Commentary

Steinbrenner resurrected a rivalry

Fueled by George's passion to win, Sox-Yanks battles have boiled over on and off field

Updated: July 13, 2010, 10:02 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Between the time Jimy Williams mocked him as "Georgie Porgie" and Larry Lucchino branded him the "Evil Empire," George Steinbrenner placed a phone call to John W. Henry, who once owned a small piece of the Yankees and had just bought the Red Sox.

"He called me and wished me luck, and he gave me advice, advice about the general manager, the manager," Henry told me in a 2005 interview. "He gave me advice about Dan Duquette, advice about Joe Kerrigan. I said, 'George, do you realize that if somebody was listening to this conversation, how somebody else would perceive it, you giving the Red Sox advice?'

"He said, 'I know, I know, but we go way back.'"

There were few limits to what George M. Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday morning just nine days after his 80th birthday, gave the Red Sox in his tumultuous and triumphant reign as owner of the New York Yankees. Advice is far down the list, outranked by aggravation, competition, motivation, inspiration, heartbreak and, finally, vindication.

First and foremost, however, Steinbrenner breathed life back into what many consider the greatest rivalry in sports. It was Steinbrenner's Yankees of Reggie and Munson and Dent who left the Red Sox devastated in 1978, and his Yankees of Jeter and Posada and Boone who did the same in 2003. It was Steinbrenner who recast Sox heroes Tiant and Boggs and Clemens and Damon in pinstripes, it was Steinbrenner who battled the Sox for Bernie Williams and Mussina, Contreras and A-Rod, and it was Steinbrenner money that drove the Sox to spend more and more just to keep up.

[+] EnlargeDon Zimmer, Haywood Sullivan, George Steinbrenner
AP Photo/BenoitGeorge Steinbrenner (right) with then-Red Sox manager Don Zimmer (left) and then-GM Haywood Sullivan at a Boston function in 1979.

And it was Steinbrenner's Yankees of Rivera and A-Rod and Brown whose epic collapse in 2004 propelled the Red Sox to the grandest moment in their history.

"I had the good fortune to call George Steinbrenner both partner and friend,'' Henry said in a statement Tuesday. "I had the privilege to watch George as he built a system that ensured his beloved Yankees would have a strong foundation for sustained excellence. And then we fiercely competed in the American League.

"George Steinbrenner forever changed baseball and hopefully someday we will see him honored in baseball's Hall of Fame as one of the great figures in the history of sports."

Without Steinbrenner, Henry probably wouldn't be owner of the Sox today. Henry was trying to buy a minor league team in Edmonton, Alberta, when the merchant banker brokering the deal, a Yankees limited partner named Marvin Goldklang, asked Henry whether he might have interest in buying a 1 percent stake in the Bombers. A man named Harvey Leighton, who like Henry lived in Boca Raton, Fla., was selling his share. Henry bought in. That was in 1991.

"We had just a great relationship," Henry said in that '05 interview. "He always treated my mother, who was in her 80s, like she was gold. If she was going to a game in Kansas City [she lived in Arkansas], George made sure she had club seats and was taken care of. I think he looked at me like a junior partner. I was the only partner who came in after the late '70s up until the Nets deal."

Steinbrenner backed Henry's purchase of the Marlins, holding news conferences in Miami and lobbying on Henry's behalf for a new ballpark in south Florida.

"The owners' box there had an upstairs and downstairs,'' Henry said of a Steinbrenner visit to the Marlins' home park. "Generally, I'd give him the upstairs and I'd be downstairs, but we'd go back and forth. I remember one time sitting next to him in a game against the Yankees, and on the scoreboard they played a 'Seinfeld' clip, the clip where Costanza is in his car and dragging the World Series trophy behind him and yelling."

That was the episode in which Costanza, who was working for the Yankees and trying to get himself fired, yelled, "Attention, Steinbrenner and front-office morons. Your triumphs mean nothing. You all stink ..."

"We were just sitting there, watching," Henry said. "I said something like, 'Sorry, George,' and he said, 'No, it's funny,' and I said, 'But you're not laughing.'

"He wasn't laughing," Henry added.

Steinbrenner has deep connections to New England. He graduated from Williams College, the elite liberal-arts school in western Massachusetts.

"Perhaps the only sportswriter George ever liked was himself,'' Dick Quinn, Williams' longtime sports information director, said Tuesday. "He served as the sports editor of the student paper -- the Williams Record -- his senior year. He got into a tiff with the Amherst football coach, John 'Tuss' McLaughry, chastising McLaughry for not allowing sports other than football to be involved with the Friday night pep rallies [at Amherst] as they were at Williams. He even mentioned to McLaughry that Williams would walk all over Amherst on the Ephs' Weston Field later that year, and that drew the ire of Ephs head coach Len Watters.

"George was right, though. Williams won, 40-7.''

Dobbs George Steinbrenner forever changed baseball and hopefully someday we will see him honored in baseball's Hall of Fame as one of the great figures in the history of sports.

-- Red Sox owner John Henry

Steinbrenner also ran track at Williams, emulating his demanding father, Henry, who was a national champion in the low hurdles at MIT. "I used to be a half-assed track star and ran in the Boston Knights of Columbus and BAA meets in the old Garden,'' Steinbrenner once told me.

Visit MIT now, and you will find Henry G. Steinbrenner '27 Stadium, a gift from his son in 1978. The Steinbrenner family made another $1 million gift when the stadium was rededicated and improved in 2009.

Steinbrenner also was a big supporter of the Jimmy Fund, which supports cancer care and research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He annually called in to the radiothon on WEEI in Boston to make a donation and auctioned off the David Ortiz replica jersey that had been secretly placed in the wet cement of the new Yankee Stadium during construction by a worker who was a Red Sox fan. The jersey brought a winning bid of $175,000.

"While New Englanders are not known for their love of the Yankees, Mr. Steinbrenner and his support of the Jimmy Fund has shown that when it comes to cancer we are all on the same team," Suzanne Fountain, the director of the Jimmy Fund, said in a statement. "He was a true champion to all those who were fighting cancer."

Dobbs Today Red Sox Nation lost a person who truly relished the prospect of facing the Red Sox and doing all he could to make sure his beloved Yankees would come out victorious.

-- Red Sox owner Tom Werner

Typically, Steinbrenner sat in a seat near the visitors' dugout when the Yankees were in town, although that practice oddly ended after Henry bought the club.

"Every time the Yankees play the Red Sox, there's a buzz,'' Steinbrenner told me on one such visit. "I love coming to Boston."

But for all the affection Steinbrenner felt for the city, and for Henry, that rarely extended to the Red Sox. In 1999, when the Yankees eliminated the Red Sox in five games in the American League Championship Series, Boston fans littered the field after a couple of umpires' calls went against the team. Steinbrenner accused Boston manager Jimy Williams of "inciting" the crowd by hurling his cap.

"I don't know why Georgie Porgie would say something like that,'' Williams said the next day. "I never worry about Georgie Porgie. He's never been in the trenches, Georgie Porgie. [Joe] Torre, I have the utmost respect for. When Georgie Porgie speaks, I don't listen.''

Steinbrenner's clashes with the Sox ascended -- or descended, depending on your perspective -- after Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, in a 2002 interview with Murray Chass of The New York Times, famously characterized the Yankees as "the Evil Empire [that] extends its tentacles even into Latin America." Lucchino made his remarks after the Yankees signed Jose Contreras, a Cuban defector the Sox had gone to great lengths to sign, even buying out all the rooms in the boutique hotel in which Contreras was staying in Nicaragua.

Steinbrenner was enraged. "That's B.S.,'' said Steinbrenner, who shared a mutual loathing with Lucchino, going back to the days when Lucchino was CEO of the Baltimore Orioles and continuing when Lucchino went to San Diego. "That's how a sick person thinks. I've learned this about Lucchino. He changes colors, depending on where he's standing. ... He's not the kind of guy you want in your foxhole.''

Before the 2003 ALCS, Henry said, he contacted Steinbrenner and said they should get together for lunch or dinner. Steinbrenner said he'd get back to him. He never did.

Steinbrenner gloated when the Yankees won the series, Game 7 decided by Aaron Boone's home run off Tim Wakefield in the 11th inning.

"Go back to Boston, boys,'' Steinbrenner was seen calling out to the buses taking the Red Sox away from Yankee Stadium that night. "Goodbye.''

Later that night, he chortled to the New York Daily News, "The Curse still lives. I sure do believe it now.''

That winter, the friction between the teams grew even greater when the Sox failed in their attempts to trade for Alex Rodriguez, only to have the Yankees make a deal with Texas just six weeks later.

"We have a spending limit,'' Henry said, "and the Yankees apparently don't.''

Steinbrenner shot back: "We understand that John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated and disappointed by his failure in this transaction. It is time to get a life and forget the sour grapes.''

But one player the Sox did acquire whom Steinbrenner coveted was pitcher Curt Schilling, who in bloody sock helped galvanize the Sox to their shocking elimination of the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS after the Yankees had led 3-0.

"We should have traded for Schilling,'' Steinbrenner had groused to GM Brian Cashman months before. "He's a warrior. Do we have enough warriors?"

But after the Sox won the clinching Game 7 in Yankee Stadium, Henry commended Steinbrenner for leaving the field lights on while the Sox celebrated. And when the Sox went on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series, Henry said he received a congratulatory letter from Steinbrenner, saying the Sox deserved to win.

And now, without Steinbrenner, the rivalry continues, his son Hal proving, in last year's bidding war for Mark Teixeira, to be no less competitive than his father.

On Tuesday, in a statement from the team, Lucchino set aside the long-standing animosity to commend Steinbrenner as "one of the most important people in the history of the game" and express his respect for Steinbrenner's commitment to charity, saying he had a "giant heart.''

On Thursday, before the Sox play the Texas Rangers at Fenway Park, they plan to hold a moment of silence for Steinbrenner.

"I worked with George in my position as the owner of two major-league franchises and saw firsthand his passionate leadership style, his zeal for winning, and his love for the game,'' Sox chairman Tom Werner said in a statement. "Above all, I knew George as a competitor, and today Red Sox Nation lost a person who truly relished the prospect of facing the Red Sox and doing all he could to make sure his beloved Yankees would come out victorious."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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