The Boss might not be a nice guy and his Yankees may be struggling this year, but who else would you want running your team?
George Steinbrenner has had a rough couple of months. Along with watching his prized thoroughbred, Bellamy Road, flame out in the Kentucky Derby, Steinbrenner has also had to endure watching his $200-million New York Yankees fumble their way to a very mediocre sub-.500 record.
Steinbrenner has reacted to these developments in typical Steinbrenner fashion. After one particularly galling loss, the Boss wrote a tersely worded press release, stating: "Enough is enough. I am bitterly disappointed, as I am sure all Yankee fans are, by the lack of performance by our team. It is unbelievable to me that the highest paid team in baseball would start the season in such a deep funk.
"They are not playing like true Yankees. They have the talent to win and they are not winning. I expect Joe Torre, his complete coaching staff and the team to turn this around."
Yankee-haters are, of course, laughing their heads off. I can hear them cackling, "Steinbrenner and the Evil Empire are finally getting their comeuppance! See, you can't buy championships after all!"
I had a slightly different reaction. This past month has made me almost, kinda ... like George Steinbrenner.
Well, maybe not like, as in "Hey Boss, let's go get a beer and watch the game" like. The man is clearly a jerk, a boorish bully who gets his way usually by using fear and intimidation. He is a solemn, scowling loudmouth who must be a complete nightmare to work for. God only knows what his kids went through growing up.
That said, most great competitors are not the most pleasant people in the world. They are by nature always looking for a way to win, a way to beat you and prove their superiority. This does not often make for warm and fuzzy personalities. George Steinbrenner will never, ever be considered warm and fuzzy.
Despite these personality defects, or maybe because of them, Steinbrenner is the first person I would pick to run my favorite team. There is no other owner in sports who possesses his single-minded desire to win, no matter what the cost or the hit to his bank account. Steinbrenner's competitive spirit, his desire to win, is so fierce it borders on rage. It has been matched by only one other sports figure in my lifetime: Michael Jordan.
Compare this rage to the empty suits who own most of the professional sports teams these days. From Donald Sterling to Bill Bidwell, there is nothing worse than a cheap owner who is content to sit on his investment while the fans, those poor souls dumb enough to support a habitually losing team, suffer through one awful season after another.
George Steinbrenner is not one of those owners. His sole, driving goal in life is to win and win and win. Steinbrenner, for better or worse, uses every means at his disposal to ensure that Yankee fans can root for a winner. Steinbrenner doesn't care about what's good for the game; he cares about what's good for the Yankees (although he does his part by paying an absurd amount of luxury tax — money that is distributed around the league, ostensibly to pay for players but often just sits in cheap owner's bank accounts).
It's certainly a lot more than you can say for many major league baseball owners, many of whom don't care what's good for the game — or their team.
Who would you rather have running your team, Steinbrenner, or Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad? Pohlad, a multi-billionaire, consistently cries poverty because of his team's small market location. A notorious tightwad, Pohlad actually conspired with commissioner Bud Selig to contract his team so that he could receive a hefty buy-out. Unlike Steinbrenner, though, Pohlad keeps his mouth shut. Forbes' 272nd-wealthiest person in the world (Steinbrenner is not ranked) stays out of the limelight, rarely involving himself in his team's day-to-day activities. Pohlad's so anonymous that 99 percent of the world's baseball fans outside the Twin Cities couldn't pick him out of a lineup, although I'm sure Twins fans would love the opportunity to do so.
Pohlad is rarely vilified in the national media even though he blackmailed Minnesota into funding a new stadium with taxpayer money. In a sign of our country's misplaced priorities when it comes to sports, the outrage in the national media when Pohlad threatened to move the Twins to North Carolina and, ultimately, contract the club was nowhere near the outcry that followed Steinbrenner's blockbuster A-Rod deal.
Of course, if Pohlad doesn't sound too appeasing, there is always new Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, a Boston import who is so cash-strapped that he has to rely on the small market "Moneyball" philosophy — even though his team resides in the nation's second-largest city. Although McCourt claims to be committed to winning, McCourt failed to re-sign MVP runner-up Adrian Beltre, an offseason move that was viewed as a litmus test by many Dodger fans to gauge if the new owner was truly serious. Along with questionable personnel moves like the Beltre fiasco, McCourt also fired loyal longtime Dodgers staffers, replacing them with his wife and 24-year-old son. Just imagine the field day the national press would have if Steinbrenner made Joan Steinbrenner vice chairman of the Yankees.
If you don't want Pohlad or McCourt owning your team, maybe you'd be happy with the Tribune Company, owners of the Cubs, a bottom-line obsessed conglomerate more concerned with bleeding every last dime out of Wrigley Field than with winning that elusive World Series. With owners like the Tribune Company, it isn't a coincidence that the Cubs haven't won a ring since 1908.
What is so refreshing about Steinbrenner compared to these, and many other, lightweights, is that with the Boss, World Series rings, not cost-projection spreadsheets, are the bottom line. This, after all, is a man who once famously said "Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next."
Does anyone doubt that the Cubs would still have their sad sack, "Lovable Loser" reputation if the Boss was running the show?
It is not just Steinbrenner's will to win that makes him such a fascinating, slightly (work with me here) likable character; it's also the manic, halfway insane way he goes about doing it.
Steinbrenner is the living answer to a "what if" question: "What if the biggest loudmouth caller on sports talk radio owned the most storied franchise in pro sports — and was given unlimited resources to buy any player he desired?" I suspect the results would look something like what we see now, incredible highs (the Yankees' four World Series titles in the past 10 years) and incredible lows (Jason Giambi's seven-year, $120-million contract.
Say what you will about Steinbrenner, his failures have never been the result of a lack of effort. It's obvious that Steinbrenner will never teach a Learning Annex course on Personal Restraint. From the legendary multiple firings of Billy Martin to the current dysfunction in his front office, Steinbrenner runs the team like a super fan would, letting his id guide the way with a "win NOW and damn the torpedoes later" attitude.
Like a message board junkie with 15,000 posts under his Derek Jeter avatar, Steinbrenner is in awe of superstars, even if signing a lower-cost role player would be a more prudent solution. This is all because of his extreme competitiveness: Steinbrenner views the free-agent market as an extension of the baseball diamond. To him, signing superstars like Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, and Kevin Brown to ridiculously bloated contracts is just another way of declaring "victory," even if in winning the battle he loses the war.
This pathological will to win with the most expensive players available has finally caught up with the Yankees and has put the franchise in serious trouble. Insisting that the Yankees must win to avenge their humiliating choke job against the hated Red Sox in last year's ALCS, Steinbrenner added even more firepower to his all-star team, hoping that big, if aging, names like Randy Johnson, could get him over the top. Instead, the Yankees have stumbled out of the gates. With an aging pitching staff and a decaying farm system, the Yankees could be in for a very rough summer.
Which, of course, delights Red Sox fans and all other Yankee haters — as it should. In the deep, dark recesses of their soul, however, these fans know that the game just won't be as much fun without Steinbrenner to kick around.
Love him, hate him, Steinbrenner is a larger-than-life American legend who will be sorely missed once he's gone. After all, an action movie is only as good as its villain. And Steinbrenner plays the heavy to perfection.
Steinbrenner isn't about to go out without a fight, though, and like any villain worth his salt, Steinbrenner will rise from the dead when the good guys least expect it. Perhaps the resurrection is happening already. After their terrible start, the Yankees have pieced together a nice five-game winning streak. It looks like those big, very expensive bats are finally starting to come alive, even if their pitching still remains woeful. Steinbrenner gave it his all this season, just like he does every season. You don't have to like him for that but you should respect him, at least just a little, no matter how much it hurts to admit. Even if you live in Boston.