ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – The news rattled through the press tent at the Old Course Tuesday afternoon, because suddenly the New York papers didn’t have many column inches remaining for golf.
George Steinbrenner – the Boss – had died at age 80 after years of failing health and a guy on the baseball beat when George was at his blustery -- and often most dislikeable -- best thinks back to a giant of an owner who clearly changed things, both for good and bad.
For openers, whatever the historic context of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run fest of the late 1990s, it never rang true here that the (illegally fuelled) bashing “saved’’ baseball after the damaging strike of 1994. What “saved’’ baseball, in this opinion, was that the New York Yankees got good again in the mid-1990s. Very good and, for the vast majority of baseball, worth hating again. (Now his final scorecard reads 10 pennants and seven World Series winner in 37 years. Positively hateful, all right.).
Once the Yankees returned to post-season TV screens every October, viewership (and baseball interest) went way up. The American League got vastly superior to the National League because every owner knew that the way to the World Series was through
Many fans will rail on Steinbrenenr for making the cost of winning so high, but they can’t blame him for the system. He was the first modern owner in pro sports, understanding that he could exploit the new free-agent system as it existed as a way to protect and inflate his investment. He understood that winning came first and once you won, the empire would be easily assembled. (If only our friends at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had ever figured out that part, that empire-building follows winning and not vice-versa. Too bad for
Steinbrenner’s greatest sin might have been his win-at-all-costs-and-do-it-now philosophy. Fans of other teams would bang on him for trying to “buy championships’’ but secretly, wouldn’t virtually every one of them have wished his or her own local owner possessed such a philosophy and bankroll? Of course they would. And every owner tries to buy a championship one way or another; the difference is that Steinbrenner was willing to pay the high price to do it. Most want to do it on the cheap.
There were Steinbrenner moments that shocked and appalled, of course. His legal troubles, his suspensions, his notoriously shabby treatment of some employees was all well documented. But there was another side to the man, one that featured incredible generosity and loyalty. Once, when the Baseball Hall of Fame was having difficulty coming up with funds to bring heroes to Cooperstown, Steinbrenner, a Hall board member, quietly ordered that every legend be flown in first class, with the bill sent to the Yankees. He did it without fanfare or publicity, because he thought it was the right thing to do.
This reporter knew Steinbrenner from his horse racing days, both thoroughbred and standardbred, and there were times Steinbrenner could be downright charming with a crowd of horse people. He had a sense of humour, although you might need to blast for it. He didn’t go through trainers quite as fast as he went through baseball managers pre-Joe Torre – including his repeated insanity with five-time hire Billy Martin – but he won some big races and contributed to equine charities handsomely. Because Torre had an interest in horse racing, the two men had a common cause and if Steinbrenner ever made a better baseball move than hiring Torre and keeping him 12 years, it’s forgotten here.
He will be remembered in many ways, from both sides of the fence. There was no owner quite like him, though. That much is certain.