Remembering Sports’ Last Great Owner
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
When asked in “A Bronx Tale” if it’s better to be feared or loved, Sonny tells Colagero, “If I had my choice, I’d rather be feared. Fear lasts longer than love.”
Steinbrenner’s life truly was “A Bronx Tale,” from his purchase of the Yankees in 1973 to his no-nonsense dictatorship, which molded the franchise into sports’ most preeminent billion-dollar empire. In Steinbrenner’s 37 years as owner, the Yankees won seven World Series championships, 11 American League pennants and 16 A.L. East division titles.
Through it all, Steinbrenner stepped on dozens of toes – and throats – along the way, caring little about making friends and more about winning titles. The man who once said, “breathing’s first; winning’s second,” fully embraced the idea of being feared rather than loved, though in most cases everyone’s fear of the Yankees bred hatred among those chasing New York in the standings.
And while those outside of the Bronx certainly didn’t love “The Boss,” they respected his commitment to winning and admired the way he did whatever it took financially to field the most competitive team possible on a yearly basis. His multiple firings of Billy Martin in the late ‘70s and early 80s and overall bombast ruffled a few feathers, but no one could question his intentions. Steinbrenner had no hidden agendas; he simply wanted nothing more than to win the World Series each and every year.
Today’s owners pale in comparison. Around here, you’ve got the Krafts building multiplex cinemas and turning Foxboro into a rural shopping mall. Red Sox owner John Henry would rather waste money on a stock-car racing team and produce corny dating shows than shell out the extra dollars to sign Mark Teixeira. Steinbrenner spent his money on his team. He started his own television network and ballpark food company to create baseball revenue, not to line his pockets.
“The Boss” could even talk trash better than today’s owners. You’d never see Steinbrenner pen an embarrassing diatribe like the “Letter To The Fans” Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert plastered on the internet after LeBron James signed with Miami. Steinbrenner never cried like a 14-year-old girl on Facebook who just got dumped by her boyfriend. Instead, he took subtle – yet scathing – shots at his adversaries, like this haymaker launched at Henry in 2004 when the Sox’ owner bitched about the Yankees acquiring Alex Rodriguez after his own team failed to close the deal:
“We understand that John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated and disappointed by his failure in this transaction. Unlike the Yankees, he chose not to go the extra distance for his fans in Boston. It is understandable, but wrong, that he would try to deflect the accountability for his mistakes on to others and to a system for which he voted in favor. It is time to get on with life and forget the sour grapes.”
Brilliant. No cheap shots or name-calling – just a factual response long enough to make his overall point, yet not too long where it gives the impression he actually spent more than 15 minutes responding to someone else’s absurd whining.
This is how Steinbrenner rolled; if you pushed him, he pushed back harder. Ask the two Dodgers fans he knocked out in a hotel elevator in Los Angeles during the 1981 World Series. Or ask overweight, free-agent bust Hideki Irabu, who drew the “Boss’” ire in the late ‘90s when he failed to cover first base on a ground ball, prompting Steinbrenner to call him a “fat, pussy toad” – pussy, as in “full of puss,” not what you’re probably thinking.
The bottom line is as much as those who rooted against the Yankees hated Steinbrenner, they all secretly wished he owned their team, too. Born on the Fourth of July, “The Boss” was as American as apple pie and capitalism. He made millions upon millions as owner of the Yankees and had no problem telling you where to stick it if you asked for a handout. Steinbrenner wanted to spend his hard-earned money on his team, unlike owners of small-market clubs who gladly take “The Boss’” revenue-sharing checks without reinvesting the cash into their own product.
He also demanded obedience and professionalism from his players, whether it was through neatly-trimmed facial hair or proper dress code on road trips. You’d never see him sit behind the dugout in a “Revenge of the Nerds” T-shirt or ripped jeans the way frat-boy/Mavericks owner Mark Cuban does on a nightly basis in Dallas. Steinbrenner popularized the blue blazer/white turtleneck look, adding a touch of class to nautical gear.
One year during spring training, former Yankee outfielder Lou Piniella showed up with long hair. Steinbrenner let him have it, prompting Piniella to ask, “If our Lord, Jesus Christ, came back down with his long hair, you wouldn’t let him play on this team?” “The Boss” took Piniella to a swimming pool across the street and said, “If you can walk across the water in that pool, you don’t have to get a haircut.” Piniella showed up the next day with a fresh trim.
Steinbrenner had his soft side, too. After bean-ball specialist Pedro Martinez sent Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano to the hospital during a game at Yankee Stadium in 2003, the Yankees rallied to beat Boston on error off the bat of backup infielder Curtis Pride. Overcome by his team’s toughness, “The Boss” bawled his eyes out. Asked if his outburst was somehow a lack of confidence in his team, he rolled up his shirt sleeve and flexed his bicep. Vintage Steinbrenner – even at 73.
As we mourn his passing, it’s only fitting we remember Steinbrenner as a man who was feared far more than he was loved, yet ultimately respected for the way he changed the game. Every great story needs a villain, and Steinbrenner proudly embraced that role while understanding the envy and contempt expressed by others was merely a byproduct of his success.
Rest in peace, “Boss” – the last great owner in professional sports.