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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

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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BP staff member Neil deMause
BP staff

I think you undermine your own argument a bit, Steven: You say Steinbrenner "could have been richer than Croesus" if he'd skimmed more off the top, but as you rightly note, he realized that in NYC with its potential for crazy-ass cable deals and the like, there were untold riches to be gained by building a winning team and brand. A lot of his pouring money into the team (to both smart and dumb ends) was about the market he played in as much as his personality.

Also, if wanting to win at all costs makes Steinbrenner our greatest baseball owner, does that make Nixon our greatest president?

Jul 14, 2010 06:55 AM
 
CRP13

I think that's a pretty unfair comparison. You can't equate the Yankees to Vietnam, nobody was shooting at the Yankees as they got fired, rehired, vilified, loved, etc.

Jul 14, 2010 08:41 AM
rating: 1
 
mcjacob

I see how operating a world power is similar to operating a baseball dynasty, but I think they are even more different. Nixon probably would have made a great baseball owner, but there is more to being a US president than winning; a baseball team primarily needs to win, while the US primarily needs to protect the best interests of it’s citizens, etc. So yea, I don't like that comparison.

Jul 14, 2010 11:13 AM
rating: 0
 
mcjacob

Yea, Steinbrenner wanted to win, but that cannot be the preferred criteria for greatest owner. He won, but at what cost? The man created and instilled this terrible mentality into the minds of Yankee fans, and possibly New York fans in general. Steinbrenner was results oriented to a fault, and that has rubbed off on New York in a serious way.
For instance, when the Yankees don't win the WS, the average fan in NY acts like he or she would make a better gm than Cashman; having the best record over 162 games is not nearly enough.

Maybe it was something else, but when Steinbrenner consistently complained about his team to the media, the act of complaining for ‘uninformed’ fans became more than okay; it became the norm (as I complain). You should hear people complain about Burnett, and up until last October, A Rod, Girardi, etc. Shit's ridiculous to me. It is not about enjoying good baseball in ny, it’s about domination; this is Steinbrenner’s most notable legacy.

While winning a ton, Steinbrenner, with his methods, created a monster in New York, thus making him in my mind the most villainous owner of baseball. In short, Steinbrenner made it so for most fans, anything short of a WS win is a lost season: a miserable way for a fan base to behave. Having said this, he was most likely too short sighted to realize this. Perhaps as a backlash, the greatest owner to me is more like the one who wants to win the most and does so in a respectable manor.

Anyway, the fact that many Yankee fans and I, even while acknowledging his dedication and success, don't like Steinbrenner should tell you all you need to know.

One's desires never make a person great. It is the way one goes about obtaining them that can make one either great, or terrible.

Villains are sort of cool and novel though. Check out (MF) Doom, the villain of hip hop; or Richard Bergstrom the villain of BP.

Jul 14, 2010 11:46 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Whoa wait... I'm a villain? I thought I was a cheeto.

Jul 18, 2010 22:22 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Why is it unfair to compare a baseball owner to a president? I mean, I disagree with the comparison, but silly to say it's "unfair!"

Jul 14, 2010 08:53 AM
rating: 0
 
mcjacob

you guys clearly have different definitions of the word 'unfair.'

Jul 14, 2010 11:51 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

In what ways did George "manipulate" Billy Martin?

The cycle of 'hire, fire, rehire', my understanding is that that's now seen as sensible. Billy was perhaps the most talented short-run manager ever. But his alcoholism and emotional immaturity just rendered him unemployable over any longer haul. Ergo his great immediate success and quick exits from everywhere else he managed, too.

So did George manipulate Billy in other ways? I'm just honestly curious.

Jul 14, 2010 08:59 AM
rating: 3
 
Justice

Streinbrenner excelled at gaming baseball's financial system. His essential argument was this: I invested and built up this franchise so why shouldn't I be able to enjoy the benefits of having more income to spend on my franchise than anyone else? This argument is problematic in several ways:

1. At its core, the argument is hypocritical. Streinbrenner and the Yankees cannot credibly make a free market argument (i.e., if I made the revenue, I should have no restraints on how I spend it) because baseball is anything but a free market. If it were and if baseball had no antitrust exemption, then the Rays could move to North Jersey and build a beautiful waterfront stadium in Jersey City (remember, the Dodgers played some games in Jersey City in the '50's), the Marlins could move to Boston and the Pirates could move to Brooklyn or their original home in Louisville. Market forces would correct the imbalance in the economic power that franchises like the Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox wield. Baseball is, however, not a free market and teams have to stay where they are and die on the vine. That, it seems to me, totally underscuts the Yankees' free market argument.

2. The Yankees' power base is an accident of geography and history. The Boss certainly talked about the privilege of wearing the pinstripes but, come on, without the vast local media revenue from New York, Steinbrenner's tantrums and bromides would have accomplished nothing and nobody would be discussing him today. Put another way, if Steinbrenner had taken his act to Kansas City, he would have been a laughing stock. Charlie Finley owned a team in K.C. and he had his momemnts of bluster, too, but Finley knew talent and could build a good, young team. Steinbrenner never did. In fact, under Steinbrenner's tenure, the Yankees consistently dealt away young talent and only kept the good, young core of the late '90's team because Steinbrenner was suspended and not there to trade those players. Perhaps Steinbrenner was the anti-George Bailey of baseball.

3. The fact that the Yankees' payroll is 50% higher than the next highest team in the MLB is bad for baseball. If anything causes the next work stoppage in MLB, it will be the Yankee payroll. The NFL has surpassed MLB as the nation's most poular sport and the main reason is that fifty years ago, Pete Rozelle convinced George Halas and Wellington Mara to give up their respective local media markets (around 1960, the Bears' market went as far north as Minnesota) and have one single economic market to promote the league. Halas and Mara listened to Rozelle's plea for competitive balance and growth and, like Charles Foster Kane, Steinbrenner listened to nobody. Come to think of it, other than Rozelle, who has done more to improve the fortunes of the NFL than George Steinbrenner?

Jul 14, 2010 12:26 PM
rating: 1
 
Ric Size

We can also add to his resume-- squeezing the NYC taxpayers for a new $2.2 billion stadium that they didn't need. Not that it makes him any different(except in scale)from any other owner, but it should be noted.

Jul 14, 2010 15:55 PM
rating: 0
 
marooner

A couple corrections. You added an extra billion there (give or take a hundred million.)

Also, by any measure, the majority of the New Yankee Stadium's cost was borne by the Yankees, unlike many of the new stadiums around the country. Certainly, the Stadium was publicly-financed in part by both direct public subsidies and through tax-free municipal bonds. But I think you're incorrect when you say that the scale of Steinbrenner's fleecing is greater than that of other owners.

Jul 18, 2010 05:55 AM
rating: 0
 
orlandoca7

Steven: You captured things well, highlighting -- fairly -- Steinbrenner's deficiencies as a baseball man. The so-called football mentality does work well in baseball. GS excelled was at the business end of things: his 10-year deal with MSG; YES's development.

The success of the Torre years kept him from his worst instincts. If the Mets had won the 2000 WS, it's likely Torre would have found his way west by 2001, and Cashman would be the GM of the Royals -- or Pirates, or some such team -- today. Showalter deserved the '96 season, at least. His firing mirrored Howser's after Howser won 103 games. I'm not sure what important lessons George learned while on suspension for the Winfield fiasco.

Best -- smartest -- GMs he employed? Gabe Paul & Gene Michael, architects of his two great runs. They may be the only two good GMs he hired, save Cashman. Both got the hell out of the GM chair soon after Steinbrenner was once again fully in charge.

Jul 14, 2010 22:20 PM
rating: 0
 
newsense

Steinbrenner's comment about Mattingly being “The most unproductive .300 hitter in baseball” may well be true. Looking at his player card, Mattingly's (translated) batting average always exceeded his TAv by a considerable margin. Lifetime he has a .323 BA and a.291 TAv.

Jul 16, 2010 11:01 AM
rating: 0
 
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