The Day the Bluster Died

Dave Winfield was a great Yankee. In eight full seasons in New York, he averaged 3.25 Wins Above Replacement. He was the ultimate five-tool player, and an anchor in the middle of a lineup that veered from loaded to disastrous. If he wasn’t the best player on the team that won more games than any other franchise in the 1980s, that’s only because Don Mattingly was batting in front of him. And if he wasn’t the most beloved Yankee, that’s probably because he was black and Mattingly was white.

His owner, George M. Steinbrenner III, the man who ran a blitzkreig campaign to bring him to New York, the man who viewed him as a superior replacement to Yankees icon Reggie Jackson, did not appreciate his efforts.

After Winfield’s poor performance in the 1981 World Series and a handful of other non-clutch performances, Steinbrenner labeled him “Mr. May.” This, as one might expect, led to a full-blown and ever-intensifying feud between the Yankees owner and his well-compensated superstar.

The war culminated when Steinbrenner hired gambler Howard Spira (who was sort of the Brian McNamee of his day) to find dirt on Winfield — who was still one of the Yankees’ best players. Steinbrenner intended to leak negative stories about Winfield to the media, or use them to extort Winfield. Imagine if an incident like this happened today — if, say, Nintendo’s CEO decided that Ichiro was overpayed and underperforming, and hired a shady, underworld type to dig up dirt on him and blackmail him. Bristol, Connecticut would blow up as surely as if a hydrogen bomb were dropped on it.

The chain of events led to Steinbrenner’s banishment from baseball, which in turn led directly to the Yankees’ incredible run of success beginning in 1995. Howard Spira launched the last great baseball dynasty. Steinbrenner, and baseball, were never really the same again.

George M. Steinbrenner III claimed he fought two thuggish Dodgers fans in an elevator, defending the Yankees’ honor during the 1981 World Series. He was lying.

George M. Steinbrenner III changed managers often, and on impulse. He went through three managers during the 1982 season. He often guaranteed his managers job security and then fired them within weeks.

George M. Steinbrenner III called another one of his players, Hideki Irabu, a “fat pussy toad.”

George M. Steinbrenner III was convicted for illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign — somehow the perfect match between politician and booster. Steinbrenner would have been a great Buddy Garrity.

George M. Steinbrenner III rendered his general managers and baseball leaders impotent by constantly overruling their decisions. He traded away future stars for paragons of veteran mediocrity. He made the Yankees’ path to success a thousand times more difficult than it needed to be.

George M. Steinbrenner III developed a passive-agressive, love-hate relationship with one Billy Martin, hiring and firing the self-destructive Martin until he couldn’t anymore — because Martin died in a drunken Christmas car crash.

George M. Steinbrenner III fancied himself a cross between Patton and Vince Lombardi, and caused players to giggle behind his back with his ridiculous, fiery locker room speeches.

George M. Steinbrenner III is dead at 80, after slowly fading away from the world we all inhabit as dementia withered his brain for years. He was a ghost even before he died.

And we will never see his kind again. In a sports world where Dan Gilbert’s “shocking” letter complaining about LeBron James leaving Cleveland passes for controversy, we’ve become accustomed to homogenization and safety. Every aspect of sports is so corporate, so sponsored, so monetized, that a tyrant of Steinbrenner’s ilk won’t pass this way again.

After years of torture and abuse, Yankees fans ended up loving Steinbrenner, of course. As he saw that his lack of involvement led to championships, his presence became less ominous, less omnipresent. He mellowed. He stopped insulting his current players. Mostly.

Much of the focus after his death will be on the Yankees’ tremendous success under his watch. Some of his misdeeds, some of his insanity, some of his oppression will be glossed over. And that’s a shame, because all those incidents above, and countless more — they made him who he was, more than the money and the success and the trophies. His reign of terror will be missed even more than his willingness to pursue winning at all costs.

George M. Steinbrenner III now becomes a part of America’s storied past. He belongs to an era that no longer exists, like the Old West, P.T. Barnum and Don Draper.

Me, I’m a Yankees fan. I’ll miss having that borderline psychotic in my life. And I’ll pour a little out for him tonight.

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Filed under Sports Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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