Friday, August 03, 2007

Georgie Best

A new article in Portfolio magazine claims that George Steinbrenner is in a bloated and bewildered state at his home in Florida. According to the magazine George is not capable of even carrying on a conversation at this point. If this is true it would be a sad ending to one of the most colorful and storied ownership periods in recent sports history. George bought the Yankees from CBS for $10 million (the franchise in now worth in excess of $1 billion) in 1973 with the stated goal of returning the once proud franchise to its former glory. He also said that he would be a hands off owner and let the baseball people handle the on field decision making. One out of two ain't bad. George did indeed return the Yankees to their former position as the signature franchise of the sport, but hands off he was not.

George's resume includes a virtual merry-go-round of managers during the late seventies and eighties (Billy Martin alone was hired and fired four times), a two year suspension for trying to dig up dirt on one of his own players, 15 AL east crowns (the '81 season technically had two champions for each division because of the mid-season strike by the players, the Yankees were the first half champs), 10 AL championships and 6 World Series crowns. George became the most controversial and successful owner in sports. George took full advantage when free agency hit baseball in the middle of the seventies and brought in players such as Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson who would help provide the Yankees with their first championships in over a decade and a half.

George saw free agents as the way to win immediately, but this heavy reliance on the quick fix eventually led to the downfall of the team. The Yankees of the mid seventies were a team on the verge of greatness. They had been build through a combination of shrewd trades and a strong minor league system. The addition of a few key players through free agency then propelled them to two consecutive World Championships. George then assumed that he could always restock his team by either trading for veterans or signing free agents. The minor league system suffered as a result. The Yankees consistently traded away their top minor league players for established major leaguers. In fact the only player who came out of the Yankee minor league system and made a significant contribution during the eighties was Don Mattingly. George's tactics would change every year depending on who had won the World Series the year before. He actually tried to turn the Yankees into a speed team one year because it had been successful for the St. Louis Cardinals. The began to struggle for an identity and they went the decade of the eighties without a championship. It was in fact the first time that a Yankee team had gone 0 for a decade. The Yankees entered a prolonged stretch of not even reaching the playoffs. They went from 1982-1995 without such an appearance.

In fact the best thing that happened to the Yankees as an organization was when the commissioner banned George from the team for his attempt to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. George hired an ex-con to investigate Winfield and see if there were any improprieties in his charitable organization. George had signed Winfield as a replacement for Reggie Jackson, but was not happy with the fact that Winfield's teams had not had the same results as the Jackson years. He even labeled Winfield "Mr. May" after his 1 for 23 performance in the 1981 World series. After his attempt to discredit his own player was discovered, George was banned from all baseball decisions for two years. This meant that Gene Michael was left in charge of day to day baseball operations. The change in leadership probably saved Bernie Willams from being traded and the Yankees began to slowly rebuild toward respectability. When George returned, the Yankees were beginning to show signs of life and he actually began to take the advice of his baseball people a little more seriously. The suspension was actually the foundation for the dynasty of the late 90's.

The Yankees went on to win four of five World Series and appear in six of eight from '96-'03. George was in his glory, but like all good things the title run came to end. George has spent a lot of money and the Yankees have continued to win, but they have not been able to repeat the magic of those glory years. George has been at times vilified in the press and over the years there have been players who have said that they wouldn't play for the Yankees regardless of how much money they were offered, yet in a Sports Illustrated poll of major leaguers that came out recently, the Yankees were at the top of the list of teams that players would like to play for. George has been a loud mouthed, over the top owner at times, but no one has ever questioned his will to win. He has made a lot of errors over the years, but they were errors of commission, not omission. Even his worst critic couldn't accuse George of not trying.

So George will leave behind an interesting legacy whenever his run as owner ends. As the great philosopher Plato once said or maybe it was Charles Dickens, it was the best of times it was the worst of times. He certainly had a lot of ups and downs along the way, but no can ever say that it was boring.

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