Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Boss: resurgence, failure, scandal, renaissance

Based upon the various obituaries of George M. Steinbrenner III, and my recent reading of William Manchester's brilliant Winston Spencer Churchill, The Last Lion: Alone, The Monk's failings in life stem from having a father who is not an incorrigible ass.

Steinbrenner entered [athletics, shipping, sports team ownership] in various vain attempts to placate and obtain approval from his demanding father, Henry Steinbrenner. The Boss's old man was still impossible to satisfy, even though by the late 1960s George had already bought out his old man and the rest of the family's interest in the family owned shipping business and had acquired the American Shipbuilding Company. By 1972, he was more than just rich, he was a leading industrialist based in Ohio and was looking to purchase a sports franchise. First, he started by trying to buy the local burlap-sack franchise, the Cleveland Indians. That endeavor failed. So he turned his attention to the New York Yankees.

The Yankees were the fallen star of American sports. From 1936-1964, the Yankees won 22 AL pennants in 29 years and 16 World Series -- a three-decade run of success unparalleled in North American sports. In the eight seasons since being purchased by CBS in 1965, the Yanks had not come close to the playoffs: six finishes at least 20 games behind the pennant or division winner, only once within 10 games of first place. Steinbrenner vowed to make the Yankees winners again. And he did.

The major points of The Boss's life as The Boss are well-known: his infamous declaration that he'd be a hands-off owner; how he squeezed out his limited partners; the free agent acquisitions; the revolving door managerial policy; the grooming code; the temper; the bad deals; and his renaissance as the kindly and beloved Boss after his reinstatement in 1993 and the Yankees' resurgence to prominence and, ultimately, dynasty.

But the facts are dangerous materials to work with when crafting a legacy. Without Steinbrenner's wallet and brashness, the Yankee rebirth in the 1970s would not have happened. But general manager Gabe Paul's deals are what rebuilt the team: obtaining Chambliss, Tidrow, Piniella to team with Munson and Nettles by the end of 1974; trading Bobby Murcer for Bobby Bonds, who turned into Figueroa (55-30 from 1976-78) and Rivers and Doc Medich for Ellis and Randolph. Swapping some magic beans for Bucky Dent. Without those transactions, the 1976-78 AL championship pennants would hang in Baltimore, Boston or Kansas City.

But no Yankee fan of my generation can forget the 1980s, the only decade since the Babe Ruth trade in which the Yankees did not win a World Series. It was a decade marked by stupid decisions (turning a top-of-the-rotation starter [Rightetti] into a closer) and stupid deals for retread pitchers (Rhoden, Reuschel, Dotson, Trout, Niekro, Niekro, John round 2) who could not lift the Yanks past their rivals. Willie McGee, Fred McGriff, Jay Buhner, Tim Belcher, Doug Drabek all played in the playoffs and two won World Series rings, while the Yanks were in their longest playoff drought since the Babe Ruth trade (and McGriff won a ring in 1995, the first reappearance of the Yanks in the playoffs since 1981). Even though the Yanks had the best aggregate record in the major leagues in the 80s, the only baseball champion in New York was the 1986 Mets. By the end of the decade, the Yanks were a sub-.500 team. In 1990, they were a joke.

There is no coincidence that the Yanks' return to glory was seeded during the suspension of Steinbrenner from 1990-92 for hiring Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. In 1990, they drafted Posada and Pettitte, and inked a Panamanian string-bean, Mariano Rivera. In '92, they drafted some kid from Michigan who played shortstop, traded for Paul O'Neill and obtained Jimmy Key. And the development of Bernie Williams continued.

By the time Big Stein was back in command, the Yanks had the foundation for success. Some smart trades (Martinez and Nelson), and good signings (Wetteland) made up for the Boss's meddling (Kenny Rogers instead of Chuck Finley). With astute guidance (Torre) and an intelligent front office, the Yankees thrived. Only when the Boss's heavy hand began to weigh upon the decisionmaking of the team after the 2001 World Series loss did the Yanks falter again (Giambi, Sheffield, Weaver, letting Pettitte leave).

Ultimately, he was the biggest name in New York sports: loud, brash, determined, loyal, difficult, generous, stubborn. He made the Yankees great again, tore them apart, stood back and enjoyed, then meddled again. And he transformed a national team into a global brand. He was the future of media and sports ownership (YES), a brilliant businessman, and a winner, often in spite of himself.

George Michael Steinbrenner III, RIP.