George Steinbrenner: The Man-Child Who Would Be King

Forget about all the posthumous accolades. The New York Yankees owner was no angel.

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When New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died this week at 80, there was almost an obligatory succession of respectful and apparently affectionate things said about him. With melodramatic sentimentality, the eulogizers waxed on about how old George was a hard man who knew how to get things done. A lackey who introduced the baseball tycoon at public speeches always described him in this way: ''He would have been a good king.''

Well, he might, but this American king was not seen as a benevolent Everyman who made good choices from the top. He was the kind of ruler for whom wealth and mile-high self-regard create an autocratic sense of power.

Some even said that Steinbrenner had turned New York against the franchise, which was almost impossible. New Yorkers first fell in love with the Yankees about 90 years ago when Babe Ruth ascended to the three dimensions of a home run sultan of swat. Ruth swatted so many over the fence even the impoverished could get a spark from watching outside the field. People came out in such numbers the old Yankee Stadium was built to hold them and was called ''the house that Ruth built.'' But Steinbrenner proved so irritating that fans felt they were marks being hustled any time they attended a Yankee game. He may have been the first owner to make himself into box-office poison. Or so it seemed.

The dislike began when Steinbrenner started to show his devil's horns in public. In 1973, when the New York Yankees' legend had become more myth than reality, the team's value had descended so far that it was possible to buy the franchise for about $8.8 million. Which our rich shipbuilder from the landlocked city of Cleveland did. Steinbrenner put the cash on the barrel head and soon began to disappoint fans and players the way that rich people often do if their personal needs exceed any of vows of eternal good behavior.

Steinbrenner was incapable of keeping his promise to not meddle with how the team was run, managed and coached. Before long, with the confidence of one who does not know but still sits on an immovable pot of gold, Steinbrenner built a ship of baseball shot through with leaks created by dumb decisions. He came in with a big bang and helped take to new heights--or fresh, lower levels--an abominably ruthless sense of self-importance and narcissism.

Steinbrenner's brain seems to have been rattled by the nearly guaranteed willingness of most to grovel before wealth. Whether he knew or did not know was less important than if he could put his money where his mouth was. Steinbrenner came into his own when free agents were able to put their personal interest above that of any club. Money became more powerful than ever and many thought, perhaps naively, that something went out of the game the moment players were liberated from a sense of team loyalty that was never exactly even. It was always bought and paid for.

Players saw things differently. Professional players of boys' games had long known that they were only as important as the quality of their work, and could be dropped or traded once their skills began to diminish. This had been true for Babe Ruth and all who pitched, fielded and hit. Now the golden age was over and the shoes had changed feet. The once inarguable power of the owners could melt from a fancy ice sculpture to a cold puddle of water if they were not able to meet the asking price of a formidable player who had met his contractual obligations. Like Oliver Twist multiplied, they became boys who wanted more.

Steinbrenner seemed to have been made for this new moment in baseball. Steinbrenner heard them when they said, ''Show me the money,'' but his full reply went beyond large guarantees. This owner expected pennant flags and championship rings. If he did not get them, there was little doubt that managers, coaches and players might be done away with or suddenly rehired from the oblivion imposed by his dissatisfaction. He did this with a manic level of confidence.

So if Streinbrenner was any kind of a king, he was a hustling warrior. But his supposedly ''iconic'' reputation has much to do with the fact that this was the classic American man-child incapable of growing up and never less than confident in the vitality of his perpetual adolescence. Boy George wanted to build two edifices: one in recognition of his prominence and the other a ball team that could compete with its own legend.

But this meant winning games--something that the Yankees didn't do very well. No team does because it is so damnably difficult. Daniel Okrent says that baseball is a perfect game because, unaided by performance-enhancing drugs, it is no easier to get to first base three out of 10 times than it has ever been. But Boy George once called Dave Mattingly the most unproductive .300 hitter he had ever seen. At such times, the boss seemed to know no more about baseball than those at the extremes of hip-hop know about music.

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