Rubenstein's signature client in recent years has been George Steinbrenner, the owner of the Yankees. For decades, Steinbrennerthe Boss, as he loved to be calleddid not hesitate, when the spirit moved him, to ridicule his players and abuse his managers. He once called the pitcher Hideki Irabu "a fat pussy" toad and paid a professional gambler to dig up dirt on the outfielder Dave Winfield, and he had fired a succession of managers. Until recently, Steinbrenner was, like [Donald] Trump, one of the city's sacred monsters, capable of saying almost anything. Then he vanished, and in his stead were ghostly anodyne quotes attributed, of course, to his spokesman, Howard Rubenstein. When the Yankees had a losing streak, Steinbrenner now said, though his spokesman, that he was "disappointed," or even, "I have tremendous faith in my players, my manager, and the leadership of the team." Requests for interviews with Steinbrenner, so often granted in the past, were now invariably denied. "Rubenstein is good at coming up with irrelevant, obfuscating responses," the Times' longtime baseball columnist Murray Chass wrote. "For instance, when asked about a year ago if Steinbrenner had sustained a medical setback, Rubenstein responded, 'George lifts weights every day.'"
The description of a hale and vigorous Steinbrenner did not correspond with what reporters believe to be reality. They saw a frail man of seventy-six slowly getting into his car at Yankee Stadium; they saw Steinbrenner seemingly dazed by the summer heat at the ground-breaking for the new Yankee Stadium. One reporter who covers the Yankees, and who does not want to risk his access, told me, "I've know George for thirty years, and on the elevator he sometimes doesn't recognize me." He added, "How has Rubenstein helped him? The statements are a joke. He makes George look like some cartoon version of the cartoon version he used to be."
One could argue that Rubenstein has helped to turn Steinbrenner into a more benign and even sympathetic figure. But mainly he has shielded an aging man from public view with a series of ventriloquisms and, at best, half truths. Richard Sandomir, who writes about television sports of the Times, said that he has not been able to speak with Steinbrenner for about three years. "All my conversations are with Rubenstein," Sandomir said. "I like Howard a lot But few of his quotes match George's personality. Is he taming him, or just creating a new George? No one knows."
When I asked to talk with Steinbrenner in person or on the telephones, his assistant, Judith Wells, e-mailed me, saying, "Speaking from personal experience, Mr. Steinbrenner becomes a wee bit impatient on the telephone and he will spend a lot more time reflecting if he can respond via the written word." Two weeks later, I received a personal letter signed by Steinbrenner. I had asked for an example of good advice that Rubenstein had given, and he wrote, "Perhaps the best advice that he's given me is to stay 'compose' and say 'les.'" How did he feel about the suggestions that he was enfeebled and that Rubenstein was inventing a new Steinbrenner? "Not very positively." I have no idea if that was authentic Steinbrenner or pure Rubenstein. Rubenstein, for his part, insists that he told the truth when he said that Steinbrenner was lifting weights: "It's true. Next time you're here, I'll put you on the phone and you'll hear him breaking."
I've long thought that the biggest pending story for the Yankees is what life will be like after Steinbrenner. But, as the events of the past year have shown, that transition is already taking place. Maybe it won't be as big an event as I once imagined.