Tuesday, July 13, 2010

George Steinbrenner Dies

I'm not a New York Yankees fan. Never have been.

But, while longtime Yankees fans may disagree with me, it seems to me that the last couple of days have been among the most extraordinary in the long and colorful history of the storied franchise.

First, over the weekend, retired announcer Bob Sheppard, known as the "Voice of the Yankees" and often referred to as the "voice of God," died at the age of 99.

Then, today, George Steinbrenner, who owned the Yankees for more than 35 years, died following a massive heart attack. He was 80.

Ironically, today is the day when major league baseball's all–star game will be played. Other than the World Series — which Steinbrenner's Yankees won last fall — perhaps no other time (other than Opening Day) is as meaningful to baseball fans.

The game isn't being played in New York, but wouldn't it be ideal if it was, today of all days? It seems all but certain that, when the festivities begin tonight, at some point the folks in the ballpark will be asked to observe a moment of silence in Steinbrenner's memory.

Silence. What a concept to be mentioned in connection with a man who may have been the most bombastic sports team owner in memory.

But he did get results — 11 American League pennants and seven world titles. Not bad when you realize that, when Steinbrenner took over the team in 1973, the Yankees hadn't won an American League crown in nearly a decade.

Still, his often–brash personality was fodder for the late–night guys and for those who were eager to make a few bucks on his somewhat salty reputation.

He hired (and fired) former Yankee player Billy Martin to manage the team on several occasions. Martin took the Yankees to a world championship in 1977, but his frequent undoing as their manager may have been his volatile nature.

The Miller Brewing Co. got a lot of mileage out of their relationship in the 1970s and 1980s — and the "Less filling! Tastes great!" debates seemed tailor–made for Steinbrenner and Martin. There were several of them over the years. My favorite was always the ad where Steinbrenner and Martin argue, as they do in the attached clip, and then Steinbrenner says, sternly, "Billy! You're fired!"

And Martin replies, "Oh, no! Not again!"

Even though Steinbrenner hadn't been particularly active in the Yankees' day–to–day business in recent years, he always seemed like a constant presence.

And, in truth, it may be difficult now to realize that he's gone. Not just because his public appearances were so rare in recent years but also because his sons Hal and Hank have been running things since he mostly stepped aside in 2006. I've heard that the two, especially Hank, have demonstrated qualities that are reminiscent of their father.

So it may seem, in a way, that Steinbrenner isn't really gone. Yep, it may seem that way. For awhile.

But he is gone. And he will gradually recede into Yankee lore, along with the great players who have come and gone.

But there may yet be another opportunity for the Yankees to honor their one–of–a–kind owner.

If the Yankees return to the playoffs this fall — and, given the fact that they currently lead their division (which is significant, even though New York's lead is a mere two games, because, as Tom Verducci observes in Sports Illustrated, teams that lead their divisions at the All–Star break have proceeded to the playoffs nearly three–quarters of the time in the 14 years since the introduction of the wild card into the playoff lineup, and the leader of the AL East has been even more automatic than that), it seems all but certain that they will — I am sure we will hear Yankee coaches and players speak of how they have dedicated the postseason to the Boss' memory.

The crowds at the home games will be worked up into a frenzy. And if the Yankees win what would be the 28th World Series title in their history, it will be an emotional moment for fans and players alike — not to mention Hank and Hal, who would certainly be on hand.

Such drama would clearly be worthy of Steinbrenner. But we will have to wait until October to see if it comes to pass.

In the meantime, tonight's tribute should be worth watching.

An era in American sports truly has ended.

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