The Non-Persistence of Memory, George Steinbrenner Edition

bigstein.jpgI have now almost totally weaned myself off of listening to WFAN (apart from Mets games). It was hard at first, because I grew up in a house where this station was on all the time. The sounds of sports radio, however dumb, are like audio comfort food to me. But I’ve come to realize it’s more like audio Cheetos–it provides no nutrition and leaves behind a sticky, powdery mess.

However, I will occasionally tune in after a good series for the Mets. I like to soak up some good vibes and listen to those sad sacks who bitch and moan no matter what the team does. I did this yesterday and also heard the late morning/early afternoon hosts Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts interview Bill Madden, Latino-phobic Daily News scribe and George Steinbrenner biographer.

I have yet to read his Steinbrenner book, though I would like to. But if a subtitle like “The Last Lion of Baseball” didn’t clue you into the book’s tone, then this interview would have (you can hear the whole thing here). Like most folks who speak of Big Stein these days, Madden was effusive in his praise of the Yankees owner. He credits Steinbrenner with “making the Yankees a billion-dollar enterprise”. Asked if he should be in the Hall of Fame, Madden responded, “if you tried to write a definitive history of baseball, I defy you to be able to do it without mentioning George Steinbrenner prominently throughout it.”

You also can’t write a history of the 2000’s without mentioning George W. Bush prominently throughout it. That doesn’t make him a great president. He had a lot of impact on the world, and most of it was negative. Prominence doesn’t necessarily equal greatness, and it certainly doesn’t necessarily equal goodness.

I know I’ve written about this before, but whenever confronted with this take on Steinbrenner, I feel like I have to raise my hand and provide a counter-argument. Because with each passing year, the idea of George Steinbrenner as a terrible owner seems to trickle down the memory hole.

And I know I’ve told this story before, too, but it also bears repeating because no one seems to remember this era anymore. The day Steinbrenner received his second “lifetime” suspension in 1990, I was at my grandparents house. I remember it distinctly because my uncle–an out-of-his-skull fanatical Yankees fan–was also there, and when the news came down, he literally leaped in the air, clapped his hand, and yelled with joy.

Because by that point, Yankee fans were in open revolt. The 1980s were an anxious, fallow period for the franchise. Despite spending top dollar on the best available free agents (surprise, surprise), the Yankees missed out on the playoffs for 13 straight seasons–a long drought for any team, let alone them.

The Yankees had many woes in the 1980s–their futility on the field was only matched by strife in the clubhouse and a revolving door of managerial changes. All of these woes could be placed squarely at Steinbrenner’s feet, since he had his hands in every conceivable team
decision. When his suspension was announced in the middle of a game at Yankee Stadium, a standing ovation ensued. In The New York Times, George Vecsey wrote:

George Steinbrenner’s reign of tyranny as the Yankees’ principal owner was also a reign of propaganda. Whatever the problem, he shouted loud enough and long enough that it was always somebody else’s fault. When the team stumbled, it had to be the fault of the dismissed manager, the dismissed pitching coach or the dismissed players. When a trade backfired, it had to be the fault of his ”baseball people” in the front office.

As the Yankee franchise deteriorated into disarray, George Steinbrenner remained the principal owner, the boss. He made all the decisions. But somehow a bad decision was never his fault.

Through the years, George Steinbrenner told it like he thought it
was. He told it to his managers and his players. He told it to the
Yankee fans through the news media. He kept bragging about how the Yankees had won more games in the ’80’s than any other major league team even though the franchise didn’t win a World Series for the first time in seven decades. But he never bragged about how the current Yankees have lost more games in the ’90’s than any other team.

This was the prevailing wisdom at the time: Steinbrenner’s suspension was good for baseball in general and the Yankees in particular. But some time in the 20 years, someone flipped a switch, and The Boss became a beloved figure.

In his WFAN interview, Madden dismissed Steinbrenner’s suspension as a “railroad job” and said his book had more details on exactly why. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t judge this statement for sure.

Here’s what I do know: Dave Winfield sued Steinbrenner for not fulfilling contractual payments to his charity. In the interview, Madden alluded to accusations that Winfield’s charity wasn’t too diligent in doing charitable work. But rather than simply not pay the money or do a formal investigation, Steinbrenner responded by hiring Howard Spira, a reputed gambler, to dig up dirt on Winfield, presumably to either weasel out of his obligations or shame the future Hall of Famer. Steinbrenner eventually paid Spira $40,000 (for services rendered or extortion, depending on who you ask).

A suspension might be termed harsh punishment in this case. But Steinbrenner did
conspire with a known gambler, and gambling + baseball in any context = a huge effin deal. The normally combative Boss did not fight his suspension, which suggests to me he knew he’d gotten mixed up in some serious doo-doo, and decided he’d rather take his medicine and hope for a timely reinstatement.

If Steinbrenner is given credit for anything, it’s for “building” the Yankees into a multi-billion dollar juggernaut. In his interview, Madden called his purchase of the Yankees “an American success story,” since he bought the beleaguered franchise from CBS for less than $10 million in 1973. He did not mention that Steinbrenner was born to a wealthy shipping
magnate, not exactly a self-made man. Then again, what’s more American than growing up rich and pretending you earned it all yourself? (see: the aforementioned president)

His absence from day-to-day operations allowed the Yankees to concentrate on player development and roster building. They were able to develop players like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettite in their farm system, rather than trade them away for overpriced veterans, and also acquire complimentary, non-superstar players (just like Steinbrenner’s Watergate-related suspension in the early 70s enabled the Yankees to trade for players like Willie Randolph and not trade farmhands like Ron Guidry).

This eventually led to the latest Yankee Dynasty, which led to more asses in the seats at the Stadium and more eyes watching them on TV–all of which ultimately made the Yankees
the financial behemoth they are now, able to dominate the sport in every conceivable way. The YES Network alone is worth $3 billion dollars. Do you think the YES Network would exist if the Yankees hadn’t won four World Series from 1996 to 2000? Doubtful.

Ignore for a moment the question of whether or not this is good for a baseball (because Bud Selig sure has for the last 20 years). Is Steinbrenner really responsible for any of
it? He’s certainly not responsible for the Yankees’ success on the field. And if he’s not responsible for that, is he really responsible for the ka-ching end of things? My answer to that question is, no, he is not.

I realize and appreciate that people are reluctant to criticize Steinbrenner because of his ill health. It may seem in poor taste. But sympathy for him shouldn’t have to translate to complete historical revisionism. We’re now in this weird twilight world where we don’t acknowledge anything negative about him at all, and if we do, they’re just byproducts of his Greatness. All of his worst temper tantrums and public humiliations have been reinterpreted to be signs of strength, or symbols of his uncompromising nature, or just funny ha-ha stories.

If he berated a lowly employee for some made-up-on-the-spot offense, it’s just because he was a perfectionist. If he publicly humiliated a player, it’s just his way of motivating them. If he concocted a weird story about “punching out” imaginary Dodger fans during the 1981 World Series, it’s just a funny story instead of the delusion of a borderline psychotic.

During the WFAN interview, Madden recounted a story about Steinbrenner forcing an
underling to carry a bag of garbage around all day, simply because somebody else hadn’t picked it up. The garbage was not this particular employee’s responsibility in any way, but this person happened to be nearby when The Boss saw it and got mad. This story got a laugh, but it doesn’t sound like a good motivational technique to me, unless you want to motivate your subordinates to bring a sniper rifle to work.

In the final analysis, I don’t know if George Steinbrenner truly deserves to be in the Hall
of Fame, but I don’t really care if he winds up there. He certainly wouldn’t be the worst person ever inducted; Cooperstown is full of racists and gamblers and cheaters and
murderers, and one day it’ll probably have Jeff Kent, too.

I just want people to acknowledge this period in the Steinbrenner Era. Don’t pretend like it didn’t happen, and don’t pretend like all of The Boss’s mismanagement and douchery were strengths rather than weaknesses. Is that too much to ask?