than if he had simply skimmed more off the top. It was this commitment to making the Yankees worth watching, and his conviction that winning was the only guarantor of attention, that earned him seven championship rings, a spectacular cable television deal, and ultimately the YES network.

That Steinbrenner was correct in his belief is evident just from consulting the attendance figures. There is nothing automatic about the Yankees being a massive draw. When Steinbrenner’s Yankees lost the thread of winning in the early 1980s, attendance plummeted and was slow to recover. The 1985 Yankees, an exciting 97-win team that was in the postseason hunt until the second-to-last day of the season and featured manager Billy Martin, Don Mattingly at his best, Rickey Henderson stealing 80 bases and seemingly leading off every other game with a home run, Dave Winfield, and Ron Guidry, ranked just fourth in the AL in attendance, trailing the Angels, Blue Jays, and Tigers, and ranking only about 50,000 clicks of the turnstiles ahead of the Royals. When the team really hit bottom in the late 1980s and early 1990s, attendance dropped as low as 11th in the league. Even though they soon resumed winning, they would remain out of the top half of league attendance from 1989-98. Having last led the league in attendance in 1981, they would not do so again until 2003.

The Yankees have led in attendance every year since. You can chart the effect on their attendance of exterior matters like the local and national economy, the annual weather reports, the fact that the South Bronx was not a pleasant place to visit for many a year (the area remains terribly poor), but the revival and durability of team drawing power has a great deal to do with the reliability of the brand and the drawing power of the players that Steinbrenner’s teams acquired, developed, and most of all, kept.

The playoff absence of 1982-94 and the resultant decline in attendance and respect stemmed from Steinbrenner’s impatience and impulsivity clashing with his desire to win. Like Peter Angelos, he believed that he could never ask the fans to endure a rebuilding program, and only gave in to the necessity twice. In 1984, when the Tigers blew the doors off the league and the Yankees couldn’t keep up, he allowed Mattingly, Mike Pagliarulo, Bobby Meacham, and Dennis Rasmussen to displace big-league vets. In 1990, when it was clear the team was headed for a rare last-place finish, he let the farm system contribute what little it had to the revitalization of the roster, giving rise to the “Baby Bombers”—among them, Jim Leyritz, Oscar Azocar, and Kevin Maas.

The so-called “babies,” respectively, 26, 25, and 25, epitomized the way player development was rarely even an afterthought for Steinbrenner. He long had had no use for young players. He could not endure the time it took for them to adjust to the big leagues and become successful. Thus, Meacham made a game-losing error early in 1984 and found himself demoted from the majors to Double-A and Jim Beattie was chased out of town, Steinbrenner telling the media, “That kid pitching looked scared stiff.” Prospect Willie McGee was traded for Bob Sykes. Less than a year after going 18-6, Rasmussen was back in the minors, then sent packing for Bill Gullickson (who made eight starts then went to Japan rather than re-sign with the Yankees). Bob Tewksbury and Doug Drabek were dealt away for Steve Trout and Rick Rhoden. Jay Buhner was spent on Ken Phelps. Jim Deshaies was given away for Joe Niekro. Dan Pasqua went for Richard Dotson. Over the years executives had to talk him out of trading Guidry, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte. The list goes on and on.

What is incredible about Steinbrenner’s record of disposing of young players is that he had any at all. From 1978-90 the Yankees had just one first-round pick and in some years lacked a second- and third-rounder as well, having given them away as compensation for free agents good, bad, and indifferent. Some, like Dave Winfield and Tommy John, went on to be useful, even great Yankees for multiple seasons. Some, like Dave Collins, Ed Whitson, Al Holland, and Gary Ward, were complete disasters. Most, though, were simply self-defeating, older guys who stayed for a year or three, had one or two good seasons, and then departed, players like Bob Watson, Steve Sax, Rudy May, and John Candelaria. Scratching the short-term itch could be costly in the long run. Sax, at least, brought three pitching prospects from the White Sox as he went out the door, but he was the exception.

Worse, many of the team’s acquisitions in those years were either spasmodic or reactive. In the former case, Steinbrenner signed Don Baylor to DH despite already having Winfield, Mattingly (then an outfielder), Ken Griffey, Steve Kemp, Jerry Mumphrey, Oscar Gamble, Lou Piniella, and Bobby Murcer—even without Baylor he had enough outfielder-DH types to staff two teams. It led to unhappiness in the clubhouse, headaches for the managers, extra expense for the organization, and no competitive advantage—only Steinbrenner understood what he was trying to accomplish. The reactive moves were those like Trout, Whitson, and Andy Hawkins, in which the team acquired mediocre players to make up for the fact that the farm system couldn’t produce anything because the team had signed too many mediocre players. Between this vicious cycle and collusion, which kept Steinbrenner from signing the kind of players who might have made a difference, was his team brought low by the end of the 1980s. This was nearly ruinous to Steinbrenner himself—with the team falling further behind, he had too much time on his hands to obsess about Winfield, his cost-of-living-adjusted contract, and his so-called foundation. Steinbrenner wasn’t wholly wrong, at least about the foundation (he had misguidedly agreed to the COLA contract), but the way he went about pursuing the issue led to his being banned “for life.”

Steinbrenner once said, “I don’t agree with free agency, but it wasn’t my leadership that created it.” Until collusion, he exploited it to the fullest and, in doing so, learned the wrong lesson. Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Goose Gossage helped take a rising team, transform it into a champion, and sustain it. This meshed perfectly with Steinbrenner’s goal of putting a winning, starry product on the field and his own impatience. Yet, as we have seen time and again, even in this age of volatile rosters, it is hard to jumpstart a team that way. Clubs like the 1997 Marlins are the exception, not the rule. Despite repeated tries, Steinbrenner could not do it again.

During his Fay Vincent-enforced absence from the game (and, as with his first suspension, who knows how absent he really was), the club was able to let the roster breathe for awhile. As the team coalesced, it became easier to see how to help it climb back into attention, not from the scattershot acquisition of 35-year-old first basemen and reserve catchers or the pell-mell signing of every outfielder on the market, but from more carefully targeted moves. For the most part—there were exceptions, like Gary Sheffield—Steinbrenner was able to reign in the old impetuousness as he subsided into old age.

The prior history is vastly simplified, leaving out a parade of managers and general managers, deaths, injuries, strikes, and other events, but does, I think fairly encapsulate the arc of Steinbrenner’s career as Yankees owner. So, if we can’t answer the question of whether Steinbrenner was a good man or a bad one, can we at least decide if he was a good baseball man or not? That too is complicated. His obsession with putting a great product on the field was one which more baseball men could profitably share. When revenue sharing reached into his pockets, Steinbrenner asked why he should support a team like the Expos or Pirates or Marlins that wasn’t seriously trying to compete. No one had any sympathy because of who was doing the complaining, but he was right.

At the same time, Steinbrenner often worked at cross purposes to his own goals. He believed in the importance of upholding the Yankees’ brand, but his own actions and outbursts often tarnished it. Why manipulate Martin, a troubled, unsophisticated man, the way he did? Why keep apologizing to the city of New York for the way his team played (he did it more than once, most famously after the 1981 World Series). Why not trade Winfield instead of trying to destroy him? Why attack so many players publically, even the blameless Mattingly? (He once called Mattingly, “The most unproductive .300 hitter in baseball” and raged about his increasingly large salaries.)

More important than bad public behavior, though, was his absolute rejection of young players until the team’s collapse forced them on him. Once the core of his 1970s team aged, he could not replace his stars solely through the engagement of mercenaries, but he tried, and he kept trying, until the team fell apart. The success of the Yankees in the last 15 years of Steinbrenner’s ownership represents the rejection of almost everything he tried to do in the previous 15 years. If you want to say that he let it happen and that it signifies a kind of late awakening, real growth on his part, you might be right.

Whether he embraced that change wholeheartedly or grudgingly, he always gave his team the funds it needed to compete, always cared if they won or lost, always kept his eye on main chance but gave something back in return for the fan’s money and time. In that one sense, in solely that baseball sense, his heart was always in the right place and he was not only a great owner but perhaps the greatest of owners. The rest of his qualities are for us to debate, as we have since 1973, as we will continue to do as long as people care about baseball.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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