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Jul. 13 2010 — 12:55 pm | 259 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

George Steinbrenner Gets the Love He Always Wanted

The last public appearance for The Boss: the 2008 All-Star Game

There will be an outpouring of love affection for George Steinbrenner today following the news that he died of a heart attack early this morning at 80. He would have liked that. Truth is, he lived for that, even more than he lived to win. For all the attention-getting rants, the mean-spirited attacks on his players, and humiliating firings of his managers, Steinbrenner was always driven by his need to be loved.

The Boss spent decades as the man everyone loved to hate. That began to change over the last half dozen years as his image softened while his health deteriorated. And sadly, it was it was hard to know just how much he was able to enjoy to affection that finally came his way.

Steinbrenner had long ago grown accustomed to being hated. Even by Yankees fans. Who can forget the night New York fans serenaded him with choruses of “Steinbrenner Sucks” as George sat fuming in his luxury box? Sure, he’d restored a moribund franchise, mastering free agency ahead of his peers and winning back-to-back titles in 1977-78. But success went to his head, and the ’80s were a constant stream of fired managers and awful trades.

Yankees players, managers, and coaches hated George. Stars like Goose Gossage couldn’t wait for their contracts to run out so they could bolt. Top free agents like Greg Maddux used his offers to up the ante before signing elsewhere. Players around the league felt George cost his team at least 10 games a season with all his distractions, especially late in the season when the emotional toll of his abuse became too much to bear.

A lot of sports writers hated George, who gave them as many headaches as he did headlines. Steinbrenner turned his team into a 24/7 beat, and in the days before cell phones writers were bound to their hotel room, waiting for a call from George that often never came. It drove them crazy. I know—I ran two sports sections that covered the Yankees, and always felt like a psychologist talking writers off the ledge.

Sometimes, even finding someone who wanted to cover the Yankees was a challenge. And for good reason. In spring training, writers waited late into the night in the parking lot outside the team’s trailer. Why? Because George was reaming out team officials after a meaningless spring training loss and threatening to trade away yet another player. In the regular season, a three-game losing streak often meant someone—often a pitching coach—could be gone by the next morning. In the fall, it was all but certain George would upstage the World Series when his team wasn’t playing and fire another manager. No other owner in baseball history went through 20 managers in 24 years.

His manipulative relationship with Billy Martin was anything but healthy. Yogi Berra swore he’d never return after George humiliated him by firing him as manager 14 games into a season. His eight-year war of words—and worse—with Dave Winfield was the excuse to hand George his second suspension from baseball. I’m convinced his association with Spira—which was well known inside baseball for years—was merely an excuse to rid the game of a man who had embarrassed the game for years.

But there was the other side of Steinbrenner that few ever got to see. I found out first hand when the brother of my Yankees writer was killed in a car accident just as the writer was flying down for spring training. Steinbrenner had never met my writer, who had just taken over the beat. But when George learned about what happened, he set up a college fund for the writer’s suddenly fatherless nephews.

Steinbrenner did things like this all the time, and kept them all under the radar. When his football coach at Williams fell ill with Alzheimer’s, George set up a fund to take care the coach and his wife, and personally made the calls each year to make sure Williams alums wrote their checks. He paid for the college education for scores of players and their kids, set up friends and players in business, would read about a stranger’s misfortunes and send money to help. He wrote a personal check for $1 million for the rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

He believed in second chances. Sure, Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden helped the Yankees on the field. But few people in baseball were willing to give them an opportunity after all their problems with cocaine. George opened the door. And he’s sit for hours down in Tampa trying to get his friend Pete Rose to quit his gambling habit.

But he could also be incredibly mean. He would publicly humiliate his players in the media. Some of his rants are part of Yankees lore. When Japanese import Hideki Irabu disappointed, George called him “a fat toad.” When Dartmouth grad Jim Beattie had a few rocky outings, Steinbrenner challenged his manhood, saying he “spit the bit.” He would berate his executives in the media and in front of their staffs.

Amateur psychologists point to the father George could never please. Henry Steinbrenner was a championship hurdler at MIT and built a successful shipbuilding business. He demanded excellence from his only son, and no matter what George did, it was never good enough. Ever. When George bought the Yankees after turning his father’s shipbuilding company into one of the most successful on the country, Henry said, “Well, he finally did something right.”

George did a lot of things right. First he turned the Yankees into a successful baseball team. Then he turned them into the centerpiece of a global entertainment business. His YES cable network is the most successful regional sports network all of sports, and has been valued at $3 billion. Yankees merchandise is recognized worldwide and the team is already well established in the growing Asian market. They’ve formed a stadium hospitality service company with the Cowboys that in two years is already valued at almost a $1 billion. Ticket revenue last season was $397 million and the team is on pace to fly past that mark this year.

All told, the business of the Yankees is worth somewhere between $5-6 billion. Not bad for an $8.5 million investment in 1973.

Many credit the McGwire-Sosa home run chase for bringing back baseball after its disastrous strike in 1994. But that was a one-time deal. The real credit goes to the rebirth of the Yankees dynasty—the four titles in six years—that captured the imagination of both fans and TV networks alike. “George Steinbrenner’s passion for the game of baseball helped revive one of the game’s most storied franchises, and in the process ushered in the modern era of baseball business operations,” is the way baseball union executive director Michael Weiner put it today.

Much of this came to fruition in the early 2000s just as Steinbrenner’s image started to soften and his health began to fail. In 2003, he suffered a stroke and collapsed while attending the funeral of his friend Otto Graham. In 2006, he collapsed again at a recital for his granddaughter on the campus of the University of North Carolina. His doctor told the family that he had suffered another stroke. His ability to walk, talk, and remember, the doctor said, would never be the same.

That was apparent when he made a rare public appearance in the pre-game ceremonies for the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. It was a frail Steinbrenner, eyes covered by large sunglasses, who sat in a golf cart and waved to a politely applauding crowd as he was driven around the warning track of the old stadium. This was clearly not The Boss, the larger than life man who dominated the New York sports scene like no one else for more than four decades.

He returned to the infield when the tour was done. One by one, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, and Yogi Berra walked over to the golf cart and handed George a signed baseball. They had all feuded with the man over the years, but on this night, they each kissed him on the cheek. Tears rolled down from behind George’s dark glasses.

A week later, Gossage was in Cooperstown, where he was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame—wearing a Yankees hat.  Goose was asked if Steinbrenner should be in the Hall of Fame. The pitcher, who left New York for San Diego because he couldn’t stand playing for “the fat man,” never hesitated. “No question,” Goose said, “George Steinbrenner belongs here. He is a Hall of Famer.”

After all these years, people learned to love George Steinbrenner.

Hopefully, he was able to appreciate the change of heart.



Jul. 12 2010 — 11:20 am | 84 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

LeBron Fallout: Jessie Jackson Plays the Slave Card

MIAMI - JULY 09:  Fans cheer as (L-R) Dwyane W...

LeBron is no longer chained to Cleveland

Jessie Jackson Plays Race Card with LeBron: Oh, please. Jackson says Cavs owners Dan Gilbert’s angry response to LeBron’s departure reminded him of a slave master losing his prize possession. “His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave.” Wonder if all those fans—both black and white—reacting to LeBron’s decisions with tears, groans, and worse also have a slave master mentality. James strung along Gilbert and Cavs fans for two years, then had one of his entourage call Gilbert with the bad news a few minutes before the rest of us heard it on ESPN. Gilbert made us all cringe, but it had little to do with race.

Is LeBron Really A-Rod? Tyler Kepner of the New York Times is one of the many comparing James to Rodriguez, and there are some clear similarities. Kepner makes an intriguing point toward’s end of his piece: A-Rod trimmed down his entourage last season and got his first ring. Maybe it was coincidence, but LeBron might think of doing the same.

No More All-European World Cup Finals: Is the World Cup over yet? Have to admit the WC did not grab me as it did my sons and, apparently, much of their generation who grew up playing in youth soccer leagues every weekend. I did watch the the last hour of the final, wondering if either team was ever going to score. “No more all-European finals, thank you very much,” writes Richard Williams at the Guardian, who was tired of seeing all the flops and yellow cards.

The Voice of God Moves On: Yankees public address announcer Bob Sheppard passed away yesterday at age 99. Much to the consternation of my wife, I’ve always compared going to baseball games with going to church: uniforms, music, rituals, a strong belief system. God has never spoken to me, but if he did, I’m guessing he would sound a lot like Sheppard. RIP, Bob.

Yankees Have Best Record at Break: Yes, I know, for $210 million, what else should we expect. But even with C.C. on a roll, Robby Cano on pace for an MVP, Tex finally hitting, and a few nice surprises—Phil Hughes, Nick Swisher, Brett Gardner—the low budget Rays are only two games back. And the Red Sox, decimated with injuries all season, are just five back. One bad stretch, and the Yankees could still miss the playoffs.

Scariest News of the Day:  For the first time since the 2008 campaign when she was the vice-presidential running mate to GOP presidential candidate John McCain, Sarah Palin is supported by a political operation befitting someone considering a presidential run. Palin raised $866,000 in the second quarter, hired a foreign policy consultant, and spent $87,500 supporting candidates. Can this really be happening?



Jul. 9 2010 — 1:48 pm | 551 views | 2 recommendations | 6 comments

Assessing the Cringe Factor of LeBron and ESPN

GREENWICH, CT - JULY 08:  (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE)...

Jim Gray asks LeBron to reveal his favorite color.

I’m still not sure what made me cringe most during Thursday night’s Decision:

LeBron’s utter cluelessness: Everyone has their own take on which LeBron line upset them most. For me, it was hearing how much he enjoyed grown men groveling before him after two years of fans pleading that he join their team.  ”It was everything I hoped it would be, and more,” he said. Wow.

Jim Gray’s interview: It was tough to tell if Gray was conducting a real interview or auditioning to be the next host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? “Do you still bite your nails? It took Gray eight minutes and 16 questions before delivering the only question worth asking.  The public sees every journalist as part of one whole, and Jim did us all a great disservice.

ESPN’s ethics: Very sad to see the place I spent 15 years lose it’s last shred of journalistic integrity. It’s bad enough that sports’ largest news organization got in bed with the subject of a major breaking news story. And that the World Wide leader paid to get the interview—payments come in more than dollars, and ESPN made plenty of those, too. But did ESPN have to take such an active role in LeBron’s farce? The WWL ran a one-hour infomercial and forced a smart guy like Chris Broussard to play the role of clueless journalist. Did anyone think LeBron’s camp was really going to bite the hand of its business partner and feed Chris bad information? Once Broussard said it was Miami, the story was over. (As for Mike Wilbon, well, let’s not even go there.)

Dan Gilbert’s anger: The Cavaliers owner ripped into his former employee as though he was channeling every Cleveland fan—which I took as a public service and said good for him. Then he said it was time to stop covering up all the skeletons in James’ closet. Presumably, he was talking at least in part about LeBron’s troubled mom. Clearly, it was Gilbert and his staff who had been covering up whatever he’s talking about for the last seven years. Hopefully, Dan stops before this gets really ugly.

The Rest of Us: Read where a Daily Show producer kept his 2-year-old son awake to witness civilization hitting rock bottom. If LeBron is truly a cultural touchtone, the toddler learned an important lesson last night. We’ve all bought into ESPN’s relentless  Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous  / Jock Division programming. This latest and most sickening plate of hero worship was tough to swallow. And we all watched.

There were countless cringe moments along the way to last night’s show. The most shocking was watching Cleveland civic leaders and citizens take  ”We Are the World”—a song written and performed to raise money for starving children in Africa—and turn it into a recruiting pitch for their favorite son. Mercifully, at least that part of all this is over. Well, except in Miami.

Now comes time to assess the damage. My good friend Joe Favorito over at the Huffington Post wrote that no matter how bad this act got, it was great that people were talking about the NBA in July. Harvey Araton, another friend, wrote in today’s New York TImes that he could hear David Stern cheering all the way from his vacation spot out West. Love both these guys, but I can not disagree more.

LeBron damaged more than just his own brand last night. The NBA took a major hit during this whole embarrassing affair, and the timing couldn’t be worse. The league says it’s losing millions, and after seeing so many empty seats this past season, I  believe them this time around. We’re already seeing a backlash—even ESPN writers are ripping LeBron today—and it’s hard to see that gets any better.

No one can blame LeBron for wanting to play with two good friends, though it does make you wonder about how he views competition. Then who am I to talk—I root for the Yankees. But it’s the classless way James made his decision—start to finish—that turns your stomach. It appears he either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care. Not sure which is worse.

So maybe it’s true that David Stern’s brilliance was all about being commissioner when Michael, Larry, and Magic played. The decision to market stars instead of teams worked wonders then, but it’s been a bust since Allen Iverson took his turn as the face of the NBA. The current faces may be even less appealing.

NBA owners are already threatening to lock out the players next fall as the two sides try to hammer out a new labor agreement. I’ve never been one to side with owners at contract time—all things being equal, I’d rather pay performers than the rich white men putting on the show. But given all that’s gone on, a lockout isn’t looking like such a bad idea right about now.



Jun. 28 2010 — 10:18 am | 532 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Young Bengals Player’s Death Linked to Brain Trauma. Time to Rethink How We Play Football?

WESTWEGO, LA - DECEMBER 22:  A man stands near...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

There is an important cautionary tale for anyone who has a son playing football—on any level—in the New York Times today: your son may be a at risk.

Grave risk.

The Times is reporting that Chris Henry, the Bengals wide receiver who died tragically last year after falling or jumping out of a moving pickup truck driven by his financee, had trauma-induced brain damage while still active in the NFL. Dr. Julian Bailes and Dr. Bennet Omalu of the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University have found that Henry, 26, had already developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain disease.

Here’s the scary thing: Henry was not known as a big hitter and had no history of concussions. The NFL, which for years had stonewalled research into chronic brain injuries, is finally working with the players union to address this issue. (All it took was 22 players diagnosised with CTE, a year-long series of excellent stories by Alan Schwartz of Times, and several Congressional Hearings.)

As we got the results, my emotion was sad — it’s so profound,” Bailes, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at West Virginia and a former team physician for the Steelers, told the Times. “I was surprised in a way because of his age and because he was not known as a concussion sufferer or a big hitter. Is there some lower threshold when you become at risk for this disease? I’m struggling to see if something can come out positive out of this.”

And even scarier: researchers are saying this problem is clearly not limited to the NFL. Kids play football for a dozen years or more before—or if—they reach the pros. A story in Time Magazine this year estimated that 43,000 and 67,000 high-school football players suffer concussions each year, and even that is likely a serious underestimation, “as more than 50 percent of concussed athletes are suspected of failing to report their symptoms.” Playing with injuries is common on every level in the macho world of football. Getting your bell rung and rushing back into the game is a sign of manhood. Now coaches should be thinking of it as a sign of trouble.

I don’t want to imply that this is an N.F.L.-only phenomenon,” Bailes told the Times. Bailes who wonders if problems are set up “while the brain is young and vulnerable, and it sustains an injury.” “Players spend 17 years banging heads in the pros on every play and you think it’s exposure based,” he added. “Now with Chris Henry being so young, we have to rethink that.”

Henry was having an argument with his fiancee Loleini Tonga at their home in Charlotte when Tonga started to drive off and Henry jumped into the bed of the pickup truck, police in Charlotte said. Doctors are now wondering if the incident was linked to Henry’s C.T.E. Henry had many behavioral problems:  he was arrested five times for assault, driving under the influence of alcohol and possession of marijuana. He was suspended several times by the NFL for violating personal conduct policy.

Maybe these had nothing to do C.T.E. But problems like these are often linked to depression, common in people who develop this disorder. Think about that the next time you watch endless replays of an NFL player taking a big hit to the head after making a great play.

And remember that is someone’s son you’re watching.



Jun. 12 2010 — 1:47 pm | 236 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Mr. President: It’s Time to Let Bonds and Clemens Fade Away

WASHINGTON - MAY 15:  U.S. President Barack Ob...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Dear Barack,

I know how big a sports fan you are, so I’m sure you saw Friday’s court decision to throw out key evidence in the perjury case against Barry Bonds. Your prosecutors have not commented on whether they will continue to try the case or fold. So before they can decide to waste more taxpayer money—$50 million and climbing—pressing a flimsy case against a soon-to-be 46-year-old baseball player, I’m urging you to order them to stop.

No, actually, I’m begging you. I know meddling in the Justice Department is against the rules, but no one seemed to mind when the last guy did it. Yes, you promised to be different, but you haven’t kept that promise in affairs more important than this, so I’m not sure we’ll mind if you bend the rules over a few baseball players.

I also hear that your assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington is about to indict Roger Clemens for lying to Congress, so would you please put an end to that, too? If you need the quick background, consult the head of your criminal division, Lanny Breuer, who was representing Roger in this case before you brought him in to help clean up the mess left by your predecessor.

Yes, I know your guys offered Roger a plea deal and he turned it down. But what’s to be gained here? Even if Roger was clean, no one is ever going to believe him. George Mitchell and the media have taken care of that. I have no love lost for the Rocket—hey, Clemens and his camp stopped returning my calls after I defended him last March—but Roger has been in exile for the past two years, just about the max time he’d have spent in jail on the perjury charge. Do we really need to waste the Justice Department’s time and more taxpayers’ money here, too?

And while I still have your attention, would you please tell the judges in the California Ninth Circuit of Appeals to have the Balco prosecutors return the list of positive test results and urine samples taken from MLB in 2003. You know, the “A-Rod List” that was leaked to the media last spring. (By the way, how is that leak investigation going?) I know most of the baseball media and fans want to see who else is on that list, but three federal judges and the appeals court itself has already ruled baseball players have civil rights just like the rest of us. Let the union and MLB dispose of the results and samples as they collectively bargained to do in 2002. It’s time to put this one to bed as well.

Now, I know outing baseball stars will grab the media attention again, and you probably wouldn’t mind a day or two off from the BP mess, both our wars, and the latest Congressman who says you offered him a job. (Geez, are you that tough to work for?) But you’re above the politics of distraction, right? (Please say yes. I’m begging here again.)

And I know Rahm and Gibby will tell you the Republicans will howl about the sanctity of telling the truth before government officials. (Yes, I’m laughing here, too.) Just remind them if that were always the case, a good chunk of Congress, the head of the Fed, and most of the industry leaders you’ve been parading through Washington lately would be facing perjury charges, too. Let’s all try to be grown ups on this one.

But if you’re really itching to throw a few people in jail—and I certainly don’t blame you if you do—we’d have your back if you went after the criminals in Big Oil, Wall Street, and all those loveable regulators who’ve been screwing around on the job while the rest of us have been getting royally screwed. Just say when.

So let’s see if we can get this baseball stuff all wrapped up by July 4th and enjoy the All-Star game with a little peace of mind. I know your friend Bud Selig would appreciate that.

Thanks for listening.

All the best,

Jon


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    About Me

    I’ve been a sports journalist for most of my 36 years in this profession. I’ve been a writer and an editor. I’ve covered little league games and Super Bowls, worked on a tiny paper in Manassas, Va. and helped start ESPN the Magazine. Now I’m writing for True/Slant, freelancing, writing a book, and teaching journalism at Stony Brook University. I’ve lived and died with the Jets, Knicks, and Yankees. That stage of life is pretty much over now, though what happens to all three teams still interest me. And the playoffs are still appointment television. I now see sports almost always as a metaphor for what is happening around me. I see college athletic programs exploiting poor minority athletes and wonder why it exists and what it says about us. I watch a former White House press secretary manage Mark McGwire’s return to baseball and wonder why we can’t have an intelligent conversation about performance enhancing drugs. I read about former NFL players committing suicide after years of playing with concussions, and wonder how the NFL owners, coaches, trainers—and fans—can sleep at night. This is pretty much the reason I continue to write about sports. You write what interests you, and reach a wide audience. Everyone read and heard about the Duke Lacrosse story. Everyone talks about the Super Bowl. Everyone has their take on steroids. Sports is a common denominator, second only to religion, and its closing in fast. For Tiger Woods, that was unfortunate. To those of us in the business, it’s amazing.

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