Griffin: George Steinbrenner's Legacy
George Steinbrenner was to major-league baseball ownership what New York City is to North American cities. The man and the city shared a larger than life, love 'em or hate 'em status that made that 38-year relationship a match made in heaven.
The Boss passed away on Tuesday morning in Tampa, Florida, the same day as the 81st All-Star Game with his beloved Yankees sitting as defending World Series champions and holding onto the best record in baseball in 2010. For the 80-year-old Yankee owner, that winning position, even more than the incredible current value of a franchise he had purchased for a mere $10 million back in 1973, was heaven on earth.
Steinbrenner and New York City were equal partners.
I recall the first year of free agency in 1976 when Reggie Jackson was the prized acquisition. The last-place Expos had the first pick in the convoluted system that had come out of the negotiations with the players association following the messy Andy Messersmith, Dave McNally trial cases.
The Expos were heading into a new Olympic Stadium and wanted the charismatic Jackson to lead them there. Reggie went on his travelling salvation tour. First, Expos' owner Charles Bronfman made his best pitch at a private dinner party at his posh home in Westmount on the slopes of Mount Royal. The backdrop was impressive, the money offer was competitive and the role being offered was appealing as a leader into the future of a young franchise on the rise.
The next day Jackson flew to New York. Steinbrenner simply took Jackson for a lunch-hour walk in uptown Manhattan, the enthusiastic Yankee fans greeted him in the streets, yelling his name urging Jackson to sign with the Bombers. The Boss shrewdly knew what effect that would likely have on Jackson and his ego. He was right. It was George and the Big Apple working together at their best.
Face it. New York City has its dark side and its glamorous side. Ditto for Mr. Steinbrenner. As the city cleaned up its act in the '90s, so it seemed did Steinbrenner with his ball team. After sitting through a three-year suspension from 1990-93 during which the rival Blue Jays won two World Series by outspending everybody and combining farm development with free agency, The Boss decided that his baseball people actually knew what they were doing and started a glory run through the end of the century, basically under one manager, Joe Torre. At the same time, New York City was cleaning up its act under mayor Rudy Giuliani. The Yankees were once again becoming the family game and New York City as personified by the iconic area around Times Square was becoming a prime family destination once again.
After New York City was tragically attacked on September 11, 2001, Steinbrenner and the Yankees became super-patriots around which America's national pride and self-esteem could be re-built and quantified. It happened. Who will ever forget the '01 World Series when President George Bush strode to the mound at Yankee Stadium and delivered a perfect strike before Game 3 of the World Series. Steinbrenner and the Yankees never stopped remembering that darkest moment in America's history, continuing with the seventh inning renditions of God Bless America long after others had stopped, then continuing to honour U.S. servicemen with anonymous contributions of money and tickets and countless days for the military at Yankee Stadium. How about that big old American Eagle that would swoop in at the end of the anthem and land on his trainer's leather clad arm. Great theatre...great New York theatre.
Sure Steinbrenner changed the pay structure of the game by leaps and bounds, making millionaires out of louts and superstars alike. But the game was always going to change whether Steinbrenner was there or not. For years the players had been held in virtual servitude and the system had to change. When it did, Steinbrenner simply had the ability and foresight to take advantage of it, although it took him a decade of futility in the '80s to learn some valuable lessons that money can't control baseball all by itself. It's why every year there are some low-payroll teams on the list of post-season contenders.
Steinbrenner was New York. They had so many things in common. Ask any experienced traveller about his experiences in the Big Apple and he or she will have a combination of both horror and love stories. Such is the legacy of George Steinbrenner.
What Seinfeld fan will ever forget the line delivered by Frank Costanza when the George Steinbrenner character knocked on his door to deliver the news that Costanza's son George, the Yankees' assistant to the traveling secretary was dead (he wasn't).
"What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?" yelled Costanza before anything else.
George Steinbrenner will most surely be going to the Hall-of-Fame soon, but going with him should be the founder of the Players' Association Marvin Miller. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse the game and the industry of baseball have chanced since 1973 when Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees. In all cases, The Boss and his influence has been a huge factor on both sides.