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A whole new ballgame now?

Steinbrenner’s death could change Yankees

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 14, 2010

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — After the tributes, the stories, the accolades for a great and productive life, and the sadness, comes the reality.

It’s the question nobody really wanted to ask or answer yesterday at the All-Star Game. But one has to wonder, “What happens to the Yankees now that George Steinbrenner has died?’’

The answer could be a simple “Nothing.’’ Or things could get quite complex.

The Yankees owner passed away in Tampa yesterday morning of a heart attack at age 80.

There was no doubt that even in the past few years when Steinbrenner’s health was declining and the role of sons Hal and Hank increased, that George was still The Boss, and that things had to meet his approval, or at least have his blessing.

What we don’t know is what level of passion Hal Steinbrenner has for running the Yankees. What we don’t know is whether someone like general manager Brian Cashman has stuck around because of his loyalty to Steinbrenner. What we don’t know is whether the family would love to sell the team for a couple of billion or so and bow out from the public eye.

The Yankees, of course, were a tremendous organization for years before Steinbrenner, but he did bring them out of the doldrums when he bought the team Jan. 3, 1973, and his success coincided with the advent of free agency. He wound up making gobs of money, but he spent gobs of money because winning meant everything to him.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi told the story before last night’s game of how fortunate he feels that he’s in his third season as skipper of the team because Steinbrenner had changed managers 20 times over the last 23 years — and that included a long stint by Joe Torre.

Shortstop Derek Jeter is up for a new contract, and there’s no doubt The Boss would have taken care of his captain, no matter how old he is. Now, one wonders, will Jeter get the six years he wants at Alex Rodriguez-type money? That personal touch Steinbrenner had, as gruff and as heavy-handed as it was at times, is gone.

What’s left could be a more hardened business approach, in which one has to ask the question, “Does it make any business sense to give Jeter, at age 36, a five- or six-year commitment at a ridiculous salary?’’ The normal answer would be no. But these are the Yankees, and they have the money to give Jeter whatever they want.

Steinbrenner’s loyalty to players and ex-players was legendary. It also meant longstanding jobs for people who worked around the ballpark, although he also could be ruthless with some employees.

Nobody around the league really knows Hal Steinbrenner well enough to know his loyalties or his level of commitment.

This probably won’t be as severe a change as when Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz died and his son Rocky completely transformed the organization, culminating in the recent Stanley Cup championship. The Yankees have been changing for some time under the younger Steinbrenner, president Randy Levine, and Cashman.

Commissioner Bud Selig didn’t feel it was appropriate to make any long-term comments about the future of the franchise, but he did say that Hal Steinbrenner was “committed’’ to the team. The Yankees, depending on whose calculations you believe, are worth about $1.6 billion. The hugely successful YES Network, of which the Yankees own almost 35 percent, could be worth about $3 billion.

No doubt the team is a cash cow, with the new stadium also generating millions.

The Yankees are really good again, last season having won their seventh World Series under Steinbrenner, and should be favorites to repeat as champions, so who knows if the family will let the good times roll? The occasionally combustible Hank Steinbrenner was really fun when he was out front in the franchise a couple of years ago, but that didn’t last long and Hal took over.

It appears, according to sources, that Steinbrenner made his will so complex that it will make selling the team difficult for his four children.

The Boss was colorful and helped create the huge aura around the team. His personality was glamorized on the TV show “Seinfeld,’’ and there were also parodies of The Boss in film and theater, and a ton was written about him.

All-Star lefthander Andy Pettitte first met Steinbrenner in the early 1990s when he was in the Gulf Coast League. Steinbrenner put the fear of God into players, making them feel that if they didn’t produce they’d be traded.

“Coming up in the organization he was the boss and he was going to trade you if you were a young player and this and that,’’ said Pettitte. “So, you know, you’re almost kind of scared. But once you got up [to the majors] he was great to play for.’’

Girardi told a George story about he and his wife walking their bichon frise “on the beautifully manicured grass in spring training, and I thought, ‘Oh boy, he’s going to let my wife and I have it,’ but he just sat with us talking about the dog and it was a totally different expectation than what I had.’’

Jeter had planned to visit Steinbrenner today in Tampa, where they both lived.

He said he’ll never forget the day Steinbrenner called him to ask him if he’d be the Yankee captain.

“I got a phone call saying The Boss wanted to talk to me and figured I was in trouble again,’’ recalled Jeter. “And I called him, and he was saying how much respect he had for me and he wanted to name me captain, and if I wanted to accept that role. It’s a memory I’ll always cherish because I thought I was getting in trouble, but I realized what that title meant to him and to this Yankee organization.’’

A lot of that personal touch is gone forever now.

Who knows whether future moves will be what George Steinbrenner would have wanted?

It’s a new Steinbrenner generation. We’ll see if it at all resembles the old one.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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