Commentary

The Boss celebrates, in a different way

George Steinbrenner was at Yankee Stadium Tuesday, but not the person we remember

Updated: April 14, 2010, 5:32 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

In years gone by, George Steinbrenner would have spent a night like Tuesday night holding court in his suite at the Regency or over a table at Bravo Gianni, accepting the adulation of the crowd as if in fact he were Reggie Jackson or Derek Jeter or Jim Leyritz, whose home run in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series caused the mob at Elaine's to stand and applaud as the owner of the newly revived New York Yankees strode into the joint later that night.

[+] EnlargeRudy Giuliani & George Steinbrenner
AP Photo/Kathy WillensFormer New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said hello to The Boss on Tuesday.

Now, only his closest confidantes and caretakers know where George Steinbrenner goes after a game, or even if he is at a game at all.

"I didn't even know he was here," Jorge Posada said, "until I saw him up on the video screens."

And after a game like Tuesday's home opener, in which the Yankees took a 7-1 laugher against the Angels into the ninth inning and emerged with a 7-5 nail-biter, the media would have staked out his waiting limousine, expecting -- no, hoping -- to provoke him into ripping his manager or a relief pitcher, or preferably both.

But those days are long gone. The "old" Yankee Stadium -- the one in which George Steinbrenner left his indelible mark upon this ballclub -- stands in ruins, looking more like the Roman Colosseum than the "Cathedral of Baseball."

And The Boss now leaves the new Yankee Stadium not in a limousine, but in a silver mini-van, probably equipped with wheelchair accessibility, his exit from the ballpark masked by silver steel curtains that obscure the view and access of the curious.

He was the first one to receive a World Series ring Tuesday, a symbolic gesture performed in a secret ceremony, the only accounts of which were delivered through the filters of men who owe most of their success to him.

Jeter was there, and so was Jackson and Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman and the new Boss, his son Hal. And all agreed that when the old man saw the ring, his eyes brightened and for a moment, a bit of the old fire seemed to return.

"He was excited, you know?" Cashman said. "He just kept staring at the ring, like a little kid. You could see the pride in his face."

"That was one of the best parts of my day, going up and giving Mr. Steinbrenner his ring," Girardi said. "I'm extremely grateful for everything he has done in my life, so it was a thrill for me to go up and give it to him and see that smile on his face."

"Usually when I meet him, I'm in trouble," Jeter joked, in a dated reference back to the 1990s, when The Boss could pull the plug on a long-term deal for him one year, criticize him for staying out too late another -- and then come back and give him an even bigger contract and joke about it all in a TV commercial.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner
AP Photo/ David CantorThis is the fiery Steinbrenner we remember from years past.

But then Jeter, who has played for Steinbrenner since he was 21 years old, turned serious. "It's always good to see him," Jeter said. "If not for him, none of us would be here. The stadium wouldn't be here. He's not around as much here as he used to be, but we know how much winning has always meant to him. It's the thing he cares about most."

Once he cared so much about winning that a game like the Yankees' 7-5 win over the Angels, a game in which George's Boys -- Jeter, Posada, Andy Pettitte and, for the closing act, Mariano Rivera -- came through once again, would have filled him with pride.

And once he was so demanding of perfection that a performance like that of David Robertson -- who allowed three straight ninth-inning singles before surrendering a grand slam to Bobby Abreu that forced Rivera to work on what should have been a day off -- would have had the young reliever on the next train to Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, or in The Boss' heyday, to Columbus.

But who knows what George M. Steinbrenner III really cares about anymore? He is no longer that Boss and those are no longer those Yankees.

Now, the players -- with the exception of the Core Four -- know him by reputation only, and the operation is being run by Hal, who is the epitome of the dispassionate bean counter.

Hal's the one who decided it was time to "trim" the payroll to a mere $206 million, who felt the Yankees could go on without the hefty contracts of aging stars like Hideki Matsui, last year's World Series MVP, and Johnny Damon, who did nearly as much as Matsui to win it all last year.

He is the one who refers to his father as "George," who seems to see this team for what it really is: an incredible money machine first, and a thrilling ballclub second.

"I guess I would have to call last year a success," he said before the game, which made you wonder if he was referring to wins and losses or net profits.

Still, the Steinbrenner gene lurks somewhere in his DNA. "There's always a desire to win here," he said. "It's just the household we were brought up in."

It was Hal who ushered in the small pregame delegation that bestowed upon The Boss the first championship ring that any Yankee received Tuesday.

"He was almost speechless," Hal said, and speechless is the operative word these days when it comes to George Steinbrenner. He has not given a formal interview since he spoke with ESPN New York's Ian O'Connor between Games 2 and 3 of the 2007 American League Division Series, right after the Night of the Midges in Cleveland. In that interview, The Boss warned Joe Torre, his manager at the time, that a loss to the Indians would mean the loss of his job.

Two days later, the Yankees were out of October, and 10 days after that, Torre was out of the manager's office.

Since then, the mouth that roared has gone quiet. Now, when The Boss enters or leaves Yankee Stadium it is under cover of security. After one game last season, the Yankees actually locked a stairwell filled with people to keep anyone from witnessing Steinbrenner's exit.

In recent years, we were left to rely upon the accounts of others that The Boss was still in command, still demanding perfection, still a force to be reckoned with and feared.

But now, nobody is pretending anything of the sort. Nor could the truth be hidden when the image of Steinbrenner, looking bloated and frail, appeared on the giant video screen in center field Tuesday, his wife Joan at his side, gently nudging his arm in an attempt to get him to acknowledge the camera.

Jeter, who would be the next batter to hit, took an extra moment before stepping into the batter's box. As he said after the game, "I wanted everyone to recognize him."

Then Jeter stepped in and clubbed an Ervin Santana fastball into the right-field seats.

For a moment, it was 1996 all over again, or 1998 or 1999 or 2000. On the scoreboard, the Yankees were winning, and in our memories The Boss was roaring once again, the crowd at Elaine's waiting to give him one more round of applause.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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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