It’s hard to convince any Yankee fan who has grown up in the love fest era of Joe Torre and Derek Jeter that George Steinbrenner is or was anything but a kindly old man who benignly sprinkled money on gifted young men fortunate enough to wear the pinstripes. You have to be older to appreciate Steinbrenner for the blustering comic villain that he was, not the feckless loudmouth who lives on in episodes of Seinfeld, but a despot in a blue blazer and white turtleneck who thought he could win championships for the greatest city in the world by dominating the back pages of the tabloids with bluster and invective.
Like cheesy reality television and genital-flashing starlets and so many of the the other circuses which we alternately deplore and enjoy, Steinbrenner’s ignorant bullying of his managers and players was thought to be great entertainment. His torturing of managers, including the classy Dick Howser, the iconic Yogi Berra, and most especially the insecure, alcoholic Billy Martin, was appalling. His nasty badgering of stars like Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield showed his ignorance. His petulant harangues over the failures of his young players was simply disgraceful. A commissioner with guts would have fined him until he shut up. It wasn’t until Steinbrenner himself went beyond the beyond and paid the gambler Howard Spira to find damaging information on Winfield that Steinbrenner finally received some punishment for his crimes against baseball.
Ironically, it was during that absence that the seeds of Steinbrenner’s rehabilitation were sown. General Manager Gene Michael drafted Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera who formed the nucleus of the modern dynasty. When Joe Torre was hired in 1996, a genuinely new Yankees took the stage, one that was accessible, professional, smart and triumphant, a team that New Yorkers have been proud to root for and have supported far more enthusiastically that Bronx Bombastics of King George’s prime. During these last fifteen years, as an increasingly enriched Steinbrenner took a back seat to the real stars of his franchise, his image evolved into that of a somewhat demanding but kindly old man. As his mind faded, others forgot as well. As for me, I’ll cherish the memory of Steinbrenner, angry about losing a game to the Dodgers in the 1981 World Series, breaking his hand by punching a wall in an elevator, and then claiming he hurt it fighting with classless Dodger fans who had impugned the honor of the Yankees.
It’s a moment that should go on his plaque in Cooperstown.