Let's get this straight from the beginning. The reason we read about George Steinbrenner day after day, for page after page, is because Steinbrenner is the biggest, loudest, most yakked about name in baseball. Not Bo Jackson, not Nolan Ryan, not Jose Canseco. For all the graceful talent the sport has to offer, its most exciting figure is a paunchy, self-aggrandizing, bileful autocrat.
And so there are no misunderstandings, let's get this straight too. For all his many and terrible flaws, George Steinbrenner was very good for major league baseball. Though he was a horror to work for, he rejuvenated interest in a game that was withering on the vine. Anyone who doesn't understand this shouldn't be allowed inside a major league ballpark without written permission.
Does the end justify the means?
But this gleeful celebration of Steinbrenner's great fall -- Schadenfreude, as the Germans call the rejoicing at another's misfortune -- honors nobody.
History will mock Steinbrenner as a bungling, Keystone Kop kind of megalomaniac. It will also connect his sense of exaggeration with the salvaging of baseball. The jewel in baseball's crown always has been the New York Yankees. Cleveland-born Steinbrenner was awed by New York and worshipful of it, and he recognized that the success of the Yankees was crucial to the success of baseball. When he purchased the Yankees in 1973, they were a moribund franchise; they'd drawn less than 1 million for the first time since 1945. Not coincidentally, baseball was dying too. Pro football, which was easier to watch on TV and easier to bet, had left it gasping.
Steinbrenner brought an entrepreneur's obsessive zeal to his work. He hastily restored the Yankees to dominance. Within three years they drew 2 million. By the end of the decade they'd won three pennants and two World Series. Steinbrenner foresaw how baseball would move from a trade basis to a free-agent basis and victimized those who didn't. His signings of Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson were cornerstones of that movement. As the Yankees were revived, so was baseball; Steinbrenner was a pivotal person in its renaissance. Those who fault him for turning millions against the Yankees miss the greater truth: That is exactly how things were in the good old days when everybody felt a mixture of awe and contempt for the bullying Yankees -- including fellow New Yorkers who were fans of the Dodgers and Giants. Ruth's Yankees were despised. So were DiMaggio's and Mantle's. Nobody ever wrote a musical entitled "Damn Orioles." When baseball's going good, everybody hates the Yankees. Steinbrenner renewed a healthy, time-honored ill will. Bravo.
Steinbrenner's sins are obvious. He's been abusing people and trying to buy off their anger for years. He's a vampire like Donald Trump; a perfect villain, bloated by wealth, then pierced by the pin of public opinion. Fay Vincent slapped him silly. (The deliberate Vincent may gain insight into Steinbrenner's narcissism from the writings of 17th Century French author, la Rochefoucauld -- no doubt a very early supporter of le DH -- but the commissioner's Big Fist Approach is more in tune with populist mass transit philosopher Ralph Kramden, famed for his "Bang! Zoom! Alice" thesis.) Vincent's decision to sever Steinbrenner from baseball forever should have sent shivers up Pete Rose's spine; it's the strict Vincent who'll hear Rose's petition for reinstatement. Though Rose is now contrite, and though he has the legal force of an agreement that specifically issues no formal finding he bet on baseball, if Vincent was this tough with Steinbrenner, he's unlikely to show leniency with Rose, whose crimes were more serious.
Vincent's decision was very '80s in its respect for money; Steinbrenner was not forced to sell the Yankees. (This way Vincent upholds the power of the commissioner without actually putting it at risk from a lawsuit.) Vincent was a money man himself, a CEO. Unlike his Ivory Tower predecessor and best friend A. Bartlett Giamatti, Vincent lives in the real world. He recognized Steinbrenner as the model for the '80s man -- greedy, manipulative, transparently self-absorbed -- and offered him a very '80s deal: You get to keep the money, but you have to yield control. That's a tough trade. Plus, Steinbrenner must suffer the humiliation of needing written permission to so much as flush a toilet in Yankee Stadium and other ballparks. Why Steinbrenner would prefer this exile to a two-year suspension is baffling -- though perhaps a pardoned felon like Steinbrenner is more sensitive to an official sanction. Does he dare think the U.S. Olympic Committee will embrace him still? After his dalliance with the weasly, hollow-eyed Self-Described Gambler Spira, Steinbrenner is toxic.
We suspect Steinbrenner would agree to this because he has what is called a secret agenda, which is to say he plans on cheating on the agreement. The vehicle for this is young Hank Steinbrenner. Assuming the Baby Boss becomes the managing general partner -- and really, this is America, half the owners in sports got where they are by being in the son business -- isn't Daddy just a covert conversation away? Vincent says he'll know if Steinbrenner violates the terms. But how? Will he tap the phones? Will he bug the bathroom? Blood is thicker than legal pads. Even if Young Hank swears he isn't discussing the Yankees with his old man, nobody's going to believe it. We may be officially rid of George Steinbrenner, but we are nowhere near done with him.