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July 20, 2010

Another Look

George Steinbrenner

by Bob Hertzel

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This was supposed to be about “The Voice of God,” as Reggie Jackson once dubbed Bob Sheppard, the New York Yankees' eloquent public address announcer for more than 50 years, who died last week. But how can you write about the Voice of God when God himself has died.

George Steinbrenner is dead.

In the end, it was his heart that gave out on him, the heart that he gave out to so many over the years. Or was it the heart that he broke in so many other people over those years? 

Steinbrenner didn’t really like people to think he had that big a heart. But ask Darryl Strawberry. Or ask Doc Gooden. Or ask any of the players he helped behind the scenes. Better yet, ask the people and charities in Tampa who he quietly and without fanfare helped, asking nothing in return, except maybe that they root for the Yankees.

Of course, there was that other side in this most complex man. He also was capable of firing people around Christmas, as he did with his public relations man, Rob Butcher, now with the Reds. Butcher's offense? Going home to Ohio for Christmas on the day Steinbrenner signed David Cone as a free agent.

"George had given me permission to go," Butcher told Sports Illustrated, "but he was still upset I wasn't in my office when he called. It was the most irrationally compulsive act I've ever seen. He offered me the job back on December 28, and I'll never forget what he said: 'I think you've learned your lesson.' Though I loved the job, I couldn't work for him anymore."

Somehow, Steinbrenner even managed to alienate Yogi Berra so badly that the squat one who for so many years had been a Yankees icon, decided he would boycott the team, staying away for years until Steinbrenner had mellowed.

It seemed impossible that I could have been around when the mellowing began, for my career had taken me to baseball outposts everywhere but my native New York. However, the day came in 1993 when my travels brought me to the Record in Hackensack, N.J., to cover the Yankees. The Yankees, at this time, trained in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Steinbrenner was about to return from his two-year ban from baseball that was brought about by his entanglement with gambler Howard Spira, paying him $40,000 for all the dirt he could dig up on Dave Winfield and his charitable foundation.

On March 1, the day Steinbrenner could begin actively running the Yankees again, Sports Illustrated’s cover had him dressed as Napoleon, sitting astride a white steed. It was really a marvelous cover, and the buzz in the Yankees camp was that was how Steinbrenner planned to return, coming in dressed as Napoleon and riding a white horse. Certainly the man had access to horses, being one of the premier thoroughbred owners in the nation. As it was, that did not come off for a reason I now forget and Steinbrenner arrived as he traditionally did, surrounded by lackeys and mobbed by the media.

No one knew it at the time, but Steinbrenner was beginning to understand that his penchant for the back page of the New York tabloids and his reflex ranting and raving and firing of managers and public relations directors, that his proclamation that a struggling Winfield was “Mr. May,” a takeoff on Jackson’s nickname of “Mr. October” was both hurtful and harmful. It was the beginning of a time when Steinbrenner realized that he needed a farm system to raise the likes of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera, all children in the system then.

Not that Steinbrenner was a pleasure to work for. There was an evening in Yankee Stadium when long, long after a tough loss, I happened back from the press room into manager Buck Showalter’s office. Showalter was sitting at his desk, his head bowed, still in his baseball skivvies, tortured.

“I can’t take it anymore,” Showalter said, referring not the losses, but the constant pressure Steinbrenner was applying from above. “I’m quitting.”

I sat there and reasoned with him as best as you can reason in an unreasonable situation, but he seemed determined. It was long after deadline now, so I did not pursue the potential story of Showalter quitting to the point of writing about it. Meanwhile, that journalistic little angel on my shoulder kept insisting that it wasn’t going to happen anyway. People did not quit on Steinbrenner. They were fired by him. The next day, all was right with the world and Showalter had another game to win. What he didn’t have was another year.

There were, of course, many instances in the three seasons that I covered the Yankees that were true Steinbrenner moments, signing Strawberry being one of them, but the man could not help himself in that matter. Steinbrenner had hit pay dirt with Jackson and maybe Strawberry had that one more season in him, even though he had put himself through far too much abuse with drugs and alcohol. Strawberry came to the Yankees and was a model citizen, if not exactly the player Steinbrenner envisioned.

The thing about Steinbrenner was that I believe he always laughed at all the sniping from the tabloids, all the talk radio horror, that he did things for effect and that, in the end, he was closer to the Steinbrenner who showed up on “Seinfeld” than the one depicted in the media.

How else can you explain Steinbrenner's hiring and firing of Billy Martin five times? It was nothing but a game to him, toying with the unstable manager's emotions and laughing at the reaction he would draw each time he brought him back and let him go. Take the Christmas firing of Butcher. In the wake of it, a number of his predecessors said that all Butcher had to do was show up at work the next day and Steinbrenner would have acted as if nothing had happened, but that he didn’t know how to play Steinbrenner’s game.

The fact of the matter is that for better or for worse—and the jury is certainly out on it—Steinbrenner changed the game of baseball, drove salaries up, and with it even profits rose for the have-nots. All those teams lost was a chance at ever winning, for no one knew how to play the game he invented better than George Steinbrenner.

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

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