Sunday July 18th, 2010

NEW YORK -- The Yankees already used the rallying cry of "This one's for the Boss" last year, that slogan flashing on the stadium's scoreboard in honor of the ailing George Steinbrenner as they claimed the franchise's 27th World Series championship last November.

But with the passing this week of Steinbrenner, the longtime Yankees owner who died of a heart attack at age 80, a resurrection of that tribute would be more appropriate than overkill.

Steinbrenner, after all, was never one to rest on his laurels, typically plotting how the club could defend its title while the rest of the organization was planning the victory parade. New York won seven World Series titles under his stewardship, and three times in his 37-year tenure as owner were the Yankees repeat champions.

As manager Joe Girardi noted this weekend, Steinbrenner was fond of saying, "Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing."

The Yankee machine rolled on this weekend. Before Friday's game the Yankees held a 20-minute ceremony in Steinbrenner's honor that included a video with clips of the owner in his heyday and testimonials from former players. A bugler with the West Point Band played "Taps," and closer Mariano Rivera laid two roses across home plate in honor of Steinbrenner and storied public-address announcer Bob Sheppard, who died earlier in the week. Three and a half hours later, Curtis Granderson slid across that plate with the winning run, driven home by a Nick Swisher single for a walk-off win against the division rival Rays.

On Saturday afternoon there were reports out of Florida of an unpublicized private burial for Steinbrenner, while at the same time in the Bronx the Yankees hosted their annual Old Timers Day, a favorite of the owner. This time, however, there was no dramatic comeback, just a 10-5 loss to Tampa Bay.

"George will be watching from above," Girardi said, "and I'm sure he'll get upset when we don't win."

While the consensus opinion among those who have been around the Yankees for a long time is that Steinbrenner mellowed in the 1990s, the many former players from the '70s and '80s who returned brought memories of his more combustible days, when he changed managers 20 times in his first 23 years, including hiring and firing Billy Martin five times. A favorite story of the 1978 Yankees was from that year's Old Timers Day when Steinbrenner announced that Martin -- who had resigned just five days prior -- would resume his managerial duties to start the 1980 season, a year and a half later.

The era was succinctly summarized by third baseman Graig Nettles, who said at the time, "When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a baseball player and join the circus. With the Yankees, I have accomplished both."

On Saturday, Nettles recalled the jockeying for power and notoriety between Steinbrenner, Martin and Reggie Jackson, the Hall of Fame outfielder.

"[Steinbrenner] put together a team that could handle the chaos, and we did it," Nettles said. "It set the tone for the rest of his teams. It got us on the front page of the sports page and even the front page of the newspaper, not just the sports."

Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage, a teammate of Nettles', said of Steinbrenner, "He was part of the circus. He was a genius when it came to marketing. He even thought negative publicity was good, and there was plenty of that to go around."

Steinbrenner expected -- nay, demanded -- that the Yankees win. Former Cy Young winner Ron Guidry remembered losing consecutive games 1-0 and 2-1, but that Steinbrenner still berated him in the clubhouse for having lost two straight.

Roy White played with the Yankees from 1965 to 1979 and later returned as a coach, and in the latter position he said he feared for his job during every losing streak. "If we lose five games in a row," he said, "the first-base coach might be gone."

Though there have been fewer impulsive firings in recent years, the product of more winning and less meddling from Steinbrenner, the expectations remain unchanged. Shortstop Derek Jeter said The Boss had a "football mentality" dating back to his days as an assistant coach at Ohio State, Northwestern and Purdue. As a result, Jeter said the owner was used to shooting for an undefeated season, even though such a task was more manageable in a 12-game football season than in a 162-game baseball schedule.

"All I've ever known is playing for him and his expectation level," Jeter said. "He expected perfection."

Steinbrenner's demands extended beyond winning and losing. Former first baseman Ron Blomberg remembered being called into Steinbrenner's office and wondering what the problem could be as he was batting about .400 at the time. Blomberg learned that Steinbrenner wanted him to get a haircut and even had a barber waiting in the clubhouse. But Blomberg said "no" and when he arrived at the stadium the next day he found $100 waiting for him, a bonus for having stood up to the owner.

After baseball Blomberg pursued some business interests and often discussed strategies with Steinbrenner. One day he called his former owner and asked, "What would you do with this person? The first thing he said was, 'Fire him.' George fired everybody. But he hired you back the next day."

While most of the alumni said the day's events would bring closure as a celebration of the lives of Steinbrenner and Sheppard, Jackson said he'd "rather not be here today" but still spoke to the assembled media, recalling all kinds of memories from the Bronx Zoo days of the 1970s to more recent phone conversations, in which Steinbrenner would pepper Jackson with questions on the club's recent play.

"He's meant so much to so many people," Jackson said. "Certainly his drive and his presence and character and personality have permeated the organization and permeated the city." Some fans found their own way to honor the man and, just as Steinbrenner wasn't traditional, nor is the makeshift memorial sitting outside of Yankee Stadium's Gate 4, gifts placed over the Yankees' interlocking N-Y logo laid into the wide concrete plaza. The inventory included a few items expected in such a display -- bouquets of flowers, candles, Yankees hats, an inflatable bat -- and many that were not.

Among that latter set of items were a blue blazer and gray slacks (a regular outfit of Steinbrenner's), several empty beer cans (only some of which carried the Yankees logo and commemorated the 2009 World Series championship) and a ripped out back cover of a spiral-bound notebook, on which it was noted that, to be read in the voice of Sheppard, "Ladies and Gentleman, may I have your attention please. Now entering heaven, The Boss, George Steinbrenner."

More than the artifacts, the shining $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium is the best monument to Steinbrenner and encapsulation of his legacy -- grand, outsized and, for at least its first year, a winner.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.