George Steinbrenner's legacy still evident in these New York Yankees

George Steinbrenner, who has been shielded from the media, hasn’t appeared at the new Yankee Stadium since the home opener.

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George Steinbrenner, who has been shielded from the media, hasn’t appeared at the new Yankee Stadium since the home opener.

NEW YORK — The voice is mostly silent these days. A public word here or there, then months and months of an unnatural hush.

That unmistakable presence is missing, too. The buzz that always preceded his arrival, and the commotion he invariably left behind.

When the television cameras pan toward the owner's suite at Yankee Stadium during Game 1 of the World Series this evening, you may be tempted to wonder what remains of George Steinbrenner's fading influence on a franchise, a game and a city.

The bluster is long gone. The controversies have faded, and the headlines are now reserved for others.

All that remains of Steinbrenner's legacy is this:

Everything else.

His ballpark. His team. His part of a game's lore.

"People have forgotten that team had really slipped in the years before Georgie came along," commissioner Bud Selig said from his Milwaukee office on the eve of the World Series Tuesday. "The drama and glory of the 1930s, '40s, '50s and early '60s was gone when he bought the team.

"He renovated the stadium, and then he set about rebuilding that Yankee image. I know he was controversial and all of that, but what he accomplished with that franchise is one of the most remarkable stories in sports. He has created a remarkable legacy, not just in New York but in all of baseball. The great popularity the sport now enjoys is due to people like George Steinbrenner.

"As far as I'm concerned, he is a Hall of Fame owner."

These days he is largely an absentee owner, preferring to spend the bulk of his time at his south Tampa home. He is no longer The Boss. Not in title, nor in temperament. Steinbrenner's anticipated appearance this evening will be his first at the new Yankee Stadium since the home opener.

He is 79, and his health is fading. Friends and family have been careful not to divulge much about his condition, and they have worked hard to keep outsiders from getting more than a glimpse of Steinbrenner in person.

On the rare occasions that he comes to a ballpark, he is whisked from parking lot to luxury suite in golf carts and wheelchairs. Security teams with walkie-talkies clear the hallways, and Steinbrenner rarely responds to the shouted queries of reporters.

His sons Hank and Hal were named co-chairmen in April 2008, and Hal was officially given control of the franchise 11 months ago. And a man who was once the most famous owner in all of sports is now almost completely obscured.

It is not put in so many words, but Steinbrenner's condition has created a sense of urgency around Yankee Stadium. It has been six years since the Bronx Bombers were in the World Series and nine since they last won it. It is regrettable, but realistic, to wonder if this will be the last time he sees his beloved Yankees on this stage.

His last public appearance was at the All-Star Game in 2008 when he was driven in a golf cart from leftfield to deliver baseballs to four New York legends throwing out first pitches. As the Yankee Stadium crowd cheered, Steinbrenner appeared to be sobbing.

It was a rare show of frailty from a man who despised weakness. A glimpse of Steinbrenner most of the world had never seen.

"He used to give me notes before postseason starts … scripture verses and things like that. He was always so supportive," left-hander Andy Pettitte said. "It's going to be special to have him here because he has been around that much. I know it's a chore for him to get up here."

Now, in his latest incarnation as baseball's lion in winter, it is possible to see Steinbrenner in a different light. Maybe not completely benevolent, but not the ogre that his personality once suggested.

It's true he could be a petty tyrant, and that reality should not be forgotten in his later days. For the longest time, it was as if there were two sides to his personality that were in constant battle for supremacy. There was the kind George who gave millions of dollars to children's charities in Tampa Bay and would quietly help perfect strangers he'd read about in the newspaper. And there was the outlandish George who was needlessly cruel and unforgiving and made enemies of those who had once been loyal Yankees.

"He is my friend, and I am proud to say that," said Lou Piniella, a former Yankee player and manager and Tampa resident. "He could be a little blustery, but he is a good-hearted man. If you don't know him, you'd be surprised how easy it is to sit down and have a conversation with him. He's very charitable. He's done a tremendous amount of work for people in Tampa Bay, and I have all the respect in the world for him.

"You want to know what his legacy is? His legacy is he should be in the Hall of Fame for what he's done for New York, for the Yankees, for the sport in general and for a lot of people in need."

Tonight, the baseball world's attention returns to New York. To a new stadium that cost more than a billion dollars, and to a mercenary ballclub that was the best money could buy in 2009. In a way, the stadium and team are replicas of the past. Facsimiles of another day.

But the owner returning to oversee it all?

He is, and always will be, one of a kind.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

George Steinbrenner's legacy still evident in these New York Yankees 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 5:08pm]

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