For George Steinbrenner, there is nothing sweeter in this world than proving, at least on his own one-track terms, that he was right all along.
That's why the New York Yankees' owner--the ringmaster of baseball's greatest, and some say most gauche, show on earth--is so delighted these days. He has so many lions jumping through so many flaming hoops; he's daringly putting his head in so many tigers' mouths; he's riding so many elephants bareback, and doing it all simultaneously, that he's giddy over the results.
"I don't mind being taken apart," he said this week, "but give me credit when it's due."
One day, he's trading for John Mayberry or Butch Wynegar or Roy Smalley. The next, he's calling up 250-pound slugger Steve (Bye Bye) Balboni. When he isn't firing his manager, then he's trading off every AAA pitching prospect in his organization. Due to deals and injuries, only 12 of the 25 players who were in pinstripes in the last World Series are now on the active roster.
The boss' guerrilla warfare with his millionaire hired help never stops. When a disgruntled player, Dave Revering, says, "If you want to get off this team, you have to take a number," Steinbrenner trades him to Canada. Oscar Gamble and Bucky Dent are on the current doghouse hit list. In today's installment, Steinbrenner was sued by The David M. Winfield Foundation for $2.8 million; the charity claims the owner has defaulted on his agreement to pay $3 million to the foundation over the 10-year length of Winfield's Yankee contract.
When Steinbrenner isn't attempting to buy an NHL franchise and move it 2,000 miles, then he's trying to swing the biggest cable TV deal in baseball history. When he isn't pulling strings behind the scenes in baseball's "Will Bowie Stay Commissioner?" power play, then he's knee-deep in the back-room politics of the game's new revenue-sharing revolution. George III is in hubris heaven.
In a way, it's his answer to the 35,458 in Yankee Stadium who chanted an obscenity at him last month.
On one hand, he says, "It didn't bother me. I've heard 'em chant the same thing at Reggie (Jackson) until you wanted to cry for him. And, the next night, I heard some people yelling the same thing at Dave Winfield. You have to realize that the people come to the ballpark frustrated."
However, in the next breath, he says, perhaps more awed that upset, "It was just a big, unanimous thing that grew until it filled the park."
Curse me, will you? Then just watch.
In one ring, we have Steinbrenner the wheeler-dealer, the firer and hirer. He's never been more brazen or, probably, better. In the last three weeks, the Yankees have been involved in 16 transactions involving 25 players.
His team, despite one of the most calamitous series of injuries ever to strike a contender, has won five straight games and 11 of its last 15 to climb from last place to a winning record (20-19).
The reason for the hot streak, just when almost any other team would be decimated, is undeniable: Steinbrenner. He's probably salvaged a season. "They're doing pretty good for the second team," he crowed. "I've always said that if you wait and keep your mouth shut, things will come around right. My problem isn't the waiting. It's keeping my mouth shut."
At the moment, the entire starting New York outfield--Winfield, Ken Griffey and Jerry Mumphrey--plus the starting catcher, Rick Cerone, are on the disabled list. Two starting pitchers--Doyle Alexander and Rick Reuschel--are out indefinitely. Yet, in their places are known and competent names like Wynegar, Mayberry, Smalley, Butch Hobson and Roger Erickson.
"It looks like my (front office) people were clairvoyant with the deals we made. I'm talking about them, not me," said the owner, talking about himself. "When you have a chance to make a good trade, do it, even if it puts two good players at the same position. You grab him, then figure out where he fits."
Already this spring, Steinbrenner has traded both his first basemen (Bob Watson and Revering), his fine reliever, Ron Davis, and the five best minor-league pitching prospects in his expensive farm system. "George must really want to sell programs," quipped Tommy John, "because even the players need 'em."
"You gotta give George credit," said Goose Gossage. "He'll do everything in his power to win. Cerone breaks his thumb and George goes out the next day and gets Wynegar, who's one of the best kids in the game. He's constantly working, and when its time to act, he doesn't freeze at the switch like some owners.
"In the winter, I go to Colorado and I'm out of touch. Every year, I come to spring training and look at the names above the lockers and say, 'When did we get that dude. He can play.' There's always somebody new that I didn't even hear about. I just go over and say, 'Damn, it's nice to have you.' "
This is the same Gossage who, a month ago, said, "I don't know if we have a plan or too many plans, but they're not worth a damn. It's chaos."
"You gotta realize," clarified Gossage, "that you can love George and then hate him in the next breath. And, at times, you do hate him."
While this Steinbrenner firestorm of personnel terminology--"acquired, recalled, activated, transferred, optioned, designated for assignment, purchased and replaced"--has been lighting up the sky, Steinbrenner also has been busy elsewhere.
When he hasn't been dickering to buy the NHL Denver franchise to move to the Meadowlands, he's been moving into the final stages of his dream-of-a-lifetime cable-TV deal.
"The negotiations are doing well. It's not as big as the rumors say, but it's big. We're giving it long, serious thought and we're getting fairly close to a decision," Steinbrenner said of a deal that those "rumors" place at a staggering $100 million for 100 games a year for 10 years.
When and if Steinbrenner ties the last legal bow on this bonanza, it's going to make his annual player payroll of nearly $10 million look downright upright. In fact, he may come close to paying his rich players out of cable cash before he ever sells a ticket.
"There's no truth to reports I was considering selling the Yankees. That got started because people we were negotiating with (over a cable deal) said they'd be willing to buy half the team if that would help close the deal."
Finally, in his third ring, Steinbrenner is cracking the whip in the game's other current affairs, especially the Restructuring Committee that is, in essence, trying to decide how power will be apportioned within the game and who will have it. Steinbrenner has a finger on every scale, tipping it his way.
"I find it humorous that the strongest anti-Kuhn voice during the strike was Edward Bennett Williams, but now they're buddy-buddy," said Steinbrenner of the Baltimore Orioles' owner who has often been his uneasy ally of convenience. "Williams was always telling me, 'We cannot be deterred from our course (of opposition to Kuhn),' " said Steinbrenner.
"Now, they've put Williams on the Executive Committee and (fellow critic) Eddie Chiles (of Texas) on the PRC and they're not saying much. I don't understand it . . . (laugh) . . . yes, I do understand it . . . Those egos are being fed. Well, they will not buy George Steinbrenner with a position."
What really worries Steinbrenner is Williams' NFL-style revenue-sharing ideas; he fears Williams has agreed to support Kuhn as commissioner if Kuhn leans toward revenue sharing.
"Bowie shouldn't be making deals over the commissionership," Steinbrenner said, not making a specific charge, but certainly opening the question.
"I feel sorry for the new club owners, like the Phillies and Cubs, who paid $33 million, obviously looking at the potential of their cable-TV markets down the road. Now, owners who paid $8 to $12 million, largely because their markets didn't have comparable potential, want a share of all of the cable money."
For his part, Steinbrenner has informally proposed a revenue-sharing structure where "the top eight teams would help the bottom eight. It would be constantly reviewed each year or so as to who are the top and who are the bottom. I acknowledge that Seattle needs my help, but I don't believe, at this juncture, that Milwaukee does."
If Steinbrenner is, indeed, a ringmaster, then he is one who senses he must keep pivoting quickly, always keeping an eye on the lions perched on stools around him. With these Yankees, he has traded his youth movement for competent, but limited, veterans.
All his baseball prosperity hinges on keeping New York's eye focused on his melodramatic circus, not wandering toward that improving big top at Shea Stadium. They won't even show a Mets game in the bar at the Yankees' press room.
Steinbrenner is so concerned about his employes' increasing trepidation at crossing him that, in important organization meetings, he says, "I never tell them what I think and I don't vote until the end. I fear too many 'yes men.' "
The Yankee boss has, in his nine years in baseball, created a rich, powerful and envied world around himself. However, he has, along the way, severed or severely weakened almost every personal bond within his own organization.
The Yankees' logo long has been a high-hat and cane. For ringmaster George perhaps that should be changed to a top hat and a circus whip. Steinbrenner has his power and his glory, yet he remains painfully alone and, increasingly, vulnerable in his center ring.