Win George Steinbrenner’s Rep

I wasn’t too upset about the Yankee Love Fest that was Fox’s coverage of OMG THE LAST ALL STAR GAME AT YANKEE STADIUM. I mean, yeah, it was completely over the top and so full of fake, sepia-toned wistfulness it would make Ken Burns retch.

But the months and months of hype leading up to it meant you knew it was gonna be like that. If you insisted on watching the All Star Game, knowing full well it was going to be 4 hours of Joe Buck bending over and spreading for the Pinstripe Bullet, you really have no right to complain about it.

I did wish, however, that more attention had been paid to the two following details.

1) Yankee Stadium hasn’t been condemned. It’s not about to turn into dust. It’s old and outdated, but the Yankees could continue to play there if they really wanted to. So essentially, this “celebration” of the last year at Yankee Stadium is really a celebration of the Yankees building a billion dollar monument to themselves–with more than half of that money coming from city bonds, while the team tries and hold New York over a barrel for even more public funds to complete it.

1a) Oh, and they destroyed one of the few public parks in their Bronx neighborhood in order to do it. The team insists that they’ll pay to replace it with another public park, but that new park will be located on the other side of the Deegan. So go fuck yourselves, local residents, we need that space for a Hard Rock Café!

2) When the history of Yankee Stadium is rehashed by nostalgia junkie writers, they inevitably bring up Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, and so on. They seldom mention the fact that the current Yankee Stadium shares almost nothing with the Yankee Stadium that those legends played in, except for the name. The Stadium received an enormous makeover in the early 70s (totally publicly funded, by the way), to add a few seats and completely drain it of all idiosyncracies and charm. If you see pictures of the original version, it looks more like Ebbets Field or the old Tiger Stadium, a classic pre-war ballpark. The redesigned version that opened in 1976 looks like Shea Stadium in navy blue (which even the most ardent Mets fan will tell you is a bad thing). So when people lament the impending loss of the House that Ruth Built, guess what? That place has already been gone
for over 30 years.

But again, the full-press Yankee love was hardly surprising. What I did find surprising was the unbridled worship of George Steinbrenner that came along with it. During the broadcast, Joe Buck went out of his way to spend an entire inning talking about how great Steinbrenner was, and how he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Tim McCarver, who I think might now be legally retarded, agreed with him, as if Big Stein was a much a no-brainer HOF vote as Mariano Rivera.

Today’s NY papers were all pretty much in line with this POV, praising Steinbrenner and his winning winningness, and his ability to have his team’s stadium host an All Star Game. Midget Mike Lupica’s column was typical of the lot, chronicling George’s trip onto the Yankee Stadium field as if it was Caesar crossing the Rubicon.

At this point, I have to rub my eyes and blurt a Hanna Barbera-ish “ah-geda-ah-geda-HUH?” Because apparently I blinked some time in the last 15 years or so, and it must have been at the exact second someone switched the setting on George Steinbrenner’s Public Opinion to Adoring Adulation. Because for as long as I’ve been alive, it was set at either Derision, Disgust, or Searing Hatred.

There’s few things I hate more than historic revisionism. And I especially hate it when it’s being performed on an event that I remember. I don’t like someone trying to mindfuck me into thinking that my memories are the total opposite of what I vividly remember. The case of George Steinbrenner is a minor one in the grand scheme of things. But that doesn’t mean I can’t call bullshit on his image makeover.

Allow me to flash back to my childhood, when I religiously read and reread a series of books called The Baseball Hall of Shame. The first volume had a chapter called “Odious Owners,” and its inaugural inductee was Big Stein himself. I quote from their intro:

Revolutions have been won with less bloodshed, human rights violations, and atrocities than that which have been inflicted on the Yankees during George Steinbrenner’s reign of terror.

This is from a book published in 1985, and reflects the general opinion regarding Steinbrenner’s ownership at the time: He was not the driving force behind the team, but an impediment to any hope of success.

Almost immediately after Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1972, he was banned from the game for 15 months because of illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s CREEP fund.
He got around the ban by berating his least favorite players via tape recorded, obscenity-filled tirades. He also probably orchestrated the extremely unpopular swap of Bobby Murcer for Bobby Bonds in absentia, the first of many really horrible trades he would insist on during his career.

Joe Torre managed for 12 years, so it’s easy to forget that Steinbrenner used to run through managers like tissue paper. From 1972 to 1996, the Yankees had 20 managerial
changes, all of them instigated by Big Stein himself. This includes five different tours of duty for Billy Martin. Their love-hate relationship was the stuff of Sophoclean tragedy.

He also fired Yogi Berra a mere 17 games into the 1985 season. And rather than tell the Yankee legend himself, Steinbrenner dispatched coach Clyde King to deliver the bad news. Class.

Steinbrenner didn’t just shitcan managers on a whim. He was also fond of meaningless firings of various coaches as warning shots to whoever happened to be in the manager’s seat at the time. The tales are legion of him firing low-level employees who offended him in some way. And he loved to banish players who’d had a bad outing or two to Columbus as punishment.

Barring that, he would publicly question the heart and integrity of his players. Whether it was doubting the “guts” of pitcher Jim Beattie or calling Hideki Irabu “a fat pussy toad”, Steinbrenner was always willing to destroy a player’s reputation and confidence just to grab himself a few headlines.

By the late 1980s, fed up fans started bringing signs to the park saying things like STEINBRENNER MUST GO. This prompted the owner to kick out the offending protestors, which in turn prompted free speech lawsuits from the ACLU.

Oh, and he secretly paid a professional gambler $40,000 to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, a move that resulted in his second suspension. So, to reiterate: classy.

I still remember when Steinbrenner was suspended in 1990. I remember it because I was at my grandparents’ house, and so was one of my uncles, an absolutely insane Yankees fanatic. He was literally jumping up and down. YES, HE’S GONE! FINALLY, THEY GOT RID OF THAT SON OF A BITCH!

My uncle’s reaction was the prevailing feeling among fans, who gave a standing ovation at Yankee Stadium when the news was announced: with Steinbrenner gone, maybe the team could finally get back on the right track.

So what happened in the intervening years to cause a total 180 in reputation? The fact that he’s sick and frail helps. Nothing makes a person’s reputation bulletproof more than a debilitating disease. When Ronald Reagan left office, his reputation was at its lowest ebb. But once he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, suddenly his legacy was unassailable. Now, Republicans want his face on everything from the penny to Mount Rushmore.

More importantly, the Yankees have made the playoffs every year since 1995. During that time, they won six AL pennants and four World Series titles. The Yankees are amid a dominant streak unseen since the Bronx Bomber dynasty that began in the late 1940s and lasted into the early 1960s. You can gloss over a lot of past indiscretions when you win.

Here’s the problem, though: George Steinbrenner has had virtually nothing to do with this success on the field. Unless you want to give him credit for not being as much of a meddling douchebag as he used to be.

You can directly trace the team’s rise back to the top to his suspension in the early 1990s. While Big Stein was away from the game, the Yankees farm system was nurturing prospects like Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte. Considering Steinbrenner’s track record of trading away minor leaguers for beaten-up vets, it is highly likely that most of these future franchise cornerstones would never have worn pinstripes if he was running the team while they were minor leaguers.

In The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, Buster Olney ascribes the success of the 1990s Yankees to a new hands-off approach by Steinbrenner. And you would agree after looking
at what free agents were acquired under his watch. He did go hard after Reggie Jackson, which resulted in two World Series titles. But after that, his record is pretty checkered, particularly when it came to pitchers. Thanks to Steinbrenner’s whims, the Yanks were stuck with such stiffs as Tim Leary, Andy Hawkins, Doyle Alexander, and Steve

Of course, the Yankees became a multibillion dollar juggernaut under Steinbrenner’s watch. But seriously, who cares? That’s great for his bank account, and it should keep Hank in gold diapers for another few years, but it’s not relevant to baseball as it’s played on the field. It makes me think of how many people praise Madonna for being such a great “businesswoman”. Good for her, but does that make her last album any less shitty?

Most sportswriters nowadays barely acknowledge Steinbrenner’s past at all. And if they do, they dismiss it by saying, “everything he does, it’s because he wants to win so bad.” Who the fuck doesn’t want to win? Yeah, George Steinbrenner totally revolutionized the game. For decades, owners tried to succeed by losing, until Steinbrenner came along and said, “Screw you guys, I’m going to try to win by winning!”

And what kind of message does this send? It’s okay to treat people like toilet paper as long as you’re doing it in the service of winning! In fact, as long as you really, really want to win badly, anything you do is completely excusable! A country based on those values is totally the kind of country I want to live in!

I’m not saying you can’t make an argument for putting George Steinbrenner in the Hall of Fame. And if being a bad human being were a disqualification, there would be a lot less plaques in Cooperstown. But you have to consider the several decades of mismanagement and douchebaggery outlined above.

If you think he’s still a HOFer after all that, fine. But you can’t ignore some really shitty history. Unless you’re 99 percent of the media, apparently.