The complex legacy of George Steinbrenner

George Steinbrenner is dead.

Let me begin by saying that I’m a Red Sox fan and a lifelong Yankee-hater who loathed Steinbrenner from shortly after I first heard his name. Let me further note that for the better part of the last three decades I have argued, passionately and to anyone who’d listen, that there were precisely three things wrong with Major League Baseball: domes, turf and George Steinbrenner. He was, in a nutshell, the Donald Trump of the National Pastime, and anyone who knows me even a little bit realizes that I don’t mean that in a good way.

Much has been said about Darth George and the Evil Pinstriped Empire, and much more will be said before the week is out, as the first shots are fired in the war for the man’s eternal legacy. Some of it will be positive, perhaps even worshipful. Some of it … not so much.

Here’s how he’ll go down in my book:

  • If you watched the way he treated his employees, you had to be convinced that he was the worst boss in the world. If you’ve had the misfortune of working for petty dictators in your life, it was hard not to make the connection and perhaps hate him by proxy for the misery you knew he was inflicting on people who were just trying to do a good job and get home to their families at the end of the day.
  • His personal shortcomings went well beyond being an asshole boss, as this Dickipedia entry indicates.
  • He was horrible for the game because of how he used his money to create such a drastic competitive imbalance. Having the highest payroll doesn’t guarantee you the Series, but there’s certainly a correlation between spending and winning. And it can’t be good for the game when a majority of the teams in the league begin play in April functionally out of contention.
  • On the other hand, Steinbrenner was great for the game because every compelling drama needs a strong heel. It’s good for baseball when the Yankees are winning because they’re so polarizing. You love ‘em or you hate ‘em, and if you love ‘em or hate ‘em you’re more likely to tune in for an epic battle between Good and Evil. Perhaps moreso than any other narrative thread in American popular culture, the great American morality play that unfolds each October is most engaging when the Yankees are on stage.
  • George was also good for the game because he helped the players get their fair share. We all like to rail about how appalling it is that athletes get paid such obscene sums of money to run around in the sunshine while teachers are lucky if they can make enough to pay the bills, and we’re justified in doing so. But that’s not the whole picture. See, before free agency, you still had all that money flowing into the sport – it just all collected in the pockets of the owners. And let’s be honest, nobody is going to the park or flipping on the TV to watch the owners. So it’s only fair that the players profited equitably from their efforts. Aside from Curt Flood, nobody did more to spark the transfer of wealth from owners to athletes than the Human ATM, George Steinbrenner.
  • Finally, American pro sports is plagued with owners who aren’t really interested in winning. They’re looking to maximize profits, and since winning can be an expensive proposition, often the best way of doing that is to spend just enough so that your team is more interesting than whatever re-runs are on television that night. Want an example? Talk to fans of the Pirates, or the Clippers, or the Lions, or Royals. It’s not hard to find a take-the-money-and-run owner – in fact, if you find yourself at an annual owner’s meeting you won’t be able to swing a dead cat without hitting one. Steinbrenner, though, he was in it to win and the team’s fans knew it. In many ways, his feral commitment to reaching the mountaintop every damned year is what fans in every city in America wish they had. So if George was bad for baseball, he was also good for New York’s baseball fans. I rarely say things like “don’t hate the playa, hate the game,” but I will here.

In the final analysis, we want people to be easily categorized. We want to feel good or bad, and mostly, we want to be able to feel something simple and straightforward. But people are complex, even really rich and famous people, and Steinbrenner is no exception. Sometimes they’re great. Sometimes they’re bastards. And as I noted in a comment some time back on Bob Knight, sometimes the answer is “all of the above.” So it was with George Steinbrenner, a genuine son of a bitch who nonetheless got some things right in his eight decades among us.

RIP, you hateful Yankee bastard. Cooperstown awaits. So says this Red Sox fan.

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  1. Matt Browner Hamlin
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    “He was horrible for the game because of how he used his money to create such a drastic competitive imbalance.”

    How can one person create an imbalance in a system with 30 teams? This isn’t George sitting on one side of an empty see-saw. The imbalance was created when other owners chose not to or were financially unable to keep pace with the Yankees. You can argue about whether teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Dodgers should be allowed to spend so much more than small market teams. But blaming one person for creating an imbalance is nonsensical.

    Yes Steinbrenner was the first to pay not only superstars, but role players lots and lots of money. But it’s really hard for me to look at the game today and see, definitively, that payers getting paid millions of dollars is bad for the game. Not saying it’s good either. I just think it’s the way it is.

    Lastly, I don’t think Steinbrenner had an obligation to be good for other owners (though by putting a Yankees team on the field that fans in others market always wanted to see, he certainly helped many of their bottom lines). He had an obligation to his team and winning. And as you note, he wanted to win unlike any other owner.

    I’m a lifelong Yankees fan. Steinbrenner was certainly awful for much of his tenure. But the last 15 years have been dramatically different and as a result, the Yankees have unquestionably been the best team in the league for that duration. Credit should go to Torre, Cashman and Girardi first – but knowing what The Boss was like in the bad old days, as a Yankees fan I have to recognize and appreciate him for taking a step back and letting the professionals loose with a huge checkbook.

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