The last gleaming
Even in his golden years, George Steinbrenner left footprints all over baseball
This story originally appeared in the August 1, 2005, edition of ESPN The Magazine.
It's July 9, Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium. Present and future Hall of Famers are all over the place. Yogi Berra is downstairs in the clubhouse, where Whitey Ford is pulling on pinstripes and ex-teammates are trading handshakes and laughs and war stories. It's a big day -- maybe the biggest day, other than October days -- for the organization. All hands on deck.
At 11:45 a.m., an e-mail appears in every employee's in-box. HIGHEST PRIORITY, the subject line blares. The rest of it contains three letters: GMS.
Those are the initials of the Yankees' principal owner, George M. Steinbrenner, who is five days past his 75th birthday. The Boss' health is the subject of wide speculation inside and outside the organization. There's also increasing curiosity as to why a man who once competed with Son of Sam, the Long Island Lolita and O.J. for tabloid headlines has mostly withdrawn from frontline exposure; why he has, comparatively speaking, become a recluse. And as the team has shifted philosophy dramatically and tossed rookies into the lineup to bolster its playoff hopes, there are questions about how much longer Steinbrenner will control the franchise he drove to financial and competitive dominance.
But he is still GMS, the HIGHEST PRIORITY, and he remains a source of great fear and tension within the offices at Yankee Stadium. The e-mail is opened. ETA: 12:20.
And with that, a 35-minute scramble begins. People check around their desks for bits of litter -- The Boss hates litter -- or finish their work and relocate to a distant part of the sprawling old building. Steinbrenner's location is tracked as if he were under satellite surveillance. It's like he's the inhabitant of the Oval Office, except that his digs include a seat shaped like a large baseball glove. "To be honest, I just try to stay out of his way," says one executive. Adds another, "You don't want to do anything to set him off."
Most of his employees will speak of him only on background, almost never on the record, for fear of retribution. Even in the twilight of his career, Steinbrenner still manages his business in the same way he always has, by intimidating and cajoling. "The atmosphere hasn't changed," another official says. "There is still a lot of bark to the bite."
Baseball doesn't drive drive popular culture the way it did when Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle wore pinstripes. Mac and Sammy had their moment, and Cal Ripken starred as The Ironman, a symbol of resiliency and a seller of milk and pickup trucks. But Steinbrenner went much further than that. His notoriety made him so compelling that he was parodied on Seinfeld and once hosted Saturday Night Live. Long before Donald Trump became a network star, The Boss turned "You're fired" into a national punch line.
Steinbrenner wasn't merely a product of pop culture; he changed it, recasting the image of the celebrity businessman. Steel giant Andrew Carnegie, oil baron John D. Rockefeller, automaker Henry Ford and publisher William Randolph Hearst were all famous, but they removed themselves from the masses by living in houses on the hill -- or, in Hearst's case, a stone-cold castle. Steinbrenner, on the other hand, made beer ads and griped in public like someone sitting in a $2 grandstand seat. Without his influence, we might never have come to know Lee Iacocca or Jack Welch, or had the pleasure of watching The Donald dig through a dumpster in a credit-card commercial.
In accelerating the expectations and impatience of fans, Steinbrenner changed the way franchises are operated far beyond New York. Many fans have in a sense become Steinbrenners, their sentiments mirroring his: the journey means nothing, the destination means everything, and anything less than a championship -- a world championship, not a pennant or a division title -- is unacceptable. They boo the Cubs in Chicago now. The Tony Dungy Watch is on in Indianapolis. Stan Van Gundy? He clearly can't take the Heat.
When teams are losing, changes must be made immediately, rosters retooled for rapid turnarounds. Blame must be placed. So when the Yankees floundered this spring, the response from the fans was Pavlovian, conditioned over 33 years. What will George do? He's got to do SOMETHING!
Steinbrenner is paying about $220,000 per inning to field the 2005 Yankees, and in the first half of the season he received too many innings of zero return. With the team hovering around .500 and slumping, 6.5 games out of first place, he called a meeting in Tampa, where he lives. On the afternoon of June 28, members of the Yankees' New York and Tampa clans gathered at Legends Field. Steinbrenner turned to GM Brian Cashman and said, "All right, Cash, you run the meeting. What are we going to do? What can we do?"
With that, Cashman took the organization's reins of power, which tend to sway between the rival Bronx and Florida offices, seemingly according to the seasons. A junior high student council has a more structured chain of command than the most successful franchise in sports. And as Steinbrenner gets older, it gets even more muddled. In the fall, after the World Series, the Tampa contingent -- a hodge-podge of Steinbrenner cronies including former traveling secretary Bill Emslie and longtime pitching guru Billy Connors -- usually gains the upper hand, with The Boss either rubber-stamping suggestions or ordering deals himself. In November of 2003, Steinbrenner negotiated the signing of Gary Sheffield at a Tampa steakhouse, turning down a deal that Cashman was negotiating with Vladimir Guerrero. When Sheffield briefly backed out of an oral agreement, Cashman implored Steinbrenner to sign Guerrero, seven years younger, but the owner insisted on Sheff: "I want him, I want him, I want him."
In the summer, however, power shifts back to Cashman. As crises develop, Steinbrenner relies on him to address in-season weaknesses. From Cashman's perspective, The Boss hasn't changed. Other employees say Steinbrenner's angry phone calls to his GM still come early in the morning, late at night, all day. "You're going to blow it," he snapped at Cashman early this year. And while Joe Torre's job seems secure, friends say pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and hitting coach Don Mattingly would have been axed already if not for Cashman's intervention.
During the Tampa meeting, the problems are obvious: the team needs some middle relief, and more desperately it needs a centerfielder, because veteran Bernie Williams simply can't play the position every day anymore. There are many possible solutions outside the organization, but they are all imperfect, because the Yankees would have to give up prospects. Part of the reason the franchise has fallen into this predicament, the executives all agree, is the continuing policy of swapping prospects for older players. For now, Cashman says, "We made our bed, and we need to sleep in it."
Steinbrenner assents: he is emboldened by the early success of second baseman Robinson Cano and pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. A couple of weeks later, the owner is the driving force behind the ascension of Triple-A centerfielder Melky Cabrera. But he doesn't tell anybody that; he doesn't do that anymore. In the past, if a player Steinbrenner brought in went bust, he was apt to blame a subordinate as a way of passing the buck. But now, when The Boss complains about signings and trades he authorized or initiated, some acquaintances believe it's because he really doesn't remember who made the deal. "You have to take things to him two or three days in a row for him to remember all the details," says one member of the organization. "Otherwise, it just slips his mind."
A year and a half ago, Steinbrenner collapsed at a memorial service for football great Otto Graham, and since then there have been whispers within the organization that he is ailing. His complexion is often ashen, and some employees have wondered if he suffered a small stroke, or more than one. But Steinbrenner, in an e-mail response issued through his spokesman, Howard Rubenstein, flatly denies this. "I have never had one stroke, let alone two," he says. "I am in excellent health. I have the body of a 55-year-old."
The Boss has been a media maestro for decades, leaking stories, selectively returning calls, pitting newspapers and even colleagues against each other. There is no such thing as bad news, Steinbrenner once advised a young exec. It's better to have negative headlines than no headlines at all.
But while he once routinely fired off nuclear blasts, he now takes indirect aim with smaller-caliber weapons. He almost never returns phone calls from reporters to be quoted on the record, and even when he does, he usually just states the obvious. We've got to start playing better. Several New York papers have assigned reporters specifically to trail Steinbrenner when he is at Yankee Stadium, but rather than stopping and chatting, he keeps moving away from them -- fleeing them, really -- occasionally flinging a couple of remarks over his shoulder to distract the pack as he gets away. The runway through the press box to his private box was once open, and reporters could linger in the back and watch for a meltdown. Recently a door was erected and a security guard stationed. This exhibit at the Bronx Zoo has been closed.
Most of the statements routed through Rubenstein, a PR veteran, are benign. Randy Levine, the Yankees president, says Steinbrenner has changed his media strategy because the media have morphed into a beast with a 24-hour craving. "He uses Howard in an effort to control the message, and to control the message frequency," Levine says. Adds Steinbrenner, through Rubenstein: "I have less to say publicly. Brevity is the brother of brilliance."
It's a good line, but there's no doubt that by shutting down access, Steinbrenner is also shielding his vulnerabilities. His emotions seem close to the surface at all times, like a pool of oil that only needs to be tapped in the right spot. Before last season's home opener, The Boss was being interviewed on local TV when fans broke into a "We love you, George" chant, and the owner began to weep, his chin quivering.
When Steinbrenner sat down with the team's YES network this spring and spoke of his parents and his former players, he appeared on the edge of breaking down repeatedly -- and may have, because the piece was edited. The interview was extraordinarily revealing: this was George Steinbrenner on the verge of his 75th birthday, nearing the end of a lifetime of spectacular successes and failures, proud and regretful, a gush of tears always just one well-aimed question away.
"Last year he cried, he wept," says Bill Gallo, the longtime Daily News cartoonist and a Steinbrenner pal. "Nature made him change. Happened to me too."
It happens to everybody.
Steinbrenner was once viewed as an outsider in New York, an intruder. But now the man and the city will forever be linked -- a perfect match. "They're both giants," says Gallo, who for years drew the owner as a blustery general wearing a Prussian army helmet. "A big man should have a big ego. A big ego by a little fella, who does nothing, that's a sin. But Steinbrenner's ego belongs in him. He wears it on his lapel."
Steinbrenner restored the Yankees to greatness, winning six championships, and reshaped them into a financial juggernaut. When the new Yankee Stadium opens alongside the old in 2009, the value of the franchise should approach a staggering $2 billion. The Boss sat with the mayor and the governor when the plans were unveiled in June, and there was no question who the star of the room was. The politicians kept praising him, thanking him, calling him King George. He just listened and grinned.
It wasn't until reporters started asking questions that Steinbrenner spoke, and again he was clipped. Twice he moved uncomfortably from his chair to the microphone, his glasses slightly askew as he awkwardly maneuvered the step up; it was a mistake, one employee conceded, to have the stair. "We decided to stay in the Bronx," Steinbrenner said, "and do the job for the Bronx."
He offhandedly mentioned that Steve Swindal, his son-in-law, a man well-respected and well-liked within the organization, will eventually succeed him. But some friends and employees smirked when they heard this. It's that hard to imagine the Yankees without Steinbrenner, and the reverse is also true. "They are," says one acquaintance, "his life's work."
The highest priority.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His daily ESPN Insider blog can be found here.
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