Say what you want about George Steinbrenner. Criticize his run-ins with players and managers, his suspensions and his spending habits. But over the years he has transformed the New York Yankees into baseball's most valuable franchise.
Since the day he and his partners bought the Yankees from CBS for $10 million in 1973, Steinbrenner has been good for baseball. Before he arrived, Yankee Stadium was a ghost town. Attendance in 1972 was under 1,000,000 for the first time since World War II, and the team had been mismanaged, finishing no better than fourth in seven of the previous eight seasons.
Steinbrenner, however, has built the Yankees into a powerhouse, an empire. Not only have they appeared in five of the last six World Series, winning four of them, but the Yankees broke new ground this season with their own lucrative TV network, YES
Steinbrenner has challenged other owners to rise up and match him. Teams know they have to be better than the Yankees to win a championship. His high standards have forced everyone to do a better job and have improved the game as an overall product.
I disagree with the perception that Steinbrenner and the Yankees have bought championships. Sure, he has deep pockets and the Yankees have had baseball's highest payroll in eight of the last nine seasons. But what separates him from other owners is that he puts money back into his business, while many owners take money out.
Although he has won six World Series titles as owner, Steinbrenner still wants to win a seventh as badly as he did the first. A lot of teams will have a great period of success and then change its focus from winning to making a profit. Steinbrenner keeps reinvesting.
Baltimore, Cleveland and Atlanta are teams that boosted their payrolls during the Yankees' run of championships, but they have not reaped the same rewards. In fact, the Orioles, not the Yankees, had the baseball's highest payroll in 1998, when the Yankees won 114 games and their second World Series in three years.
Like any good businessman, Steinbrenner surrounds himself with smart baseball people. Together, they have enabled the Yankees to make wiser personnel decisions than their competitors.
Steinbrenner never allows the Yankees to rest on their laurels. After winning championships in 1977 and 1978, he could have sold the team and made a large profit. Instead, he chose to reinvest. If other owners took his lead, we wouldn't be hearing about the severe financial losses that teams seem to be incurring every year.
It's not Steinbrenner's fault that baseball had no revenue sharing before he took over. Although he may not be enthusiastic about the idea of revenue sharing, he wants owners to invest the revenue-sharing money in their teams instead of putting it in their pockets. Last season revenue sharing allowed five teams -- Oakland, Anaheim, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Detroit -- to make money instead of incurring a loss. He wants teams to be more accountable for how the money is used, something I can understand.
During his tenure Steinbrenner has been notorious for meddling too much in team affairs. However, his actions have always evolved from his burning desire to win. While I never agreed with his frequent managerial firings, I have always admired his passion for winning. He has done everything in an effort to keep the Yankees on top. Last season he was as upset when they lost the World Series as he was in past years, even though the Yankees had already won three Series in a row.
Steinbrenner has never backed down from publicly criticizing his players. At the same time, he pays his players well. His philosophy is similar to mine: If I pay you, you are supposed to produce. If you take my money, you have to take my evaluation. Some may not agree with his approach or his high salaries, but he expects more from the players he pays the most.
One thing few people may know about Steinbrenner is that he kept the managers he fired on the payroll, even after they left the organization. I was told a story about Bob Lemon, who became a so-called "scout" after he was fired as manager in 1982. In other words, Steinbrenner kept paying him.
The Yankees were looking at ways to cut payroll. Someone from the organization called Lemon and said, "We don't need you as a scout next year." Lemon kind of yelled at him and said, "Are you an idiot or something? Call George. I'm a permanent scout, not just a scout."
Steinbrenner has made his share of mistakes. The atmosphere he created in the '70s led to the Yankees being called "The Bronx Zoo." He got in a fight once with two fans in a hotel elevator. He was once suspended for criticizing umpires. He was ordered to give up control of the team for nearly three years for his association with a small-time gambler.
There is a popular quote from Billy Martin about Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson: "The two of them deserve each other. One's a born liar, the other's convicted." The first reference was to Jackson and the second to Steinbrenner, who was convicted -- and later pardoned -- for improper presidential campaign donations.
However, Steinbrenner's positives far outweigh his negatives. On a personal note, my contacts with him -- both socially and on a business level -- have always been cordial. Because I have never worked for him, I see him in a different light. I can offer an objective perspective on the way he has impacted baseball.
And all Steinbrenner has done is turn the Yankees into baseball's greatest organization. For that he deserves our applause more than our criticism.
Steinbrenner's sons Harold and Henry are both Yankees general partners.
Since 1989, Steinbrenner has been a vice president of the U.S. Olympic
Committee. He's been responsible for getting increased funding for athletes
and better training facilities.
In 2002, he created a cable channel that carries Yankees games.