Years from now, how will we view the New York Yankees of the George Steinbrenner period? We've been watching this act now for 10 years. What do we really make of it?

First, we must acknowledge that a significant factor in baseball's increased national popularity, starting in 1975 and reaching its peak before the strike of 1981, was the rejuvenation of the Yankees by Steinbrenner.

From 1920, when baseball truly began to grow, until the mid-'60s, when it began to lose some favor and flavor, the Yanks won 29 pennants in 44 years. They were the pin-stripe protagonists around whom every season revolved.

Shipbuilder Steinbrenner bought a team that, over the previous eight years, had lost more games than it won, and which had to pay $125,000 to have its games on radio in 1973. Now, Steinbrenner is working on a cable-TV deal that may be worth nearly $100 million over the next decade.

By '74, the Yankees were in second place and, ever since, have been near the center of the sport's consciousness, winning the AL East in five of the last six years. Just as Steinbrenner began to feel confident in his new baseball waters, along came free agency. It suited him fine.

Always proud of his freewheeling style, he used all of his club's financial power to take advantage of a marketplace biased as never before toward wealthy franchises. He bought world championships in '77 and '78, just as the Yankees of the Roaring '20s had bought Babe Ruth from the poor-cousin Boston Red Sox.

Soon, it became obvious that Steinbrenner was the perfect Yankee owner. Running another club, he might seem out of place, but for the Yankees, he was ideal. A trip through the clip file on George M. III in the '80s shows almost every journalistic heavyweight of the day has fungoed him into oblivion.

The man, and his team, have become a standing ethical question about means and ends, about fame versus decency, even about American values and capitalist morality.

The point that's often missed is that the Yankees have been rousing these visceral debates since our grandfathers' times. Steinbrenner's Yankees aren't "bad for baseball" any more than Col. Jacob Ruppert's Yankees or those of Dan Topping and Del Webb hurt the game.

It's a baseball fan's birthright to maintain a lifelong ambivalence toward the Yankees, respecting their great players while condemning the ownership's coldness, its heartless, big-business efficiency. The Yanks have been buying players for the stretch drive and cashiering lovable old managers for generations. If Topping could fire old Casey Stengel after he won 10 world titles, then Steinbrenner can boot Bob Lemon.

Contrary to the high-brow consensus, the Yankees' corporate bad manners and their poised athletic talent, their ostentatious controversies and their arrogant victories and, above all, their bickering, slapstick defeats--like their October collapses at the hands of the Kansas City Royals in '80 and the Dodgers in '81--are the most compelling public theater that baseball offers.

What makes Steinbrenner and the Yankees so confounding is that to reject them--not merely dislike them, but to say, fundamentally, that they represent an unacceptable value system--is to reject something so basically American that it unnerves us.

The Yankees represent free enterprise and long hours and justification by works, and being crafty enough and brave enough to make the system work for you by figuring the tilt of the wheel before anybody else, then having the guts to make the big bet. To root for the Yankees is a delicious vice in an overly civilized society, like reading "Conan the Barbarian" fables.

The Steinbrenner Yankees have succeeded just enough to be bona fide, but also have failed just enough not to smother their sport. After all, two Yankee world titles in the last 20 years--yes, that's all it is--is hardly hegemony.

Also, Steinbrenner is the most transparent sort of paper villain. Everybody sees through him, so nobody really fears, or, to tell the truth, hates him. He believes in "competition" and "winning" and "hanging tough" and "weathering criticism" and "sticking by your guns" and "setting an example for America's youth" with such adolescent innocence that he can, at times, seem charmingly incongruous.

Reggie Jackson drew a clear picture of his boss in an interview with The Washington Post last fall: "When (Charlie O.) Finley (of Oakland) got mad and came after you, he had a derringer with one bullet in it. It was loaded and he fired. When George challenges you, he says, 'Look at my big pearl-handled revolvers.' But when you say, 'Okay, let's draw,' he says, 'Just kidding.' "

Finley had a frightening quality: if he wanted to get you, you stayed got. Steinbrenner is a 51-year-old kid who is playing at being tough; he's really part softy. He can't seem to keep himself from humiliating his employes, but, once he's done it, he inevitably has a fit of conscience; he either rehires the guy or renegotiates a bigger contract, or, as in the case of Gaylord Perry and Bob Watson, drops gifts on them, like annuities for their children's college educations after they're no longer even Yankees.

At every turn, Steinbrenner is quick to point out how his team's success helps knit together the raveled fabric of New York life, how the common man identifies with the way he demands hustle and fair value from his players for their average salary of $400,000 a man.

In one limited sense, Steinbrenner's place in baseball history is clear. His purpose was to devalue victory, prove its essential emptiness as an end in itself. No one in baseball will ever again find it quite so easy to countenance bad conduct or compromise of principles for the sake of winning.

Maybe that's always been the Yankees' job. As Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-Times said, "Hating the Yankees is as American as pizza pie, unwed mothers and cheating on your income tax." When, on April 27, a Yankee Stadium crowd of 35,458 chanted an obscenity at Steinbrenner, it was a minor but refreshing emancipation for the nation's spirit; crude certainly, but basically decent.

However, that night also can be seen as a sorrowful watershed. What angered those Yankee fans was not simply the firing of Lemon two days before, or the symbolic return that night of Jackson as an Angel; it was, perhaps, the fans' sense that the whole fabric of Steinbrenner's Yankee project seems in danger of disintegrating.

All of Steinbrenner's behavior patterns appear to have accelerated. The firings, the emotional trades, the damage to the farm system in the grab for veterans, the kaleidoscopic alterings of team style and personality, the real and manufactured controversies, the fear of growing Mets popularity, all leave a residual dizziness--even by Yankee standards. "Things have never changed this fast," said Goose Gossage.

When the Yankees meet the tough core of their schedule in June, won't they be in danger of the same sort of lost balance and disorientation that so obviously tripped them up in the final four games of the last World Series? And, before long, when the 35-and-over cast of Graig Nettles, Tommy John, Rudy May, Lou Piniella, Bobby Murcer and Oscar Gamble drop off the vine, will it even be possible to call this team the Yankees?

If Steinbrenner has, as it seems, overreacted to his postseason embarrassments of the past two seasons and to the ever-more-strident criticisms of a way of doing business that he believes is absolutely in the American grain, then his empire's decline will not be "good for the game."

"Break up the Yankees" has never been a wise rallying cry. Watching the three-ring shenanigans of this ambiguous moral circus has long been baseball's sport within a sport. years--yes, that's all it is--is hardly hegemony.

Also, Steinbrenner is the most transparent sort of paper villain. Everybody sees through him, so nobody really fears, or, to tell the truth, hates him. He believes in "competition" and "winning" and "hanging tough" and "weathering criticism" and "sticking by your guns" and "setting an example for America's youth" with such adolescent innocence that he can, at times, seem charmingly incongruous.

Reggie Jackson drew a clear picture of his boss in an interview with The Washington Post last fall: "When (Charlie O.) Finley (of Oakland) got mad and came after you, he had a derringer with one bullet in it. It was loaded and he fired. When George challenges you, he says, 'Look at my big pearl-handled revolvers.' But when you say, 'Okay, let's draw,' he says, 'Just kidding.' "

Finley had a frightening quality: if he wanted to get you, you stayed got. Steinbrenner is a 51-year-old kid who is playing at being tough; he's really part softy. He can't seem to keep himself from humiliating his employes, but, once he's done it, he inevitably has a fit of conscience; he either rehires the guy or renegotiates a bigger contract, or, as in the case of Gaylord Perry and Bob Watson, drops gifts on them, like annuities for their children's college educations after they're no longer even Yankees.

At every turn, Steinbrenner is quick to point out how his team's success helps knit together the raveled fabric of New York life, how the common man identifies with the way he demands hustle and fair value from his players for their average salary of $400,000 a man.

In one limited sense, Steinbrenner's place in baseball history is clear. His purpose was to devalue victory, prove its essential emptiness as an end in itself. No one in baseball will ever again find it quite so easy to countenance bad conduct or compromise of principles for the sake of winning.

Maybe that's always been the Yankees' job. As Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-Times said, "Hating the Yankees is as American as pizza pie, unwed mothers and cheating on your income tax." When, on April 27, a Yankee Stadium crowd of 35,458 chanted an obscenity at Steinbrenner, it was a minor but refreshing emancipation for the nation's spirit; crude certainly, but basically decent.

However, that night also can be seen as a sorrowful watershed. What angered those Yankee fans was not simply the firing of Lemon two days before, or the symbolic return that night of Jackson as an Angel; it was, perhaps, the fans' sense that the whole fabric of Steinbrenner's Yankee project seems in danger of disintegrating.

All of Steinbrenner's behavior patterns appear to have accelerated. The firings, the emotional trades, the damage to the farm system in the grab for veterans, the kaleidoscopic alterings of team style and personality, the real and manufactured controversies, the fear of growing Mets popularity, all leave a residual dizziness--even by Yankee standards. "Things have never changed this fast," said Goose Gossage.

When the Yankees meet the tough core of their schedule in June, won't they be in danger of the same sort of lost balance and disorientation that so obviously tripped them up in the final four games of the last World Series? And, before long, when the 35-and-over cast of Graig Nettles, Tommy John, Rudy May, Lou Piniella, Bobby Murcer and Oscar Gamble drop off the vine, will it even be possible to call this team the Yankees?

If Steinbrenner has, as it seems, overreacted to his postseason embarrassments of the past two seasons and to the ever-more-strident criticisms of a way of doing business that he believes is absolutely in the American grain, then his empire's decline will not be "good for the game."

"Break up the Yankees" has never been a wise rallying cry. Watching the three-ring shenanigans of this ambiguous moral circus has long been baseball's sport within a sport.