Wednesday July 14th, 2010

ANAHEIM -- His regular managerial hirings and firings grabbed the headlines, his bombastic demands were quotable and his nickname, The Boss, stirred an image of a domineering and unforgiving executive.

But underlying George Steinbrenner's larger-than-life persona was a passionate competitor who wanted to get the best out of those who worked for him, though it usually came across more as "tough support" than kindhearted compassion.

Those were the refrains sounded on Tuesday about Steinbrenner, the longtime Yankees owner who died early in the morning of heart attack after years of failing health and increasingly few public appearances; he was 80.

"It's tough, because he's more than just an owner to me -- he's a friend of mine," Yankees shortstop and captain Derek Jeter said a few hours before the All-Star Game. "He will be deeply missed."

Few saw the many facets of Steinbrenner better than Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield. After the 1980 season, Steinbrenner signed Winfield to the richest free-agent contract in history -- and then immediately complained about some escalator clauses in the deal that made it even richer than Steinbrenner realized. The owner jeered the player for his perceived lack of clutch hitting, derisively calling him "Mr. May." The lowest moment came later in the '80s when Steinbrenner hired a gambler to uncover dirt on Winfield in an ill-conceived undercover operation.

Steinbrenner and Winfield didn't speak for nearly a decade until the two had a conversation of reconciliation.

"Basically he was sorry for the things that had happened," Winfield said in the Angel Stadium dugout on Tuesday. "When you know someone's heartfelt, it just opens up the ability to communicate."

The pair was "on good terms" after that, Winfield said, and the player would return to Old Timers' Day and participate in other Yankees activities.

"Me as much anybody, I've seen all sides of him, and I've known him pretty well," Winfield said. "I prefer at this time to just remember the positive things, the relationship that we re-established, his accomplishments with the Yankees. When all is said is done and they evaluate everything -- the revitalization of a storied franchise and all the championships he won -- he deserves to be considered for the Hall of Fame."

Winfield isn't the only one who feels that way, and indeed, the Baseball Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee will have a difficult decision ahead of it next January, when the executives subcommittee -- which has the sole power to elect owners -- will debate Steinbrenner's merits. Jeff Idelson, a former Yankees media relations director who is now the president of the Hall of Fame, does not have a vote but acknowledges the strength of Steinbrenner's candidacy as worthy of debate.

"He had a profound impact on the game of baseball, like it or not," says Idelson. "He raised the bar for winning to an all-new level. He took a wilting franchise in 1973 and rather rapidly turned it into a worldwide brand. When you look at the body of work that George had over his 37 years in the game, he's certainly worthy of consideration."

Steinbrenner himself once said he never thought he deserved a place in Cooperstown, but the seven World Series the Yankees won under his leadership -- more than double any other team over that time -- alone would make him a viable candidate.

His resume does have its less-than-flattering lines. Steinbrenner had 20 different managers in his first 19 seasons, including hiring and firing Billy Martin five times. Steinbrenner was twice suspended from the daily operations of running the Yankees -- once after he made illegal contributions to President Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972 and then for the Winfield incident in 1990.

Off the field, there was a softer side to Steinbrenner that was often hidden but has recently come to light. On Tuesday, Yankees starter Andy Pettitte recalled receiving handwritten notes from the owner with inspirational Bible verses before important playoff starts. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez said he still has the note from Steinbrenner that he received in 2004 that said "I'm counting on you," written with capital letters and punctuated by an exclamation point.

Idelson, who worked in the Yankees public relations office from 1989 to 1993, remembered meeting Steinbrenner for the first time at a cocktail party shortly after he was hired. Idelson approached Steinbrenner, introduced himself and listened as the owner placed his hands on both shoulders and told him he had three words of advice for the young flack: "Rent, don't buy."

Said Idelson on Tuesday, "What that did was set the tone for my tenure there, that you should never take anything for granted. A strong work ethic and accountability were the hallmarks of being a Yankees employee."

Resourcefulness was important too. In 1990 Idelson was on a team road trip in Minnesota, staying at the first hotel he could remember that had a phone in the bathroom. He was showering before heading to the ballpark, when Steinbrenner called, wanting Idelson to put out a press release.

"With Mr. Steinbrenner, you were always on his time," Idelson said. "You didn't get back to him on your time. It mattered not that I was in the shower, but thankfully the mirror was sufficiently fogged that I was able to write the press release on the mirror with my finger."

As Steinbrenner recited the release's content, Idelson cranked the hot water even more to keep the steam building and later grabbed pencil and paper to transcribe it off the mirror.

Another former Yankees media relations director, Rick Cerrone, said that revelations of Steinbrenner's previously untold charity work will dwarf his baseball accomplishments. Cerrone recalled Steinbrenner saying that any act of kindness you do that is known by more than you and the recipient was done for the wrong reasons.

Cerrone said he knew of numerous moments in which Steinbrenner paid for children he didn't know to go to college, covered someone's medical expenses, gave down-on-their-luck people jobs so that they had a sense of worth or invited troubled children on team trips so that they had happiness in their life. And Cerrone estimated that he only knew a fraction of the good deeds.

"The things that he did in his life that we don't know about are greater than even the most successful things that we do know about," Cerrone said by telephone.

That, of course, is not to shortchange his baseball accomplishments. In addition to the seven world championships -- only four franchises have ever won more in their entire existence -- Steinbrenner's Yankees won 11 pennants, 16 AL East titles and three wild cards. Particularly in the past two decades Steinbrenner showed an unmatched financial commitment to winning. Since 2000 alone the Yankees have spent $1.87 billion on payroll. The franchise, which Steinbrenner and a group of partners originally purchased for $8.8 million, is now worth some $1.6 billion and had revenues of about $600 million in 2009.

His suspensions and regular fines from the league office for feuding comments with everyone from umpires to the commissioner will forever be a part of his legacy, which otherwise has been as successful as nearly any in sports.

Steinbrenner was a polarizing man, whose spats of greatness were often marred by overzealous demands.

"He expected perfection," Jeter said.

Steinbrenner's methods of management can rightfully be questioned, but there's no denying his track record of success, particularly in the late 1990s and 2000s when Steinbrenner seemed to soften behind closed doors and the Yankees returned to glory.

"Everybody goes through many stages in life," Winfield said. "I hope people remember the later stages of his career. No one is without flaws or without tragedy. He had his difficulties.

"But when his life is remembered, I think he'll get more praise than anything. He's due that."

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