If you want to understand George Steinbrenner to a depth you never imagined and if you want to grasp the source of his fall, Fay Vincent thinks he can tell you where to find the proper text.

"Consult la Rochefoucauld," said the commissioner yesterday, referring to the French author who died in 1680. "He's delicious on this. Look for the section on self-love in the 'Maxims.' It's about pride and arrogance. . . . It's George."

Before we get to that letter-perfect and devastating profile of the eternal Steinbrenner archtype, Vincent has two things he'd like the public to know about his lifetime ban on Steinbrenner running the New York Yankees.

First, the Yankees will never be run by a puppet whose hands are secretly manipulated by Steinbrenner -- not even if, as Steinbrenner hopes, the next New York owner is Steinbrenner's 33-year-old son, Hank.

"The sins of the father should not be visited on the son," said Vincent. "But if any contact {concerning management of the Yankees} is discovered by me, that person will be banned from the game. . . . We are confident that adequate mechanisms are in place. They will function."

Second, Vincent voluntarily placed his entire personal credibility, and that of the commissionership, behind this point: There's no dark Steinbrenner secret. No other shoe will fall.

"All of us spend our time wondering whether what's publicly known is, in fact, the whole story," said Vincent. "Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn't. This time, I will tell you flatly that what is known is, in fact, the whole story. Nothing further will ever 'come out' because there isn't anything to come out."

Now for those delicious insights of Francois, duc de la Rochefoucauld. What follows is a truncated version of the passage, a classic in world literature, which the commissioner of baseball believes illuminates the interior of the man he has just banned for life:

"Self-love is love of oneself and of all things in terms of oneself. It makes men worshippers of themselves and would make them tyrants over others if fortune gave them the means. . . . Nothing is so vehement as its desires, nothing so concealed as its aims, nothing so devious as its methods. . . .

"Nothing is so strong and binding as self-love's attachments, and even under the threat of the direst calamities it struggles in vain to loosen their hold. . . .

"Self-love is made of all the opposites: Domineering and obedient, sincere and deceitful, merciful and cruel, timid and daring. Its inclinations vary with the varying temperaments that bend its energies now toward glory, now riches, now pleasures. . . .

"Self-love. . . . even joins forces with its declared enemies. . . . and, most remarkable of all, hates itself with them, plots for its own downfall and even works to bring about its own ruin; in fine, all it cares about is existing, and provided it can go on existing, it is quite prepared to be its own enemy. Hence, there is nothing to be surprised at if it sometimes throws in its lot with its own destruction -- for the moment of its defeat on one side is that of its recovery on another.

"When you think it is giving up what it enjoys, it is only calling a temporary halt or ringing the changes, and at the very time when it is vanquished and you think you are rid of it, back it comes, triumphant in its own undoing."

Perhaps now it's easier to understand how Steinbrenner could hire the same problem drinker five times as a manager. How he could repeat the most amazingly self-destructive mistakes. How he could hurt so many people and then try to wash their wounds clean with money.

How could Steinbrenner be so mean and yet so generous, so smart and yet so dumb, so protean and yet so wasteful, so petty about the Yankees and yet so far-sighted about baseball in general? How could he get so locked in a cycle of destructive behavior? And how can he, right to this very moment, be so sure that nothing bad has happened to him and that he will rise again?

We still may not really know. But it's reassuring to know that the same guy was around -- raising hell to glorify himself and damaging most of what he touched -- back in the French court in the 17th century. At least now we know that we're right to knock him off every horse he rides and trip him every time he tries to get mounted again.

Why did Steinbrenner pay Howard Spira -- a flat-broke penny-ante gambler -- $40,000 for information to be used against Dave Winfield. Information that proved worthless. And why did Steinbrenner refuse to pay another $110,000 when he knew Spira would almost certainly go public with his story?

Maybe la Rochefoucauld knows the answer.

Perhaps the addicted self-lover cannot let go of the prideful fantasy that he can always start his cycle of gratification all over again. Just change the venue.

When Billy Martin -- in whom Steinbrenner had irrational faith and to whom he was ludicrously loyal -- died on Christmas, perhaps The Boss knew his Yankees run was over. Within days of Martin's death, Steinbrenner paid off Spira and, thus, begun his own inevitable baseball suicide.

Vincent saw a man coming toward him who seemed to be conspiring in his own ruin. In his ruling, Vincent wrote that, "I am able to evaluate a pattern of behavior that borders on the bizarre."

So, the commissioner decided to turn that bizarre pattern of behavior to baseball's advantage. On Monday, Vincent offered Steinbrenner a two-year suspension as owner of the Yankees. That was exactly what everybody expected.

But Vincent also had a card up his sleeve -- an offer he called "a functional alternative."

It was a deal so harsh no one grasped why Vincent bothered to bring it to the table. The author of "Maxims" would have.

If Steinbrenner was as self-obsessed, as addicted to fame and as devoid of self-knowledge as Vincent supposed, then the worst fate Steinbrenner could imagine would be two years in limbo. What a living hell! "Such is the portrait of self-love, whose whole existence is one long and incessant activity," concluded la Rochefoucauld.

Bart Giamatti knew Pete Rose was an addicted gambler who'd do anything, no matter how irrational, to deny in public he had ever bet on baseball. Giamatti used that card to turn Rose against himself. The public gasped as Rose agreed to a life ban in exchange for almost nothing: a formal no-finding decision on his baseball gambling.

Now, Vincent has used the Giamatti Gambit to mouse-trap Steinbrenner into banishing himself, just as Rose did. Giamatti let Rose keep the last threads of his delusions. Now Vincent has done the same for Steinbrenner.

With his shipbuilding company on the financial rocks, with his name a national joke, with the crowd at Yankee Stadium chanting, "George must go," Steinbrenner still thinks he can save face. After all, he just resigned. His son may end up as majority owner of the team. Steinbrenner can say he's still managing the money side, not the baseball side.

By yesterday afternoon, Steinbrenner was already claiming that the whole thing was pretty much what he'd wanted all along. Time to let the "young blood" take over the baseball operation. Time for the Boss to pursue other projects. Steinbrenner still imagines the U.S. Olympic movement wants him to help run the ship. Cue the spooky music.

Rose never realized, until it was too late, that he'd walked out of Giamatti's office stripped naked to face his enemies.

Now it is Steinbrenner -- whose face might never again appear on the cover of Newsweek and whose public importance will dwindle toward zero -- who may soon feel a draft around his hindquarters and wonder who stole his pants.