LONGSHOTS: The rule of King George in Yankeeland ends after 37 years
by Dave Long
The rule of King George in Yankeeland ends after 37 years
Since we’re in New England, the best place to start when the subject is George Steinbrenner is — no one, not Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, A-Rod, Billy Martin, 1978, 2003, Pedro Martinez or Don Zimmer is as responsible for the passion, bitterness, downright hatred at times or duration of the Red Sox–Yankees rivalry as George.
Yes, the passions of Fisk and Munson rekindled it, Martin was as easy to hate as anyone ever at Fenway and A-Rod brings his own issues, but George was there when it got rolling in the ’70s and has been the only constant right up until last week. He gave it a face for 37 years and his spending forced Red Sox owners to spend to keep up. So, in a perverse way, George had a role in helping the Sox stay good and The Nation united against him during most of his reign.
As you’re probably aware, The Boss died last week at 80 after arguably being more famous in Boston during his time than anyone who owned any Boston sports team. OK, infamous is more accurate, but you know what I mean. People KNEW who he was and had an opinion about him, like no other owner besides, maybe, Al Davis.
After a week of mostly tributes I’m not sure I can even add anything new — but I’ll try, as I come from a unique perspective. Prior to George and long after he took over I was as ardent a Yankees fan as there was on the planet. Loved the tradition, the history and the stars of sports’ longest-running dynasty. But as time went on he eventually drove me to disown my Yankees — which was as likely then as it would be for Rush Limbaugh to renounce conservatism today.
But I’m not here to kick dirt on George as I already pardoned him last Thanksgiving for his crimes against humanity after a 20-year sentence. I reasoned he’d been a good boy for the last 10 and since he was in fading health it seemed time. But that doesn’t mean I forgot what he did.
That’s why many of the tributes seemed on the revisionist side. There was a lot about George the guy who did so many nice things and how much he’d done to make the Yankees so successful. I’m sure the first part is true, though I do know enough about PR to know how some well-placed charity dollars can put a shine onto the image.
His acumen in running the baseball end of the team and his behavior while doing it is something else, though not what stood out most to me about George. It was his sheer domination of every situation. Back page of the Post. The lurking figure during free agent time. Breaking his hand after allegedly punching an elevator wall after losing the 1981 Series. And most of all, his bluster in firing manager after manager after manager. He was bigger than life and that’s why he’s one of those people, like with John Lennon — even though they’re dead it’s still hard to believe they actually are. That’s how BIG George was to me.
The stuff you can’t dispute was his success in the business of running the Yanks. When you turn a $10 million ($168,000 out of pocket) asset into $1.5 BILLION you hit more than a grand slam. Although enough already with his brilliance in forming the YES Network. It’s from the blueprint of NESN that came 15 years earlier. He also took back New York from the Mets, who drew 3 million as the Yanks drew under a million the year before he took control. And the Yankees brand is back at the top of the heap of all sports brands as well.
But on the field it’s mixed. People either have short memories to forget many horrendous free agents signing, or are suck-ups willing to justify his behavior as an owner with true passion to win, or they came on the scene in mellower times as they became the YANKEES again in the mid-’90s — after his world record SECOND suspension from baseball.
The reason I refused to root for Steinbrenner’s Yankees was his bullying and crazy impatience — which if he were a doctor would have gotten him sued for malpractice. He had 24 managers in his first 21 years. He hired and fired Billy Martin five times. Lou Piniella, Bob Lemon and Gene Michael each managed the Yanks twice. He fired Dick Howser after winning 103 games in 1980 in part because he refused to fire third base coach Mike Ferraro, who George blamed for Willie Randolph’s tripping over his own feet before he got thrown out at the plate at a crucial time in their ALCS loss to KC. He fired Yogi Berra 16 games into the 1985 season. In the strike year of 1982 he started the year with Gene Michael and fired him to bring back Lemon, who was at the helm after replacing Martin during the great comeback of 1978. But he lasted just 14 games into the next season before being replaced by — who else — the guy he replaced the previous year — Gene Michael.
That kind of lunacy cost the Yanks, by my count, three pennants in the ’80s. And it set the stage for my departure after he hired convicted felon Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield in part because his star was more popular than he was. That was it, as the ends don’t justify the means for me so I cut ties with the Yanks out of disgust for the way George did business.
It also got him suspended for life by Commissioner Faye Vincent — which was later reduced to two years. And ironically that probably was the best thing that happened to him as owner of the Yanks. It saved him from himself and more importantly the farm system from him as well. So instead of doing what he did as they went 13 years without a playoff appearance after 1981, when he impatiently dumped young guys like Willie McGee , Doug Drabek, Fred McGriff, Jay Buhner and others in bad trades for over-the-hill veterans — Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada came out of the farm system while he was out of baseball to form the backbone of a team that won five of his seven rings and created the image of George the sage team builder in the process.
So in the end what’s the bottom line? Two things. He got better toward the end. Joe Torre lasting 12 years as his manager while he enjoyed his greatest success says that. As does his relationship with Jeter, his star. Plus, what the blustering George really did was make it interesting for all of us around here and not many can say that.
Rest in Peace.
Dave Long can be reached at email@example.com. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.