July 13, 2010

Living in New York and covering baseball for Sports Illustrated gave me an intimate perspective on the George SteinbrennerYankees of the late 1970s and early '80s. Multiple assignments revealed the secrets, jealousies and rivalries that made the team's Bronx Zoo sobriquet seem sufficiently justified. Reggie Jackson may have been "the straw that stirs the drink," as he famously declared upon his arrival in 1977, but Steinbrenner was the master mixologist. His obsessive-compulsive hiring and firing poured the ingredients together, and his cocktail shaker management style brought it all to a froth.

With his employees -- in the front office, in the clubhouse, on the field -- Herr Steinbrenner oft times displayed the gentle refinement of a hardass football coach and a tough longshoreman, trades he knew first hand as a Big Ten assistant and the owner of the American Shipbuilding Company. With the public (excepting, of course, two Dodger fans he supposedly fought in an elevator during the 1981 World Series) or a deserving charity case, he could be a charmer and the soul of goodness. His aptitude for artful and awful behavior suggested that his middle initial might have stood for Megalomaniac.

Pencil pushers such as myself witnessed another side of Steinbrenner, a skilled puppeteer whose favored strings were "off the record," "for background only," and "not for attribution." Thus, in sotto voce did the brash owner convey threats, ultimatums and juicy tidbits. "Sources close to Steinbrenner" wore the same blue blazer as the Boss himself, and the New York tabloids did his bidding.

The clearest picture of Steinbrenner played out in his tempestuous relationship with Billy Martin, the bad boy manager he hired and fired five times while variously trying to rehabilitate and reprimand him. At their best, winning two pennants and the 1977 World Series, their rough edges meshed like gears. At their worst, their massive egos clashed like spears.

Mr. October was the unwitting pawn in all this. As King George pushed Jackson forward, Martin, the erratic knight, became more agitated. The manager wanted nothing to do with George's guy. Finally (or so we thought), it all came undone on a July Sunday in 1978 when Billy said of his antagonists, "They deserve each other. One's a born liar, and the other's convicted." Steinbrenner immediately replaced Martin with Bob Lemon, who led the rejuvenated team to a second straight World Series championship. But a year later, Martin was back.

Steinbrenner would fire him again and again and again and again -- six times, in fact, if you count their Miller Lite commercial. Let's face it: A man volatile by nature and born on the Fourth of July was unlikely to run out of fireworks. And, goodness did they continue, fueled, of course, by the team's 14-year absence from the postseason. Steinbrenner found a convenient target for his blunderbuss, the perennial All Star and future Hall of Famer, Dave Winfield. The Boss scornfully called him "Mr. May" for his failure to lead the Yankees back to the postseason.

Not until the 1996 arrival of Joe Torre, Martin's opposite in style and substance, would the owner enjoy the constant success he craved. With a solid citizen manager and a championship team, Steinbrenner didn't have quite so much to complain about.

Distracted by the commotion on the field, we didn't fully comprehend Steinbrenner's mellowing, aging and withdrawal. And now he's gone, but, true to form, he made his exit with brio. Let the All-Star Game have the back page. Today the Boss owns Page 1.

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