Nate On Sports: A Rational Tribute to George Steinbrenner

As you have no doubt heard by now, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner passed away Tuesday morning at the age of 80.  His death, while sudden in nature, was by no means a huge surprise, as Steinbrenner was thought to have been in failing health for some time.  And yet, while “the Boss” is now gone, his legacy as a professional sports owner is one that will not disappear for a long time.

I’m too young to have been direct witness to most of Steinbrenner’s most famous antics.  The items on the following list are merely memories from print and documentaries, but they are vivid nonetheless:

  • His frequent criticisms of Yankee Dave Winfield (or “Mr. May” as Steinbrenner dubbed him)
  • His repeated run-ins (and subsequent firings) of his team’s managers
  • His repeated run-ins with AL and MLB authority figures
  • And, most infamously of all, his desire to get “dirt” on the aforementioned Dave Winfield

You know what the funny thing is, though?  I feel like I’ve seen it before, over and over again, just from watching Steinbrenner during the last 15 or so years of his long and illustrious life.  I can easily imagine him calling one of his players “Mr. May” – I have a feeling A-Rod would have earned that honor a few years ago if the Boss hadn’t finally started to mellow in his age.  I’ve seen the run-ins he’s had with a manager (Joe Torre) that won him 4 World Championships, confrontations which ultimately led to Torre’s eventual departure from the Bronx.

But yet, I have to imagine if you’d talk to Dave Winfield and Yogi Berra and Billy Martin and Joe Torre on this day, they wouldn’t talk about those incidents, or the controversies.  They would probably talk about one thing: George Steinbrenner’s desire to have the best team in baseball, year in and year out, no matter what the cost.  “Winning…” Steinbrenner once famously said “…is the most important thing in my life, after breathing.”  You would be hard-pressed to find any piece of evidence that would dispute that.  As baseball fans of today, yesterday, and any time in between know all-too-well, Steinbrenner would regularly hand out the richest contracts in baseball.  In the winter of 1974, he inked Catfish Hunter to the richest contract in baseball history at the time – a 5 year deal worth $3.75 million.  After the 1980 season, he signed Winfield for 10 years and 23 million.  More recently, he re-signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10 year deal worth a whopping $275 million, once again the largest contract in Major League Baseball.

As a Yankees-hater, the contracts were the main source of my hate.  “By God, this guy was ruining the game of baseball!  He thinks he can buy himself a World Series ring every year!”  And I wasn’t alone in that sentiment.  But to Steinbrenner’s defense, the commissioners of baseball did not care, and he was within his right’s.  And boy, did he ever get it done.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve simply realized that it was his money to spend, and his goal was to win.  You can’t fault a guy (or his team) for that.

As I see it, Steinbrenner’s legacy is one mixed with both facts and fiction.  The way some people talked of him, one might think he was certifiable.  Some people, unjustly I feel, have made him out to be the Darth Vader of the baseball galaxy.  While there’s no denying his moments of temporary insanity (yes, he really payed a small-time gambler to dig up dirt on Winfield – and it got him banned from baseball for nearly three years) and the general “Evil Empire” caricature that was the Yankees, George Steinbrenner was a guy who simply lived life to its fullest each and every day.  He was a star athlete in high school in college, a successful businessman, and even an actor for a brief period before he devoted most of his time and resources to the Yankees.

The butt of many jokes, Steinbrenner was able to laugh off the worst of them; The Mr. Steinbrenner character on Seinfeld was particularly memorable.  Steinbrenner had a softer side, however, as witnessed by his humanitarian efforts for foundations and individuals; when Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, he received two bouquets of flowers – one from the Red Sox, and one from the Yankees, where it was widely speculated that Steinbrenner was the originator. Friends and employees have remarked the Steinbrenner felt that charity was a private activity, and one that the man was deeply engaged with.

Although my Yankee hate is nowhere as strong as it once was, I still can’t say that I like the team.  Part of me though, may even wants to root for the Yankees now, just as a tribute to the late George Steinbrenner.  For some reason though, I don’t think he would want that, he was devoted to the competition and rivalries of our great American game.  That’s the man the baseball world will remember, for better or worse.  And in the opinion of one baseball fan, I think it’s for the better.  Rest in peace, Mr. Steinbrenner.

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