He could be the worst kind of bully. At the end of his full, furious life, even those closest to George Steinbrenner would admit that. ¶ He stepped on toes. He believed his managers were disposable and his players were replaceable. He said outrageous things, and he made outlandish decisions. He strip-mined the smaller market clubs of baseball, taking away their best players as if they were lunch money. He was opinionated, reactionary, relentless. As owners go, he never backed up a step. ¶ And yet, however you look at the sum of Steinbrenner's life, you are left with this: ¶ Don't you wish he owned your team. ¶
Steinbrenner won, because he would not tolerate anything else. He won, because he was willing to spend enough, push enough, care enough. He won, because no matter how many nights he spent in the owner's box, he had the heart of the fan in the cheap seats.
For most of the years Steinbrenner owned the Yankees, that was his success, and that was his shortcoming. He was as loud and as passionate and as driven as any New York fan. And he was as opinionated and as quick-tempered and as unforgiving. If he did not like something he saw, he was going to change it. He built the Yankees into a franchise with every advantage, and then he clubbed the rest of baseball with every edge.
In short, he was like most of us would be if we owned a team. He loved free agents. He loved large headlines. Also, he loved going to the jewelry store and ordering more rings.
No one will ever remember Steinbrenner for being slick. He was not smooth. He was not one of those absent, silent owners who operates out of the shadows. There was nothing about him that reminded you of a lawyer or an accountant or a diplomat.
He was the Boss, by golly.
And for more than a quarter of a century, he was the sports owner who mattered the most.
Everyone knew George, and everyone had an opinion. You might not have known who owned the Indians or the Padres or the Rangers over the last 35 years, but you knew all about George, and you knew how you felt about him. You knew he was either the worst thing ever to happen to baseball or the best thing ever to happen to the Yankees or all degrees of debate in between.
There has never been an owner such as Steinbrenner, not Charles O. Finley and not Bill Veeck. There has never been anyone more willing to wade into turmoil, never anyone less afraid of a headline. He fired 22 managers, and he treated Billy Martin like his personal chew toy. He belittled Dave Winfield, a Hall of Famer. There were times when it was easy to wonder if he recognized the commissioner outranked him. Technically, at least.
One of those commissioners, Bud Selig, couldn't stop telling Steinbrenner stories on Tuesday. Speaking to the Baseball Writers of America, Selig told of the time his wife told him to take out the garbage because it was Tuesday. Selig, joking, said "I'm the commissioner of baseball. I don't take out the garbage." And his wife told him to be quiet and take out the garbage.
"I told George that story," Selig said, "and every Tuesday for three months, George called me to tell me to take out the garbage."
The little stories are coming out about Steinbrenner now. The handwritten note he sent to Alex Rodriguez saying the Yankees were counting on him. The Bible verses he sent to Andy Pettitte before a playoff start. The wagers he made with Selig (he took Ohio State and the Bucs; Selig had Wisconsin and the Packers) and Derek Jeter. The little kindnesses he shared, and the causes that moved him, and the latter years when he mellowed and learned to laugh at himself a bit. All of those things are true.
But Steinbrenner was a complicated man. He snarled and he snapped and he had sandpaper in his voice. He investigated his own players. He fired not only famous managers but garage attendants and secretaries. Those things, too, are part of Steinbrenner's legacy. To forget what he was like in his heyday would be to paint an incomplete picture.
It has been years now since Steinbrenner roared, years since a nervous clubhouse heard his approach. There are a lot of young players who have never measured one of George's outbursts.
History knows. Baseball knows. And it will never forget him.
He was larger than other owners. He was larger than the men who played for him. You could make an argument he was the most influential baseball figure of his time.
When it comes to the Yankees, you could make a case that Steinbrenner was as important to his team as anyone except for Babe Ruth. That is not meant to make Lou Gehrig or Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle seem smaller. It is to appreciate the size of the shadow that Steinbrenner cast. No other owner has ever been a better fit for his time or a better fit for his place.
The lasting memory I will have of Steinbrenner is of him standing in the middle of the Yankees clubhouse after the team had beaten the Mets for a World Series championship. The players were whooping around him, and it was raining champagne. Steinbrenner stood in the middle of the room, and the look on his face was that of a trail boss who had driven his herd to market. He looked fulfilled. He looked satisfied. Neither feeling lasted for a long time with Steinbrenner, but it was a lasting snapshot on what defined a man.
"He liked winning World Series," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, "but the next day, he was back at work, trying to figure out how to win the next one."
No, he was not perfect. He was suspended three times from the game. He fired too many managers and he embarrassed too many players. He could be very, very loud and very, very blunt. Steinbrenner enjoyed being Steinbrenner, and he was very, very good at it.
He was Attila. He was Patton. He was Goliath.
Most of all, he was King George.
Professional sports will never see an owner like him again. The rest of us, either.