What's more, while he once boasted that he never took vacations and worked nearly every day, Steinbrenner now sometimes slips out of his office early to swat 250 tennis balls on his backyard court. Two weeks ago he showed up at his office wearing—in defiance of his company's dress code—khakis, a pink polo shirt and a sweater with pink and white stripes, and announced that he was leaving at 11 a.m. to go to the Florida Slate Fair.
There the Boss showed off his swine-handicapping skill to longtime friend Tom McEwen, The Tampa Tribune sports editor, by correctly forecasting two of the top three finishers in the official judging. Steinbrenner had such a good time at the fair that he went back a few days later to check out the miniature goats. "They weren't that great," he said. "My miniature goat, Sarah, is cuter."
Steinbrenner's friends confirm that he has mellowed a tad, that he seems to be more patient in his business dealings and that he doesn't go ballistic as often as he once did. They list his work as a vice-president of the U.S. Olympic Committee for the past four years as a major reason for his modest adjustment in behavior. Harvey Schiller, executive director of the USOC, believes the democratic nature of that organization has helped temper Steinbrenner.
"People typically paint owners in sports to be in control of everything," Schiller says. "But in this environment that's not possible. No one individual can control the U.S. Olympic Committee. You can't say, 'We're going to wear this uniform' or 'We're going to travel that way.' We share ideas. Things are voted on."
Steinbrenner also did some soul-searching during his exile, contemplating his often stormy relationship with the game. His teams won four American League pennants and two World Series between 1976 and '81; on the other side of the ledger, he had hired and fired 18 managers and was serving his third suspension since buying the Yankees in 73.
He asked himself, Why am I still involved in baseball? What am I getting out of owning the Yankees? What kind of legacy will I leave behind?
Steinbrenner likens the lesson he learned while he was away from the game to his thoughts while viewing one of his favorite Claude Monet paintings, "Rouen Cathedral: The Facade in Sunlight," which hangs in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute at Williams College, his alma mater. The late Charles Keller, Steinbrenner's beloved history professor at Williams, who had often urged young George to be more studious, once mailed him a postcard of the painting with these words written on the back: "So it is in life that we must often step back from things to see them as they really are."
Steinbrenner has kept the postcard for more than 10 years, but he hadn't stopped to consider Keller's words—until recently. "The Monet is gobs of paint up close," Steinbrenner says. "But when you step back, you see the outline of the cathedral. I finally stepped back and was able to see baseball as it truly is."
That is, as an impersonal and selfish business. Steinbrenner realized that he had few friends in the game and that only a couple of owners had bothered to call him during his exile—in part, he believes, because they were intimidated by Vincent's mandate that the owners not speak to him about baseball matters.
For a brief period Steinbrenner thought about getting out of baseball. "[NBA commissioner] David Stern told me, 'Come, we'd be happy to have you,' " he says. "I said to myself, 'If I'm good enough for David to spend his time talking to, then the hell with you baseball guys.' But I couldn't do it. Baseball is like a disease. I used to ask [former Yankee president] Gabe Paul, 'How the hell can you get excited when there are 162 games plus spring training?' Now I know. There is no other sport that is as universal in its traditions. You can go into a barbershop in the snow in Indiana, and they'll be talking about some obscure baseball trade.