Steinbrenner: A bridge to baseball's past
'The Boss' was an icon who never changed, even as the world around him did
Throughout the 2009 playoff season, as the Yankees whipped Minnesota in the divisional round and then defeated the Angels in the ALCS and the Phillies in the World Series, the team's return to dominance was accompanied by a secondary campaign: "Win it for The Boss."
It was not a gimmick but a foreshadowing.
George Steinbrenner was near death. The organization knew it; the Yankees had known of his decline for years. During the World Series against the Phillies last year, as the Yankees closed in on the championship, the appearance of the "Win it for The Boss" slogan on the multimillion-dollar scoreboard in the Bronx was a telegraph to the fans that there likely would be no more World Series appearances for Steinbrenner and to the players that there would be no better way to say goodbye than to give him what he respected most: a championship.
Steinbrenner can -- and should -- be viewed through many lenses, and each should be respectful. Each, too, though, should not be tempered simply because he has passed. He was a generational bridge, vilified during much of his tenure as a boor who thought money could buy everything, including class and respect along with championships, regardless of the cost. Ironically, Steinbrenner was viewed as a hero at times later in his ownership, when his dollars ultimately defeated all challengers. He was the same man, but the world changed around him. The same big-money signings that were once crass became signs of his passion, proof of Steinbrenner's dedication while his fellow hobbyist millionaires were looking for handouts.
Steinbrenner was a giant, iconic but not beloved, and he represented the most important elements of sports both positively and negatively: dynasty and continuity.
Much of the focus is placed on the field of play, the final score and, today, the tweet snippets that create meaningless news cycles, but what has always given sports its special power is how it provides the sound track and background of our lives. During the past two years, the Yankees' most direct connections to their past have been cut. Their future, which has been in the making the past few years, officially begins with Steinbrenner's passing.
For every Yankees fan younger than 37, George Steinbrenner had always been there. He symbolized not only the return of the team's fallen brand but also the supercharged capitalism and ego and self-confidence that is the lifeblood of New York City.
Steinbrenner was the bridge from Yankee Stadium I to Yankee Stadiums II and III, and from baseball's reserve clause to the free-agent modern era. He's the only owner the Yankees have had in that period.
Under commissioner Bud Selig, who in effect has crushed dissent among owners by awarding franchises only to team players, Steinbrenner also was a bridge to the days of the mavericks -- Bill Veeck, Charlie Finley, Ted Turner -- whose self-interest sometimes seemed to trump the interests of the game. Selig has admired the late football commissioner Pete Rozelle for his ability to persuade the owners of NFL franchises to think as a collective. Steinbrenner was baseball's equivalent of the NFL's Al Davis. It is likely in part the memory of the early George Steinbrenner years that has kept Mark Cuban out of Major League Baseball, at least for now.
Bob Sheppard, the voice of Yankee Stadium, died this past weekend at age 99. He was the bridge to Mantle and DiMaggio, who was himself the bridge to the old Yankee Stadium, to Gehrig and Ruth. You have to go back to 1950 to find a Yankees game at which either Steinbrenner or Sheppard was not a formidable presence. That sort of presence, the one that predates us, makes sports what it is.
It is the dynastic continuity of the Yankees that will be affected most by Steinbrenner's death, and only the future knows the forward shape of the organization. The Boston Celtics once were an iconic team individually and stylistically, much like the Yankees, only to be eroded by time. First, the legendary building, the Boston Garden, was razed. Then the proud and austere Celtics, who had shunned cheerleaders, hip-hop and rock music in favor of the organ, gave in to jock-jam packaging. And then Red Auerbach died, and the Celtics have been just another team.
The Yankees under Steinbrenner exemplified their continuity in many ways, including the cosmetics: no hair below the lip on the players, no significant uniform changes since the 1930s. Always, it seems, Steinbrenner was in search of a big superstar player to conquer the big superhero town. Neither Hal nor Hank Steinbrenner, George's sons now running the team, has yet expressed any interest in selling the Yankees. But neither seems yet to view the Yankees as an extension of his individual personality as his father did.
Nor do the Yankees' baseball people seem interested in the solo superhero free-agent signings that characterized Steinbrenner's reign until recently, opting instead for big-money players with muted personalities. Just as new Yankees stars such as CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira prefer to blend in, Hal and Hank have avoided a role as the public face of New York baseball, as the patriarch had been since the Nixon administration.
Thankfully to some, maybe even most, that era of Yankees management appears to be over. But the greatest monument to the Age of Steinbrenner -- the time when George was George -- remains. The man who legitimized the Steinbrenner Way once and for all is still with the organization, as visible as ever. His name is Reggie Jackson.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.