The Boss will be remembered for making the Yankees winners (cont.)
During Steinbrenner's exile, Michael made sage pickups for veterans such as Paul O'Neill, Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key, augmenting young talents Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. Williams' development, in particular, was a startling change of pace for the organization because he was a slow starter, withdrawn and lacked natural baseball instincts, just the kind of player Steinbrenner had no tolerance for. But Michael's patience paid off.
Buck Showalter, a taciturn, organizational man, was promoted to manager and held the job for four seasons (1992-95), the longest consecutive stretch to that point of the Steinbrenner era. The Yankees reached the postseason in 1995 by winning the first AL wild card, and lost a dramatic-five-game Division Series against the Seattle Mariners. Steinbrenner fired two of Showalter's coaches -- a favorite Steinbrenner reaction to loss. Showalter's contact was up and he walked away from the job.
Steinbrenner turned to veteran baseball man Joe Torre and in 1996, Williams had his breakout season, rookie shortstop Derek Jeter showed the makings of a star, and the Yankees defeated the Braves in six games in the World Series, their first title since 1978.
Torre, who had been a prominent player representative for the union during his playing days, knew how to handle Steinbrenner. In '96, the Yankees had to play a doubleheader in Cleveland with two untested rookie pitchers. Steinbrenner called a meeting of his top advisors in New York. It was the day before the game, an off-day for the team, and Steinbrenner called Torre.
"Where are you?" Steinbrenner barked.
"I'm playing golf," said Torre through a speaker phone.
"Well, while you're out in the goddam woods having fun, we're trying to figure this damn thing out for tomorrow."
"How the hell did you know my ball was in the woods," said Torre, and cracked up the entire room, including Steinbrenner.
Torre was able to disarm Steinbrenner with great success. As the Yankees continued to win in the late '90s, winning the Series again in 1998, '99 and 2000, Torre's celebrity status grew. Steinbrenner grew increasingly resentful. Torre was getting more credit than Steinbrenner and that made the owner privately furious. But he couldn't do anything about it because Torre continued to win. Torre had an advantage over Steinbrenner that no manager, not even fan-favorite Martin, enjoyed. Torre was an icon; he was the public face of the new Yankee Dynasty. Even George knew that he would look like the old heavy if he sacked Torre.
That didn't prevent Steinbrenner from giving Torre a hard time -- coaches Don Zimmer and Mel Stottlemyre left with hard feelings -- especially from 2002-06. But Torre was always willing to deal with Steinbrenner's public tirades. Torre lasted until 2007, his 12th season as Yankee manager, a streak that is almost as improbable as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, before leaving to manage the Dodgers.
Steinbrenner's health problems first surfaced when he fainted at the funeral for football great Otto Graham in December 2003. He later fainted while watching his granddaughter perform in a school play. Suddenly, Steinbrenner was given to unpredictable displays of emotion, such as when he began to cry after the Yankees won a regular-season game against the Red Sox in 2004. He was not a presence at Yankee Stadium, or, more alarmingly, in the newspapers. For a man who lived for headlines, Steinbrenner's public dealings with the media were almost exclusively handled by his public relations man, Howard Rubenstein. By the summer of 2007, it was leaked that Steinbrenner was suffering from dementia.
In his absence, his sons Hal and Hank Steinbrenner took on the duties of their father as active owner.
The mouth that roared was suddenly quieted. During the course of his run as Yankee owner, Steinbrenner was often the most-hated man in sports, a fitting title that he wore well. He was combative, belligerent, charitable and ruthless. Most of all, though, he made the Yankees matter again.
Alex Belth is the founder and author of Bronx Banter.