George deserves Hall pass

George Steinbrenner would rather win than make money, which is why he belongs in Cooperstown.

Originally Published: September 17, 2004
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

We will be hearing from George Steinbrenner sometime in the next 10 days. Could be that he'll wade into a crowd of reporters and angrily complain about the purpose of a Pedro Martinez pitch or an umpire's gaffe. Perhaps he'll issue a statement quoting Patton or Lombardi or Dr. Phil in an attempt to inspire his players. Maybe, if Alex Rodriguez gets a big hit, Steinbrenner will stop to smirk and needle the Red Sox ownership for their failure to get The Deal Done.

George Steinbrenner
Steinbrenner, who bought the Yankees in 1973, is the most prominent owner in sports.

The context is irrelevant; inevitably, he will make his presence felt, as he has for three decades, and whether you admire his desire for championships or are repulsed by his gold-plated bullying, George Steinbrenner's impact on the game is undeniable. For that, Steinbrenner should become one of the few executives inducted into Hall of Fame -- probably posthumously because it's hard to imagine him stepping off the helm of the Yankees for the necessary six months to gain eligibility in his lifetime.

The Yankees were dormant when he bought the team, and they have become a financial and competitive juggernaut. Many who have worked for Steinbrenner believe the franchise's successes from year to year often have been achieved in spite of his impetuosity; on a daily basis, his own shifting moods probably represent the greatest threat to the organization.

But Steinbrenner had a broader vision of what he wanted the Yankees to become when he bought the team, and his larger ambition and willingness to invest in his own product led the Yankees to where they are today -- the most beloved team in baseball, the most hated team, the most important team.

He is The Boss from Hell, and many of the people who work for him have little regard for Steinbrenner. When he has issued his press releases, restated the mantras of generals, proclaimed players like Paul O'Neill and others as "warriors," there has been much laughter within the walls of Yankee Stadium. A lot of employees have believed that, at heart, Steinbrenner is a quitter. In the midst of competition, he has been the first to express doubt and assign blame.

Last year's World Series wasn't even over when he cornered general manager Brian Cashman. "Meeting in Tampa Monday," he snapped, in the eighth inning of Game 6, when the Yankees trailed Florida, 2-0. "And it's not going to be pleasant. There are going to be big changes." The Yankees took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 in the 2001 World Series, and as Mark Grace dumped a single into short center field to lead off, Steinbrenner turned to an attendant in the visitors' clubhouse, jabbed a finger and said, "If we lose this, it's all your fault."

We understand that John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated and disappointed by his failure in this transaction.
George Steinbrenner on the Alex Rodriguez deal

After a decade of careful maintenance by Gene Michael and Cashman and others, Steinbrenner is making more decisions himself and the franchise has slowly begun drifting onto the same dangerous course that eventually led to the period of failure in the late '80s. The minor league system is greatly depleted, the once overpowering pitching staff is diminished, and the team has gotten older and older. This is why Cashman lobbied hard to sign Vladimir Guerrero instead of Gary Sheffield last fall -- and got very close to completing a deal. Sheffield has been terrific this year, but he is eight years older than Guerrero, and the Yankees eventually must find a way to get younger.

Yet, presumably, the Yankees will make the playoffs this year, for the 10th consecutive year, and for the 15th time in Steinbrenner's 31 years as owner. They've won 10 pennants and six championships since he bought the team.

Baseball's financial structure is steeply slanted in Steinbrenner's favor; next year, after the Yankees invest in the likes of Carlos Beltran, Carl Pavano and Pedro Martinez, New York's payroll could be well beyond $200 million, three or four times larger than that of many teams. But Steinbrenner has earned the advantage, to a large degree; he aggressively competed within the system, exploited the Yankees' financial potential, signed record-setting cable contracts and licensing agreements and a deal for the club's own network.

Then he spent much of the gleaned profit on more talent. If Steinbrenner had a choice between winning and making money, Michael believes, he would always choose on-field success.

George Steinbrenner
Steinbrenner is often overbearing and always aggressive.

"You play within the rules, and we have an economic system in baseball that creates the disparity that we're talking about," said Jerry Colangelo, the departing chairman of the Diamondbacks, who has clashed with Steinbrenner in the past. "Because of his ability, and because the resources are there and his team is playing in the biggest market in the country, he's doing exactly what most people would like to do. I do think there's a lot of jealousy involved from other people in the game because they don't have the means to compete."

And because Steinbrenner likes to rub it in. "Unlike the Yankees, he chose not to go the extra distance for his fans in Boston," Steinbrenner said of Boston owner John Henry, after the Yankees got A-Rod, after the Red Sox failed to close the deal. "We understand that John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated and disappointed by his failure in this transaction."

It's quite possible -- more than likely, in fact -- that the next Yankee owner won't follow the Steinbrenner's business model because at times the team's spending, from Dave Collins to Danny Tartabull to Hideki Irabu to Jose Contreras, has seemed ludicrous. So the Yankees, and Major League Baseball probably will never have anyone quite like George Steinbrenner again.

Only four owners have been inducted into the Hall of Fame -- Clark Griffith of Washington Senators fame; Tom Yawkey, the late Red Sox owner; Charlie Comiskey, who operated the White Sox; and Bill Veeck, multiple-team owner known for creative fan incentives.

None had a greater influence on baseball than Steinbrenner, however. None of them became a popular culture figure like Steinbrenner, who was so well-known that he hosted Saturday Night Live and was unseen but omnipresent in the most popular sitcom of a generation, Seinfeld. Through Steinbrenner's bluster, his two suspensions, his hiring and firing, his weeping half-dozen acceptance of championship trophies, his vicious treatment of others, his rabid oversight of the Yankees, he has made his mark on the game.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is on the New York Times Best-Seller List and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine