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Monday, June 16, 2003
Updated: June 17, 8:38 AM ET
The List: Steinbrenner's worst

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

George Steinbrenner has shown incredible patience during the past five or six years, considering that he's him. With patience has come stability, especially in the manager's office. Steinbrenner now insists that, despite rumors floating everywhere, Joe Torre's job is safe. But watch out if the Yankees lose five in a row or get blown out in a doubleheader. George says many things that, in the end, give way to thoughtless knee-jerk reactions.

George Steinbrenner
The Boss is no young buck, but his reflexes are still razor sharp.
Here's his bottom 10:

1. The Flowers Incident
This was the big bang, the origin of it all. Steinbrenner, when he bought the Yankees in 1973, said he wouldn't become involved in day-to-day operations. That lasted until, uh, until he saw the flowers. On Day One at Yankee Stadium. George explained to the Daily News:

"I walked in and saw flowers on every desk. Freshly cut flowers. I said, 'What the hell is this? Is it Flowers Day? Is it Secretary's Day?' Somebody said, 'Isn't that wonderful? Mr. Burke does this every day for us.' (Former Yankee president) Mike Burke is a guy who I admired tremendously. He was a real heartthrob type of guy. Everybody liked him. I loved him, but for what I wanted, he didn't fit with me. When I saw the flowers, that was the trigger. I got involved."

2. The Berra Incident
As spring training got underway in 1985, George said, "Yogi will be the manager this year. A bad start will not affect Yogi's status." But Steinbrenner didn't rule out other things affecting Yogi's status. The Yankees began the season in a mediocre fashion, and after playing .500 ball through the first 10 games, only a few players showed up for an optional workout.

That started George thinking. "I thought they'd show more respect for Yogi," he said. "I'm not happy, but at this point Yogi's running the ball club." Then the Yankees lost five of their next six, and Yogi was gone. Steinbrenner didn't deliver the news personally -- he gave that job to GM Clyde King. Yogi's replacement? Billy Martin, of course.

It took years for Berra to forgive Steinbrenner.

3. The Winfield Dirt Incident
The Dave Winfield/Steinbrenner feud hit its low point in 1990, shortly after The Boss sent Winfield to the Angels in exchange for Mike Witt. In 1987, George, in a desperate attempt to dig up dirt on Winfield, hired gambler Howard Spira as his shovelmeister. Three years later, Spira, the Ken Starr of private baseball investigators, was still looking for nothing. But he was $40,000 richer, thanks to a payoff from Steinbrenner. In July 1990, commissioner Fay Vincent banned George from day-to-day operations of the Yankees for life.

4. Any of the Martin incidents ... but the best
The knees jerked so much when Martin and Steinbrenner got near each other that it looked like they were doing some weird kind of aerobics workout. But one of the most notable, give-and-take-wise, came in July 1978. Speaking, on the record, of Reggie Jackson and The Boss, Martin said, "One's a born liar; the other's convicted."

No doubt about that last part -- Steinbrenner secured his place in Watergate history when convicted for making an illegal contribution to Richard Nixon's campaign fund. But truth is no defense around George, and he quickly forced Martin, who'd managed the Yankees to the 1977 World Championship, to resign.

5. The Elevator Incident
The Yankees were playing the Dodgers in the 1981 World Series, and the Yankees were in L.A., and Steinbrenner was in L.A., and the Yankees were losing. So what did George do? Naturally, he punched a wall. Or something similarly unyielding. And broke his hand.

He also came up with one of the most unbelievable stories to explain his broken hand. No one had witnessed the incident, so he said that he had broken it by punching out two Dodger fans in a hotel elevator, because they had called the Yankees "chokers." Said George, "There are two guys in this town looking for their teeth and two guys who will probably sue me.'

Steinbrenner has stuck with this one through the years, although he refuses to disclose any further details. But nobody sued. Nobody was charged with anything. And nobody saw nothing.

6. The Irabu Incident
Who says exhibition games don't count? On April 1, 1999, expensive (and, to be fair, overweight) Yankee pitcher Hideki Irabu failed to cover first base on a ground ball. It was the ninth inning of a meaningless game in Fort Lauderdale, but the second outing in a row that Irabu had loafed.

And George lost it. In a remarkable display of creative trash talk, he called Irabu a "fat pussy toad," and refused to let the pitcher accompany the team to Los Angeles. Two days later, Steinbrenner apologized and allowed Irabu to join the team.

"It's unfortunate that the remark about his weight came out," said Steinbrenner. "I knew that everybody would take that and make that the big thing ... I think some unfortunate things have happened and we've got to make him understand that we're with him. The Yankees need him. Underline need, big-time. We need him."

Steinbrenner traded Irabu to the Expos after the 1999 season.

7. The Lemon Incident
In September 1981, George fired Gene Michael as manager, and replaced him with Bob Lemon. On Dec. 9, Steinbrenner said, "There will be no change this year. I wouldn't care how the team is doing. I'm not going to make a change in 1982 unless it's dictated by something other than how the team is doing." He said it again: "I swear on my heart, he'll be my manager all season."

Lemon, who'd been fired once already by Steinbrenner during the 1979 season, lasted 14 games, getting the boot with the Yankees at 6-8. "Instead of identifying somebody as their manager, the Yankees should appoint him 'vice president, dugout decisions,'" wrote Dave Anderson in the New York Times. Lemon's replacement? Gene Michael.

8. The Michael Incident
Less than 100 games into his 1982 managerial stint, Gene Michael got the boot after the Yankees dropped a doubleheader to the White Sox at Yankee Stadium. In the second game of the doubleheader, Chicago tagged George Frazier for 10 runs in 1 1/3 innings; during that debacle, Steinbrenner told P.A. announcer Bob Sheppard to announce that Yankee fans could exchange that night's tickets for free tickets to another game.

Clyde King replaced Michael, but that didn't inspire any confidence in Yankee players. "To tell you the truth," said veteran Bobby Murcer, "I really don't think he deserved it. Gene got put in here with a team he didn't help put together, and I think he did the best he could for the time he was here. The players -- all of us -- didn't perform well enough to keep Gene around. There isn't one person who can come in and change the outlook because right now we're just not doing it.''

9. The "Mr. May" Incident
Dave Winfield and Steinbrenner just never got along, and things got pretty ugly toward the end of Winfield's Yankee days. Things were already way on the downslide when the Yankees lost three straight games to the Blue Jays in the thick of a pennant race, and Steinbrenner called Winfield "Mr. May." Up in the press box, he said to reporters, "Where is Reggie Jackson? We need a Mr. October or a Mr. September.... Dave Winfield is Mr. May.''

The next day, Don Mattingly said, "To belittle players like he did, to me he's out of control." Winfield said, "You wonder why we're tentative on the field. All I can tell you is that with what he said, with the way he is, that's how the guys felt. Maybe some of the guys were too afraid to make a mistake."

Winfield finished the season with 26 HR and 114 RBI, playing much better in August and September than he had in April and May. The Yankees finished the season 97-64, two games behind the Blue Jays. On August 1, they had been 8 1/2 games back, but in August, September and October, went 42-20 to close the gap and finish with the second-best record in the AL.

10. The Dental Plan Incident
Right after the collective bargaining agreement went into affect last Aug. 30, Steinbrenner reacted by cutting payroll. Renegotiate Jeter's contract? Guess again. He cut hours for the Yankee Stadium elevator operators, and fired a few scouts. His next move came in October, when he canned 25 employees, again citing the CBA. Then he threatened to cut the dental plan (not for the players or coaches, but for the secretaries and janitors and others for whom the plan -- total cost to George, $100K -- is a major benefit).

"They're coming off record revenues and record ticket sales, and they've made the playoffs for eight straight years," said one anonymous baseball insider. "It would seem inconceivable that they would stoop to that. This is something only a really bad businessman would do." The media backlash was so strong that Steinbrenner backed off.

Also receiving votes:
The Alcoholic Chicken incident
In the late 1990s, Steinbrenner mistakenly believes one of his employees is moonlighting as a hen supervisor for Tyler Chicken in Arkansas. As a result, he trades the employee, George Costanza, to Tyler Chicken, which Steinbrenner characterizes as "a top-flight bird outfit." The trade is caught on tape:

Don Tyler (head of Tyler Chicken): "How about this: You give me Costanza, I convert your concessions to all chicken -- no charge. Instead of hotdogs -- chicken dogs. Instead of pretzels -- chicken twists. Instead of beer -- alcoholic chicken."

Steinbrenner: "How do you make that alcoholic chicken?"

Tyler: "Ah, let it ferment. Just like anything else."

Steinbrenner: "That stuff sounds great. Alright, I'll have Costanza on the next bus!"

Even though millions saw the trade on TV, Steinbrenner showed no remorse.