In the middle of the '80s, the New York Yankees' first decade without a World Series championship in 70 years, George Steinbrenner created an allegory for himself almost too pat and perfect to be true. But it was.
Besides a baseball boss, shipbuilder and innkeeper, Steinbrenner was a horseman; and, like all his fellow breeders in Florida and around the world, he dreamed mostly of winning the Kentucky Derby. In 1985, a likely horse cantered along, wonderfully named, possibly by Aesop, Image Of Greatness. At the same time, a lesser animal in the Steinbrenner stable -- the also well-christened Eternal Prince -- was put on the waiver wire. That is, he was auctioned off for $17,500 to a used car salesman from Richmond.
Just before the big race, however, Image Of Greatness faltered. Panicked, Steinbrenner attempted to rehire the colt he had fired, Eternal Prince. But the auto dealer drove a difficult bargain. For only 37 1/2 percent of his old horse, presumably the part that favored him, Steinbrenner paid $750,000.
Of course, he finished 12th.
The moral: After his image of greatness declines, it makes no difference how much money an eternal prince ponies up. If he's out of the running, he's out of the race.
Maybe technically, but effectively, Steinbrenner finally is out of the race.
He has been hanging around, living off cable revenues and tabloid headlines, since 1981, the year his Yankees died. They succumbed to an American disease Steinbrenner did not cultivate personally, diabolically, in the dark hold of a Cleveland tanker or some moldy cavern of Yankee Stadium. He is just a carrier.
It remains rampant and virulent. It breaks out whenever the U.S. basketball team loses to Brazil, the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. It overwhelms American golfers and tennis players at the Ryder Cup and Wimbledon. A kind of emotional virus, it is based on a strain of thinking that says the worst thing you can be in this country is No. 2 in the world. When the Yankees were second in all of baseball, they were nothing to Steinbrenner. Since losing was like dying, why wouldn't they decompose?
The Yanks did not perish in a little airplane with Thurman Munson in 1979, as sentimentalists sometimes say. At 32, the grand clutch hitter and grumpy catcher was about caught out. By Steinbrenner's standards, that initial season without Munson seemed serene. Although a rookie manager in 1980, Dick Howser showed both nerve and touch. According to Goose Gossage's admiring calculations, only three times all year did Howser warm up his ultimate reliever pointlessly. The Yankees won 103 games in 1980, but when they lost the playoffs, Howser was beheaded.
As macabre as it sounds, they actually were beaten to death in an elevator during the 1981 World Series. After winning games 1 and 2, New York lost three straight to the Dodgers. At a late-night news conference following the fifth game, Steinbrenner showed up not with a badly injured hand, but with a badly bandaged one. He told of punching out two belligerent strangers, still rumored to be the Good Conscience and Bad Conscience, off his shoulders. Anyway, the players laughed their final laugh and lost the series.
Even before the last out, the owner had his pencilmen drafting a mea culpa to the fans and the city. No one had ever apologized for being in a World Series before. At least from the moment Brooklyn's team broke loose, maybe even before that, New York City knew the score. In the corporate age of knockabout franchises and players, baseball fans accept the fact they have to work at their illusions. But Steinbrenner made it too soulless, too faithless, too hard.
He reconvened the writers to announce that the problem, based on his long experience as a former assistant football coach, was an over-emphasis on home runs. Scratch the Bronx Bombers. Reggie Jackson was out, Dave Collins was in. But Steinbrenner's mood for speedsters passed in spring training. Collins was out, John Mayberry was in. Tradition, identity were out; depression, pandemonium were in. Promoting only himself, demoting everyone else, a small-town tyrant to the field hands became a major league tyranny to the spirit.
Firing so many managers that he taxed the credibility of the New York Post, forever bringing back belching Billy Martin to ball his fists at the universe, Steinbrenner rolled around muddily in his fame. With friends and fellow celebrities, among them broadcaster Barbara Walters, he enjoyed testing the familiarity market. "We have a lot of fun," he said. "We used to go to P.J. Clarke's, and after dinner we'd walk down the street and see who got recognized more, me or her. I swear, we went one-to-one."
Fay Vincent, the subtlest commissioner baseball has ever had, chose Leona Helmsley's hotel for last night's execution. Without mentioning the author by name, or having to, Vincent began by invoking Yogi Berra. "Deja vu all over again." He was alluding to the Pete Rose unpleasantries of last year, but introducing Berra's spirit was appropriate.
Having said "a bad start will not affect Yogi's status," Steinbrenner cashiered Berra as the Yankees manager 16 games into the 1985 season. Unlike Gene Michael, Clyde King, Bob Lemon and others, Berra refused to linger in some humanitarian halfway house Steinbrenner could brag about to the press. Yogi took his leave with an old Yankees grace and promised never to return to the stadium as long as that man was there.
The way umpires took Ted Williams's word for balls out of the strike zone, baseball should have known then that, if Berra couldn't abide a man, he was unworthy company.
More than suspension, less than expulsion, if it is enough to bring Yogi back, it is plenty. If it brings back the Yankees, it is ambrosia.