Tuesday, July 13, 2010

King George...

I hate the Yankees. I make no bones about it. They were too corporate, Too buttoned down, Too patriarchal. I rooted for two teams growing up, The New York Mets and whoever played the Yankees. Most of what I hate about the Yankees is because of one man. That man was George Steinbrenner.

Why? Because he did whatever he could to make sure that hated Yankees team won. As a Mets fan that was hard to deal with when I was in grammar school and for most of my adult years except for a brief period of time in the late 80s.

I became a Mets fan sometime in 1973 when I was 6 years old. That was the year the Mets were in their second World Series in less than 5 years. They were setting records with baseball attendance in NYC. They were in a modern stadium near the Flushing waterfront. They had a great pitching core that looked like it would be intact for years to come.

Meanwhile in the Bronx, a mismanaged Yankees team was sold to a shipping heir from Cleveland named George Steinbrenner. In 1973, the Yankees were definitely second rate. Their stadium was old, Located in a borough of a city going through very tough times. They were going through their longest post season drought since they changed their name from the Highlanders. A mere 8.8 million dollars was needed to purchase the team from the CBS Media group. Think that might have been a good investment?

Anyway, One of the first priorities Steinbrenner put on the table was to renovate the aging Yankee Stadium to 70's state of the art standards. Second of all, He wanted to build a winning team by any means possible. During the early 70s the most notable trade involving the Yankees was the families of pitcher Fritz Peterson switching places with fellow pitcher Mike Kekich. George made some good trades but a new opportunity came along in 1975 which made building a winning team easier if you were willing to pay for it.

Free Agency reared its head in 1974. Baseball players challenged the idea of being property of a team as long as the team deemed fit. If you don't like it, tough. Players can be great have a terrific season like Ralph Kiner and get a pay cut because their team could lose 113 games without him. Free Agency allowed for players to sign with another team usually the highest bidder. Steinbrenner was one of the few owners who embraced this opportunity. Most owners including the Mets owners resented players who became free agents or looked to get long term contracts over threats of being a free agent.

Not George. He signed players like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and others to generous, expensive,(at the time) contracts that gave the Yankees two World Series titles, four AL pennants and 5 National League East titles in 6 years. He also made offers for players on teams they payed in post season. Players like Don Gullet, Tommy John, and Steve Sax.

Success came at a price. The Yankees of the late 70s and early 80s were a volatile bunch of personalities in which Steinbrenner was right in the middle of. Strong personalities like Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Reggie Jackson, and most of all Billy Martin the Yankees manager. The dark side of George Steinbrenner came out. He was a meddler, A "hands on" owner who fired and hired managers left and right. From 1973 until 1991 he:

Hired/Fired Bill Virdon

Hired/Fired Billy Martin

Hired/Fired Bob Lemon

Hired/Fired Billy Martin (again)

Hired/Fired Dick Howser

Hired/Fired Gene Michael

Hired/Fired Bob Lemon (again)

Hired/Fired Gene Michael (again)

Hired/Fired Clyde King

Hired/Fired Billy Martin (Third time)

Hired/Fired Yogi Berra

Hired/Fired Billy Martin (Fourth Time)

Hired/Fired Lou Pinella

Hired/Fired Billy Martin (Fifth Time!)

Hired/Fired Lou Pinella (again)

Hired/Fired Dallas Green

Hired/Fired Bucky Dent

Hired/Fired Stump Merrill

Steinbrenner wanted to win at any costs but obviously was impatient. The Yankees brought whatever players they felt they needed to win in the 1980s. In fact the Yankees had the best total winning record in the 80s. Still, They had no World Series titles to show for it. Meanwhile in Queens New Yorkers were embracing the Mets in record numbers. The Mets were building a solid team of home grown players mixed in with a few veterans. Meanwhile the Yankees traded away great prospects like Doug Drabek, Jay Buhner, and Jose Rijo. the 80s ultimately were the decade of the Mets.

Then the 90s came and the fortunes of both teams reversed and for the Yankees it came because of controversy courtesy of King George. Steinbrenner was upset at losing the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers and he blamed it on his highly paid outfielder Dave Winfield. Winfield signed a ten year contract that Steinbrenner was trying to figure out how to get rid of, He was looking for dirt on Winfield and had paid gambler Howard Spira to blackmail Dave Winfield. This led to Steinbrenner being banned from baseball operations of the Yankees.

The lack of meddling led to a stable management of the team. Buck Sholwalter became the first Yankee manager to manage more than three years in a row under Steinbrenner. Their farm system was replenished with future superstars like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada. By the time George Steinbrenner came back after some very lean years, The Yankees had a solid core of home grown players.

In 1995, after not appearing in the playoffs for 14 years, The Yankees got a wild card spot by the fluke of having the same record as the Seattle Mariners and the California Angels. The Mariners played the Angels in the a one off playoff game and whoever won, Won the American league west and who lost went home. And for some reason the Mariners played the Yankees in the American League Wild Card playoff in a best of 5 series. The Yankees came out strong, winning the first two games at Yankee Stadium only to lose the next three games to the Mariners in Seattle in dramatic fashion.

Ken Griffey Jr. scoring on Edgar Marinez's double remains 15 years later the greatest moment in Mariners history. Let me tell you as a Yankee hater living in Seattle, I got such smug satisfaction seeing George Steinbreners face in the limo leaving the Kingdome.

That smugness was short lived. King George got his revenge. He made a steal of a trade with the Mariners for Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson for two stiffs and the new dynasty was on its way. FOUR World Series in 5 years including the 2000 team who had only the ninth best record in baseball. They beat my Mets of course.

The Yankees looked unbeatable into the 2000s. They beat a 116 game winning Mariners team in 2001 but throughout the decade until 2009, The Yankees had great records but no WS titles. George Steinbrenner was slowly backing out of daily responsibilities and was ailing. A new stadium was built next to the old one and saw yet another World Series thanks to the massive spending the Yankees were able to pay for a mere three missing piece players.

Both long time public address announcer Bob Sheppard and George Steinbrenner die having their favorite team being defending World Champions. Good karma that's for sure.

George Steinbrenner was a rich businessman who ran his operation with an iron fist. However, He paid his workers well, He wasn't cheap, He helped those under his employ when they were in need and gave his customers the best product he can possibly give them. A paradox perhaps but with the exception of a few personality flaws he left MLB a bigger success than it ever was.

Steinbrenner courted the media well, Was able to laugh at himself in commercials and TV Shows, Hosted SNL and was the inspiration for "George Steinbrenner" on Seinfeld.

RIP George. I still hate the Yankees and hope for a period they have a downturn like they had before you owned the team but let me tell ya, You were never dull.


Joey B said...

Great post, Scan. I always remember him as a jerk, and I find it amusing that the press is being reminiscent and painting him as a swell, but eccentric guy that people loved. Not true! And when baseball players are making double-digit millions per season and seats cost hundreds, alot of the blame goes to GS. Free Agency is better for the players and deservedly so (like in the Kiner example u gave) but he amped it to such a level and well, here we are.

Scanman said...

I love people like Yogi Berra, Dave Winfield, and especially Fay Vincent being respectful but brutally honest in their evaluation of his life. They saw the very ugly side of him.

One thing George did was to give a contract to a player that was three times worth their previous contract and wondered why They weren't three times better of a player. I think expecting a batting average of .948, Home run total of 96 and an RBI total of 339.

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