I was thumbing through one of Tom Boswell's collections last night ("Why Time Begins on Opening Day") after the Sox-A's game, and came across a piece about that featured some telling thoughts on George Steinbrenner. The article, "Trader Jack, Whitey the Rat," was written 20 years ago, but much of what Boswell wrote, still applies today:
As resident dissident Graig Nettles, who wore a "Fido" T-shirt because he was always in the owner's doghouse, once said, "Some teams are under the gun. We're under the thumb."
Thus Steinbrenner has proved himself to be the perfect Yankee owner. The man and his team have become, over the years, a standing ethical question about means and ends, even about American values and capitalist morality. The point that's often missed is that the Yankees have been at the heart of debates since our grandfathers' times. It's a baseball fan's birthright to maintain a lifelong ambivalence toward the Yankees, respecting their great players while condemning an ownership that pays cash for its Ruths and Jacksons, brazenly buys players for every stretch drive and regularly cashiers lovable old managers like Stengel and Lemon [and Joe Torre].
Contrary to the highbrow consensus, the Yankees' corporate bad manners and their poised athletic talent, their repetitious controversies and their ostentatious victories and, above all, their bickering, slapstick collapses, aren't "bad for baseball" but in fact may be the most compelling public theater the game offers.
...Also, Steinbrenner is the most transparent sort of paper villain. Everybody sees through him, so nobody really fears or truly hates him...In one sense, Steinbrenner's place in baseball history is clear. His purpose was to devalue victory, prove its essential emptiness as an end in itself.
But Boswell also appreciated Steinbrenner's significance as the first owner to embrace free agency:
Steinbrenner alone recognized that the moment in baseball history had come when an unregenerate Social Darwinist might flourish---that is, if his team played in New York, if his team won, if he got huge local TY contracts and big crowds, and if he cashed in on the bonanza of postseason play. Steinbrenner used all of his club's financial power to take advantage of a marketplace biased as never before toward wealthy franchises.
Steinbrenner saw the chance, at least in theory, to build an almost defeat-proof organization--a leakproof ship with a double hull. The Yanks not only amassed frontline stars, but collected more second-line stars than they could ever use. This compulsive duplication of talent was a system. George III understood that players got hurt, got old, got lazy or went sour. The solution was to have so many that only a catastrophe could keep you from winning, or at least being so close to the top that you remained where the stay-ahead cash was. That's the insurance policy nobody ever thought of---or was willing to pay the premiums on. While other clubs built one team, then trusted to luck, the Yanks assembled a team-and-a-half and thus bought their luck.
George's luck ran out in the '80s, especially toward the end of the decade, and of course it hit rock bottom in the early '90s when he was kicked out of the game for the second time in his career. But much of what Boswell wrote in 1983 still holds true, dont' you think?
He doesn't mention what a sore winner, and a lousy loser George is. But if the Sox take a couple of games from the Yanks, we'll see and hear ol' George in fine form. And if the Yanks manage to get past Boston, George is likely to respond as if he had just watched the last act of "Camillie."