Friday, July 16, 2010

Okay, It's Time to Put Out a Post for Steinbrenner

[[switching to first person]] Losing George Steinbrenner was like a death in the family of that powerful old grandfather that people alternatively respected and loathed at the same time. He's been a part of this Fan's life for 37 years now. There were so many times when he infuriated us and so many times he touched us as well. But Steinbrenner was a bottom line guy. That bottom line was mostly about winning. But it was also about piling up the most income in baseball too. The latter is what most people hated. But the former endeared him to Yankee fans who grew up through the awful CBS times before 1973.

I have written several times in this space about growing up in New Jersey and how my whole world as a youngster was the New York Yankees. Yeah, I try to remain neutral in this blog because I want you to commiserate with a passionate fan of baseball. I want you too to share your passion and that includes all of you with favorite teams all along this continent. Some times that actually hurts this blog as the team-centered blogs seem to have more loyal followings. But it's impossible to deny that experience of youth and those allegiances. The Yankees were it for me.

But I've also written about how that experience came at a price. For much of my childhood, the Yankees were terrible. They were absolutely miserable. Sure there were great stories, but some of them were more weird than glorious. A movie is in the works about the famous Fritz Peterson/Mike Kekich wife swap. We had a guy named Joe Pepitone (the original Broadway Joe) who could have been a great player except he was a fool by most people's standards (including his own) and threw away his career being a ladies man and a bad boy.

As is the case with most bad teams, it started at the top. The Yankees were bungled at every level. They were purchased by CBS, which had no idea what to do with the team and the President of the club was a former mayor who was pretty good at running New York City, but was way clueless when it came to running the Yankees. The team became a joke and drew less than a million fans to their seats on several occasions, which is astonishing since NYC has a tremendous population from which to draw from, not just from the city, but also from Long Island and New Jersey which in many cases were populated like NYC, but had a bunch more trees scattered about.

And then along came George Steinbrenner. Long before it was understood what good management was, we cheered because we innately understood what bad management was and that the Yankees were Exhibit A. Steinbrenner had to be better than that. And he looked impressive and imposing and dashing and we hoped he would get things going again.

Yeah, there was the Nixon thing, but anyone who believes that Steinbrenner stayed away from Yankee business during that suspension is misguided. And the results were nearly immediate. The team came in second in 1974. 1975 was a setback year, but Steinbrenner brought in Billy Martin the second half of that year and from 1976 to 1981, the team made it to the post season in five of those six years, won two World Series and appeared in two others. It was like we had died and gone to heaven. We had gone through the Horace Clarke/Gene Michael/Tom Tresh/Lindy McDaniel years and loved the team though they never had a chance to win or even compete and suddenly our favorite team was valid and feared and successful.

But there was always stuff. There was Billy Martin stuff and Yogi Berra stuff and Reggie Jackson stuff and Bob Lemon stuff and even the good years were filled with tension and cringing.

But hey, all that stuff made headlines and our Yankees, who were nobodies for so long, were headline news all the time. It was exciting even in the times when it was distressing. It was a heck of a lot better than the moribund days of 2-0 losses in bland shades of gray. Steinbrenner gave us validity and color.

But then a pattern was formed that would repeat itself. After the championships came upheaval as George couldn't keep his fingers out of the pie and kept buying players that didn't fit and the period from 1982 to the early 1990s were bad ones. The same thing happened after 2000 when the Yankees had a flood of Jeff Weavers, Robin Venturas and Rondell Whites.

Another thing happened that pissed us all off at the time was the beginnings of Yes as a network. The Yankees were always on free television. WPIX, Channel 11 showed all the games and suddenly, they were half gone with many of the games on this pay network that many of us couldn't get. That development led to the untold riches that is the Yankees today, but at the time, it sure took a lot away from most of the fans in the metro area.

So, yeah, Steinbrenner was that patriarch in the family that gave our family relevance while at the same time tickled us hard until it hurt and we couldn't breathe. Trust me, coming from an Italian family, that archetype was familiar. But he made the Yankees big again. He made them front page news all the time. He gave us championships after so many futile years. He also made us wince and shake our heads. Poor Dave Winfield and Dick Howser and Lou Piniella. But all of that was worth it because we mattered again.

We loved the Yankees when they stunk and nobody else did. We loved them when the entire infield batted .220 or lower. We loved them when you could go to the stadium cheap and wait until the fourth inning (when the ushers left) and we could get close to the dugouts and see our favorite but awful players. But after all that, George Steinbrenner gave us carbonation in our drinks. He gave us Fizzies when all we had before was Koolaid. And it sure was exhilarating.

And then toward the end, he gave us softness. He cried when the Yankees won in 1996 and 1998-2000. He was grateful and satisfied. And so were we.

I wouldn't have missed all of it for all the anger and vehemence he caused from fans across the country. He built my generation a legacy, which much like America's was a very flawed one, but it was the best show on earth.

Thanks, George, and this here Fan hopes it won't be much of a shock when those angels in that great big outfield don't jump at your command.

1 comment:

Josh Borenstein said...

An icon and a great owner for the Yankees. I feel like most owners nowadays don't even care about winning that much. It's all about the money. Steinbrenner was a polarizing figure, but he was also a memorable one.

Speaking of Joe Pepitone, I met one of his cousins, and his name was also Joe Pepitone. He told me Pepitone partied a lot and wore a wig.