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George Steinbrenner: Yankees owner was full of bravado and bluster

Yankees owner who rebuilt the team into a sports empire with a mix of bluster and big bucks died of a heart attack July 13, 2010.

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By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

ANAHEIM, CALIF. Whenever you heard the latest news about the Boss, you always thought the same thing, "Oh, even he wouldn't do that." Then you realized: "Yes, he would. And it'll probably work."

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So, we should just accept the fact that the death of George Steinbrenner III on the morning of the All-Star Game, so soon after his 80th birthday on the Fourth of July, is the appropriate and perhaps the only sufficiently extravagant sendoff for such a man. This is exactly the ideal over-the-top farewell for a man who loved nothing better than to upstage his entire sport and steal every iota of attention for himself and his team.

The site of this All-Star Game may be at the home of the Anaheim Angels of Los Angeles but Steinbrenner made sure that it was held in a New York state of mind. Even the National League's 3-1 win, its first victory since '96, lost the back-page war that George loved so much.

That one of seven Yankees in this game, pitcher Phil Hughes, was charged with the loss, while the lone Washington player in the game, Matt Capps, was the winner, will simply become mid-summer minutia, not a "Damn Yankees" installment.

Still, come October, if his team, with the best record in the sport, should be in the World Series, it will be noted that a club chocked with his payroll couldn't win-one-for-the-Boss. To a man as superstitious about baseball and as drenched in sport-as-life as Steinbrenner, no omen was ever too small.

When you're the most famous, and often infamous, owner in the history of American sports, you deserve a gathering of the clans to send you off with proper honors. Even though, let's face it, this is the fourth time that George has managed to turn a huge celebratory event into a homage in the last 24 months.

Two years ago at old Yankee Stadium, the entire All-Star Game was practically dedicated to Steinbrenner's memory. His health was bad enough that he could only be driven around the field and he said nothing publicly. But everybody who wanted to offer a valediction, a revised, updated and probably more generous evaluation of his life and Yankees work, had the chance.

Then, last spring, when the new Yankees Stadium opened, once again all of baseball got to shake its head in disbelief. No stadium could possibly be that expensive, that showy and still be a success. It would be a $2 billion horror, a desecration of the old Big Ballpark across the street and a symbol of how the rich-get-richer culture that the Boss embodied could spend until they burst even in the midst of the Great Recession.

But the new park wasn't a failure. It was better than either the original House That Ruth Built, with its obstructed-view columns, or the massively refurbished, but less magisterial park that opened three years after Steinbrenner gained control of the team in 1973. You walked through it, if you were a baseball lover, and thought, "I'm glad George lived to see this."

Finally, at last year's World Series, a Yankees team that was paid more money than any club in history, a collection that made an absolute travesty of the concept of fair competition, beat the Phillies for its 27th world championship to inaugurate the new park.

A pinstripe bunch that was the apotheosis of everything the word "Steinbrenner" had come to mean -- not just in baseball, but all over the country and much of the world -- was back on top after nine years of pratfalls, comeuppances and gloriously embarrassing take-that-George moments in one postseason after another.

Relief pitcher Joba Chamberlain ran around the field waving a huge flag, then stopped behind home plate and waved the talisman of victory over his head, time after time, in the direction of the owner's box. The Boss wasn't up to being there that night, which tells you everything about his health; but, once again, every generous word that could be dragged out of every Yankee-hating, Steinbrenner-respecting fan was summoned by that moment.

Once again, the sport, even the Boston chapter, grudgingly saluted the man who understood that baseball wasn't really baseball unless the Yankees were at the top of it -- or, better yet -- close enough to the top to win or else provide the eventual victor with its Ultimate Opponent.

You figured George couldn't top that. In 16 months, he'd had three huge celebrations of himself and his 37 years of commanding a reborn Yankees dynasty and he'd been able to watch it, feel it and share it with his sons who now ran the team.

But never underestimate George Steinbrenner III. The Boss always knew that the only good excess was wretched excess. If you owned the Yankees, then you were automatically cast as a villain in baseball's play, so why not play the role to the hilt.

Summon all that bravado and bluster that came so naturally.

Why those words -- bravado and bluster -- became so closely associated with him that you wouldn't have been surprised if he'd changed his monogram to read "G.B.B.S. III."

Then, as the decades passed, all that overbearing irony-free vanity and often-gross appetite from the '70s and '80s was mixed -- not often, but enough -- with a wink that hinted at self-awareness and even self-deprecation. See, George gets the joke.

Or were those stints on "Saturday Night Live", the running gags on "Seinfeld" and the commercials from Billy Martin to Derek Jeter, really something else: the evolution of Yankees branding. Gotta freshen up the product, change the spin.

My Steinbrenner will, I'm delighted to say, never be the semi-avuncular remake that recent fans and players know. I came on the beat just as he made his bones; I saw the original up close, the glorious shameless caricature. God, he was fun. We all argued and laughed with him countless times. If you worked for him, you were his slave. But if you could take him in public, he loved the tussle.

George would always take your call because he never wanted to miss the action. There couldn't be a labor-management war without him in the middle of it, playing power broker. A commissioner couldn't get overthrown, like Bowie Kuhn, without him being aware of the coup. Some of his players who hated him the most were those I liked the best. Yet, today, some of them work for him, adore him and would never believe the names they called him then.

Generous as he always was when he felt sentimental, guilty or patriotic, and downright soaked in charity and concern for former Yankees as he became in the last 15 years, he still owes me money.

We had an annual football bet since our schools had the oldest running collegiate rivalry. By tradition, when I lost, I paid. When George lost, he forgot. Like almost everyone in baseball, I got the short end of the deal from George. And ended up the better for it.


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