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Sports Then and Now

George Steinbrenner Dead at Age 80

Posted on July 13, 2010 by Don Spieles

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.
And so it is with…

George Steinbrenner passed away on Tuesday morning in Tampa, Florida, after suffering a massive heart attack, ESPN is reporting. The bombastic and often boorish owner of the New York Yankees had recently turned the reins of the franchise over to his sons and had been in failing health the last few years, preventing him from making more than a few appearances at Yankee Stadium.

Steinbrenner passes away with the true love and admiration of the Yankee fan base. It must be said, in all fairness, that George Steinbrenner did everything within his power to make the Yankees winners during his tenure. No other owner in any sport has exhibited the fervor, an almost psychotic obsession with excellence, much less delivered on the premise. He took perhaps the most famous franchise in sports history and actually made it exponentially bigger and better. His $10 million investment in 1973 is now worth over $1.3 billion!

2 May 1997: New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner watches pensively at the 123rd Kentucky Derky at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

"The Boss", circa 1997.

As with so many great leaders of men, Steinbrenner’s success was not without its negative side. When you mention “The New York Yankees”, people think domination, 27 World Series titles, dynasties, and pinstripes. On the other hand, when you say “George Steinbrenner”, most people conjure up very different images. Public rants and fights with managers. Involvement with shady business characters. There were suspensions by the league and, most prevalent in the memories of baseball fans, it was George Steinbrenner who ushered in free agency, turning baseball into something very different than it had been up to that point.

Free agency and the era of the ego that it brought with it have not been a bolstering force to Major League Baseball. More accurately, the increase in payrolls have been detrimental to the game, almost serving as its death knell in the mid nineties. Free agency has also been the driving force behind steroid use in baseball. Players have always sought fame and records, but the chance of gaining the astronomical paydays that Steinbrenner initiated were much more incentive to enhance themselves.

In a relationship that seemed more like something out of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Steinbrenner soon came to battle is own monster of free agency. One of his first acquisitions, Reggie Jackson, while helping the franchise win, also showed that Steinbrenner was not necessarily the center of the Yankee universe, calling much attention to his big bat and bigger mouth. Steinbrenner went on to have prolonged and public battles with other free agents, most memorably Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, the latter of which got him banned from baseball for a short time. Then baseball commissioner Faye Vincent issued the ban based on evidence that Steinbrenner had hired some shady gambling associates to “investigate” Winfield in the hopes of ruining his reputation.

In his tenure, Steinbrenner improved not only the Yankees, but also forced their American League competition to try and keep up. Some have, some have not, but the American League, as a whole, is better than it was. Through the 60’s and 70’s, the AL won a total of two All Star games. Since 1980, shortly after the dawn of free agency, the National League has won only seven Mid-Summer Classics, including the current AL run that has denied the NL a win since 1996.

Steinbrenner was front and center in the late 90’s when the Yankees came back into domination reminiscent of their bygone eras. With a bevvy of stars and with a bevvy of dollars, Steinbrenner brought the Yankees four more titles. In the last decade, his role with the team had slowly diminished as his health had become more of an issue. His son hank, the new face of Yankee ownership, does seem to carry his father’s “Richie Rich” mentality of team building, but so far exhibits none of the thirst for notoriety or zest for controversy that dear old dad had.

With the passing of George Steinbrenner a shadow will be cast over tonight’s All Star Game, and perhaps rightly so. For as many “all stars”, George Steinbrenner both shone brightly on and, at the same time darkened, the game of baseball.

In truth, jokes that compare the  man to Caesar only work for one reason:  Steinbrenner was baseball’s Caesar.

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner sits with an unidentified woman as he watches the Yankees home opening MLB American League baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Yankee Stadium in New York April 13, 2010.  REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

New York Yankees owner Steinbrenner watches Yankees 2010 home opening game against Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in New York

Don Spieles covers Major League Baseball for Sports Then and Now.

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