Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Last Call For The Boss

As a teenager, I hated George Steinbrenner. Growing up a Mets fan made that awfully easy -- in fact almost necessary. Watching your team constantly in the shadow of the pinstripes as they won four World Series in the late 1990s was an irritating and frustrating thing, and Steinbrenner, who had the gall to actually reinvest his profits into the team so they could continue winning, was the prime enemy.

Of course now that I'm 24 (well 25 tomorrow) instead of 13, I have a better understanding both of human nature and of baseball as a historical entity and a business. Given that added perspective it is simply impossible not to understand -- and appreciate -- the absolutely massively important, influential and, yes, great figure George Steinbrenner was in baseball, New York and American culture. When I awoke this morning from a text message that George Steinbrenner had passed away at 80 from a massive heart attack, it was hard not to be affected in some sense. The impact he had was so far ranging and history-changing that you cannot ignore what he did for baseball.

I personally feel something of a connection with "The Boss" -- not just because he happened to be an assistant coach on Northwestern's football team in 1955. But to understand his influence is to understand how sports business has grown and changed today. Many will quote the statistic that Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973 for $8.7 million and grew them into a property worth more than $1 billion, but that is not simply the tale of a man fostering a fledgling enterprise into success. Steinbrenner fundamentally changed professional sports from a pleasant pastime to a business.

The Yankees do not grow into the massively valuable entity they have become without Steinbrenner's ingenuity and business acumen.While some may question his capabilities as a baseball man -- many have noted that the 1990s Yankees dynasty was not built until Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball for two years in the early part of the decade -- there is no questioning what he did on the business side. By forming the YES Network, the Yankees' regional cable channel that is estimated to be worth roughly $1 billion, as well as allowing the Yankees to become a part of MLB.com's web umbrella in a bit of Wellington Mara-esque altruism, Steinbrenner played a crucial role turning Major League Baseball into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, which in turn has dramatically altered the landscape of how each sports league and sports media outlet does business.

If, indeed, without Steinbrenner those entities would exist at all. I think it is hardly far-fetched to think that without Steinbrenner, and the changes he helped bring about in this industry, I wouldn't even have a job right now -- or at least not this one. Because of his influence, professional sports in America changed from men on a field and a television camera to a multifaceted segment of culture with media implications ranging far and wide.

And beyond all of that, perhaps, indeed, most importantly in the grand scheme: George Steinbrenner was a winner.

He loved to win. And he wanted to do it frequently. Now given his meddling ways, the Yankees did run an almost unfathomable 15-year stretch between World Series appearances under his watch, but the true sign of just how much he loved to win comes not from the seven titles the Yankees won in his 37-year tenure as owner, but from how much money he invested into the franchise once business truly started to boom in the 1990s and 2000s. The Yankees payroll has totaled well over a billion dollars over the last decade, with untold more millions going into the pockets of other owners as a result of baseball's luxury tax and revenue sharing policies.

I remember in high school complaining to a football coach of mine that old fallback commentary that the Yankees "buy" championships. My coach's response: "Where does it say that's against the rules?" Right he was. Not only is it not against the rules to spend such obscene amounts on your players, but when the other option is to put the money into your own pocket rather than the product on the field, it is in many senses both refreshing and noble to see that Steinbrenner put so much into developing a product that would bring satisfaction to so many fans. Other dramatically wealthy owners of the past, such as Minnesota's late Carl Pohlad did not do the same for the people spending money on tickets -- and while those tickets are, indeed, not cheap, they do come with the promise that you will be seeing the best possible team the Yankees could offer.

Much is made of Steinbrenner's gruff and irascible temperament -- he is famous for having fired numerous managers, namely Billy Martin, who was hired and fired five times -- but what set him apart from other similarly disdained and at times irrational owners like Robert Irsay or Walter O'Malley is how much of himself was put into the organization, personally and monetarily. It was of the utmost importance that the Yankees be among the championship contenders every year. That can't be said for every man that heads a sports franchise.

Of course, in the end, what will probably be the greatest reminder for people of my generation of Steinbrenner as a part of American culture is in his caricature as voiced by Larry David on Seinfeld during the 1990s. And with the glory of YouTube and DVD, those moments will be forever remembered in perpetuity. While people of my generation, sports fan and nonsports fan alike will probably remember Steinbrenner as the goofy, nonsensical boss of the Yankees from those Seinfeld episodes, this was clearly not a bother to the Boss, who took the caricature in stride and even played himself in a scene that was left on the cutting room floor.

While that may be his lasting impression for many, it will hardly be his lasting influence. He is responsible for so many changes to how we know sports today that his mark will continue to be felt as long as professional sports are played in this country. Perhaps most remarkably of all, that may even be an understatement.

No comments:

Post a Comment