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Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Steinbrenner got beginning, ending right


I've been reluctant to write about George Steinbrenner today. I'm intimidated, just as so many of his employees were intimidated for so many years. Steinbrenner's personality -- not to mention his accomplishments -- seem so large as to crowd out some distant writer's quick summary. Some years ago, I wrote a biographical article about Steinbrenner that consisted solely of quotations, presented chronologically, without any attempt to link them with my own words. That's how big he was, and (in my mind, apparently) still is.

Instead of trying to summarize his 37 years as Yankees owner, let me instead focus on the beginning and the end, because frankly I think that's when George Steinbrenner did his best work. All that ugliness in the middle, including his suspensions -- during which, it might be said, the Yankees were best-ministered -- has been written about before and will be written about again, but perhaps today's not the day.

In 1973, anyone could have bought the Yankees for a song. But it was George Steinbrenner who cut a deal to purchase one of the world's greatest sports franchises for $8.8 million. Sure, it seems obvious now, just as drafting Albert Pujols in the 13th round seems obvious now. But if it was so obvious, why didn't someone else do it? Why didn't someone draft Albert Pujols in the 12th round? Why didn't somone offer CBS $9.8 million for the Yankees? Wouldn't that have been one of the great investments, ever?

So maybe it wasn't so obvious. Maybe George Steinbrenner, for whatever reason, was one of the few men able to see not only what the Yankees had been, but what they could be. That was 1973.

Steinbrenner was suspended in 1974. By the time of his reinstatement in 1976, the pieces were in place and the Yankees won four division titles, three American League pennants and two World Series in five years.

Steinbrenner was suspended again in 1990. By the time of his reinstatement in 1993, the pieces were in place and the Yankees would, in 1994, begin a brilliant run of success that hasn't let up and shows no signs of letting up.

It's not hard to conclude that the Yankees have always been best-served when Steinbrenner's hands were tied ... Or, as in the middle 1990s, when he chose to take a less active role.

Now, about the end. When it became clear that George Steinbrenner, though obviously a force of nature, might not live forever, thoughts naturally turned to King Lear and the perils of succession. Which son-in-law or daughter or son could possibly fill the Boss's gigantic loafers? Who could possibly drive the franchise the way he had driven it?

Nobody, perhaps. But perhaps that sort of driving isn't actually necessary. Perhaps unlimited financial resources combined with steady and intelligent management can accomplish just as much. More, perhaps. Whether George Steinbrenner understood this or not, the fact remains that as he made his slow and steady exit, he somehow left his beloved Yankees in the capable hands of his sons.

George Steinbrenner's been called a lot of things, over the years. But "Boss Lear" will never been one of them. He got the ending right.