I mean this with no disrespect and with no touch of humor: Only George Steinbrenner could pass away on the morning of – and thus overshadow – baseball’s All-Star Game.
To my knowledge, and I had known him since I was fourteen, and interviewed him as long ago as 1980, he only did one thing in his entire, extraordinary life that was below the radar. His commitment to charity was personal and private and the likelihood is that even at this hour we only know its barest outline. This was the kind of man who would read of a high school somewhere in this country without enough books and within the week they’d somehow have them, and usually anonymously.
For all his flaws, I think the basic dichotomy of his life was between the Steinbrenner who screamed at you for not getting the job done even if there were 143 extenuating circumstances, and the Steinbrenner who screamed at you for not getting the job done and then made the realization himself that there were 143 extenuating circumstances and tried to resolve all of them for you.
These elements would clash in his most famous baseball relationships: with Billy Martin, with Reggie Jackson, with the media, with the Yankees as an entity. The endless firings and rehirings of the tragic, self-destructive Martin were ultimately about Steinbrenner’s belief he could somehow redeem the man. Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden were attractive to him as free agents because if they paid off he could thumb his nose at the Mets, but the second and third chances he gave them both were because he came to feel fatherly about them.
I’m skipping much of his influence on the game here. You know it already: when he bought the New York franchise it was so moribund that, as Bill Madden recently revealed in his superb biography of Steinbrenner, part of the purchase deal was that the purchase price be artificially inflated to make it look as if CBS wasn’t selling at a loss. 38 years later the franchise is worth more than a billion dollars. Steinbrenner’s spending on free agents started that ball rolling – in retrospect they were conservative, logical, savvy steps. He changed the sport, and while we can wax nostalgic for what it was in 1971, the fact is that attendance and the interest in the game have grown astronomically for the very reasons he was hated by some: he raised salaries, raised ticket prices, raised television fees – and raised baseball.
Perhaps alone among reporters, I never had cross words with him. I was still startled to find out that after the 1992 baseball expansion draft, he wrote a gushing fan letter to our bosses at ESPN about our coverage of the event. In 2000 the two people who rushed to contact me about my mother after she was hit by a Chuck Knoblauch throw, were Joe Torre and Steinbrenner. In 2003, I was standing in the back of a news conference for Jeff Weaver on the day of his arrival in New York when I felt a tap on my shoulder and a whisper in his ear. “Keith, how’s he doing?” It was Steinbrenner. Incredibly, nobody noticed he was there. My favorite moment with George was also the saddest. By happenstance I was in the press box on the day in 2005 when President Clinton came to the Stadium to accept a check from Steinbrenner for the money the Yankees raised (there’s the charitable instinct again) for tsunami relief. The two of them sent Yankees’ president Randy Levine out to get me, and I was startled to spend two innings with them, saying almost nothing as George rolled out every single encounter we had had over the years (“I’ve known this young man since he was – how old were you? Thirteen? Fourteen? And he did the funniest piece on me firing managers for The Times and he was there when I broke down when we won at Shea five years ago, and this young man’s mother was the one – How is your mother?”).
He knew all of it as if it had been his job to know all of it. But the sadness came in the quick realization that the recollection was punctuated by him addressing me as “this young man” (I was 46), because you could see him reach for my name, and not be able to find it. Whatever deterioration of his faculties had begun a few years earlier was beginning to take its toll in a heartbreaking, inconsistent, up-and-down, struggle to the end. And the end came this morning, with a legacy mixed between the best and worst of man’s instinct, but consistent always in its quality of being larger-than-life.