Commentary

Boss absent, but not at all forgotten

Despite not being in Bronx, longtime Yanks' owner big part of World Series celebration

Originally Published: November 4, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- He is 79 now, no longer the thunderous, dictatorial Boss, but by all accounts, an ailing, fragile man who happens to own the team that Wednesday night, in the early November chill of the Bronx, won the World Series.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner
AP Photo/Eric GayThe Yankees have won seven World Series titles since George Steinbrenner took over ownership of the team in 1973.

This was George Steinbrenner's seventh world championship, but the first when he didn't feel the sweet sting of champagne in his eyes. Those days are over. And given the age and mileage of some of his cornerstone Yankees, there's no guarantee, even with his family's seemingly bottomless ATM card for free agents, they'll be able to pull off the two-peat.

So it was no accident that everyone, but mostly the core players who grew up, grew famous and grew rich in Steinbrenner's often-dysfunctional organization -- Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte -- wanted this one was for him. Posada made that clear as he stopped in mid-postgame celebration to detail what he wished he could have told Steinbrenner Wednesday night.

"Thank you," said Posada. "Thank you for everything. Thank you for this. Thank you for having the team every year, to try to have a team to be here."

Here. With Sinatra's "New York, New York,'' still playing over and over again on the Yankee Stadium speaker system an hour after the game. With a trophy presentation just behind the mound and "Boss, This Is For You,'' on the huge center-field video screen. With that indescribable feeling that comes with winning it all.

Steinbrenner wasn't in the bubbly-soaked New York Yankees' clubhouse after the Game 6 clincher. He was home with his wife in Tampa, Fla., watching his team win a 27th world title.

"He was very teary-eyed,'' said his son, Hank, who spoke with Steinbrenner during the 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. "It meant everything.''

Steinbrenner's health status is guarded like a KGB state secret during the Cold War. But he is not a well man. His condition kept him away from his own ballpark Wednesday evening, as well as almost the entire season. Steinbrenner attended the home opener in mid-April and didn't return until Games 1 and 2 of this World Series.

"Very, very weird,'' said Hank of not being able to see his father here. "Very strange. Very strange. But he's happy now.''

It's just as well that he didn't make the trip. Why repeat the postgame scene of Game 2, when security officials prevented reporters from boarding the media elevator to the Stadium service level where the home and visitors clubhouses -- and Steinbrenner's getaway car -- were located? Why subject him to the prying eyes of random passersby and TV cameras?

In the distance, obscured by a mesh curtain that had been lowered to prevent public viewing, was a black SUV (or perhaps a minivan; it was difficult to tell). Its doors were open, waiting for the frail Steinbrenner to be loaded onto the vehicle and driven away.

I didn't stay to see The Boss that night. Part of me didn't want to see him. Not like that. Not when it was so obvious that his family and those who cared for him wanted him hidden.

Steinbrenner's younger son, Hal, now oversees the team as its managing general partner. He stood on that same Yankee Stadium infield late Wednesday night wearing a black World Series cap and one of those contented smiles. But his thoughts were with his dad in Florida.

"This has been his whole life,'' he said. "This has been his heart and soul and his blood, sweat and tears. He's put his whole life into it … We all wanted to win one for him. This is about him -- I can't say that more sincerely … This -- is -- for -- him.''

What happens next is for him to decide. Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman have all sorts of decisions to make regarding this roster. Do they bring back the 35-year-old Hideki Matsui? All Matsui did was drive in six of the Yankees' seven runs in the Game 6 victory and earn the Series MVP. He finished with three homers and eight RBIs in just 13 at-bats. Do they bring back the 37-year-old Andy Pettitte? All Pettitte did was will his tired left arm to deliver perhaps the most important 5 2/3 innings of his 12-season Yankees career. On just three days' rest, he stuffed a rosin bag into the mouth of every critic who questioned manager Joe Girardi's decision to start a weary Pettitte in Game 6. I was one of those critics and as it turned out, Pettitte and Girardi were right, I was wrong.

Do they bring back Johnny Damon, who will turn 36 on Thursday and limped off the field three innings into Wednesday night's game? But before he did, he hit .364 in the Series, scored six runs, had four RBIs and two memorable steals on one play.

This is a proud, old team with a proud, old owner. The great Jeter is 35. Posada is 37. Rivera will be 40 before the end of the month. And Pettitte is in the eighth or ninth inning of his career.

They are all linked to Steinbrenner, who paid them well and expected -- no, demanded -- that they deliver him what he craved: the joy of holding a World Series trophy in his hands.

"He's the boss man,'' said first-year Yankee Nick Swisher. "He deserves it. He is the Yankee. He is the reason the Yankees are who they are.''

Steinbrenner made his early fortune in shipbuilding. But he made his name and legacy in rebuilding the Yankees into a worldwide sports brand.

My guess is that he loves this latest champion of his. Loves them because there are bits and pieces of his own personality sprinkled in that clubhouse. He loves what Jeter represents -- class, dignity and longevity. You get the feeling that if he were physically able, Steinbrenner would do anything to be there when Jeter eventually reaches 3,000 hits, presumably in 2011.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
David J. Phillip-Pool/Getty Images Joe Girardi led the Yankees to a World Series title in his second season as manager.

He loves the rags-to-riches tale of the humble Rivera, who came from Panama as a nobody and one day will leave as the greatest reliever in the history of the game.

He loves Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez for what they have overcome. Pettitte, who two years ago admitted to using HGH, had few options but to take a huge pay cut to sign with the Yankees in 2009. Now he won Game 6 on fumes, and did it as the crowd of 50,315 chanted, "An-dy Pett-itte'' -- the fans' ultimate compliment -- as he stood on the mound preparing for his next pitch.

And this past spring a humiliated and contrite Rodriguez confessed to his use of performance-enhancing drugs. But in the most tumultuous season of his personal and professional life, A-Rod at last responded when it counted the most to Steinbrenner: in the playoffs.

Steinbrenner loves Girardi, who chose No. 27 as his jersey number (no accident), for his logic and his stubbornness. Girardi said pitching three starters on three days' rest was the right move for the Yankees. Now he has a world championship for trusting his instincts.

Steinbrenner was missed in that champagne-doused Yankees clubhouse, but he wasn't forgotten. Never forgotten.

"The Yankees are his pride and joy,'' said Cashman. "His family is his pride and joy. They both came together for him tonight and I don't think you can even measure how much that means."

Yes, you can. You can measure it by those tears in Tampa.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter