Critics (them again) complained that Steinbrenner was using that checkbook in place of any real vision and were happy to point out that results were not always commensurate with the payroll. Steinbrenner, in establishing his Bronx Zoo, was buying dysfunction as much as he was championships. But, again, this ignored his role as surrogate fan. He was simply enacting their wishes, sometimes before they could even form them. The Yankees, once Steinbrenner was in charge, became fantasy baseball for a pretty big city.
Steinbrenner managed to represent his people, the blue-collar demographic that underwrote his own dreams, even as he was creating this new baseball royalty. It was wicked fun to watch him have it both ways, promoting his players' celebrity, then removing it at the first sign of disappointment. But he understood that the fans could not long appreciate Yankees arrogance without the possibility of comeuppance, or at least accountability. "Mr. May" is what he called Winfield after a galling World Series failure, shrewdly anticipating fan backlash.
There is probably zero tolerance for an owner exactly like Steinbrenner, but there is more and more a sense that his is the only type that can truly succeed these days. You see that type in all of sports now—flighty, nervous, driven types like Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, now Dan Gilbert of the Cleveland Cavaliers—men whose need to win is rivaled only by their need to please. They're plungers, gamers, acutely attuned to the needs of the marketplace, self-appointed (critics might say) by accidents of wealth. And they don't operate with much reservation, or require much approval or agreement or even consensus. They know what's best—for the team, for you.
Steinbrenner was the first among them to recognize how a sports franchise, just during his time, had grown in importance, even beyond a dollar figure. He was the first to realize that teams had become public trusts, civic preserves that must be tended with sure and confident hands. He was the first to appreciate how sacred, how vital these things had become to a community. He was the first to understand—and he'd also be the first to tell you—that running one was not a job for just anybody.
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Joe Posnanski blogs on ... everything, every day at SI.com/vault