Remembering the Good and the Bad of George Steinbrenner

Since so many people are still commenting on the life and times of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner who passed away Tuesday morning at the age of 80, I thought I'd chime in with my own reflections.  This is an expansion of a comment I shared yesterday on Lea Lane's blog entry at Lea's Corner of the World.

As a diehard Yankee fan since I was a little boy, I've seen not only the Yankees domination but also the dry years when the Yankee brand seemed to be a shambles and the Stadium was empty.  (Easier for fans like me to get great, affordable tickets to lots of games, but I digress.)  Steinbrenner, in our eyes, was both a villain and a hero, both an out-of-control maniac and a saintly savior.

Amazing how winning can turn things around. I lived through the Bronx Zoo days and the post-season drought of the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the "dynasty" Torre years and the near-misses of the 2000s and last year's sweet World Series victory. I feel I've "seen it all" (well almost, because the Yankees continue to give me great new moments to add to my memories.)

During the 1980s and early 1990s when the Yankees were a mess, Yankee fans despised Steinbrenner's tabloid-feeding ways and Yankee haters did not seem to care much about the pocketless spending habits of the Bronx Bombers' owner, since he seemed to be throwing money away and it was getting his team nowhere.

Suddenly, when the Yankees started winning again, Yankee fans adored the Boss and Yankee haters vilified the Evil Empire as an example of all that is wrong with the sport.  The Yankee brand was on top again, and revenue from merchandise, ticket sales, advertising endorsement, and especially television deals, turned Steinbrenner's 8 million dollar investment into a billion dollar gold mine.  What was once a tarnished organization when he first bought it became one of the greatest businesses in the world.

As we remember Steinbrenner, we should recall the good and the bad. I still hate how he handled his managers in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. (Yogi Berra for a while refused to have anything to do with the Yankees because of the way he was treated). I still hate what he did to Dave Winfield. I still hate his crazy tampering and ballistic statements to the press that often did more harm than good.

But I loved his commitment to win. I loved his preservation of Yankee tradition and history. I loved his investment in the team. He bought the franchise at its lowest point for a mere 10 million dollars (counting the money from his partners) and turned that team around, returning it to glory, and making it arguably the most valuable sports property in the world. 

His belief in the free agent market, getting pitchers like Catfish Hunter and sluggers like Reggie Jackson, brought championships back to New York in the late 1970s.  After the chaos of the 1980s and early 1990s, he surrounded himself with people he trusted (Gene Michael, Brian Cashman, Joe Torre, etc.) and empowered them to build a great farm system, bringing up home grown future stars like Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, etc., and investing in his team through trades and free agency to bring players like Paul O'Neill, David Cone, David Wells, and others to the franchise.  The end result was a commitment to winning. 

The so-called Evil Empire may be hated by many, but teams like the Boston Red Sox had to become clones of many aspects of Steinbrenner's business model in order to turn their own dismal fortunes around and become great winners themselves.  For all the bad Steinbrenner is accused of doing to the sport, one cannot forget the good that he brought to the game as well.  Not satisfied with the status quo, he dedicated every ounce of his passion and resources to making his team the best in the game.  The results speak for themselves.

I've laughed at the caricatures of him like Bill Gallo's General Von Steingrabber or the many napoleonic depictions of him as a domineering Boss. He himself poked fun at his own image, hiring people on the spot just to fire them a minute later, with lighthearted appearances on Saturday Night Live and Seinfeld

I've also felt emotional watching his heartfelt tears as he held the World Series trophy with Manager Joe Torre, and seeing him at the All-Star Game a few years ago waving to the cheering crowd as he was driven in a golfcart on the field of the House That Ruth Built. 

Now we have a new stadium that many have dubbed the House That George Built.  His legacy will not be forgotten.