Never again…

Loyal. Bombastic. Fierce. Patriotic. Irrational. Demanding. Transcending.

Yup, they all fit.

The Boss.

No New York sports figure, with the exception of Jackie Robinson, left such a demonstrative imprint on the city like George. In Robinson’s case, it was all about grace and equality and patience; with George Steinbrenner, it was really about everything. Good and bad, the highs and lows are unparalleled.  

The abridged version goes something like this:

An aggressive business person pouncing on a once in a lifetime opportunity, transforming a decaying franchise into a money-making machine, always focusing on the brand and creating a blueprint for other wealthy, aggressive owners to follow. Loud and proud, this former coach with football virtues and an affinity for the American flag, put the shine back in the Pinstripes. Along the way, his public feuds and intolerance for losing created a few acrimonious moments over the course of his four decade reign (of terror).

The End.

Hardly.

Forever, he remains a pioneer: a pioneer during the early days of free agency, a pioneer in gaining leverage with television rights, and ultimately, a pioneer in circumventing everyone and everything in creating his own regional network, YES.

He’s also a fossil, as there will never, ever be another George Steinbrenner.

Ever.

Why?

Because we have changed. Society is different.

And that’s a good thing.

But it’s the last sentence a few paragraphs above, that catapults George Steinbrenner to the Mount Rushmore of Renegades. He ruled with an iron fist, during an era dominated by a passive workforce. Women rarely spoke up, and when they did, they were quickly dismissed. Do you really think Human Resources Departments (provided they even existed) were as refined and as vigilant as they are today?

He preyed on the weak, because quite frankly, there was no recourse, no punishment.

Long ago, elite athletes were still somewhat connected to mainstream society, and interacted with fans. Yes, despite the exorbitant contracts, the top players in the 70’s and 80’s still walked to the corner deli for a coffee before heading to the ball park, or the arena, and they did so without an entourage.

The “globalization” of sport was a term NO ONE used, really, until David Stern made it popular in the late 80’s with the McDonald’s game. Throughout the 90’s, as Europeans slowly emerged on the basketball court, and MLB took Opening Day to Japan and the NFL eventually ventured overseas, athletes were just that: they were athletes.

The owners ran the show, bolstered by compliant commissioners, and the athletes, well, they reaped the rewards monetarily, but there was no discernible imbalance in the fight for power. 

And that’s why George Steinbrenner was able to flourish, despite a combustible and at times, toxic personality.

He was born at the right time, during an era that in many ways, encouraged such divide.

If George Steinbrenner owned the Knicks, he would have earned, like everyone else this past summer, a front row seat to the biggest circus I have ever seen: the courtship of Lebron.

And he would have been completely powerless. Why? Because the players now run the show. They fear no one, let alone some wanna’ be tough-guy owner. Instead, they perform, get paid, and when toasting each other on some beautiful, remote island surrounded by beautiful women during the offseason, they laugh. They laugh because they somehow gained exponential leverage in the vital tug-of-war with ownership.

He was banned, reborn, banned again, and eventually crowned King, before the newly minted version of “The King.”

I’m quite confident George detested losing, that’s obvious. Every high-profile signing and press conference validates his passion to win. But I sense the one thing he despised most, was when someone had the guts to challenge his power, and pursue his throne.

A fun debate is whether some of the giants of the early days of the NBA could perform today, like George Mikan. My answer has always been no. Imagine Mikan trying to deny Shaquille O’Neal position in the paint, or stepping out to guard Tim Duncan 15 feet away from the rim, reacting to every Hall of Fame pump-fake?

However, that doesn’t diminish Mikan’s importance, it actually amplifies it. It speaks to the growth of the game, the evolution of sport. Several years ago, during a St. John’s-DePaul game in Illinois, I found myself staring at his retired jersey, wondering what the game was like back then. I absorbed the moment, and used it to profess great admiration, on air,  for a pioneer.

Pioneers will always have a place in the record books and in our hearts, especially with sports. It’s a great bond, a historical connection to what once was.

When I think of George Steinbrenner, I think of my childhood as he purchased the Yankees the same year I was born. I think of my idol Don Mattingly, and wonder, why George chastised one of the classiest athletes ever, insisting he cut his hair? Why? Because Mattingly’s popularity was approaching Mickey Mantle-like reverence. Read between the lines: in a way, Mattingly was indirectly cutting into George’s power, or so he thought. 

I also think of championships, and going to the yard with my dad, aspiring to one day, play on the same field as Mattingly. I was mesmerized by the sights and sounds and history of that particular stadium.

George was in so many ways, great for this city, and representative of many of our strongest characteristics.

He will be greatly missed, but it doesn’t mean he’d be able to run the Yankees today the way he did for so many chaotic years.

The reason?

People are tougher, hardened and quite frankly, they would no longer tolerate it.

George’s ultimate strength was always identifying the weak, and leveraging that to his advantage.

I’d like to think both time and circumstance has empowered society  to speak up, to stand up, to fight back.

And that’s when George Steinbrenner was actually most vulnerable. 

When people fought back.

Rest in peace, Boss.

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3 Comments

  1. Not a Yankee fan but every baseball fan must respect the greatest Sports Owner ever. He did whatever it took to win and for that he will always be remembered. I’d say the Yankees would not be where they are if they had a different owner. Just my opinion.

  2. remember him from Seinfeld. Larry David is a god

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