I have a lot of friends who aren’t baseball fans. Not one of them knows who owns the Red Sox or Cubs or Dodgers (granted, the Dodgers themselves aren’t too sure about that at the moment, but you get my point). But all of them know who George Steinbrenner is.
Or, I guess I should say, who he was. I was alerted to Steinbrenner’s death — long approaching, but still somehow sudden — by texts from several friends who couldn’t tell you what a cutter is or even, in some cases, how many innings there are in a game, but who saw the news about Steinbrenner and knew their Yankees-fan friend who was at work without steady internet access would want to know right away. Not many owners become household names (or end up on Seinfeld), but Steinbrenner’s force of personality set him apart and ensured that, no matter how much you might have wanted to, you could not ignore him.
In many ways Steinbrenner made it easy to be a Yankees fan, at least from my high school years on: all the money he spent on players, all the winning, all the World Series games. And he also — non-Yankees fans, bear with me — made it harder, because he could be such a bully, a felon, so tactless, embodying a number of traits which I personally didn’t wish to defend or associate myself with. Of course he had a better side, too, giving millions to charity and staying loyal to friends and some employees long after common sense required him to; but often I rolled my eyes at his silly statements to the media, or the horror stories that emerged of his treatment of underlings, and even at his spending. I loved that he was willing to invest his money back in the team, no matter what, but sometimes it was downright embarrassing, how much he outspent absolutely everyone else. I could defend it because it was allowed but I couldn’t pretend it seemed entirely fair.
On the other hand – the Yankees played in New York, so of course they had the most money, right? One of New York Magazine’s Steinbrenner posts had an excellent quote from The Boss:
“The first few years I was here, I didn’t thoroughly understand how mentally tough New Yorkers are. It’s a great trait in people… I used to get greatly hurt by some of the things that were written. But I don’t anymore. You learn to handle it. If the fans don’t think you’re striving to be the best in New York, they’ll gobble you up, and I don’t blame ‘em. An army travels on its stomach, and New York City travels on its heart and its love for the Yankees. We are New York. We are the biggest and the best, and we should be No. 1. And when you reward New York, it reaches out to you. It goes beyond what any other city can do.”
Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that New York “travels on its heart and its love for the Yankees.” Or that the Yankees “are New York” – that would eliminate many of my good friends, who, transplanted from other cities or rooting from the Mets, absolutely loathe the Yankees and would rather cut off certain fingers than ever clap for the Bombers. But never mind. That’s the ultimate New York quote, and the ultimate Yankees quote: “We are the biggest and the best, and we should be No. 1.” This is exactly what most New Yorkers think, and why so much of the rest of the country does not like New York — and even as I acknowledge how myopic and obnoxious the attitude is, well, I kind of think that way about New York too. Of course New York is the center of the universe – if not here, then where? Why should Kansas City even dream of beating New York at ANYTHING? So why wouldn’t we have the most money and the most championships? Isn’t it natural?
Except that it isn’t, really – see the Knicks, if you need an example, or the Jets or the Rangers for many years. New York may feel it deserves to win at everything, but the universe doesn’t always agree. And the thing is, Steinbrenner took winning as the Yankees’ birthright, but he didn’t just leave it at that: he gave nearly everything he had to make it happen. Sometimes too much, probably, and sometimes it was unfair, and unsporting, and distasteful. But whatever you might fault him for, he didn’t leave anything on the field.
It was hard to watch Steinbrenner in recent years, obviously seriously ailing and not entirely with it, and the Yankees refusing to acknowledge that fact openly. Maybe that’s what Steinbrenner wanted, I don’t know. But when someone on Twitter (I’ve forgotten who) compared the team’s persistent release of “statements from owner George Steinbrenner” to Weekend at Bernie’s, well, it wasn’t tactful but it didn’t seem too far off the mark to me, either. I was genuinely moved by Steinbrenner’s death, to a degree that really surprised me, actually, but I am glad not to have to watch any more of those moments.
I don’t know what to expect from Hank and Hal; whether they’ll carry on in a relatively quiet, businesslike way (well – that’s Hal carrying on, with Hank tied up in a safe house somewhere), or whether they’ll… gulp… sell the team, or who knows what. Either way we won’t have George Steinbrenner to kick around anymore. He was wrong about a lot of things, but I think he understood New York pretty well – how tough it can be, and how great. He was determined to be on the right side of the city, and for the last 15 years of his life, although he took a ton of justified criticism along the way, he generally was. That was a hard-fought victory, and I hope it was a satisfying enough reward for all the entertainment we got out of watching him work.