Monday, November 9, 2009

A Yankees' Celebration Without The Boss

As someone who covered the dynastic New York Yankees in the mid-1990s, I had to laugh at the oft-repeated comment that this year’s World Series championship is for the team’s principal owner, George Steinbrenner.

At the victory celebration at City Hall last Friday, speaker after speaker, from Mayor Bloomberg to manager Joe Girardi to captain Derek Jeter to broadcaster Suzyn Waldman, said, “This one is for The Boss.”

So all the other championships won during Steinbrenner’s reign, which began in 1973, were for somebody else?

For whom? Frank Sinatra? Team mascot Rudy Giuliani?

Every Yankees championship during the Steinbrenner Era—1977, 1978, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009—has been for The Boss.

It’s still his team. It’s still his money.

Apparently, the aforementioned speakers felt better about declaring the Yankees’ 27th World Series title as one for The Boss.

After all, George M. Steinbrenner III is 79 years old.

Steinbrenner is the Lion in Winter, no longer running the team in hands-on fashion, having ceded those responsibilities to sons Hal and Hank.

Steinbrenner is no longer the clenched face of the Yankees’ franchise.

Indeed, if an article by Franz Lidz in Portfolio magazine last year can be believed—and I believe it—Steinbrenner suffers from dementia and is not fully aware of what is happening with the franchise.

Statements issued nowadays by the Yankees in Steinbrenner’s name are actually written by the office of his publicist, Howard Rubenstein.

This lends a certain Wizard of Oz aspect to Steinbrenner’s current status.

Before the postseason, the Yankees announced Steinbrenner would attend some games at the new Yankee Stadium.

He did not.

When the Yankees received their world championship trophy on the field last Wednesday night, The Boss was neither seen nor heard.

I can only hope he knows what his team accomplished and will long enjoy the memories of the 2009 season with family and friends.

During my years as a Yankees beat writer, Steinbrenner was at his megalomaniacal best (or worst), not above big-timing me by selectively handing out choice information to reporters at larger media organizations.

On many occasions during Yankees’ spring training, when Steinbrenner was accessible, I urged him to return my phone calls during the season because my editors had become convinced that I was being outworked by competitors at other newspapers.

“Absolutely,” Steinbrenner would say. “A lot of my players live in Westchester during the season. And [manager Joe] Torre lives in Westchester, too. I’ll take care of you. Don’t worry.”

Then, a new baseball season would begin, and Steinbrenner would run his New York-based team from his adopted hometown of Tampa, and my phone calls would go largely unreturned.

Whenever people ask me what I think of Steinbrenner, I always say I would like him more if I had never met him.

That’s because a Yankee fan’s perspective would have been all I had.

Steinbrenner has always spent liberally and aggressively to assemble the best team money can buy.

His teams don’t always win, but you can’t help but appreciate a team owner who wants to win just as much as the fans.

Here is my favorite Steinbrenner story, one that gets better with age, even though the Yankees owner ended up big-timing me again:

At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where I covered boxing for Gannett News Service and USA Today, I tried to set up a one-on-one interview with Steinbrenner, then a vice president for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

I thought such an interview would not only be newsworthy, but that it would also impress the executive editor at Gannett-Westchester who had also personalized my inability to get Steinbrenner to talk to me.

Except that the executive editor’s personalization faulted me, not Steinbrenner.

I had already gone through the media liaison for USA Boxing to request a few minutes of Steinbrenner’s time that day at the boxing venue, Georgia Tech University.

Steinbrenner showed up, as scheduled, and was booed by thousands of spectators when he was introduced between rounds of a fight.

Right after Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s former trainer, was introduced to hearty cheers, Steinbrenner was roundly booed.

I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to ask a spectator from a country where baseball is not at all popular why he would boo Steinbrenner.

So I asked a young man seated several rows behind me, a member of the Mongolian boxing team.

With a wide grin, the Mongolian said, “He greedy.”


I planned to ask Steinbrenner about the Mongolian’s response—my last question, not my first—but I didn’t get the chance.

I saw Steinbrenner head for the exit during the next round. I ran after him and got his attention.

“No, I haven’t forgotten,” he said. “We’ll talk. I have to do something for NBC. But we’ll talk.”

“You’re coming back then?” I asked quickly because I had to stay to cover the fights.

“We’ll talk,” he said again before leaving.

I never saw him again during the Olympics, and I was unable to get him on the phone. A USA Boxing official told me Steinbrenner might have stayed longer if not for the booing.

Well, The Boss would have been cheered wildly in New York last week.

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