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What Snyder could learn from Steinbrenner

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, November 6, 2009

NEW YORK

George Steinbrenner III needed 20 years to figure out baseball. What he finally decided was that he would never figure it out at all.

Maybe Daniel Snyder, a different person in a very different sport, can reach the same conclusion with 10 years less pain.

At least Snyder and his Redskins have one advantage over the Boss and his Yankees: Steinbrenner went to three World Series and won two of them in his first six years as an owner. That success fooled him into believing he knew what he was doing.

In 10 years in the NFL, Snyder hasn't left a ripple. So, maybe it's dawning on him, as it finally did on Steinbrenner, that you can know an enormous amount about a sport and a team that you love and yet, after years of labor, still be essentially clueless.

The Boss never stopped maintaining the appearance of control, bordering on interference. It was central to his self-image and his personality. But after a miserable eon without a World Series win from 1978 to '96 -- a period during which he went from a national caricature of the tyrannical but successful employer to a standing joke as an inept buffoon -- Steinbrenner evolved.

He would summon his staff, call his emergency meetings in Tampa and bluster in the tabloids about his displeasure. But behind the scenes, he made one crucial change: "Do it my way" became "Do it your way," always followed by the rank-preserving threat, "But you better be right."

Managers and minions were still fired from time to time. But not as often. And gradually, as his reputation within the game altered from mean-spirited egomaniac to egomaniac-with-a-heart, respected people once again ran the risk -- to their health -- of working for him.

General Manager Brian Cashman -- who was once young, honest I swear it -- always looks like he has just pulled 107 straight college-exam all-nighters. But, despite all the failures and frustrations of the Yankees from 2001 to '08, Cashman is still there, isn't he? The old Boss would have canned him, and the next couple like him, during such a dry spell. The final version of the Boss actually has a modicum of patience in a sport that requires it by the caseload.

Even when he fired Joe Torre two years ago, it took seven straight disappointing postseasons, some of them mortifying, before Steinbrenner swung his axe.

The titles won by Billy Martin and Bob Lemon in the '70s bought them nothing, except that perpetual emasculating torture that defined the Yankees -- and undermined them, too. Fire the pitching coach to see if the manager will quit, and give up the money left on his contract, out of loyalty. If he doesn't, then he loses face and authority in the clubhouse. He's barely the manager at all. Eventually, the disgrace of it will drive him out. His pride won't let him stay.

Sound like any Washington football team we know?

In the last decade, Steinbrenner had changed so much, even before his health began to fail a few years ago, that Torre, though tweaked many times, was still treated with something akin to dignity.

Once, Steinbrenner fired the same manager -- Martin -- five times. I covered them all. The dysfunction inside the Yankees then reminds me, across the board, of the current Redskins.

Trust dies. The worst people, the natural-born sycophants, attach themselves to the owner. The best and most independent people, naturally, keep their opinions to themselves. Everyone looks out for himself. Even those whom the owner thinks are loyal are rolling their eyes about him behind his back. In both organizations, I have had public relations directors tell me, "You won't believe the stories I'll tell you once I'm out of this place."

Impatience, combined with lots of money, breeds roster instability. The desire to buy your way out of your mistakes with a new free agent, rather than draft a player and wait as he develops, has been a defining mistake of the '80s Yankees and the '00s Redskins.

For years, Steinbrenner couldn't grasp that clubhouse chemistry and roster continuity went hand in hand. Yet now, after their 27th world title, what is the Yankee headline you see everywhere? One for the Thumb for the Core Four.

Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte were all drafted by the Yankees, came up through the minors together and now define the club's personality, even though store-bought stars in their prime, such as CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, produce bigger statistics.

Where is the Redskins' core? Not in Clinton Portis and Santana Moss, who still identify with the University of Miami (where they won) more than with the Redskins (where they haven't). The subtraction of Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels removed the "truest" Redskins left in the locker room. Who else, in 20 years, will turn on a Redskin game and watch because, deep down, they think, "That's my team." I can't name a single current Redskin who will. After the way he has been treated, with his exit ticket all but stamped, will Jason Campbell someday watch to see if they lose?

Yet look at the Redskins from the Gibbs I era who were drafted as Redskins and still haven't left town: Brian Mitchell and Doc Walker get angry at the current struggles of "their" team.

Perhaps Steinbrenner's biggest insight during the Yankees' 15 years without a World Series appearance was that he had a fool for a general manager. The job was ostensibly held by several men, but in reality, it was always Steinbrenner. Firing Vinny Cerrato won't matter if Snyder replaces him with another mini-me sock puppet.

The Redskins, though wealthy, will never have the financial clout -- with total domination of a sport -- that Steinbrenner's Yankees had. The last decade, with the Bronx Bombers outspending the next closest "competitor" by 50 percent, and most teams by two or three times, has been typical of the Boss's entire run. That can't happen in an NFL built on revenue-sharing and a salary cap. That makes it more important for Snyder to stop acting like a bad-imitation Boss: He's not holding the financial hand to buy the pot.

Steinbrenner didn't change so much as he grew. Pain and embarrassment were certainly catalysts. Perhaps age mellowed his mean streak, his pleasure in mortifying or demeaning those he paid. But he was also always a more entertaining, open and curious man than Snyder appears to be.

Redskins fans can hope that Snyder watched the World Series and saw Steinbrenner's sons proudly accepting the championship trophy with kind words and gratitude for their ailing dad. When Steinbrenner bought the Yankees 36 years ago, he was within a year of the age Snyder is now. Family-owned sports teams run in extremely long cycles. When they are down, the misery for their fans can seem to extend to the horizon.

But George Steinbrenner not only changed, he taught his sons the hardest lesson he ever learned: Don't think of yourself as baseball experts, micro-managers or the men who win the game.

Finally, he figured it out. He just hired smart people, left them alone as much as he could -- which was still less than he should have -- and wrote the checks.

This week, New York City praises Steinbrenner, the bully billionaire who reformed, the old man who finally got it: Less is more.

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