“It was a beautiful thing to observe, all 36 oars working in unison.’’ – late Cardinals announcer Jack Buck quipping he had seen George Steinbrenner’s yacht.
It is a timeless quote about a timeless subject, George M. Steinbrenner, the demonstrative, cantankerous and blustery owner of the New York Yankees, who died today of a heart attack at age 80.
Buck’s comment has long been the perception of Steinbrenner by the public through screaming headlines and video and audio sound bites. The man was positively driven to win and it didn’t matter the cost in dollars or whom he stepped on. The Yankees would throw millions at players, and if they didn’t win Steinbrenner was ruthless in his handling of his managers and front office staff.
It was that way from the day he purchased the Yankees in 1973 for less than $10 million from CBS and said: “I won’t be active in the day-to-day operation of the Yankees. I’ll stick to building ships.’’
What he did was rebuilt the dynasty – twice.
By the time I started covering the Yankees in 1998, Steinbrenner’s legacy was well cemented in that he revived a struggling team and turned professional sports’ most revered franchise to a billion dollar empire.
The Yankees Brand is world-renowned and that is Steinbrenner’s legacy on the grand scale, but for me I’ll remember him like most beat reporters for the exhilarating paces he put us through.
Whenever the Yankees faltered the calls went into Steinbrenner’ office. It was maddening on the days he released a statement condemning the team’s play.
There is no more haunting words than these on a reporter’s voice mail: “John, George Steinbrenner returning your call.’’
You knew you wouldn’t get another chance.
You had to put the call in early in the hope he’d return it before you went to the park, and rare were the times he did.
He did several times for me, one in particular I’ll always remember. It was at the trade deadline in 1999 and Andy Pettitte was the focal point. All the other beat guys had Pettitte being dealt, but I was steadfast in he wouldn’t be traded.
The day before the deadline the Yankees were in Boston and my cell rang around 7 p.m., just before first pitch.
It was Steinbrenner and he told me on the record Pettitte wasn’t going anywhere.
Five hours later it was my editor with questions about a New York Times story that ran on the wire that had him being traded to Philadelphia for four prospects, and what I wanted to do about it.
“Nothing,’’ I said. “I have the owner on the record and that beats any unnamed source the Times can come up with.’’
Then there was the spring when Steinbrenner railed at Hideki Irabu, calling him a “fat, @#$%^& toad,’’ as he stormed about Legends Field with a pack of reporters following him like he was the pied piper.
I had never seen anything like it, before or since.
Steinbrenner’s presence loomed over the Yankees-Mets rivalry in that it cast a shadow upon the Mets. There was always this sense of entitlement from Yankees fans about winning, as if it was a birthright.
Mets fans hated the Yankees for their swagger, but there was always a grudgingly admiration for Steinbrenner in that they knew he would do everything in his power to improve the Yankees.
Mets fans hadn’t always seen that with their management.
The last time I saw Steinbrenner was during the 2007 playoffs, frail he was walking out of Yankee Stadium holding onto his daughter’s arm. Far from the Napoleonic image of him on a horse for a Sports Illustrated cover shoot.
The phone rang several times today from radio stations wanting me to reflect on my time covering the Yankees and Steinbrenner, and there was the question: Is he a Hall of Famer?
Unquestionably, yes. He should have been in there years ago. Like the Yankees or hate them, like Steinbrenner or hate him, the man kept us interested in baseball year round.
He made the Yankees great again, and a healthy Yankee team makes the sport better. It’s just the way it is.
John Delcos has covered Major League Baseball for over 20 years, including more than ten in New York on the Yankees and Mets beats. You can read more on his blog, New York Mets Report, where he hosts a chat room for each Mets game.