So long, sul­tan of swag­ger

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Big Ge­orge Stein­bren­ner could be hard on his em­ploy­ees, es­pe­cially lit­tle Ge­orge Costanza. In the hi­lar­i­ous fic­tional Yan­kees world de­picted on “Se­in­feld,” Stein­bren­ner once had Costanza hauled off to a mental in­sti­tu­tion.

The Yan­kees owner tes­ti­fied in court that Costanza was a com­mu­nist — “as pink as they come, like a big juicy steak.”

The mer­cu­rial bil­lion­aire made poor Costanza fetch egg­plant cal­zones and lis­ten to para­noid rants, in­clud­ing one about Babe Ruth: “Noth­ing more than a fat old man with lit­tle girl legs. And here’s some­thing I just found out re­cently: He wasn’t re­ally a sul­tan!”

The Stein­bren­ner dop­pel­ganger, shown only from be­hind and voiced by the bril­liant “Se­in­feld” co-cre­ator and Yan­kees fan, Larry David, even scalped his own tick­ets.

“Who else could be a mem­o­rable char­ac­ter on a tele­vi­sion show with­out ac­tu­ally ap­pear­ing on the show?” Jerry Se­in­feld told the OnTheRed Car­pet blog af­ter hear­ing that the larger-than-life Stein­bren­ner had died of a heart at­tack on the day of the All-Star Game.

But how did the Yan­kees owner feel about Big Stein, his odd­ball yet fi­nally lov­able car­i­ca­ture in “Se­in­feld”?

My friend David Suss­man called “The Boss” his boss for eight years, work­ing as the Yan­kees’ gen­eral coun­sel and for the last five of those, as the team’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer. He shared the in­side base­ball on Stein­bren­ner’s re­la­tion­ship with “Se­in­feld,” which was, nat­u­rally, odd­ball yet fi­nally love­able.

In the mid-’90s, NBC con­tacted Suss­man to ask Stein­bren­ner to do a cameo on an episode and to get his per­mis­sion to use a Yan­kees pen­nant on the wall of Jerry’s apart­ment. The Boss con­sid­ered the part de­mean­ing and re­fused ei­ther to ap­pear — “Why would I do that?” he snapped — or to al­low the pen­nant to be used.

When the show aired a few days later with the pen­nant on Jerry’s wall, Stein­bren­ner didn’t say any­thing.

A year later, Se­in­feld came back with a mi­nor request, Suss­man re­called. The star wanted per­mis­sion to use a Yan­kees uni­form in an episode where Ge­orge Costanza de­cides to switch the uni­form from polyester to cot­ton — a dis­as­ter once the cot­ton shrinks.

Se­in­feld had al­ready ar­ranged for Yan­kees right-fielder Danny Tartab­ull and man­ager Buck Showal­ter to ap­pear on the show.

Suss­man told him that, given the ear­lier script and the unau­tho­rized use of the pen­nant, Stein­bren­ner would never agree.

Se­in­feld apol­o­gized pro­fusely to Suss­man and asked for an­other chance. Couldn’t the lawyer just show The Boss the script?

Se­in­feld faxed it over to Suss­man with the usual Hollywood cover note end­ing “Your friend, Jerry.”

At the end of a long day of busi­ness meet­ings in Tampa, Fla., Suss­man told Stein­bren­ner about Se­in­feld’s request.

“Didn’t they screw us last time?” barked The Boss, whose role model was Ge­orge Pat­ton.

Suss­man con­veyed Se­in­feld’s apol­ogy and told Stein­bren­ner that “this is an in­nocu­ous script that doesn’t in­volve you. Some of the play­ers and Buck are ap­pear­ing on the show.”

The owner re­torted, “I’ll be the judge of that. Let me see the script.”

Notic­ing the sign-off on the cover let­ter, Stein­bren­ner, sen­si­tive even to imag­ined breaches of loy­alty, nee­dled his lawyer: “Oh, I can see you and JERRY are be­com­ing close friends.”

Af­ter read­ing less than a page, Stein­bren­ner an­grily threw down the script. “I thought you said this doesn’t in­volve me?” he bel­lowed.

Suss­man tried over and over to re­as­sure him that this script in­volved no cameo for the owner.

“Then,” Stein­bren­ner de­manded, “what are all of these ref­er­ences to ‘Ge­orge’ in the script?”

Suss­man was stunned but tried to ex­plain: “‘Ge­orge’ is Ge­orge Costanza. He is a char­ac­ter on the show. He is a friend of Se­in­feld’s and he plays the role of one of your em­ploy­ees.”

Stein­bren­ner acted in­cred­u­lous, in­ton­ing: “I thought you were smarter than that. Don’t you see? This is how they are try­ing to get at me. They have named their char­ac­ter af­ter me.”

All at­tempts to tell him that the “Ge­orge” char­ac­ter had been on the show since it started were brushed aside.

“Here’s what we do,” Stein­bren­ner de­clared. “Call your FRIEND Jerry back and tell him he has Mr. Stein­bren­ner’s per­mis­sion to use the Yan­kees uni­form but on one con­di­tion: He changes the name of the Costanza char­ac­ter. In fact, have him name this char­ac­ter af­ter you, David.”

Suss­man con­veyed the good news/bad news mes­sage to Se­in­feld, who was un­der­stand­ably be­fud­dled. The Boss de­clined to re­turn Jerry’s phone calls to Tampa.

The fol­low­ing Fri­day, Stein­bren­ner called Suss­man to dis­cuss busi­ness, and then seem­ingly ca­su­ally noted: “Oh yes, that request from your friend Jerry Se­in­feld. I watched that ‘Se­in­feld’ show last night. It is a re­ally funny show. And the Ge­orge char­ac­ter is great. So you tell your friend Jerry he has my per­mis­sion.”

And that’s how Ge­orge and Ge­orge co­ex­isted hap­pily ever af­ter.

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