Sometime this winter, when the World Series has faded from memory, Bob Lemon, the manager of the New York Yankees, should do us all a favor and quietly take aside his employer, George Steinbrenner, and tell him about baseball. That is, tell him about life.
Lemon, who is 61 and for five years a member of the Hall of Fame, is a man becalmed by appreciating baseball's sedative powers. It is a sleepy game. It is organized horsing around. It was not designed as a mortification of the flesh, which means that the cries of pain that Steinbrenner is ever emitting when his players or managers don't win are expressions of empty tension.
Lemon needs to repeat to Steinbrenner his memorable comment when he was managing the Yankees during his first stint from July 1978 to June 1979. Lemon at that time had one major win, a World Series, and one major loss, a 26-year-old son killed in an automobile crash.
"I've had a hell of a life," Lemon said. "I've never looked back and regretted anything. I've had everything in baseball a man could ask for. I've been so fortunate. Outside of my boy getting killed. That really puts it in perspective. So you don't win the pennant. You don't win the World Series. Who gives a damn? Twenty years from now, who'll give a damn?"
Who'll much care in even 20 days? That is the essence of Steinbrenner's offensiveness. He can't tell the difference between the playful incivility of a pitcher trying to strike out a batter and the unplayful crudeness of berating his players when they make mistakes. For Steinbrenner, nothing of the carefree is to be recognized in the contest. Sports must not be sportive.
An atmosphere of vulgar combativeness is created. One day in California during the playoffs, two of Steinbrenner's players were throwing punches at each other. Another day, Steinbrenner, according to his prideful version of it, was bashing a Dodgers' fan in the mouth. The latter, happening upon the Yankee owner in an elevator, was not as admiring of the New York team as Steinbrenner apparently wished.
Obsessed with winning, Steinbrenner naturally declared himself the victor in this brawl: "I know he's missing three teeth and he's probably still looking for them," he said of the stranger. "I hit him with the right hand and he went down."
With his hand in a cast and his mind in a sling, Steinbrenner is a fan turned fanatic. He has replaced a sense of joy with a sense of power. His own, of course. He is forever justifying his abusive attacks on his managers and players with the master-slave analogy. Because he pays his people top dollar, he has a right to bark at them as the top dog. I own them, I kick them.
But it is the cowardly kick of the impostor. Steinbrenner, unlike the pacific Bob Lemon, didn't earn his way into American sports with talent. He did it with money, earned from shipbuilding. As little more than another corporate moneyman rich enough to bankroll himself into sports, Steinbrenner has been able to get spectators to watch his motions as much as the athletes'. During the World Series, television cameras would regularly pan the owner's box to catch Steinbrenner. During one losing game he was a study in controlled fury as he jotted words on a piece of paper. What's the drama? we wondered. Is he about to bully Reggie with a blistering memo?
I wish the cameramen and sportswriters had paid more attention to the other owner in this year's World Series, Peter O'Malley of the Dodgers. He is a well mannered and kindly person who islands himself far from public attention. He learned the baseball business from his father, the late Walter. O'Malley senior had a canny financial eye, but he respected his athletes as human beings and the fans as paying customers who make it all happen. The O'Malleys' graciousness to the players and spectators matches any kind of excellence the team itself reaches.
Should Bob Lemon be unable to penetrate the hubris of George Steinbrenner, Peter O'Malley is my next choice.