"Winning is next to breathing. That's what made this country great. I believe in the American way, and that way is to strive to succeed. America needs heroes . . . I'm not the kind of guy people are going to love, but neither was George Patton. Heroes are not necessarily nice guys." -- George Steinbrenner on himself, Parade Magazine, 1980
"Some teams are under the gun. We're under the thumb." -- Graig Nettles, New York Yankees
NEW YORK, Sept. 9 -- Sometimes the fossil of a prehistoric fish is discovered in mint condition because the creature, eons ago, ran aground in a shallow backwater where it was perfectly preserved by the mud that trapped it.
Such may prove to be the case, ages hence, with George Steinbrenner III.
Social historians of a future time may gasp with pleasure and say, "Here we have the perfect example of the American capitalist who sincerely saw himself as a romantic hero."
The species was common in the 19th century. Now, perhaps, only throwbacks remain. However, by luck, one parody of the type is trapped in the tidepool of baseball and, thus, preserved intact for viewing. Steinbrenner is a medium-sized fish from the deep, hidden ocean of industry and politics who has beached himself on baseball's shore.
Normally, the inner workings of commerce, and the cast of mind that flourishes there, seldom are allowed on full public view. Steinbrenner is the glorious exception. This pudgy multimillionaire, proud to be a caricature of a marketplace man, has graciously let us to watch him for eight years as he has run the New York Yankees as though they were Ewing Oil.
Seen against the wide and various world, Steinbrenner is a corporal of industry who ships grain on the Great Lakes, owns a sliver of Tampa, feeds some thoroughbred hayburners and has friends in politics. However, as Steinbrenner says, "No one pays attention to a shipbuilder." What makes Steinbrenner famous is his toy: the Yankee club he calls as the "best-known sports team in the world."
In bossing the Yanks, Steinbrenner takes enormous pride in going public with the methods that he has applied to all his other enterprises and which, in effect, are tantamount to his world view.
This week's Yankee episode -- with Manager Gene Michael fired and replaced by seat-warmer Bob Lemon, who probably will be replaced by unemployed Dick Williams -- has shown Steinbrenner in textbook form. The owner, referred to by the Yankees as "The Fat Man" -- Sidney Greenstreet style -- never is more himself than when in the throes of a fit of firing and hiring.
The first principle of Steinbrenner's actions is that the only foolproof method of dealing with humans is to apply a basic carrot-and-stick approach.
Steinbrenner rewards with wealth and fame and flattery and unexpected generosities; to the ideal employe who is in genuine trouble -- like Tommy John, whose 2-year-old son is just recovering from a serious fall -- Steinbrenner strains himself to be an all-powerful surrogate father. "George couldn't have been better to us," gushes honest John.
Correspondingly, Steinbrenner punishes with public humiliation, psychological manipulation, economic intimidation and dismissal.
When evaluating a person, he asks: What is this man's price? How do I reach him and control him? Should he be bought, threatened or stroked?
Steinbrenner's latest unequal victory has been over Reggie Jackson, whom he has tied in knots with mind games for six months during Jackson's option year.
In spring training, he tempted Jackson with hints of a long-term corporate position in his miniempire. Then, when Jackson bragged about it, Steinbrenner withdrew the carrot and made Jackson look like a child playing in water over his head. The pair have jousted all season as Jackson has slumped miserably.
The final symbolic act of Jackson's defeat was his acceptance of the humiliation of undergoing an eight-hour physical exam that Steinbrenner demanded, as though Jackson were a prize milk cow gone sour.
Once Jackson had swallowed his pride, Steinbrenner, of course, embraced him.
"I'm hitting again because I had a talk with my father, with the man upstairs (Steinbrenner) and with the man WAY upstairs (Jackson's deity)," said Jackson. "George had some things to say that really helped . . . helped relieve some problems I've been having for several months . . . I can't talk about certain things, but maybe if you really listen, you'll hear what I'm saying . . . Some things are straightened out . . . I'm playin' hard again, ain't I ?"
Perhaps this means progress has been made in contract arm-wrestling. Or maybe it has to do with phases of the moon. Who knows, or cares? The nub is that Jackson appears gagged and can't even discuss his own business.
The obedient servant, the company man, the good soldier never is forgotten, be he Lemon or Billy Martin -- both rehired as managers -- or Dick Howser and Gene Michael -- both of whom remain polite in hopes of future considerations. For example, even Michael's postfiring "statement in my own defense" was tame stuff, disseminated on official Yankee stationary, and, by Michael's own account, "approved by George."
He who can take a kick in the pants from Steinbrenner and say how good it felt, has a credit to his account as negotiable as gilt-edged securities.
When Steinbrenner says, "I care about Billy (Martin) . . . I care about Reggie," he is sincere. Any employe who is involved with Steinbrenner who has been knocked down, he will help up. However, once the employe starts to stand tall, he'll get knocked down again.
An irony, to say the least, is that Steinbrenner is attracted to spit-in-your-eye "stand-up guys" like Martin and Williams (whom he tried to hire away from Oakland in 1975). That is, except when they stand up to him.
The one absolute way to get fired by Steinbrenner is to deal with him as an equal rather than as the boss. Last fall, Dick Howser refused to let Steinbrenner use his coaching staff as an always-available stable of scapegoats. Howser stood up, defended his coaches, and was fired for it. Just days ago, Michael got fed up and held a defiant fire-me-or-shut-up press conference.
You don't step on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind and you don't tell George Steinbrenner that you're your own man.
Asked this week why he and Steinbrenner get along well, Lemon said, with perhaps more clinical accuracy than he intended, "Because I have no ego."
Above all, Steinbrenner always wants to hold the final, and highest, trump card over all those under him. Not just the power to hire and fire, but the capacity to control.
"The sweetest words to George are, 'Yes, boss,' " said third baseman Graig Nettles, the one Yankee who has maintained a sardonic, moderately insubordinate, shop steward-type relationship with the owner. Nettles' badge of pride in the Yankee clubhouse is a T-shirt with his Yankee nickname on it: "Fido."
"That," he says with a grin, "is 'cause I'm always in George's doghouse."
In a strange sense, the Yankees are a team of athletic wild horses all of whom Steinbrenner has ridden and broken to his rein. "When you buck George, you're gone," said pitcher Rudy May simply. "You have to go along with company policy or, like Stick (Michael), you'll end up in Jersey on a golf course (fired) . . . I'm just thankful I'm not managing this team.
"I agree with (center fielder) Jerry Mumphrey. When he heard that Stick had been fired after winning the first half and being over .500 in the second half, he said, 'Man, it's ROUGH around here, Jack. You can win and still be gone. This man (Steinbrenner) is TOUGH.' "
Few words could please Steinbrenner more. As much as anything, this ex-assistant coach of an 0-8-1 college football team wants to be seen by rough and tough men as being even rougher and tougher.
May tells a revealing anecdote about Steinbrenner and the many edges of this tough-guy code.
In the 1980 spring training, May saw a little boy, who was shagging balls in the outfield amidst the big leaguers, miss a fly, then ignore it as it rolled to the fence.
"Go get that ball," screamed May in mock fury. "Hustle, kid. Now throw it all the way back in to the infield . . . I don't ever want to see you do that again."
Then, May noticed Steinbrenner glaring at the scene from the box seats.
"Whose kid is that?" the suddenly worried May asked a coach.
"Steinbrenner's," was the answer.
"Ohhhh, I've messed up now," said May.
The next day, May met Steinbrenner and said, "Boss, I know you're mad at me. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be screamin' at your son. All I can say is that I'd have done the same thing if it had been my own son."
"No problem. That's good for him," May recalls Steinbrenner saying. "If you catch him doing that again, you do the same thing."
And would May do it again?
"I don't think so," said May. "Once is enough."