George Steinbrenner’s health had been in decline for several years, both his body and mind slowly failing him. In 2007, sons Hank and Hal took control of the team and eventually the duties fell to Hal, his youngest child but the one with the best temperament for running a company worth an estimated $1.6 billion.
But in 2006, my first of four years on the Yankees beat, George Steinbrenner was still very much in charge. The experience was unlike any other.
Understand that most team owners rarely speak to the media and when they do, it’s through a press release or in some other carefully measured way. But with Steinbrenner, the impulse to speak could come at any time and a beat reporter had to be there for it.
Steinbrenner traveled by golf cart around Legends Field in Tampa. Whenever that golf cart stopped, we would gather to hear what he had to say. Several of us would literally stand in the lobby of the building near the elevator until he had left for the day, so terrifying was the prospect of getting scooped. You just never knew when he would talk or what he would say.
In 2006, the big subject was the first World Baseball Classic. Steinbrenner hated it because so many of his best players would be away from spring training and he felt it necessary to win those games.
“We don’t like it that well,” Steinbrenner said one day from the seat of his golf cart. “If a player gets hurt he’s risking a lot. It was [Bud] Selig’s idea and he wants to do it, so I suppose we’re going to do it.
“I’m used to spring training being to concentrate on the World Series and that’s what we like to see our players do.”
With that, Steinbrenner sped off. “Get out of my way,” he said.
Later that spring, during a postgame interview session in Joe Torre’s office, Steinbrenner suddenly came in the room and sat on the couch next to Joel Sherman of the Post.
Joel kiddingly asked George if he wanted to ask some questions.
Steinbrenner grabbed Joel’s notebook and pretended he was a reporter. Torre laughed, having seen it all before.
In the years that followed, Steinbrenner’s health declined rapidly. He needed a wheelchair instead of a golf cart and his memory became scattered. On day in 2007, while he was eating lunch, we gathered around his table and he cracked a few jokes to reporters he had known for years, calling all of them “Buddy” because he couldn’t remember their names.
Steinbrenner was a man of vastly different dimensions. He often treated employees callously, firing scores of managers, general managers, publicity directors and others for no good reason. In 2001, angry at losing the World Series, he reduced the health benefits of team employees to make a point about how much money he was spending. His impetuous decisions ruined the Yankees for many years, making them a laughingstock as they wasted money on middling players.
At his worst, Steinbrenner was bombastic, cruel and capricious. His death does not change that.
But at the same time, Steinbrenner was a one-man charitable mission, supporting youth and community groups in New York and Tampa as well as the US Olympic team. In the Tampa area, a high school was named for him in recognition of his charitable works. He gave troubled players such as Dwight Gooden and Darryl Stawberry second, third and fourth chances. He would think nothing of paying for the funeral of a veteran or the college education of an orphan. Steinbrenner also made generous contributions to The Jimmy Fund and MIT to build a stadium in the memory of his father, a former athlete at the school.
What baseball is now — the lavish payrolls, regional television networks, merchandising and other modern flourishes — were generated by what Steinbrenner did with the Yankees. Teams, particularly the Red Sox, had little choice but to try and keep up with him.
Consider this: If you asked a casual sports fan to name as many team owners as he could, virtually everybody could come up with Steinbrenner. He was a cultural touchstone, having hosted “Saturday Night Live”, been parodied on “Seinfeld” and photographed thousands of times. Even fame-hungry owners like Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks are a distant second.
What will be interesting now is to what degree his death will have on the Yankees franchise. His sons had no involvement with the team until his fading health forced them to act. Now that he has died, will the Steinbrenner family retain the team or sell it and live off the proceeds?
General manager Brian Cashman was fiercely loyal to Steinbrenner and it was his work starting in 2006 that streamlined the decision-making process within the team’s baseball operations department. That made the team better at developing players and more wisely spending money. Steinbrenner’s death could lead Cashman to evaluate where he stands.
The team’s top two business executives, president Randy Levine and chief operating officer Lonn Trost, were Steinbrenner loyalists. Some expect Levine to form a group to try and buy the team.
The Yankees will not the same without Steinbrenner. The organization was full of Steinbrenner lackeys who had their jobs only by his decree. They would be swept out in the coming months. Hal Steinbrenner, even if he maintains control, could decide there is no reason to have a payroll of $40 million more than any other team. Much of what the sons did in recent years was to pay tribute to their father. Now that he is gone, so much could change.
One thing is certain: The Yankees and baseball will never have another owner like George M. Steinbrenner III. Love or hate him, you knew who he was and what he did.