RIP, Boss

To me, there were two George Steinbrenners: The one often vilified in the newspapers before his suspension, and then the one most of us forgave when he returned from it. I was sometimes amused but mostly did not care for the first incarnation of him, grew to like him while he served that suspension, and thought more highly of the humbler iteration we Yankee fans witnessed in the background for most of these last 17 or so years.

Steinbrenner had already made good use of the revolving door he installed at the manager’s office in Yankee Stadium and had already coined the sarcastic phrase “Mr. May” before I met him in either 1982 or 1983. In the early 1980s, I worked as a caddy on a private golf course, one where many famous people played. I had grown indifferent to celebrity appearances (aside from perhaps Mickey Mantle…), and when told that I would be Steinbrenner’s caddy, I treated him and his playing partner like I would anybody else.

Mr. Steinbrenner was pleasant though; more pleasant than I would have expected. There was no yelling at bad shots, and nothing resembling condescension directed toward me. It was really just two gentlemen enjoying their round of golf. In fact, this was an easy assignment: Though against the rules, they had me jump on the back of their golf cart as they made their way down fairways. All was going smoothly until sometime on the back 9.

With their round winding down, I was riding the back of the cart while they silently traveled a lengthy path to the next tee. Out of nowhere, George broke the silence and said to his partner, “So, you want to come see my assholes play tonight?”

I nearly fell off the cart. I remember wanting to text all my friends, and Tweet it and post it, but, well, none of this stuff had been invented yet. So, I did what any teenager would have done back then, and simply told everybody. How could he have said this about his team?? As time wore on, I trivialized the magnitude of the quote, as it was spoken to a friend miles from the nearest microphone, but there was a period where I thought very little of him because of it.

This was the start of a long dark period for the Yankees. Despite some great players and some mighty lineups, the Yankees won nothing for a very long time. None of Steinbrenner’s managerial changes led to anything positive. For awhile, the Yankees were the second best team in New York, and also-rans in the Division. When his suspension rolled around, I was not upset.

His absence from the team, though, did not make them better; in fact, the Yankees got worse (remember that last place finish in 1991?). When I think of their reemergence, there is one incident I remember vividly. Still suspended and banned from making decisions for the Yankees, he issued a statement through the press that effectively said “I’m not allowed to tell my people who to sign, but there is a pitcher available who is 7-1 against us, and if they were smart, they would sign him”. Yankee nemesis Jimmy Key was a Yankee a short time later. Yes, they also signed O’Neill and Bernie developed into a star, but teams win with pitching, and the Yankee pitching turned around starting with the signing of Key.

When Steinbrenner came back in 1993, the team really began to turn around quickly—I still wonder how the 1994 season would have unfolded had it not been shortened by the strike. His meddling days largely behind him, he seemed to know what he had with Buck Showalter, Joe Torre, and Brian Cashman. The Steinbrenner that let his managers manage while he funded the operation seemed much different from the Steinbrenner I read about and witnessed growing up. Off-the-field events like the healing of his relationship with Yogi Berra, his reactions at the passing of Mickey and then DiMaggio, and his more subdued joy at those championship teams of the late 1990s all made liking him easier. He sounded different, and he acted different. I couldn’t imagine that this Steinbrenner would extend an invitation to see the Yankees play like he did while on that golf cart.

RIP, Mr. Steinbrenner. And thank you for putting together a team that led to scores of happy October nights for us Yankee fans.

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