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Getting what you deserve

"Mr. Steinbrenner deserves another championship."--Joe Girardi, after the Yankees won the pennant

One of the kinder compulsions of human nature is to soften the edges of people at the end of their lives. We strain to see their good side. We make them sympathetic. It was this way on both sides of the aisle with Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy. It is this way with aging bank robbers and sports stars and rock stars and hit men and saloon singers. Age is the great equalizer.

And so, one of the background songs of this World Series is that it would be heartwarming and emotional if the Yankees win another one for the Boss. Only nobody calls him the Boss anymore or King George or Lord Steinbrenner or convicted liar. He is Mr. Steinbrenner now (or the less formal "George" if you have known him as long as Derek Jeter). He is venerable now. He is a grand old man of baseball now. He is esteemed. And Mr. Steinbrenner deserves another championship.

Deserves. Think how much of a national joke that verb would have been had Girardi said that about Mr. Steinbrenner even five years ago. Deserves.George Steinbrenner has won six World Series championships in his 27 years of owning the Yankees -- twice as many as any other team since he took over in 1973. The six championships admittedly is more than the two suspensions he received from Major League Baseball -- one for making illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign and the other for paying someone to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield* -- but it is also significantly less than the 24 managers he has had run the Yankees.

*That someone is Howard Spira, who, it seems, is ALWAYS labeled as a "small-time gambler." It's always "Small-time gambler Howard Spira," or "Steinbrenner gave $40,000 to a small-time gambler named Howard Spira." Was this really his job? Did he have a business card with "Small Time Gambler" on it?

Yes, Steinbrenner teams have won six World Series titles, and 11 pennants, and he has made hundreds of millions of dollars, and he has treated countless people like jerks -- so many that he was a regular character on Seinfeld. So you wouldn't expect a verb like deserve to follow Steinbrenner around at the end of his life. But he has gotten old and sick, and nostalgia sweetens the old wars and takes the edge off the old grudges. It's one of our better traits as people, I think.

Of course, it can get silly, too. You hear this all the time now: All Mr. Steinbrenner ever wanted to do was win. This is the praise that pours in for Steinbrenner. He was about winning. He just wanted to win. He was like a fan ... winning was everything to him. So true. Of course, the same could be said of pretty much every successful person in history. Napoleon wanted to win badly.

You hear this, too: Steinbrenner, unlike other owners, put his money back into the team to make them winners. This has truth in it, though there is a caveat: Steinbrenner (by virtue of owning the biggest team in the biggest city) had a lot more money to put back into his team. And, whether it was by design or simply a stroke of good fortune: The more the Yankees win, the more money the Yankees make. And Steinbrenner made plenty on the Yankees through the years. He didn't exactly put ALL of his money into the team. It ain't a charity.

I don't say this as an attack -- he's a baseball owner willing to spend a lot of money to get the best players, and that's really what fans want. Anyway, I like Steinbrenner and have for a long time. I like him because I like outsized sports characters and Steinbrenner has always been that. He has been excessively generous and excessively obnoxious and excessively successful and excessively flawed -- always to excess. It is said that Steinbrenner was a huge pro wrestling fan, and you could see how the rules of pro wrestling have marked his life. From my younger days as a wrestling fan, I believe the rules are as follows:

1. The only records that count are the ones involving bank accounts.

2. Never hit anyone with your hand when there's a metal chair within reach.

3. If the referee didn't see it, it didn't happen.

4. Winners win, losers cry and the only champion is the one with the belt.

5. Masked men never get the girl.

Steinbrenner ran the New York Yankees that way. If he could have hit a few players and managers with metal chairs, he would have done just that. The team won championships because of him, and the team derailed because of him. He was the force of will behind the tense Bronx Zoo teams of the 1970s, and he was the force of will behind the bloated Yankees teams of the late 1980s, and he was the force of will behind the dynasty Yankees of late 1990s*, and he was the force of will behind many of the overpriced Yankees teams this decade. He has paid the biggest contracts, and made the biggest demands, and thrown the biggest fits, and thrown the biggest champagne parties, too.

*Many believe that the great Yankees teams of the 1990s were built when Steinbrenner was more or less out of the picture ... when he was on suspension and the team was given the freedom to build from within. I don't know if this is true -- it SOUNDS true, but lots of things sound true.

But it's that word: deserves. Mr. Steinbrenner DESERVES another championship. Of course, Joe Girardi works for the Boss, and so it behooves him to say such things. The thing is, I think a lot of people -- certainly a lot of people in New York -- feel the same way, feel like it would be fitting, even touching, for Old Man Steinbrenner to win one more time, to taste the champagne again in his winter years.

It looks likely now that the Yankees will win. The Series is not over, and the Phillies are tough, and I do have this feeling that Andy Pettitte will get raked on Wednesday night on three days' rest. But the Yankees are certainly in position to win one more for Mr. Steinbrenner, and if they do, sure, a lot of people will be disgusted and will despise Steinbrenner and his family one more time for having the most money and the biggest payroll and the best team. But I suspect that a lot of people this time around -- including people who have spent their lives despising George Steinbrenner and the Yankees -- will feel a nudge of nostalgia, a small involuntary hiccup of approval for the old man who has been baseball's biggest character for almost three decades. These are the quirks of getting old.

Funny thing: I once saw a longtime professional wrestler in a restaurant, and we talked for a few minutes, and I asked whether he preferred being the good guy or the bad guy -- he had been both a baby and a heel many times over the years. He considered the question carefully. Good guy or bad guy. Baby or heel. Finally, he shrugged and said something like this: "What's the difference? It doesn't matter if the people love you or hate you. As long as they feel strongly."

George Steinbrenner has made people feel strongly. Does he DESERVE another championship? For that I think of another quote, this one from Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven: "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

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