Commentary

Steinbrenner was game's biggest star

The Boss's passing grabs top billing -- even on All-Star Game Tuesday

Updated: July 14, 2010, 2:32 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

George Steinbrenner 1981AP PhotoGeorge Steinbrenner was born on July 4 and died on All-Star Game Tuesday.

We've been writing his obituary, it seems, in various forms over the past three years, ever since he withdrew not only from the day-to-day operations of the team he loved, but also from the media spotlight he could never seem to avoid.

And now that the day has come to officially record the passing of George M. Steinbrenner III, of a heart attack nine days past his 80th birthday, the thought that strikes you is not so much the sadness of his death but the improbable majesty of his life.

After all, everyone has to die sometime, and George Steinbrenner could not have picked a better day to make his exit from this world, the same way he could not have picked a better day upon which to make his entrance.

Born on the Fourth of July, dead on All-Star Game Tuesday, baseball's annual celebration of its biggest stars, none of whom was bigger than The Boss himself.

That is George Steinbrenner in one sentence. Not the world championships, not the free-agent signings, not the hirings and firings, the suspensions and the fines, not the bluster and, at the end, the public tears.

Born on the Fourth of July, dead on All-Star Game Tuesday, and on both of those days, he was the biggest story in town.

But then, George Steinbrenner was all about being big. Talking big, thinking big, spending big, winning big. And not just big, but the biggest. Even the name is big: George M. Steinbrenner III. And now, in death, he relegates even the All-Star Game to second place on the list of important sports events to have occurred on July 13, 2010.

"One of the top owners in the history of sports," said Dave Winfield, a player whom George Steinbrenner paid a two-bit gambler named Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on.

But that wasn't what Winfield spoke about Tuesday morning. He spoke about how big George Steinbrenner was, about how he changed the way the game was played, for the players and for his fellow owners.

It didn't matter whether you were a Yankees fan or a Yankees hater. You knew The Boss, and you had an opinion about him. How many other owners can you name? And even if you can name them, how many of them do you have an opinion about?

George Steinbrenner is the only owner in the history of professional sports whose death could steal the spotlight from that sport's showcase event. It is all the more appropriate that of all the great and famous players who will put their talents on display tonight in Anaheim, the only two whose names are as recognizable as The Boss's are the two who played for him, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

And yet, being big was not George Steinbrenner's motivation -- only the adjunct of his great success. Had his teams not won, and won consistently, we would remember him today as just a small-town big shot with a fat wallet, a big mouth and a quick temper whose accomplishments never matched up to his bluster.

We all know about the two faces of George Steinbrenner, the good and the evil, the impulsive ruthless side and the soft compassionate one, documented so well in Bill Madden's biography. He would fire you Monday morning, feel guilty about it Monday night, and expect you back to work Tuesday so that he could fire you again Wednesday.

But he was a lot more than that. It's already been documented, many, many times, how he took a wreck of a once-proud Yankees franchise out of the disinterested hands of CBS, virtually stole it for less than $10 million ($168,000 out of his own pocket, he liked to brag), and not only returned it to its former glory but also improved the brand and caused its value to skyrocket.

And he did it all for one reason: He loved to win. Or maybe more accurately, hated to lose.

And that went for everything, from an argument to a baseball game to a contract negotiation.

He had to love it that the final deal he personally negotiated, the three-year, $39 million contract he gave Gary Sheffield in 2003, left the man who signed it disgruntled and grumbling that he had been taken. George Steinbrenner had won again.

Baseball people love to say that no one is bigger than the game, but in this case, they are dead wrong.

On the day of baseball's biggest single game, there is no bigger story than George M. Steinbrenner III.

That's the way to remember him, not as an increasingly frail old man who went inevitably where we all must go, but as a vibrant, strong, tenacious force who was, in the end, even bigger than the game itself.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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