King George (cont.)
Steinbrenner never stopped telling people about the importance of the New York Yankees. It was that word: Importance. Steinbrenner always loved axioms, sayings, quotations, a few collected words that speak to the larger truth. He can quote a hundred of them, and in virtually every interview he will quote at least a half dozen. Plutarch said that the measure of a man is in the way he bears up under misfortune. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Do not got where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." John Wesley said "Cleanliness is next to Godliness." Shakespeare, through Polonius (in Hamlet), said, "To Thine Own Self Be True."
And so on. Steinbrenner never tires of memorizing these quotes. It seems to be how his mind works ... he sees things as IMPORTANT and SWEEPING and SIGNIFICANT and HISTORIC. It's probably the old football coach in him -- Steinbrenner for a time was a graduate assistant under Woody Hayes at Ohio State, and he served as a full-time assistant at Northwestern and Purdue in the '50s. And with football coaches, every game is for world domination.
Point is, Steinbrenner has never been much for the tedium of every day. No, he needed constant victories in his life, he needed perpetual action in his life, he needed to believe there was something momentous going on. He never saw the Yankees as a baseball team or even THE baseball team. No, he saw the Yankees as the American way of life. He expected his players to be clean shaven, he made sure patriotic songs like "Yankee Doodle Boy" were played at games, he had his legendary public address announcer, Bob Sheppard, talk endlessly about the "Yankee Way." When a player turned down his money, Steinbrenner saw that as a failing in the player's character, a sign that the player did not have the right stuff to wear the pinstripes and be a New York Yankee. To be against the Yankees, in the mind of George Steinbrenner, was to be anti-American.
That attitude seeped into everything. When the Yankees lost, Steinbrenner did not just see it as a loss, he saw it as an affront, a sign that someone was not living up to the Yankee Way, someone had failed the team, the city and, yes, America too. You better believe he had 16 managers from 1979 to 1995*. The Yankees weren't winning. Somebody had to pay. Somebody had to suffer. "Do your job or you will be gone," Steinbrenner said to someone pretty much every day; Steve Jacobson in his hard-hitting Newsday column reminded everyone that Steinbrenner had fired an electrician when the loudspeaker malfunctioned and fired a secretary for bringing bringing the wrong sandwiches. You live up to his impossibly perfect image of the New York Yankees or Steinbrenner would exact retribution. Joe Torre went to the playoff every year from 1996 to 2007. They won four World Series. But did they Yankees win every game? No. Did they win every World Series? No. Every year, there was tension and rumors that Torre would finally be gone.
*Not 16 DIFFERENT managers -- Bob Lemon, Billy Martin and Gene Michael kept reappearing in the early 1980s.
Of course, at the same time Steinbrenner punished himself too. He poured his baseball profits back into the ballclub, sometimes foolishly, sometimes recklessly, but always with the unmistakable intent of winning championships and glorifying the New York Yankees (and if he got a little credit along the way, well, why not?). Sure, it is true that the Yankees made more money than any other team -- hundreds of millions per year more than some small market teams -- but Steinbrenner did not have to spend so much of it on baseball. Only he did. In the 1980s, when the Yankees were floundering, he had to get every washed up Ron Kittle, Mike Easler, Jack Clark, John Candelaria, Rich Dotson, Jesse Barfield, Claudell Washington and Andy Hawkins. Then, after he was suspended by baseball for a second time and the Yankees became the most dominant team in baseball, he STILL had to get Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina and A-Rod and Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield and any other superstar who might help the Yankees win every game one season.
There are different theories about how much the second suspension was responsible for the 1990s Yankees dynasty. In the late 1980s, Steinbrenner paid gambler Howard Spira (usually referred to as "shifty gambler" or "scheming gambler" or "small-time gambler" in the various newspaper stories) to give up some incriminating information on All-Star outfielder Dave Winfield. Steinbrenner felt like he had been cheated by Winfield and his agent, who had put a cost-of-living clause in the free agent contract Winfield signed before the 1981 season that ended up costing Steinbrenner a lot more money than he expected. Anyway, Steinbrenner had never forgiven Winfield for going one-for-22 in the 1981 World Series. He lashed out in the most vicious way, and he got suspended. The general consensus seems to be that his suspension gave the Yankees the freedom to let their own players develop, and those young players -- Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams -- were the nucleus of the reborn New York Yankees.
This is true, though I don't think it's the whole story. King George's money was still good around baseball. Plenty of multi-million dollar signings -- David Cone, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Hideki Irabu, Jimmy Key, Kenny Rogers and others -- played real roles on those World Series teams. The lovable 1996 Yankees, the team that supposedly represented a new way for the Yankees to do business, still had by far the highest payroll in baseball, a payroll that was 10 percent more than the Baltimore Orioles team that they beat in the ALCS, a payroll twice the league average and three times larger the bottom six or seven teams. By 2000, the last year of their World Series dominance, the Yankees had the first $100 million payroll in baseball history -- and they rushed right by that to $113 million. The Yankees may have been smarter then, and they have been a bit more reserved, but the idea that George had learned restraint or that the Yankees were were somehow fundamentally different seems a bit off. Steinbrenner was still out there, still spending, still promoting life, liberty and the Yankee Way. He still could not help himself.
* * *
There's a wonderful three-word expression that is often used when talking about George Steinbrenner. The expression is: "Nobody can deny." Think how often you heart those words put in front of a Steinbrenner trait. Nobody can deny that George wants to win. Or: Nobody can deny that he has done a lot of good things for people. Or: Nobody can deny that he was a terrible boss. Or: Nobody can deny that he made the Yankees the dominant team again. And so on.
I love that expression because, really, it doesn't mean anything. If nobody can deny it, why even bring it up in the first place? You wouldn't say, "Nobody can deny that the Magna Carta was issued in 1215" or "Nobody can deny that Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine." That doesn't go anywhere. The reason it is so effective with Steinbrenner is because, honestly, every single thing about him is deniable. Good guy? Deniable. Bad guy? Deniable. Man who made the Yankees great? Deniable. Man who should have been given a lifelong ban? Deniable.
You can deny anything when it comes to George M. Steinbrenner III -- even hard facts. That's because he really has been one of a kind. You know how at the end of certain movies the screen will go blank and then words will appear, words that tell you how the story REALLY ended up -- like at the end of Walk the Line, it said: " "John and June were married in 1968. In fall of 1969, John sold 250,000 copies of his Folsom Prison and San Quentin albums, more than any other artist including the Beatles ... John and June shared their artistry, compassion, wisdom, humor, lives and love with the entire world."
Well, what words could you put at the end of George Steinbrenner's movie? I've read a bunch of columns and stories about the man -- some which make him out to be a hero, some which make him out to be a bum, some which make him out to be a complicated character, some which make him out to be as predictable as San Diego weather. I've enjoyed all of them, because it seems to me they all have truth. He IS the Seinfeld character. He IS the humanitarian. He IS the felon. He IS the driven perfectionist. He fits every theory.
My theory is simply this: Steinbrenner is a Cleveland man who wanted to be a star. Cleveland has always been filled with those people. Steinbrenner needed parades, he needed fireworks, he needed something to be remembered by. You may know the story of King Mausolos, whose reign has been somewhat forgotten, but whose large tomb was one of the seven wonders of the world (and the inspiration for the word "mausoleum"). There are men and women who come along who simply need to be stars. And whatever else, Steinbrenner was a star. Nobody can deny that.
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for the Kansas City Star and the author of joeposnanski.com.