For all the rants, feuds and bans, ‘The Boss’ was ahead of his time

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTSBRIEFING -

Own­ing the New York Yanke e s, Ge­org e Stein­bren­ner liked to say, was a lot like own­ing the Mona Lisa. Not that he al­ways treated his team like a piece of fine art. Some of the things “The Boss” did would have wiped the smile right off the fa­mous model’s face.

This was a man who be­lit­tled play­ers, in­fu­ri­ated fel­low own­ers and drove man­agers to the depths of despair. Twice he re­ceived lengthy bans from base­ball, and many in the game would have been happy had it been for good.

Stein­bren­ner threw money at weak-armed pitch­ers and changed man­agers al­most as of­ten as he changed ties. He gave “Mr. Oc­to­ber” a stage to shine and mocked “Mr. May” when he didn’t.

Newsweek fea­tured him on its Aug. 6, 1990, cover when he was sus­pended from base­ball for more than two years as “The Most Hated Man in Base­ball.” Sports Il­lus­trated put him on its March 1, 1993, cover in his re­turn, dressed as Napoleon and pos­ing on a white horse.

“The Boss” al­ways seemed larger than life. That might be even more true now that he’s dead.

His death, fit­tingly enough, came on the day of the All-Star game, with the usual com­ple­ment of Yan­kees in the Amer­i­can League lineup. It wasn’t long be­fore friends and for­mer foes be­gan swap­ping tales of all things Ge­orge.

Most, of course, were about the le­gendary feuds and the club­house rants. The times he fired Billy Martin and the times he kept hir­ing him back.

The phan­tom punch he claimed he threw at a cou­ple of bois­ter­ous Dodgers fans at the 1981 World Se­ries.

Even the day at Yan­kee Sta­dium when fans erupted in a stand­ing ova­tion when his sus­pen­sion from base­ball was an­nounced in 1990.

His char­ac­ter be­came a reg­u­lar on the most pop­u­lar com­edy show in the coun­try. On “Se­in­feld,” the ac­tor por­tray­ing Stein­bren­ner once threat­ened to move the Yan­kees to New Jersey just to make peo­ple mad.

There’s so much ma­te­rial his obit could be turned into a book. The book could be­come a movie.

Lost in it all, though, is this: For all his blus­ter and all his blun­ders, Stein­bren­ner was al­ways a man ahead of his time.

He res­cued the pin­stripes and re­stored a once proud fran­chise to great­ness. Not afraid to spend money to make money, he changed for­ever how base­ball did busi­ness.

In the process, he prob­a­bly helped save the game it­self.

To­day’s play­ers should wor­ship at the shrine of Stein­bren­ner. He was the first to open up the check­book as free agency ex­ploded, and with each suc­ceed­ing player the con­tracts seemed to get big­ger and big­ger.

The av­er­age salary in the ma­jor leagues was just $36,566 when Stein­bren­ner par­layed a $186,000 in­vest­ment into con­trol of the Yan­kees in 1973. Ten years later it had risen to $289,194 and a decade af­ter that, play­ers were av­er­ag­ing more than $1 mil­lion a sea­son.

His fel­low own­ers thought he was mad. They couldn’t imag­ine risk­ing their in­vest­ments on high-priced em­ploy­ees and grum­bled that Stein­bren­ner was ru­in­ing the good thing they all en­joyed.

Anger soon turned to envy, though, as the Yan­kees kept win­ning and Stein­bren­ner kept re­stock­ing the fran­chise. Bal­ti­more owner Ed­ward Ben­nett Wil­liams said in 1982 that the Yan­kees had so many good play­ers they were stock­pil­ing hit­ters “like nu­clear weapons.”

For Stein­bren­ner, though, it was just good busi­ness. The mil­lions he in­vested in Reg­gie Jack­son early on helped win the Yan­kees cham­pi­onships and cre­ated a leg­end in “Mr. Oc­to­ber.” Fans re­turned to the ball­park they had de­serted in leaner years, and the team he and his part­ners bought for an $8.7 mil­lion net price would be­come a fran­chise val­ued by Forbes at $1.6 bil­lion to­day.

Sign­ing with the Yan­kees car­ried risk as well as re­ward be­cause “The Boss” ex­pected his work­ers to earn their money. Dave Win­field was such a dis­ap­point­ment that Stein­bren­ner called him “Mr. May,” dur­ing the 1985 sea­son.

Pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion was usu­ally the weapon of choice, and Stein­bren­ner wielded it sharply. Pitcher Doyle Alexan­der found that out af­ter sign­ing a four-year, $2.2 mil­lion con­tract in 1982, then get­ting hit hard al­most ev­ery time he took the mound.

Af­ter an Au­gust loss to the Tigers in which Alexan­der was shel­lacked, Stein­bren­ner is­sued this state­ment:

“Af­ter what hap­pened tonight I’m hav­ing Doyle Alexan­der flown back to New York to un­dergo a phys­i­cal. I’m afraid some of our play­ers might get hurt play­ing be­hind him.”

Still, the play­ers kept com­ing. They had no real choice. Stein­bren­ner was usu­ally first with the check­book, and his checks al­ways had more ze­roes in them than those writ­ten by other own­ers.

The team’s new home is a tow­er­ing $1.5 bil­lion mon­u­ment to Stein­bren­ner, and the Yan­kees brand is stronger than ever.

Most im­por­tant to the man driven by an in­sa­tiable will to win at all costs, though, had to be this:

On the day he died, his beloved Yan­kees were in first place.

Paul J. Bereswell news­day TIM DAHLBERG

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